Tag Archives: Slavery

Doing Something

…on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.
Exodus 12:12 (NRSVCE)

We are living through strange times.

Yesterday Wendy and I attended our local gathering of Jesus’ followers which was meeting corporately for the first time in months. With everything set up and following social distancing rules by local and state authorities, it just felt weird and disconcerting. This physical and relational reality only intensified the spiritual and emotional turmoil Wendy and I found ourselves in as we grapple with the inexcusable murder of George Floyd and the intensity of reactions it sparked across our nation and the world.

As worship began I fell to my knees as the emotional dam burst within me. Wendy and I wept together. Like almost everyone else with whom we discuss the situation, we are sad and angry. We agonize over what we can and must do in the wake of this crime and the evil, complex, vast, and multi-dimensional injustice of racism that continues to perpetuate in our nation, as it has for hundreds of years.

As I read today’s chapter, I felt the synchronicity that often comes in the morning when I open to the chapter that has fallen onto my schedule that day. It felt like no mistake that I was reading of the Hebrews’ climactic escape from their slavery in Egypt. What struck me this morning, and which I never internalized in the countless times I’ve read and studied it, is that the event is more than just the freedom of the Hebrews out of the chains of their slavery. Their escape took place amidst the wailing cries of their oppressors. God arranged for the oppressors to experience the pain, suffering, and loss that they and their system had visited on others for hundreds of years.

I also cannot help but mull over the fact that this same Hebrew/Arab conflict has lasted for millennia. The hatred and acts of aggression, oppression, and violence have gone back and forth and lasted for so long that I personally consider it impossible to completely plumb the depths. Guilt and innocence, oppression and suffering are found on both sides throughout history. From ancient tribal disputes to the settlement disputes on the West Bank today. How strange to read today’s chapter and to realize that the events lie at the root of yet another vast, complex, multi-dimensional human conflict that continues to perpetuate to this day.

So where does that leave us?

Wendy arranged for us to have a Zoom meeting with our children yesterday afternoon. From their homes in South Carolina and Scotland, we all talked and shared about our thoughts, feelings, experiences, struggles, and desire to do something. Every one of us shared our thoughts and intentions around what we can do.

In our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, we heard a humble, vulnerable, and honest message from Kevin Korver who, to his credit, passionately addressed the situation head-on. In the end, he led us in this corporate action list:

As we remain and abide in the circle of love, the divine dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we will:
Repent and confess
Bear good fruit
Listen, hear, and pray with love
Bless not curse
Love sacrificially
Become a bridge builder
Seek new friends
.

Will it make a difference? It’s not a miraculous answer to the evil, complex, vast, and multi-dimensional injustice that continues to perpetuate in our nation. But, perhaps if I who profess to be a follower of Jesus actually and intentionally do these things it will make a change in me and those around me.

I’m reminded this morning that Harriett Tubman led approximately 70 slaves to freedom on some 13 missions. Seventy out of some 6 million slaves. She courageously and intentionally did what she could.

There’s no reason I can’t expect the same from myself.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Villains, Justice, Wrestling

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again.
Exodus 11:5-6 (NRSVCE)

The past few months of COVID shut-downs have been strange on a number of levels. For being non-athletic, creative types, Wendy and I both enjoy watching and avidly following certain sports and teams. We also have the shows we avidly watch. It’s been strange to have so little to watch. Not necessarily bad, mind you. I confess we’ve gotten a lot of things done that have been on the task list for way too long. I’m just recognizing how often we look forward to certain games or new episodes of a certain series.

Game of Thrones was a series to which I was late to the party. Wendy had no interest and I didn’t want to pay for HBO or for each year’s series on DVD. It was a ridiculous Black Friday deal for all but the last season on DVD that gave me many wonderful months of binging while on the road for work.

One of the hallmarks of the Game of Thrones series was the quality of the villains. I can’t think of another series with more despicable characters whom I wanted to get their just desserts and (I confess) die in despicable ways. The writers knew how to create characters I loved to hate, and how to keep me as an audience member passionately desiring a villain’s demise so for so long that when the climax finally arrived it was oddly satisfying in somewhat creepy ways.

Today’s chapter is a climactic point in the Exodus story, though I find it easy to lose sight of this fact. I think that it’s a combination of breaking up the narrative in small daily chunks, translating it into English from an ancient language, and the fact that the ancients weren’t exactly George Martin or Stephen King when it comes to crafting the narrative.

