If there’s something I feel the need to be careful preaching about, it’s slavery. My former boss’s wife once said to me, “You’ll say anything.” I looked at her and thought about it for a while and then replied, “You know, I will.” I think it made her and her husband nervous that I seemed to take it as a personal challenge to do just that. Still, though, there are things I don’t feel comfortable talking about, and slavery is at the top of my list.
In Sunday’s epistle lesson (Romans 6:12-23), Paul continues to write about the consequence of sin. It seems that he’s writing to a community that struggles with the same sort of thing with which we still struggle—how to live the lives of the redeemed. Yesterday, we heard that we have died with Christ in our baptism—died to our sin so that we might live. This Sunday, that image switches to slavery. “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?”
Slavery was a part of life in Paul’s day. People who had been sold into slavery worked without compensation. That’s slavery any way you cut it. But the institution of slavery in the ancient near east wasn’t really analogous to the slavery that was propagated in my part of the world. The American south was built on the lives and deaths of men and women and children who were captured in their homeland and shipped across the sea to work for the white men and women who owned them. There was no “present yourself as obedient slaves.” It was simply “do this or die.” The comparison breaks down, but, still, Paul uses slavery as a way of describing our transformation from sin to life.
As a southerner, I don’t feel like we’ve finished talking about slavery. I don’t feel like we’ve fully addressed the wrongs that were perpetrated upon the African slaves and their descendants. Because of that, I don’t feel like I can get up in the pulpit and speak to an almost totally white congregation about how Paul compares our transformation from obedience to law to obedience to grace as a transfer of slavery. Yes, we are slaves to righteousness. Paul says so, and I believe him. But, in my community, slavery evokes an image of such unparalleled power that remains unturned (to use Janet Martin Soskice’sterm) that I feel the need to hold back. Surely it was a powerful metaphor for Paul. Surely he used it to grab his readers’ attention. Surely he chose that metaphor carefully in order to convey the full sense of dominion and obedience that he has in mind. But will that same image work in 21st century Alabama? Or is it still too hot to touch?
And that begs the question…what am I going to do about it?