“…For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
but you have received a spirit of adoption.”
I remember the first time I saw a slave. Well, I remember the first time I knew I was looking at a slave. As usual, I was in a far off country and far off the beaten path. There was said to be a secret lake, beautiful beyond words, and that only the locals could find it. On a fine summer day, armed with a fist-full of hand-drawn maps and the idiotic conviction that I would be able to find the lake, I set out on a rented motorbike. I tried to anticipate what I might need on my trip: Sun cream, a hat, water… What I didn’t anticipate is all the things I would find on my way.
There were several small clusters of homes, which had been marked on my maps. In the middle of absolutely nowhere I met a man selling petrol out of empty vodka bottles and I filled up. I saw people working in the fields, some water buffalo lounging in the mud, women selling fish and baskets that they’d made from grass. As the miles rolled past, though, there was less and less to see. Some monks whom I’d been conducting classes for had told me about a cave which would grant enlightenment to all who entered it. I did manage to find the cave and climb up to it. With bloody hands and knees from climbing, I entered the cave and hoped for the best. I am still waiting on the enlightenment, though. They didn’t say how long it would take.
As I came out of the cave, thinking that I must be the only person around for miles, I began to hear a ringing sound like someone hitting a dull bell. There would be two or three “rings” and then it would stop for about a second, then two or three more “rings.” I had still not found the lake but curiosity got the better of me and I made my way over to the sound. The terrain was rocky and steep, and I was stupid for doing it, but it didn’t take too long to locate the sound. It wasn’t a bell at all. It was people breaking up rocks. They took rocks about the size of a fist, placed them into a leather loop with a wooden handle which held the ends of the leather together, and they pounded the rocks with a heavy hammer until they broke into smaller pieces. Then they did it again. And again. And again.
As I approached, they all smiled like they were glad to see me. They seemed so happy to be out there in the scorching heat hammering rocks. It would be easy to believe that they were there willingly. One of the younger workers knew some English and so I asked him about the work. He explained that the small rocks would be put in big bags and transported away. That’s all he knew. He seemed so bright, like the kind of young man who could do anything with his life that I wanted to know what his dreams were. “What do you want to do when you grow-up?” I asked. That’s when he pointed to his shoulder. It had a crude tattoo on it. “I no leave.” He said. I noticed that all the workers were similarly tattooed on their shoulders. “Number,” he said, pointing to the tattoos on his colleagues. “No leave,” he said and he pointed to a man further up on the rocky escarpment. The man had a gun, but he was not standing at attention. He was not even standing up. After all, there was nowhere for the workers to go. They had no money to buy food. And they were tattooed so that anyone who saw them would know that they were not free people. An armed guard was really not necessary.
I had heard that this particular country had a lot of slaves. But reading about slavery and standing next to a slave are not the same thing. The young man showed me where they slept and cooked, he let me try breaking some rocks and it was hard. And then I told them all good bye. One woman stood and she held on to me so tightly I didn’t know what to do. There was nothing I could do except be on my way. I didn’t look back. I somehow found my feet and managed to get down off the rocky area pretty quickly and without breaking anything. I kept looking for the lake, but I never found it.
When I think about the spirit of slavery, I think about these slaves out on the rocks. I think about the little patch of dirt they’d cleared to sleep on, the thin pot they used to cook whatever was allotted to them for that day. I think about those tattoos. “I no leave.” I think about that.
It is estimated that over 40 million men, women and children were in slavery on any given day in 2016. That doesn’t include child soldiers, victims of organ trafficking, or inmates in re-education facilities. That may not be relevant to you at all. Some of you care about it, some of you work on it. If we are honest, though, most of us rarely think about it. It is too hard to walk down the sidewalk knowing that the concrete was made by saves, too heavy a burden to think of how our coffee was harvested, our diamonds mined, or our bananas picked. Slavery is really not that far removed from our everyday reality, but it’s just too much to think about. I get it. I don’t think about it much either.
It matters, though. It matters for at least two reasons that I can think of, but I only want to talk about one, and this one is much closer to home.
It is possible that you know someone who is a slave.
It is possible that you are a slave too.
We like to joke about serious things sometimes, and regarding slavery we will say something like, “Well, he’s no slave to fashion.” Or, we will say, “She is slavishly devoted to her nighttime moisturising routine.” But, that is not real slavery, and that is not what I am talking about.
I am talking about how life entraps us. It could be the mortgage, or student debt, or just the scramble to pay off the monthly bills. The average household in the USA carries nearly 7 thousand dollars in revolving credit card debt. That means that month-on-month, people can’t pay off $7,000. And, that’s not all down to high-living, either. The number one cause of bankruptcy in the USA is medical bills. That’s slavery.
Our dwindling checking accounts only tell part of the story. Many of us are slaves to other things, things which are just as real as forced work: Expectation, ambition, being right. Shame, anger, and anxiety have mown us down and then tied us up in a thousand knots. Our scarred and worry-lined bodies tell the story, our sleepless nights, a multi-billion pharmaceutical industry devoted to anti-depression and anti-anxiety. We are fearful, and worried, and sad, and we can’t seem to break free of it. It’s not for lack of trying, either. In the wilderness of mind we latch onto every shiny solution, embrace false hopes, and try anything that might help… but, it doesn’t help. We are suffering and enslaved. We know it all to well.
In this morning’s reading, the way out is love. In God’s abundance, she has adopted all who will suffer with her. What?! I don’t know about you, but that does not seem like good news to me. I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to understand it, I don’t want to know about it, and I most certainly do not want to do any of it. Paul, the writer, makes a nice case for being children of God, fearless, unencumbered, adopted, heirs! And he says we will be glorified with Christ, and then he adds the kicker, “…if we suffer with him.” But, here’s the thing: Love suffers. If the glory of God is to know God, who IS love, then there is going to be suffering. There is pain before childbirth, there is death before resurrection, night before the dawn, and there is suffering before glory. In John 16, Jesus compared this suffering to the pain of childbirth. It is a pain unto death, but when it is over the mother’s pain is turned to such joy that the memory of the pain fades.
The original readers of Romans would have suffered under Roman rule, and suffered more because they followed The Way of Jesus. Their lives were in danger. They also may have suffered as outsiders of the Jewish community who did not always accept them without full-on conversion. They were neither Roman nor Hebrew. It was a fractured, broken existence. They didn’t fully belong anywhere and may have suffered some of the same anxiety and depression that enslaves us today. But, Paul talks about how they cry, “Abba, Pater…” or, as most Bibles today record it, “Abba, Father.” One is Aramaic, one is Greek. It’s as if the different languages from the Tower of Babel can finally speak as one: We are adopted, together, all of us: Jew and Gentile. And this, the coming together of the world is the glory that will finally heal us.
As we approach the altar table this morning with its gifts of bread and wine, as we gather together the pieces of our memory to recall that we are part of the salvation story, allow all that is present in those gifts to similarly join the brokenness of your own life. It is neither Romans (the government) nor religious officials who can say who you are or where you belong. God has offered the same adoption to all. It may entail suffering, all love does, but you are not it’s slave. That is not your spirit.
For God has not given us a spirit of slavery, but one of power, love and right thinking
2 Timothy 1:7
Linda McMillan is a free-range monotheist currently writing from Saigon, Vietnam where there are estimated to be 421,000 slaves right now.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Romans 8:14… Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
Acts 2:17… I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.
The information on credit card debt came from Nerdwallet. The actual amount of revolving credit card debt for the average household in the USA is $6,741, which is almost 7,000. This article breaks down categories of debt, including revolving credit card debt.