The final plague on Pharaoh and Egypt is the death of every Egyptian first-born, which feels rather heinous on the surface of things as we read with the eyes of 21st-century mindset. There are a couple of important parallels in this story which, I can’t allow myself to forget this, is at its heart about an enslaved, oppressed people being freed from their chains.

Pharaoh and the Egyptians have all the earthly power. They have the absolute authority, socio-economic status, and a system completely rigged in their favor. The Hebrews have one respected leader (Moses, who was raised an Egyptian member of Pharaoh’s household) and this mysterious God who has come out of a burning bush to reveal Himself as the One underdog champion of the oppressed Hebrews against over 1500 Egyptian deities.

[cue: Rocky’s Theme]

Pharaoh has just threatened Moses with death, but Moses informs his nemesis that it is his first-born son (always the favored-one in ancient Patriarchal systems) who will die. I believe most parents would say that losing a child is worse than dying yourself. Pharaoh and the God of Moses have already gone nine exhausting rounds. This plague is the knockout punch. At the very beginning of the story, it was established that the Hebrew slaves cried out in their suffering, and God heard their cries. Now, God proclaims through Moses, it will be Pharaoh and the Egyptian oppressors who will “cry out” in their suffering.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think about my African-American brothers and sisters. Historically, it’s easy to see why the Exodus story has always resonated with African-Americans. Wendy and I just watched the movie Harriett a few weeks ago. “Grandma Moses” led her people to freedom. The heinous videos of Ahmed Aubrey and George Floyd (a brother in Christ) haunt me. The Moses story will always be relevant in a fallen world where broken earthly systems favor some people and not others.

As I meditate on these things, Jesus’ first recorded message echoes in my spirit:

[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“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 favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
 

Some mornings my soul is overwhelmed with questions. Like Jacob, I find myself wrestling with God.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

The Freedom That Leads to Slavery

They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.”
2 Peter 2:19 (NIV)

I grew up in a very different time. Parents weren’t as protective and overbearing with children as they are today. They couldn’t. The technology didn’t exist as it does now. As a kid I had quite a bit of freedom. I roamed our neighborhood with other kids. My Schwinn Sting-Ray five speed bicycle expanded the reach of adventure. I rode my bike to the bowling alley, to the pool, or to the wooded areas at the end of Madison and by the Des Moines River. All of this without cell phones or my parents having any idea where I was or what I was doing most of the time.

Of course, this freedom afforded plenty of opportunity to get in trouble. I can think of kids in my neighborhood who used their own freedom to push the limits of acceptable behavior. Often, I was invited and encouraged to join them. Occasionally, I did follow friends into doing what I knew was wrong, but I had a healthy conscience that usually (not always) kept me from repeating those behaviors. As I look back and remember some of those moments when I was encouraged by friends to misbehave, one of the regular arguments provided was that I would be breaking the shackles of parental or societal rules and experiencing freedom of doing whatever I wanted.

I’ve observed along my journey that “freedom” is regularly mentioned by those who propose marginal behavior. I grew up on the tail end of the “free love” generation which was supposed to free people from relational repressions but I never saw it creating healthier, happier individuals. I remember a friend from college who was fighting his own battle with drug addiction. He’d been encouraged to take LSD to “free his mind” but the story he told me was not one of freedom.

In today’s chapter, Peter was writing his letter to early Jesus followers to address a very similar issue. Men had joined with followers of Jesus and then told them all sorts of stories about how people were free to engage in all the marginal behaviors practiced by the pagan religions around them. Con artists were stealing money from the local gatherings of believers and leading people astray in their promises that people were free to do whatever they wanted as Jesus’ forgiveness gave them carte blanche grace and forgiveness. Peter warns the fledgling followers that the “freedom” these heretics were promising would only end in a different kind of enslavement.

This morning I’m thinking about freedom. Jesus said, If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” It’s one of those quotes of Jesus that I’ve observed gets only partially quoted. People love to quote the last part, but leave off the first part. I learned long ago that when I use my freedom to do whatever I want, it doesn’t lead to pleasant places. In fact, the so called “freedom” that many people espouse only leads to a different kind of enslavement.

Christ set me free, not to do what I want, but to do what I ought.

