“Modern Day Slavery”

A Sermon by The Rev’d Wendy Morecroft

Psalm 1, Jeremiah 15:15-21, Colossians 3:22-4:9

May my utterances be precious and not worthless, serving as your mouthpiece O Lord. Jeremiah 15:19

Tonight’s Epistle reading about slaves, coincides with the forthcoming Freedom Sunday on 22 September.

The slaves and masters to whom Paul is writing in Colossae, were all members of the body of Christ. According to The New International Greek Testament Commentary, they would have had a similar working relationship to that of the servants and masters of a Victorian household.[1] I instantly thought of the TV Drama Series Downton Abbey. And then I wondered why is it, that from China to Canada this very English series is so incredibly popular? Kristie Brewer, writing for High50.com in 2014 said that “While the British public has long had a love affair with costume drama – not to mention Dame Maggie Smith – the rest of the world has also taken the show to its bosom…In 2013, the exploits of the aristocratic Crawley family were watched by an estimated global audience of 120 million.”[2]

Writing about the show’s success for Vulture.com in March 2016, Jen Chaney suggested that the show invited us to empathise with the Crawley’s and to the same degree with the working-class characters who toiled away downstairs. “If anything, Downton Abbey enabled us to feel better about the 21st century’s increasingly wide gap between rich and poor, by watching how symbiotically rich and poor co-existed under one roof. With occasional exceptions, the series handled early 20th-centruy British society with the gentlest of white-glove hands, making the working conditions for everyone at Downton challenging, but not as gruelling or demeaning to the degree they probably were for many cooks, butlers, and lady’s maids who lived and worked at that time.”[3]

In the first 6 verses of tonight’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he focusses his instruction much more to the slaves, than to the masters in the church. Paul tells the slaves “obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves to it as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.” Paul’s only instruction to the masters to treat their slaves “justly and fairly”. The NIGTC Commentary rationalises the greater emphasis as likely because there were many more slaves than masters, and also because those masters who were abusing their slaves, may not have been members of the church.

The Christian slaves “who wanted as much freedom as possible …to pursue a Christian calling as members of the church, were wise to carry out their responsibilities as slaves with all diligence.” They were powerless to change their social situation and so “a pragmatic quietism was the most effective means of gaining room enough to develop the quality of personal relationships, which would establish and build up the churches.”[4]

Paul is urging the slaves not to perform their tasks in order to be seen to be doing the right thing, but to work with sincerity of heart. Such sincerity “reflects the emphasis of Jewish wisdom that, that is the way to seek God and live before him.” The alternative was to work without motivation and to find drudgery in everyday with resentment and bitterness. Putting one’s heart and soul into one’s work was to align one’s self with the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:5 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and all your might.”[5]

As Canon Jenny said in her sermon this morning, “notice the love between the lines”. Paul is offering the slaves who were being harshly treated, a way to endure their oppression. Not only this, these slaves had no hope of receiving an earthly inheritance under Roman law, but Paul assures them of their heavenly inheritance.

We may wonder what this has to do with us today, except that we become masters every time we buy a product or a service. How we might treat those working in retail shops and restaurants, for example, is worthy of our scrutiny. Paul reminds us to “treat our slaves, (those who serve us) justly and fairly.”

What about the people we can’t see? Guardian journalist Ben Doherty reported from the Global Slavery Index in his July 2018 article, that “Australia imports nearly U$12bn worth of goods at risk of being made using slavery each year, including more than $6bn in computer products and $4bn in garments from China, as well as fish, cocoa and even human organs from around the world. [He claimed that] the estimated number of slaves in Australia has more than trebled from 4,300 to 15,000 [and that our] slave-like practices are most common in the hospitality, construction, agriculture and sex industries, but also occur in private homes and within families.” Doherty cited the “Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index 2018 report [which] estimates there are 40.3 million people across the world living in modern slavery – 24.9 million in forced work and 15.4 million in forced marriages. It also estimates that 71% of the world’s enslaved, are women and girls.”[6]

I was somewhat shamed a couple of years ago when I gifted a friend a lovely dress and boasted that it only cost $39.00. She promptly introduced me to the ethicalclothingaustralia.org.au website. I had never heard of Ethical Clothing. I was shamed again last year by my son, who said he refuses to buy my particular brand of smart phone based on the workplace practices of the company that produces them.

Writing for Government News on 11 April 2019, Georgia Clark reported some good news that “Australia last December became the second country in the world to enact anti-slavery laws, which from June 2020 will require companies with a revenue of $100 million, to report annually on what they are doing to reduce the risk of modern slavery in supply chains.” The article also says that “Australia’s growing migrant population is particularly vulnerable, especially those in the agricultural and financial services sectors.”[7]

However, we decide what is “fair and right” when we buy goods and services, as those who are taught in the second commandment, to love one another as ourselves, let’s raise awareness to the plight of modern-day slaves. Let’s use our purchasing decisions to do what we can to help them.

[1] James D.G. Dunn, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 252

[2] http://www.high50.com/culture/downton-abbey-why-its-a-global-hit

[3] https://www.vulture.com/2016/03/downton-abbey-why-it-mattered.html

[4] James D.G. Dunn, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, Colossians 3:22-25

[5] James D.G. Dunn, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, Colossians 3:22-25

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/20/australia-imports-12bn-worth-of-goods-at-risk-of-being-made-by-slaves-report

[7] https://www.governmentnews.com.au/un-praises-australian-anti-slavery-laws/