Friday, August 06, 2004

On Emancipation, Liberation and the Gospel
GEM 04:08:04

This weekend, the Anglophone Caribbean celebrated the 170th anniversary of the emancipation of our ancestors from chattel slavery. Perhaps, we can best recall how it felt to our forebears by looking at a midnight celebration held in Falmouth’s Baptist church, in Trelawney, Jamaica:

As congregations gathered in every chapel across the island, the Negroes arriving for worship at Falmouth at 11p.m. on 31st July [1834] found a huge banner bearing the word Freedom across the entrance to the chapel. [Missionary William] Knibb [who had narrowly avoided being hanged as a suspected leader of the so-called “Baptist War” rebellion of 1831/2 and had then gone from Jamaica to England on an anti-slavery tour in which he addressed both public meetings and parliamentary committees] counted every last second till midnight and, as the final stroke died away, cried with all the fervour and relief of the bitter struggle finally won: “The monster is dead! The Negro is free!” [Cited:, cf. Sherlock & Bennett, The Story of the Jamaican People, (Kingston: Ian Randle, 1998) pp. 224 - 228. ]

Clearly, many of our ancestors saw freedom as a precious blessing from God, one that had been won at bitter cost. This is aptly summed up in the words of Paul, teachings that inspired many of our ancestors:

Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. [1 Cor 7:21 – 23.]; and . . . .

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery . . . . You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you keep biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. [Gal. 5:1, 13 – 15.]

How, then, did men from lands that had been Christianised for centuries enslave our ancestors? To see why, let us first note that the Bible has choice words on the slave trade, the foundation for plantation slavery:

The law is good if one uses it properly . . . [it] is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders [KJV: menstealers] and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God. [1 Tim 1:8 – 11, emphasis added]

If a man is caught kidnapping one of his brother Israelites and treats him as a slave or sells him, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you. [Deut. 24:7. Cf. Lev. 24:22: “You are to have the same law for the alien and the native born . . .”]

In short, there is simply no biblical defense for “Old pirates, yes, they rob I. Sold I to the merchant ships . . .” and the resulting chattel slavery imposed on our ancestors by the Europeans (who had the merchant ships) and the Africans, Berbers and Arabs who carried out the kidnapping and selling in Africa. But, greed for super-profits plainly blinded the traders to the serious moral and biblical issues at stake. So, instead of creating an indentured labour system, which the OT tolerates and regulates (and which was how for instance the Pilgrims settled in Massachusetts), the Europeans resorted to plantation chattel slavery and racism, backed up by unjust laws passed in the interests of the powerful. Then, they suppressed, ignored or twisted the scriptures and persecuted those who protested, to silence their uneasy consciences.

Thank God, many dissenting Christians dared to stand up stoutly for the liberating truths of the gospel in England, in America and – starting with black American Missionary George Liele, who came to Jamaica in 1783 as a refugee fleeing re-enslavement -- here in the Caribbean. Fifty-one years after that date, “the Monster” was dead. Then through an endowment from the people of God in Britain, a network of free villages was formed, starting the process of economic liberation. And, within five years of “full free” in 1838, a hundred Caribbean Missionaries went to West Africa -- the land of our ancestors -- with the gospel.

How, then, can we do less in our time? So, now, let’s talk . . .


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