Not Getting It

There were still people left from the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (these people were not Israelites). Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these people remaining in the land—whom the Israelites had not destroyed—to serve as slave labor, as it is to this day.
2 Chronicles 8:7-8 (NIV)

Jesus told a simple parable of the King’s servant who owed the king 10,000 bags of gold. To those who listened to Jesus tell this story, the idea of owing 10,000 bags of gold was a ridiculous amount of money. It would be like me owing someone billions or trillions of dollars. More than I could pay back in many lifetimes.

Be patient with me and I’ll pay it back,” the servant said to the king. This is also ridiculous because I couldn’t pay back billions or trillions of dollars in many lifetimes. The king decides to forgive the debt and let the servant go.

As he’s leaving the palace, the servant runs into his buddy who owed him a hundred bucks. When he demanded repayment of the debt, his buddy says, “Be patient with me and I’ll pay it back!” (Sound familiar?) The King’s servant who’d just been forgiven from multiple lifetimes worth of debt refused to forgive his buddy a debt of a hundred bucks.

Jesus point was clear. If God forgives me for my lifetime of mistakes and poor choices and then I refuse to forgive an individual who offended me, then I’ve completely missed the point of everything Jesus came to teach me.

Buried in today’s chapter is a simple observation that brought this parable to mind this morning. Solomon, King of Israel, builds his temples and palaces by forcing all of the non-Israelite people of the land into slave-labor. Now, this was common practice among nations and empires of that day. Solomon was not doing anything differently than what every other King around him would do. But there’s a difference.

The roots of Solomon’s Kingdom were in the story of the Exodus. When Solomon’s people were living in the land of Egypt they were forced into slave labor to work for Pharaoh. God went to great lengths to free them from their slavery and lead them back to Canaan. Now, Solomon builds his Temple to the God who freed his people from slavery, by enslaving others.

As if to add insult to injury, Solomon then has his slaves build a palace for his queen, Pharaoh’s daughter of Egypt, the very nation from whom his people were freed from slavery.

Along my journey I continually encounter individuals who live very religious lives. They never miss a church service. They listen only to Christian music and Christian radio stations, watch only Christian television, read only books written by Christian authors, refuse to darken the door of a pub, associate only with Christians of acceptable repute in the community, and etc. And yet, among these types of squeaky-clean religious types I’ve known I can recall specific individuals who were slum lords, deceptive businessmen, money launderers, bigots, misogynists, and the like.

This morning I’m thinking about Solomon. I’m thinking about the religious individuals I’ve observed and described. I’m thinking about Jesus’ parable. I’m thinking about my own life. Where are the blind spots in my own life? Are there any areas of my life when I’m subjecting others to judgement or burdens from which I, myself, have been freed? Where are the places in my life where it’s obvious to God that I still don’t get what He came to teach me?

Becoming the Evil from Which I’ve Been Delivered

So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again.
Jeremiah 34:10-11 (NIV)

I found today’s chapter in the anthology of the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s messages particularly fascinating. It is a series of messages given during the very time that Jerusalem, the capital city of the ancient nation of Judah, was besieged by the armies of Babylon. Judah’s King Zedekiah had issued a proclamation that all Hebrew slaves (in other words, the people of Judah had enslaved their own people) should be emancipated. After initially abiding by King Z’s emancipation proclamation, the slave owners reversed course, rounded up their former slaves, and returned the slaves to their chains.

In his book exploring the nature of evil, M. Scott Peck describes evil people as “pathologically attached to the status quo of their personalities” while “unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity.” I thought of those descriptors this morning as I read about the Hebrew slave owners who initially choose to appear obedient and upright in following the King’s edict, but then quickly put their own slaves back in shackles and maintained the status quo of the evil of slavery. The Hebrew people, whose ancestors had been freed from slavery in Egypt, had in effect become their Egyptian masters. While maintaining the appearance of being “God’s people” they were unable to see that they had become the very evil from which their own people had been delivered.

This morning in the quiet I’ve been doing a bit of my own gut-check. Somehow I’m sensing that it’s too easy to wag my self-righteous, 21st century fingers at the ancient Hebrew slave owners. Where in my own life do I make effort to keep up appearances of goodness while simultaneously maintaining a destructive status quo in my behaviors and relationships? Ugh.

