The letter to Philemon read today at Mass we rarely visit. But the background of the letter is a strange one and deserves consideration. It is letter that St Paul writes to a Christian named Philemon on behalf of his runaway slave, someone called Onesimus, who is accused of theft. The appeal that Paul makes to Philemon is to treat Onesimus well and to regard him no longer as a slave but as a brother.
The reading raises the thorny subject of slavery and how both the Judeo-Christian tradition deals with slavery and how the Church has dealt with it over the centuries.
The first point to make is that for the most part it was a institution that sat along side both the Jewish-Christian tradition and the Christian Church, as many other things did, and it was unchecked and uncommented upon.
In the Old Testament times people had slaves and in the New Testament times people had slaves. For the most part people said nothing much about it. However there were certain injunctions: in the Old Testament, the law expected slaves to be treated well, not to be beaten, not to be disrespected, and after 6 years to have their freedom returned to them. In the New Testament Jesus has nothing to say about slavery - he doesn’t condemn the practice, has nothing to say about how salves are treated. He does often used the master-slave relationship in his parables; treating it as a reality and says nothing about the immorality of it .
It’s clear that for many of the early Christians the practice does not sit well but these Christians are no reformers. Paul asks that slaves be treated well and as we see with Onesimus, treated like a brother should they be converts. Radical enough in a way. This was to be followed in the centuries by others who also seemed to abhor slavery.
But many Popes, Bishops and religious orders had themselves slaves and for the most part remained silent on the subject. Infact on a number occasions fugitive slaves were condemned beacuse they had escaped and were even barred from the sacraments.
Down through the centuries voices however, were raised on behalf of the freedom of slaves -Augustine, John Chrsostom, to name two major figures. Bartolmeo De Las Casas, a Dominican friar, addressed the Emperor, Charles V, and appealed that the conquered peoples of the New World should not be enslaved. By the 17th 18th Century certain Popes added their voices to a growing movement for the liberation of slaves and an end to the trade of human slaves. But these appeals very often went unheeded. Its only in 19th century that legislation is passed prohibiting slavery in different countries.
Human slavery still exists today - the United Nations has recognised it in child slavery, in forced prostitution, forced labour and debt bondage. There are recognised to be 30 million slaves in the world. Mauritania and Haiti are amongst the highest percentage, India is seen to have 14 million people in slavery.
Because of the connected nature of the world, slavery is often everywhere and we don’t realise it is there. Cotton producers, gold miners, iron workers, farmers, fisherman.
Slavery is bigger than it has every been in the history off the world. People are still in bondage. People are still in chains.
Slavery is morally abhorrent for different reasons. Coercion, racism, subjugation, violence and oppression are its tools. It takes ownership of people that steals freedom, their human rights, their ability to make decisions in their life.
We could be resting on our laurels, we could be sleep walking in the world today. We think slavery is a thing of the past but maybe it is a thing that is here with us. It could be an evil still walking in our lands, unseen, unchecked and unchallenged. How terrible a thing that would be. We know that children go to bed hungry. We know that families walk miles to get water. We know that towns are in danger from bombs landing on them. But the fact that slavery could be invisible in our world, unseen, unnoticed and unchallenged in our time would be a terrible thing. The task then would be urgent. To see where slavery is and to help to eradicate it immediately.