The Necessity of a Liberation Theology: Slavery is Sin

The humor of Slavoj Žižek continually makes the singular point that the law or the symbolic realm is an oppressive force, so pervasive in its power, that it is inescapable. A man who fears chickens thinks he is a grain of corn and likely to be eaten. He is institutionalized and undergoes years of therapy. On the day of his release he runs back into the hospital as he has encountered a chicken. His doctor patiently insists that he must now understand that he is not a grain of corn. The man readily agrees that the years of therapy have paid off, he says, “I know I am not a grain of corn. “But,” he asks, “does the chicken know this.” Is escape from the “big Other,” God, the law, or fate, possible? For Žižek, the category may be subject to manipulation but ultimately the mind of the chicken cannot be changed.

Slavery is the biblical motif which gets at this all pervasive economic, social, and psychological system but, of course, it is against this background that exodus and redemption are to be understood. Slavery is not simply the biblical metaphor for sin but is the concrete manifestation of what is meant by sin. In turn, the New Testament subversion of slavery (as in the book Philemon) is an example of the manner in which Christ defeats sin in general. To restate it: the practice of sin entailed in slavery is not simply a metaphor but is a case in point illustration. Thus, Liberation Theology, which emphasizes liberation from social, political, and economic oppression is correct in its inclusion of these realms, if mistaken in how to address them (in most of its forms Liberation Theology calls for violent revolution).

Christians are necessarily called from anti-Christian occupations and identities and slavery with its class prejudice, its economic oppression, and its denial of human dignity, is the archetype of any such system. Biblical slavery is specifically defined in its vulnerability to crucifixion but every form of slavery and ultimately every form of sin depends upon fear of death (e.g. Hebrews 2:15). Slaves were kept in line by crosses so that to take up the cross would shatter the power that enslaves.  The death resistance which kept slavery alive is precisely the universal power of sin. All sin is a covenant with death (Is. 28:18 ff), or as in Gen. 3 – a deal with the devil, in which death denial (e.g. death subverted through the knowledge of good and evil, death defeated through human sacrifice) amounts to a living death. Thus, it is through crucifixion that Christ liberates from every form of slavery. The slave of sin, like the Roman slave, is kept in line through the power of death. So the manner in which slavery is subverted and the way in which sin is undone begins with the fact that Christ was crucified as the equivalent of a Roman slave.

Imagine if Philemon, when he received his letter from Paul charging him to receive Onesimus back as a brother, to forgive everything, to charge anything he owes to Paul – imagine if Philemon refused Paul’s “recommendations.” What if he chose, in spite of the letter he received, to continue to treat Philemon as his slave, his property to do with what he wants? We might wonder about the sort of faith which would allow one to be a “Christian” slave master – a real-world issue in the first century but in essence the real-world issue which continually confronts the Church. One can no more presume the correctness of being a “Christian slave master” than one could presume to be a Christian zealot, a Christian Pharisee, a Christian harlot, or a Christian executioner.

Redemption entails departure from revolutionary zealotry, Jewish legalism, participation in the sex trade, or being one of the executioners of Christ or the potential executioner of Christians. There may momentarily be Christians who find themselves as slave-masters, Pharisees, executioners, soldiers of fortune, Nazis, pimps, drug lords, or mercenaries, but if the word “Christian” means anything there cannot be Christian versions of these anymore than there can be black Klansmen (as in the film by this name). Paul is subverting slavery by drawing out the incongruity, the incommensurateness, of Onesimus serving Philemon in a “Christian slavery.”

Paul tells Philemon to accept Onesimus back as if he is Paul himself, “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (v. 17, NASB). Regard him “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16).  Paul’s letter is filled with pathos as Onesimus is “beloved,” “my child whom I have begotten in my imprisonment.” In Onesimus Paul says he is “sending my very heart.” Behind this intense emotion is certainly the reality of what might be done to troublesome slaves. The master that both Paul and Philemon serve has been crucified as a lowly slave. But Paul is also laying a heavy burden on Onesimus by asking him to go back and demonstrate repentance within such an unjust, life-consuming, institution. Paul does not say explicitly but hints that Philemon should take the next logical step and free Onesimus: “Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say” (v.21). “More than what I say” would seem to imply that Philemon free Onesimus as a slave in order to have him back forever as a brother in the Lord.

