March 25, 2007
( Phil. 3, 4b-14; John 12, 1-8 )
Today is Passion Sunday, the time in the Christian year when our thoughts turn towards the suffering and death of Jesus about 2000 years ago – a suffering and death which we Christians believe was somehow redemptive.
Yet today many of us are also remembering the suffering and death of many millions of people, some of which was brought to an end 200 years ago today – March 25th 1807, when the Act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade by British ships received the Royal Assent.
The slave trade had existed for many centuries before Europeans came on the scene. Tribal wars resulted in many becoming slaves to the victors, and Arab slavers took others from Zanzibar to India and the Persian Gulf. The Anglican cathedral is now built over the site of the slave market in Zanzibar. But with the arrival of the Dutch and Portuguese in the 15th centuries, and the British in the 16th, the trade expanded enormously. We have no real idea of the number of slaves who were captured and transported. Estimates range from 10 million to 40 million over the 400 years that the trade continued.
The abolition of the slave trade was not the end of the story. Slavery continued in British possessions until 1833, in the USA until the end of the Civil War and in Brazil until 1888.
The slave trade was highly profitable. Much of England’s commercial wealth in the 17th and 18th centuries was built on it. Ships sailed from the English ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool to West Africa with guns, cloth, ammunition and trinkets which were traded for slaves. Adolescents were the most favoured purchase, because they were the strongest. They were taken across the Atlantic packed like tins on a supermarket shelf, shackled row on row in the hold – they were not allowed on deck in case they threw themselves overboard. Many died on the journey – it is estimated about 10% never made it, but died of disease, dehydration or just sheer misery, or were thrown overboard in case they infected others. In the New World they were sold, mostly to work on the sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations, and the ships were loaded with sugar, molasses and tobacco for the return trip to the UK.
The treatment of the slaves was truly horrific. They were branded, starved, beaten and the women were raped. As ‘property’ they could be murdered at will. Families were broken up, and the slaves were stripped of their names, their language, their culture and their religion.
To us, it is so obvious that slavery was and is a great evil. But it wasn’t obvious to most of the people who took part in it and profited from it in the 18th century.
There was a march organised by the Christian churches in London yesterday to mark the anniversary. It joined with a march which has been going on since March 1, from Hull, the home town of the abolitionist leader, William Wilberforce. Later in the year there will be more marches, linking the three great slave ports in England. One of the purposes of these marches is to publicise the role of Church people in securing the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign against the slave trade began with the Quakers and Methodists, then other nonconformists, and finally Evangelical Anglicans.
But a second purpose is to express the churches penitence at their collusion in the trade. The churches condoned slavery for many centuries. Although the Early Church condemned it, perhaps because so many of their members were slaves, once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and so the religion of the powerful, the voices protesting against slavery became fewer and fewer and more and more muted. In the period of the transatlantic slave trade, Christian leaders approved the ownership of slaves, and some church societies, such as SPG, owned slaves and used them to work the plantations whose profits funded their missionary activity. By 1800, antislavery pamphlets were on the index of prohibited books of the Catholic Church. John Newton, who wrote the hymn we have just sung, continued to be a slave trader, even after his conversion to Evangelical Christianity and even a Methodist abolitionist like George Whitefield owned slaves.
How could the Church condone something that seems so obviously immoral to us? One reason is that the Bible did not condemn slavery. Indeed it set out rules for regulating ownership of slaves, and allowing the worst of the excesses – mutilation, rape and punishment – that so disfigured the transatlantic slavery.
The Bible was written in an age when it was taken for granted that conquered people would be taken into slavery. It was written in an age when it was thought that men could do pretty much what they liked with women and children. The Old Testament placed an obligation on Jews to free enslaved Jews – but only them. The patriarchs all owned slaves, taken from people that the Israelites conquered, so slavery at that time was not seen as wrong. The New Testament was written also in an age when slave owning was widespread, but Jesus is not recorded as saying anything to condemn it. St. Paul did not see it as evil, and even returned the runaway slave, Onesimus, to his master, Philemon. The Epistles urge slaves to serve their masters without question.
