In the enigmatic and central epistle of the apostle Paul to the Romans there is a poignant and deeply politically incorrect observation about the human condition, namely that we are slaves inevitably to one thing or another. Without a detailed exegesis of the passages under discussion, the insight needed for our purposes, can still clearly be seen. In Romans 6, Paul constructs a dualism through which humanity can be seen, namely that “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:16). What is most interesting is that for Paul, the same person who wrote in his epistle to the Galatians “…do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!” (Galatians 5:1), the alternative to ‘a yoke of slavery’ is not an almost god-like freedom, but rather slavery under a different master. The offence comes in exactly at the point that there can be such a thing as a benevolent master. The concept of the ‘master’ is an inherently oppressive term to minority groups and populations all over the world, whose goal is self-determination regardless of what happens under the reign of the masters. Without assessing the history of slavery throughout the world, current slavery, and so forth, it would seem that for Paul slavery is an inevitable state for humankind, the only question is under which master. Some of the many questions that could be posed to Paul’s binary in Romans are: (i) Why should we accept Paul’s proposition that we are inevitably slaves? Is there not a possibility for actual freedom from all constraints? and (ii) If it is true that we are inevitably slaves, what does this mean for endeavours of enslaved people who wish to be freed from particular constraints? How can an Exodus of any kind be sustained by this mentality?

            With regards to the first question let’s take a quick look at the intense interview between Zane Lowe and Kanye West, who has drawn up the question of a new form of slavery in his song New Slaves.” The song, while having some very strong political overtones, for West, is clearly much deeper as we can see in the excerpt of this interview,*

[Zane Lowe:]
Yeah right on. I mean just talking about another track on here as well. New Slaves which is one of my favorite songs on the record and you know its just as far as beats go its just remarkable, before you even get stuck into the subject matter which is a whole other level. I mean you know you are talking about the materialism, about communist, about corporations and everything else, but at the same time you know there is a blurred line between whether or not you are part of it, whether you are objecting to it or where it stands. I mean just give us some insight into what this song is.

[Kanye West:]
I’m 100% a part of it, I’m 100% in it, and 100% I want to over come it, sometimes I’m the communicator of it, some times I’m the maker of it, some times I’m the consumer of it, I’m in it, I’m in the game. But for me – yeah I say I am a New Slave, you could be a slave to a lot of things.

At this point obviously I’m a slave to my passion; I’m a slave to my mission.

A striking admission with a dash of personal arrogance to give it the feel of a noble endeavour. The way West probably meant it to be heard was “I’m a slave to my passions, I’m an artist tirelessly working, I’m a prolific artist, I’m a really hard worker…etc…” but what it actually signalled was something much more important that even in our financial freedom, even in our political freedom, even in our artistic freedom, we can still be slaves to ourselves. Is this not the ‘secular’ translation of Paul’s notion of being a ‘slave to sin’? Addictions, loss of self-control, individually persistent attachments and dependencies, are all the names of different forms of ‘slavery’. In this sense Marvel’s script writers were entirely correct in the movie The Avengers (Marvel Studios: 2012) not to have the people object to Loki’s suggestion that “It is the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.” Instead of correcting or refuting such a charge, the people in the film simply object to being under the rule of someone like him. What kind of a reflection this objection from the people may serve for analyzing current north American society is interesting all on its own, as ‘slavery’, ‘rule’, and ‘subjugation’ are all extremely historically loaded terms but need to be defined together.

            Loki’s description of the struggle for freedom as ‘a mad scramble…for identity’, is actually parallel by Orlando Patterson’s ground breaking work Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Harvard University Press: 1982) where Patterson describes the state of slavery as essentially ‘social death’. ‘Social death’ while far too nuanced to be discussed in full here, essentially means the loss of any sense of self-identity, and having one’s identity constructed by the power relationships in which one is to be found. For our purposes we will go much beyond than what Patterson intended to argue, and argue instead, that such a definition of slavery would only leave free in the absolute autonomous sense, gods or the men who think they are gods. With the realization that we are human beings embedded in, and being constantly defined by, an outer society and an external reality that is out of our control, we should realize that the dream of absolute autonomy, or an absolute freedom from, to use the language of Isaiah Berlin, is an impossibility. It is with such a humbling admission that our first query posed to Paul’s dualism is answered. With absolute autonomy, even from our own constructed and uncontrollable desires, being an impossibility then, some form of slavery, under the broad definition of ‘social death’, is inevitable.