The law, as Paul will describe it in conjunction with the sinful orientation, is on the same order as slavery. Slavery was integral to the workings of society – like electricity and gasoline – it was at once the power and even the currency (slaves amounted to accumulated wealth) of the society. The law, as viewed from within the deception of sin, is equated with life and mistaken for and confused with God.  Slavery was pervasive and to challenge slavery was on the same order as challenging the Emperor system or would be the equivalent of challenging capitalism and nationalism. The law of sin and death is the water in in which we swim and to escape it requires an alternative mode of breathing/life. In this sense, slavery is not merely a biblical metaphor for sin but is a substantive manifestation of the pervasive, all-consuming oppression constituting sin. Exodus from slavery is the primary motif of redemption because slavery is definitive of the economy, the mode of governance, the psychology, and the all-consuming destructiveness of sin and thus indicates the holistic nature of deliverance.

Thus, the 25 verses making up Philemon contain all the elements of Paul’s Gospel. In the call for Onesimus to return and for Philemon to accept him back, we have a new kind of family and social order, which Paul describes elsewhere as mutual submission in households in which all are subordinate to one another. In Philemon we have the appeal to the stronger brother with the law of love as the guiding ethic as it occurs Romans 15 and 16 and in Corinthians. The Letter manifests the new religious order described in Galatians and Ephesians: the dividing wall of Hostility has been broken down and all have free and open access to God. There is no privileged status as there is no longer slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Greek.  Implicit in Philemon is a new psychological order or self-understanding in which the slave/master dialectic is deconstructed from the outside in. As Paul describes it we are all our own oppressors as we take up the law and become our own masters and enslave ourselves to the law of sin and death. The condemnation of the law is one we leverage against ourselves so that the master/slave social construct is grounded in the interior dialectic.

This affirms the deep psychological nature of the Gospel but does not isolate the interior individual from his embodied reality. Drawing the institution of slavery together with the slavery of sin indicates that the way to transform the deep part of persons is not separate from the social and political realm of which they are a part. Onesimus could not be free in Christ, in any sense of the term, apart from a community which would affirm him as a brother and a child of God. At the same time Philemon could not attain freedom apart from the acknowledgement of the status of Onesimus as a brother. Paul subverts the slavery to which both Philemon and Onesimus are subject by drawing these two brothers together into a reconciled family but alienation is always overcome through this reconciled community of love. Justice and righteousness always pertain to relationships restored in the body of Christ. There can be Christian slave masters only as there can be Christian pedophiles, Christian idolaters, Christian sorcerers, Christian dissensions, Christian drunkenness, or Christian carousing. Paul warns that “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Ga 5:19-21). The oxymoron may exist in the Church but it has nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.

Žižek has had to defend himself against charges of misogyny for his more cruel and crude humor but it is precisely his saddest stories which get at the sick nature of a racist, nationalistic, misogynistic Christianity which would simply manipulate the law.

In 15th century Russia, occupied by Mongols, a farmer and his wife walk along a dusty country road. A Mongol warrior on a horse stops at their sight and tells the farmer that he will now rape his wife. He then adds: “But since there is a lot of dust on the ground, you should hold my testicles while I’m raping your wife, so they’ll not get dirty. After the Mongol finishes his job and drives away, the farmer starts to laugh and jump with joy. The surprised wife asks him: “How can you be jumping with joy when I was just brutally raped?!” The farmer answers: “But I got him! His balls are full of dust.”

If the story offends more than the reality it portrays (a Christianity willing to subject itself to the reigning Mongol) this should serve as the gauge of a depleted moral outrage. The rapist, representative of the law (the law of sin and death, the principalities and the powers, the reigning socio-cultural understanding), cannot be stopped so ultimate delight is had in the slightest transgression. Getting rid of the rapist would be the equivalent of suspending the law. Paul, in dealing with the Judaizers – those who would “cut” the flesh and “cut off” fellowship from Paul – recommends that they go all the way: “I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate (or emasculate) themselves” (Ga 5:12). Rather than manipulate the law Paul would emasculate the law by taking up the cross. “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” To be a circumcised Christian, a slave master Christian, a Pharisee Christian, would “nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Ga 2:20–21). “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Ga 3:28). Those who insist on the primacy of ethnic, religious, social, or sexual identity, by definition, cannot be one in Christ Jesus. Redemption is necessarily liberation from any political, social, or cultural system which derives value through a slave/master sort of duality.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

2 thoughts on “The Necessity of a Liberation Theology: Slavery is Sin”

  1. Paul,

    The logical next step is we are slaves to the True Master, God the Father through Jesus Christ. That includes the phrase “slaves to righteousness” Romans 6:15-23 states this clearly, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

    I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    Thanks for helping me and others think more clearly on these important concepts and practices.


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