January 5, 2011
Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? Romans 6:16
I’m back from a hiatus over the Christmas/New Year holidays. It’s been good for the most part, except for that two feet of snow…
So let me jump in with a topic that’s not a very comfortable one for many people: slavery. President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation is the latest addition to Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, home to a slew of sites relating to our nation’s early history. The open-air, stylized reproduction of the house (the original was demolished in 1832) stands near the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.
The President’s House tells the story of the executive branch of our government, because it’s where our first two commanders-in-chief—George Washington and John Adams—served their terms of office. But the most controversial part of the exhibit is about slavery. Washington, who had 300 slaves at his Virginia plantation, brought nine slaves with him to Philadelphia (Adams never owned any). Video re-enactments in the house give a sense of what it may have been like to live enslaved in Washington’s household, as the characters speak from the perspective of the slaves.
The project was more than eight years in the making, and evoked much public debate and even street demonstrations, undoubtedly because it intertwines the story of the revered “Father of Our Country” with the uneasy topic of slavery. As the National Park Service website puts it, “The President’s House…was a mirror of the young republic, reflecting both the ideals and contradictions of the new nation. The house stood in the shadow of Independence Hall, where the words ‘All men are created equal’ and ‘We the People’ were adopted, but they did not apply to all who lived in the new United States of America.”
The President’s House is believed to be the first federal memorial of enslaved Africans. Isn’t that interesting? A long time coming, I’d say.
A quick search on Google will show you there’s also a lot of controversy over slavery in the Bible. It would take waaay too long for me to delve into that subject here. I’ll just point to Ephesians 6:5-9 as a very simple summary, an acknowledgement that slavery existed, along with the exhortation for both masters and slaves to do what is right because their ultimate Master “is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” It’s reiterated in Galatians 3:28. If you want to dig deeper, I suggest you talk with a trusted pastor, because a lot of the stuff I found on the Internet comes from iffy sources.
But those verses lead me to the spiritual point I want to make: everybody serves something or someone. Uh huh, I can just hear a few of you out there disagreeing: “Not me; I’m my own person.” But really, isn’t that what it all boils down to, serving yourself? And serving yourself means serving your own appetites and desires—pleasure, experiences, money, power, fame…the list goes on and on.
Serving yourself also excludes serving God. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus rightly asserted in Matthew 6:24, “for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other.” Nope, there’s just no room for the real Number One when we’re only looking out for number one.
The apostle Paul hammers away at this message over and over again in the New Testament book of Romans, starting off with a bang in the first chapter, with his searing indictment of the human race: “Professing to be wise, they became fools…they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (1:22, 25). The result? Degradation, greed, envy, strife, deceit, malice, gossip and arrogance, among other things (1:26-31). If you don’t recognize at least some of these traits in yourself, then I suggest you ask a close friend—he or she will probably be more than happy to point them out in you! Sadly, I can identify with nearly all of them.
And whoever commits any sin—that is, all we say, do or think that is contrary to God—becomes its slave (John 8:34).
Eventually, these consequences catch up with us, both here and now and for eternity. Shame is one result (Romans 6:21); death is another (Romans 1:32; 6:21, 23). That’s a spiritual deadening in this life and separation forever from God in the next. “Do not love the word, nor the things in the world,” the apostle John writes in 1 John 2:15-17. “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life [that about covers it all, doesn’t it?], is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts…”
Oh, but there’s good news! I can’t leave out the last part of 1 John 2:17: “but the one who does the will of God abides forever.” We don’t have to be slaves to sin! Jesus freed us from the power it has over us (John 8:36, Romans 6:22). We can turn from that path and go from being sin’s slave to His (Romans 6:22, 1 Peter 2:16, 1 John 1:9). As one African American pastor summed it up, “Slavery is acceptable [only] if your master is God.”
Master, slave, sin, lust…these are uncomfortable words. Just like the new Philadelphia exhibit, they provoke debate and even public demonstration.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of this enormous subject. But here’s the bottom line question.
Whose slave are you?