Negro slavery was justified by some rather strange biblical exegesis. There was a story in Genesis about one of the sons of Noah, Ham, seeing his father naked, and telling everyone about it. As a consequence, Noah cursed Ham and his descendants, especially Canaan, saying they would be slaves to his brothers and their families. To us, this was obviously a justification for Israelite enslavement of the Canaanites when they conquered the Promised Land. However, tradition said that Ham was the ancestor of the black races – so Christians could say that Negro slavery was prophesied in the Bible, and Africans were under the curse of Ham.
Another tortured argument, which drew parallels between the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves and African enslavement, argued that the transatlantic slave trade was divinely ordained to bring Negroes out of their dark continent to enjoy the benefits of Christianity! Parallels were even drawn between crossing the Red Sea and crossing the Atlantic. However, once the slaves began drawing parallels with their own enslavement ( although they saw the crossing of the Red Sea in terms of travelling back across the Atlantic to their homelands) Exodus became one of the books that preachers were advised not to preach from to slave congregations. Lessons were also drawn from the prophets to argue that African enslavement was a punishment for their idolatry and lack of faith.
The use of the Bible to justify slavery should warn us against using the Bible as a text book of ethics. It approves practices we now think abhorrent, and a denial of the love of God. Scripture can never be our sole guide to what is right. We are not a People of the Book, though we are a people of the Word – but that Word is a living person, Our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to have the courage to say that sometimes the Bible is quite simply wrong – not just about scientific facts and history, but also about morality. Our guide to conduct should be the example of Jesus, mediated through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. So, a good question to ask when faced with a moral dilemma, particularly when it involves people of different races, genders or sexuality, is ‘What would Jesus do?”. Can you imagine Jesus doing what you are proposing to do? If the answer is ‘No’ then don’t do it.
It is good that we can celebrate the abolition of the slave trade, and the part which white British abolitionists like William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Greville Sharp and Hannah More played in getting the legislation through Parliament. We can also to celebrate the part which Christian education ( often in spite of itself ) played in giving freed Negro slaves like Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano the tools to argue the case for abolition. We can also celebrate the part which ordinary people, horrified by the evils which the abolitionists publicised, played in changing the law. Even without a vote, they made their voices heard, organizing petitions and boycotting slave-grown sugar, until Parliament listened. This is a strong indication to us that the Holy Spirit sometimes works through those outside the official leadership of the Church, especially when those in authority fail to listen to God.
But nothing we can do can undo the great evil that was done to so many people from a trade from which our country still reaps benefits. No amount of money can provide reparation for the destruction which the slave trade caused to the economies of Africa and the West Indies and to the culture and social structure of the enslaved people. But we can acknowledge what was done, and understand that the consequences are still being felt today, and join the struggle against the racism, and the unfair trade arrangements that still limit the freedom of the descendants of slaves. And our sorrow for what was done in the past can spur us on, to continue the struggle against the slavery that still exists in the world today, and even in Britain: women brought in to work in the sex-trade, domestic servants who are unpaid and have their passports taken away, children captured to become soldiers, or sold by poverty stricken parents to work in factories or as domestics.
It seems almost blasphemous to talk about good coming out of such an evil as the Transatlantic slave trade. But the Christian understanding of Christ’s Passion says that such things do happen. So, while not diminishing the horror of what was endured, we can rejoice in the contributions to the Western Church which came through slavery. The fight for abolition renewed our understanding of the demands of the Gospel, that the equality and freedom before God which it proclaims should not be spiritualized, but worked for in social and economic terms. The black interpretation of the Scriptures, especially the stories of the Exodus and the visions of Revelation, was the first liberation theology. Even though they learnt the faith from their oppressors, the slaves retained their faith in a God who would bring them justice. Their experience illustrates Paul’s point that it is knowing Christ, rather than adherence to the laws set out in the Scriptures that underlies faith.
The slave converts enriched our worship with their music, especially spirituals, and by reintroducing movement and drama and passion to Protestant services which had become rather lifeless and centred on the spoken word. For that, we give thanks.
As we enter Passiontide, may our meditations on Christ’s suffering open our eyes to the suffering which we, deliberately or otherwise, impose on our brothers and sisters, and may we, like those who worked to abolish the slave trade in the early 19th century, not give up until all God’s children are “Free indeed” (John.8.36).