Justice and Slavery
Isaiah 58:1-9a | Luke 4:16-19
Lying at the very heart of the story of the people of God; the defining origin story for the people of Israel; an event that echoes through the whole of the Old Testament and into the New; is a story of slavery and freedom.
This story was what created the Jewish nation; turned a gathering of clans into a nation. That they were, first and foremost defined, of course, by being the people of God; but second only to that, they were the people who God had brought out of slavery and into freedom.
When God gives the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, the prologue to the Ten Commandments, in Deuteronomy chapter 5, God says “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” When God is about to give the law, this is the description God chooses, the adjective, if you like, that God applies to God-self: “the one who brought you out of slavery”.
When David comes to praise God in the Psalms, he was confident to put these words into God’s voice: “I, the LORD, am your God, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Psalm 81).
When the prophet Micah called the people back to true worship of God, these are the words God spoke through him: “I brought you up from the land of Egypt And ransomed you from the house of slavery”
In the New Testament, especially in the writing of Paul, this freedom will be expanded (or perhaps used as a allegory) for our spiritual freedom; “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free”
The whole of the Torah, the way of life that was designed to reflect the nature and worship and love of God is built around a story of freedom from slavery. God’s people are the ones that God has set free. And again an again, as the law unfolds, the message is repeated:
You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
In our reading from Isaiah today we see God calling on the people to respond to God’s great work for them, not (or at least, not just) through religious observance, but by doing something:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
God has given the people the gift of freedom; so how is it that they can enslave one another? Do they not remember that they were slaves in Egypt, and God freed them? How then can they possibly think it is ok to oppress others?
The command given most frequently to the people was “I am your God, you shall worship no other”; and second was “remember you were slaves in Egypt”.
And of course, in the words of the Gospel reading; Jesus, given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, chooses this passage to read as his declaration of his mission:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
We care about slavery because of the power of stories like Kumar’s; we care because we have a basic human empathy for all; we care because if we say “I am made in the image of God” then our very next words must always be “and so is she, and so is he”.
But as the people of the God who brought the people up out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom, and as the people who God has brought out of the slavery of sin and law and into the freedom of grace and Spirit, we care about slavery because we have been set free – so how could we possibly not do everything in our power to grant the freedom we have received to others?
But if all I had to say today was essentially a longwinded version of “slavery bad, freedom good” then that probably wouldn’t telling you anything that you didn’t already know. The brutal reality, and sheer scale, of the problem that Jess has told us about might have been news to you, or not, but more important than that, I trust, is the sense of hope:
There is something that you, that we, can do about it.
As we work our way through this series on Justice, over the next five weeks, we’re going to be putting a bit more emphasis than usual on how we might respond to what we hear, what we are challenged with, what we learn.
So hopefully Jess has inspired you to, at very least, find out more about the way IJM works; to sign up on their prayer list to get regular updates and commit to praying for their work.
But alongside the rescue and advocacy work of IJM, there is another whole side to the systemic problems of slavery; slavery exists because there is demand.
In a sizable fraction of modern day slavery those enslaved are working in the production of stuff that we buy, we use. Our clothes, our consumer electronics, our tea, coffee, and chocolate, in many, if not most cases, are produced at least in part by this hidden army of modern day slaves; the 300,000 children working in West African cocoa bean plantations, unknown numbers working Indian and Bangladeshi sweatshops to produce our clothing.
So as well as – not instead of, as well as – supporting IJM with prayer and giving, you can make a difference by reducing the demand for products produced by slavery, by deliberately choosing to spend your money with companies that have transparent supply chains and fair labour practices.
So out in the foyer there are these booklets “Shop Ethical” that tell you, brand by brand and company by company, about the ethical issues related to our purchasing and how the options we choose between stack up. There’s even more information on their website (which also might be easier to read that the small print in the booklet!) explaining exactly why each company gets the grading it does.
Every time we choose wisely how we spend our money we move the profit motive that drives those who would enslave a little bit away from slavery and towards freedom.
And last, but certainly not least, I’d encourage you to find out more. Margot has been doing some great work on the resource centre, and it’s got lots of books related to the various issues of Justice that we are exploring in this series. I’d especially draw your attention to this little book “Deepening the Soul for Justice” – there are a number of copies available, and it’s very easy to read. It comes from IJM, and it’s an incredible inspiration to deepen our discipleship, take prayer more seriously, and grow in the spiritual practices that the IJM team have found absolutely indispensable in their work.
So please take advantage of the resources that Margot has put together, to learn more about the God of Justice, to help you in your intentional faith development; growing to care more for the things God cares about, to love the way God loves us.
For remember, God says to us today as God has said to the people of God throughout history, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”.
The God we serve is the God who sets people free.
That’s got to mean something.