Friday, March 29, 2013

Colossians 4 - Empire. Slavery. Chains. Freedom.

(Part 4 of a series.)
Click here to read Colossians chapter 4

I read Colossians and Philemon as some of the most radical in the New Testament when it comes to the understanding and practice of the gospel in the church. Other than the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, I am more challenged by the description of true discipleship in these books than anywhere else in scripture.

Considering everything that came before it, the radical freedom, the power and authority of this world destroyed, the life of love and humility in community, the final chapter shines in its examples of this remarkable life really being lived by these early Christians.

First is the appeal to masters that they should provide right and fair treatment to their slaves. Before skipping past this verse at the offense of the mention of slavery, we must take time to consider what it could mean for the Christians in Collosae.

Slaves of the first century in Palestine were not considered to be fully human, in the sense of their moral self or rational ability. This view is not uncommon among societies that advocate slavery. This is necessary to create the paradigm that will justify slavery. If certain people are somehow just morally inferior, incapable of making wise or right choices, incapable of living without the direct supervision of a superior, then slavery is not only justified but even humane.

I visited a friend in jail last week. In the same week, we had visitors in our home who hop trains, sleep in tents, and eat in a day whatever they find. My friend in jail and these train-hopping visitors all had stories of their ill and even violent treatment by police, security, or other figures of authority. I would submit that these same attitudes that would allow for slavery in first century Palestine still exist to justify our behaviour of the marginalized in our own cities today.

One of my new friends was present at the 2010 G20 protests in Toronto. She witnessed and experienced gross disregard for Canadian law by police as they brutally detained, searched, stole from, and arrested innocent nonviolent protesters. Some justification that these people were an exception to normal society and deserved this treatment must have been present for it to occur.

In 2011, Maclean’s reported on an Angus Reid Poll done for the Salvation Army. The poll sought to discover what Canadians think poor people are like and what kind of support they deserve from the government. It found that there was a strong correlation between a high percentage opinion that the poor do not need assistance, and a high percentage opinion that poor people are somehow also morally impoverished. Alberta received one of the worst marks in Canada on this front. If we see ourselves reflected in these opinions about the poor, or judge my friend's moral compass inferior so we may justify the violent and illegal treatment she received from police, we are holding the same prejudice as the slavery-justifying Romans.

So, in the light of this cultural understanding, and in the context of a radical anti-authoritarian document, how do we interpret these uncomfortable passages?

Before the writer ever addresses the masters with his brief command, in the previous chapter, he first speaks to the slaves. Imagine the offense that it could be in a society like the one just described for a slave to be addressed as a capable and worthwhile equal before ever the eyes are raised to the master they serve. By giving slaves moral counsel and direction, the writer acknowledges that they are human, valuable, and perfectly able to make thoughtful and moral decisions. He also acknowledges that the authority that they work in is not their earthly master, but God. He gives no appeal to earthly authority or consequence. Finally, in his appeal to the only authority that they truly serve, he reminds the slaves that vengeance will be paid by that authority on anyone who has done wrong, and that this final judge does not see class, race, or earthly perverted prejudices.

My activist friends and the police who terrorize them are both judged for their attitudes and actions without prejudice or favoritism before the Perfect Judge and Master Avenger.

It is after this sharp reminder that we enter chapter four. The writer finally raises his eyes to the master, the one who will be judged by the Final Authority for his treatment of his fellow equal, moral, image-of-God-bearing humans. Just as he leaves it to the slave to walk righteously in the eyes of God, he leaves it to the master to judge what must consequently be "right" and "fair". In a society that gives carte blanche authority to a slave-owner to do whatever he wants with his human possessions, this is a radical confrontation. Finally, just as he reminds the slaves that we each answer to only one Final Authority, he appeals to the master to soberly consider that he and the slave have the same Master. Before that Master both will bow, and by that Master they will both be judged without preference.

Before a lengthy closing, the writer's final instructions direct the outward practice and mission of the covenant community. No matter the circumstance, Christ's supremacy gives opportunity to share the goodness of this message of freedom and grace. Even in chains, the writer prays for God to open the door for him to invite others into the freedom and life that he is experiencing. Outsiders here are not seen as people to fear. Rather, there is a hope and expectation in the tone of the writing that outsiders will see the community's new life displayed, and will want in on it.

We see the radical and free nature of this community joyfully displayed in the book's final greetings. The writer has great joy in speaking of friends and colleagues who are in jail, ministering and traveling, serving, and praying. He speaks of deep hospitality, encouragement, comfort, and praise. In jail and in chains, Paul is not alone. This community runs as thick as the blood of Jesus.

Do not miss the special mention of Nympha in the fifteenth verse. In this new community, slaves are valuable, human, and equal. In this new community, women are pastors and leaders. We are no longer held captive by any deceptive human philosophies and traditions. In Christ, we have been made completely free from idle notions that would keep us bound and we are all connected to him as one body. He is the Head.

Finally, the writer, Paul, quickly ends his letter with a humble reminder that he is writing in chains. Though the appeal to the authority of Christ rings through from the very first verse until the end, we are reminded that the words are spoken to us by a very human voice, in fact a criminal. We are reminded that it is not earthly gain or position or acclaim that holds the truth of this letter. We follow one who was also a criminal in chains in the eyes of the empire. The truth of the freedom in this letter is found not in the results of freedom in this life or prosperity in the natural. The truth is found in Christ alone, who rose again to give us new life. He is the truth, and he makes us free.

Next - Part 5 (of 7) - Community. Humility. Grace. - Colossians 4

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