It says in the Bible . . . Are you listening?

A recent article in my newspaper (18th May) told of a man in Blyth being convicted for keeping four men as slaves and it reminded me of some reading I did on the slave trade some 10 or so years ago.

In 1788 a Jesuit called Fr Raymond Harris published a little book called ‘Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave Trade, Shewing its conformity with the principles of natural and revealed Religion, delineated in the Sacred Writings of the Word of God.’ Harris, as was not unusual at the time, assembled a list of quotes from the Bible showing that slavery was part of the natural order – and one of the most important proofs came from Philemon, the shortest book in the New Testament. Harris’s reasoned that St Paul had told Philemon to take back Onesimus as a slave; and that meant slavery was sanctioned as an institution. Therefore the slave trade that was such a good profit-making enterprise and financially beneficial to the ports of Liverpool, London and Bristol was also sanctioned by the Bible. Harris used the Book of Philemon to defend a gruesome trade in human cargo.

A book that repudiated Harris’ claim was written in the following year by a former African slave. His book was called ‘The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.’ The book told of his life and how he educated himself mainly via the Bible and eventually bought himself out of slavery for £40.

In his memoirs he took Fr Harris to task –saying what was important was that Philemon was asked to take Onesimus back as a brother – and that meant that masters were to exercise brotherly love towards their slaves. And what is more, Equiano thought that since at the time when Paul was writing Christians held all things in common, then there was no way that Philemon would be allowed to keep his slave as his own private property. In the end he thought that Paul was actually not defending the slave trade at all, but attacking the very institution, not just of slavery, but of the holding of property altogether; and that meant of course that if there was no property there would be no slaves.

He concluded with a pretty blunt message to Fr Harris: “of this epistle which you cite strongly in favour of slavery, when the whole tenor of it is in behalf of the slave. Besides who would lose out if slavery was abolished? Perhaps the manufacturers of neck-yokes, chains, collars, handcuffs and leg-boots.”

John Wesley brought Equiano’s book to the attention of William Wilberforce and other anti-slavery campaigners. What Equiano was doing, which was so different from Fr Harris, was opening the Bible and letting it speak to him, instead of distorting it to make it fit his own words. He spoke to the Bible from his own world and it answered him back.

And that was not universally the case for all books, “I have often taken up a book, and talk to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in the hope it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.” But the Bible was different – he addressed it from his situation and it spoke back to him.

By taking his question to the Bible, Equiano received an answer quite unlike those who merely found what they were looking for. He didn’t conform to any stereotype and perhaps because of this, his answers were original – in Philemon, St Paul was heard speaking afresh and he began to say something quite different. Slaves were not commodities but human beings; and perhaps even more importantly, certainly for William Wilberforce, they were human beings who would hear the Gospel.

It was through his act of open listening that Equiano’s Bible was allowed to speak to him and eventually it silenced the other voices of inequality and oppression; it shook a world which had grown all too comfortable in slavery. And it seems to me, if there were a bit more listening going on – not least to the Bible, then the churches might not be quite so divided, and there might be a bit more listening to those who have been cast outside the net of believers.

In fact there are many people who fear the Bible because they think it might say something that threatens their presuppositions about the kind of people God might love; but if we were to listen more carefully then things might begin to change – God loved slaves and condemned slavery and the Western world gradually accepted that message. And there may be many others whom he loves but who so often we seek to condemn.

Max Young