Sunday, July 22, 2012

On women and slavery (and patriarchy and oppression)

Pastoral Letters Series
The instructions about or to women and slaves in the pastoral letters are shocking to us, of course. To really understand them after our first blush, we have to realize these instructions were not written directly to us. We must understand that these instructions are given to a specific people in a specific time and place. Until we understand their cultural context, we cannot fully appreciate what the writer is saying. Unless we also understand our own, we cannot truly make an application for our community life today.

These letters are written to a Greek pastor in an ancient city of the Roman empire. In ancient Rome, women were property. Husbands were permitted to kill their wives, or sell them and their children into slavery. They were given no higher status than a slave.

Slaves were not considered full, mature persons. Those who owned slaves were seen as doing them a favour. It was believed that slaves were unable to make choices for themselves, including moral or ethical ones. Therefore, to even address or acknowledge a slave as a moral being who is able to understand and make a moral choice is itself already emancipation. To encourage a slave to do right is to acknowledge that slave is a sovereign person capable of understanding and choosing such a thing. In this way, their freedom in the Kingdom is affirmed.

Beyond this, we must then understand the differences between the oppression of the Roman empire and our own. We must ask ourselves what women or slaves are capable of accomplishing through resistance to oppression in our world today. We must consider how effective our churches may be in carrying the Good News of the Kingdom as we stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed. I believe that greater freedom and justice is available to people today through struggle than was available to the recipients of these letters in the first century. They resisted in their way. To follow their example, we will resist in our way, in our context. Faithfulness to scripture need not lead us to complicity in the oppression of women or immigrants or any other oppressed group among us. On the contrary, faithful practice of Jesus' message is to stand alongside them, or behind them, serving to enable them to live free as citizens of the Kingdom of God now.

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