            With this abstract philosophical conclusion then there is the second important query posed to Paul’s dualism which is: If it is true that we are inevitably slaves, what does this mean for endeavours of enslaved people who wish to be freed from particular constraints? How can an Exodus of any kind be sustained by this mentality? It is here paradoxically, where the Mosaic Exodus narrative needs to be looked at most closely. The most remarkable contrast emerges for contemporary readers of the Exodus narrative, or at least it should, when after one of the most epic liberation-from-slavery narratives of recorded human literature, there should be, almost immediately after the ten commandments that the God who freed them decreed, laws about slavery in Israelite society (Exodus 21). What is stunning is that an entire population that were once enslaved themselves, can possibly propose and continue the institution of slavery! In fact, slavery is the presumed norm throughout Biblical history such as when Boaz, in the Book of Ruth, asks his servant about Ruth, and says, even before knowing her name, “Whose young woman is this?” (Ruth 2:5), that she is a slave is presumed.** How did such an anthology of literature like the Bible, which has as a working assumption the existence of slavery as an institution, ever come to be used as the very same anthology of literature which was to overthrow the legality*** of the institution in Great Britain and elsewhere? Was it that, underneath all the cultural barbarism of the Hebrew Bible and moral cowardice of the New Testament, the Bible was really a book all about equality and freedom? Was it that we ‘pick-and-choose’ what we liked in the Bible and simply ignored the stuff we didn’t like?

            It is argued here, in consistency with our first conclusion, that of the inevitably of our being enslaved due to the impossibility of absolute autonomy, that the Bible became the resource used to overthrow the legality of the institution of slavery in Great Britain and elsewhere because it proposed that human beings were fundamentally not owned by each other, but rather by a different master. The structure of thought embedded throughout much of the New Testament in particular, was not centred on equality, but rather on being enslaved to Christ. Paul most interestingly in his first letter to the Corinthians, in a much disputed passage****, not only argues that slaves should take the opportunity to be manumitted if they have it (7:21), but likewise because God has bought them they are not to “become slaves of men” (7:23). Paul, in other words, argues that the people in his church should not become slaves to other people because they are slaves to God. Radical abolition, or violent overthrow were not the options proposed, but an entirely different tactic to the proclamation of freedom by any means necessary, rather the tactic was to proclaim a different ownership. At this point we may wonder what beneficial advantage proclaiming oneself as a slave to God might mean for political emancipation and exodus, but the advantage is actually quite unique.

            Consider the example of Daenery from the popular HBO show, Game of Thrones. Aside from the troubling aspects of racism and sexism throughout the show+,

Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones

Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones

we can see how her role as slave liberator is going to place her in a precarious position. Not only because the Free Cities will want to restore the slave trade over the slaves that she freed in order to re-establish themselves as slave-masters, but because the freedom of the slaves will be under constant jeopardy. To the mind of a slave-master all the term ‘freedmen’ means is simply ‘slaves who are back on the market’. Daenerys’ emphasis on the voluntary nature of the freed slaves’ service to her, due to their new found freedom, is the most deceptive part of her tactic. Is it really expected for any slave not to respond with thankful service to their liberator? Is her proposition really not ‘You can go back onto the slave-market or you can willingly be my slave, though I will inevitably be cruel at times’? Emancipation from one master will almost inevitably lead into being enslaved by a different master. In the web of complex contingent power dynamics and relationships between people, and in the ‘might-is-right’ mentality of hardcore political realism, the answer for a lasting liberation and emancipation from other human masters cannot depend upon a liberty that must be vigilantly fought for against those who would seek to enslave us and inevitably lost the moment we become enslaved to our violent passions and to our liberators who expect our gratitude. Nor can a lasting liberation and emancipation from other human masters depend upon other human beings who desire to spread ‘equality’, which to the slave-master means simple ‘equal value on the market’. The freedom of humanity from being enslaved by and to each other can only be sustained by God’s uncontested ownership of humanity.

            Daniel Boyarin in his work A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (University of California Press: 1994), writes, “What I wish to struggle for theoretically is a notion of identity in which there are only slaves but no masters, that is, an alternative to the model of self-determination…” (248-249). He preposes a notion of Diaspora as modelled in Jewish experience to replace a model of self-determination, which will inevitably end up in slavery, hierarchy, and enmity. What is proposed here instead, in connection with Loki’s discourse of our ‘struggle for identity’ and the concept of ‘social death’, is that the condition in which a person can be absolutely free from other human beings and their passions, while at the same time not desiring to become slave-masters themselves, is through the recognition of humanity’s universal enslavement to God. Martin Luther, the famous Protestant reformer, put this aspect most elegantly in his work “Concerning Christian Liberty”, when he wrote, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” The society of no masters and only slaves can only be achieved through the recognition of God alone as master, without which we are left to power dynamics between each other, being enslaved by each other and ourselves, and left with the desire to ourselves become slave-masters.

* The transcript of which can be accessed here: http://lybio.net/kanye-west-zane-lowe-interview/entertainment/

**N.T. Wright has an excellent analogy between the way our contemporary society looks at the institution of ancient slavery in light of the value of freedom, and the way that future generations will talk about our transportation systems in light of the value of taking care of our natural environment, accessed here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HTT64AqigM&safe=active

***It is quite important to remember that slavery was legally abolished, and not eradicated as a practice throughout the world, as contemporary forms of slavery only too easily reminded us such as the chain of labour, prostitution rings, etc…

**** A scholarly investigation of which was well conducted in: Harill, J. Albert. The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity (Hermeneutische Unter Zur Theologie). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998.

+ I personally do not watch the show, all the details about the various plots are gathered from informal sources.

Advertisements