Thursday, June 26, 2014

Political Correctness, the Slave Metaphor and New Testament Truth

Mary C. Curtis at the Washington Post is not a fan of politicians invoking the “slave” metaphor to get attention:
“There are many ways to make a coherent, urgent political point without recalling the rope and the whip, the rapes and murders. Slavery, part of our shared American history, is not just a word … To use past anguish as present-day metaphor trivializes evil and shows disrespect to those who endured.”
But, to be fair, hyperbole is a pretty common device.

We resort to it easily when we’re frustrated. If overstating our case a little (or even a lot) is a sin, then nobody is guilt free. Political right, political left and everywhere else on the spectrum, we all do it. If I were to go through all of Mary Curtis’ opinion pieces at the Post, I’d almost surely find numerous instances of language at which someone somewhere would bridle.

I mean, how many times did poor old George Bush get compared to Hitler? How many times has the word ‘holocaust’ been ineptly and offensively used to make a point? It’s the nature of rhetoric. I’m inclined to let it slide myself, even if I occasionally wince when I hear it or consider such comparisons a bit of a stretch.

The Slave Metaphor in the New Testament

But there IS at least one place where slavery is employed as a metaphor without the least bit of straining, stretching or misappropriation, and that would be in the New Testament. I don’t know if Ms Curtis would find this particular comparison offensive or not, but I feel fairly confident in embracing language used by the Lord himself:
“Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34)
Actually, they took offence at the time the Lord said it too. Apparently the PC crowd have had their adherents for longer than we think.

The Lord introduced the statement by saying “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The Pharisees jumped all over this, replying “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

Well, I guess if you don’t count the 400 years Israel was enslaved in Egypt, give or take, the Assyrian captivity, the Babylonian captivity and Israel’s ongoing servitude to Caesar and Rome, the Pharisees’ statement was perfectly true.

Okay, it was complete rubbish. Talk about short memories: Israel was quite literally enslaved throughout much of its history as a nation.

Sin is Slavery

But the Lord wasn’t talking about freedom from forced labour, oppression and abuse. He was, as always, concerned about something worse.

Those who practice sin are enslaved to it.

Of course there are plenty of people who don’t see it that way; they may not have noticed that they are repeat offenders in any area of life at all. Others concede that employing the word ‘slavery’ to describe things like alcohol abuse, drug addiction or making your living as a prostitute is not entirely inapt, but would be reluctant to refer to less obviously sinful habits that way.

The words translated “slave” in Scripture cover a lot of territory. Some slaves endured the abusive behavior of Egyptian slavemasters, who exhausted Israel with forced labour, beatings and poor conditions. But others were more like household administrators with servants of their own, and were as responsible and well-treated as it was possible for an employee to be. And there was probably every sort of experience in between.

Sometimes slavery wasn’t all that obvious — unless the slave tried to leave. Which was when the “non-optional” aspect became evident.

Sin is like that too. The “slavery” inherent in some sins is blatant, while the enslaving aspect of others is not obvious. But the person who has tried to shake a habit and failed over and over again recognizes the truth. If you’re not a believer you may tell yourself “I could stop this any time” (whether you’re thinking of the next cigarette, of a tendency to respond too aggressively, of that one drink too many, of screaming at your kids or of any other habit that you — or possibly only those close to you — may consider undesirable). And maybe you can manage it ... for a while. But if you’re the least bit self-aware, I suspect you’ll find that whatever need drove the first habit comes out in some new way or re-asserts itself at some point.

Jesus talked about what happens when someone tries to clean up their act without addressing the underlying cause:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26)
The person to whom the Lord is really speaking is the man or woman who recognizes they need help and is looking for more than a band-aid solution. Trying to treat the symptoms of sin without addressing the root of the problem is bound to fail eventually.

Something else is needed.

Paul’s Solution

In Romans 6, the apostle Paul talks about slavery as being inevitable in one sense. He says, “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?” and “… having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness”.

From that perspective, all of us are slaves whether we recognize it or not. But obedience, unlike sin, is a pretty wonderful master, since it leads to righteousness instead of death.

Paul says the key to the change of masters is the death and resurrection of Christ:
“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” (Romans 6:7)
So when Paul tells believers that as a result of being set free from sin we should not present ourselves “… to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life”, he is describing a condition that was once impossible, but for the Christian has now become perfectly natural.

Of course we can still CHOOSE to present ourselves to sin, but not because we’re “slaves”. When we sin, we do so as free men and women making a conscious choice. And it is not a choice that a real believer will make easily or often.

The Lord’s Solution

If Paul’s letter to Rome gives us the means by which God accomplished the believer’s release from slavery, the Lord’s words in John’s gospel give us the key to experiencing that freedom on a daily basis.

He says “abide in me” and “you will know the truth”.

He didn’t say “abide at the synagogue”, or “abide at the temple”, even though some sincere believers did. But it’s not about religion or keeping rules. Legalism can become a form of slavery too.

He didn’t even say “abide in the word of God” or the equivalent, though Bible reading is never a bad thing. But as the two disciples on the Emmaus road showed, you can know a lot about Scripture and still miss the point. Until the Lord “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself”. 

He said “abide in ME”. It’s about occupying yourself with Christ. It means learning to see things his way, reacting to things as he would, feeling the sympathies and loyalties he feels, setting the priorities in our lives that he set in his. These things are there to be found in the Bible, but they are treasures not instantly obvious unless you prize them and are determined to seek them out wherever they may be found.

It’s all about him. That’s when we know the truth and the truth makes us really and finally free in a way even more important than physical freedom.

Is that politically correct? Your mileage may vary. But that’s true freedom.

With or without the approval of the Washington Post.

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