I may be able to look back and see that have made spiritual progress on this life journey, but I can still look inside, then look ahead, and see how far I have to go. And with that, my spirit whispers an ancient prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Note to my readers:  As much I’d like to think that slavery has been outlawed and eradicated by our enlightened society, reading a few stories from groups such as International Justice Mission (an organization Wendy and I support) are a reminder that the evil of slavery addressed in Jeremiah’s ancient message is very much alive in the world we live in today. One practical way to make a tangible difference for good is to make a donation to IJM’s efforts or any one of many similar organizations. Peace.

Hollywood Moment in Colossae

But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.
Philemon vs. 14

One of the things you learn in the world of theatre, film, and story is that conflict is what makes a story interesting. It’s Friday before 4th of July weekend as I write this, so we’re all being treated by Hollywood to blockbuster conflicts of good and evil in the form of comic book heroes and alien invasions. Fun epic conflicts that feed the adrenal glands while requiring very little of us emotionally. The more personal and human a story’s conflict, the more deeply it affects us.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is an overlooked personal story amidst the grand epic of the Great Story. It’s a deeply personal moment between two men: Philemon and Onesimus. It’s a moment made possible by an unexpected, divinely appointed meeting.

Philemon is a man of means. He’s a respected local businessman in the city of Colossae, where he met Paul and became a follower of Jesus. Philemon became a generous benefactor to the believers in Colossae. He opened his home for them to meet and worship. He was generous in love and deed and greatly respected by Paul.

Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon. At some point in time, Onesimus stole from his master and ran away. Under Roman law, Onesimus was guilty of crimes punishable by death.

The exact details of the historical story are sketchy, but as a story-teller I’d dare to believe that as a runaway slave, Onesimus likely stuck to a life of petty theft to stay alive and on the run. Petty thieves, especially those who are poor runaway slaves, get caught and thrown into prison. As fate would have it, Onesimus is thrown into jail with a religious disturber of the peace named Paul. Paul recognizing the thief as a member of his friend, Philemon’s household, befriends Onesimus. The runaway slave becomes a sincere follower of Jesus.

Paul tells the slave and fledgling follower that while he has repented of his sins and his sins have been forgiven through Jesus sacrifice, he still must make things right with his master. Onesimus the runaway slave must return to his master, Philemon, as a brother in Christ. Paul pens his short letter. Onesimus, upon his release from prison, returns to his master in Colossae, letter in hand.

What a Hollywood moment. What a churning mixture of emotions as slave owner sees thief and runaway slave walking back through his door. What a moment when Philemon reads the letter from Paul and begins to fathom how God has orchestrated this story. What layers of meaning on personal, spiritual, and cultural levels as matters of slavery and human conflict gets intertwined with fate and personal faith. Runaway slave returns as a fellow follower of the faith. I can only imagine Onesimus’ fear mixed with memories of anger and hatred toward to this man who “owned” him. Philemon’s feelings of legal rights, personal betrayal, and desire for justice is now in conflict with his conscience as the word’s of Jesus’ prayer run through his head: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgiven those who sin against us.”

Today I’m reminded that the test of our faith is in our interpersonal conflicts.

 

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Things I Can’t Control and Things I Can

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.
1 Timothy 6:1 (NIV)

It is hard, I believe, to understand with our 21st century experience what daily life was like for those who followed Jesus in the days of Paul and Timothy. I have often heard individuals criticize the fact that God’s Message does not specifically condemn slavery, and those arguments come to mind when reading today’s chapter. I have a lot of historical, cultural, and contextual thoughts about why this is the case. Nevertheless, I will admit that it’s only one of many questions I have about the things God says and the subjects on which He chooses to be silent.

What I take from today’s chapter, however, is a human challenge that is as relevant today as it has ever been. At different waypoints along life’s journey we will all find ourselves in situations we cannot escape and that will not be fair. It could be a situation at work, a family relationship, life tragedy, or a legal obligation.  Sometimes in life we are powerless to change our circumstances.

Paul’s entreaty to those who follow Jesus was to manage those things that we can control in otherwise unmanageable situations. We can choose how we act, how we respond to others, what words we choose to use, how we will think, and the attitudes with which we will approach a situation.

Paul was powerless to change slavery in his day. It would be 1800 years before humanity began to address that issue in earnest and it still plagues our fallen world today. What Paul, and his friends who were slaves, could address was how they lived their lives each day within their given circumstances.

Today I am reminded that I cannot always control my circumstances, but I can control my mind, my tongue, my eyes, my ears, my feet and my hands. What I choose to do with them is what matters.

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