According to the United Nations, up to 40 million people are currently caught up in the modern slave trade industry. It is a multibillion-dollar industry with estimates of up to $35 billion generated annually. Despite being illegal in every nation, slavery still exists in several modern forms – the most common ones being forced labour slavery, forced migrant labour slavery, forced prostitution slavery, forced marriage slavery and child labour slavery.
Our Second Reading today (Philemon 9-10, 12-17) concerns a slave, Onesimus, who had run away from his master, Philemon. (This was a capital crime in the Roman Empire.) The slave joined St Paul and became a Christian under Paul’s guidance. Because Onesimus was a runaway slave, Paul felt obliged to send him back to his master. However, he did so with the covering letter that forms our Second Reading. In the letter, Paul urges Philemon, also a Christian convert of Paul’s, to welcome back Onesimus not as an erring slave but as a ‘brother’. Because Onesimus was a Christian slave, Paul wanted him treated as a brother and not as a possession.
Slavery was accepted then as part of the social order. Paul was not in a position to abolish it or even to see it as we do today – indeed, if he did, it would have been impossible in the ancient world for him to effect any change. It was not until some 1800 years later that Christians began to see slavery as the evil we deem it today.
Nevertheless, slavery still exists in various forms, even here in the UK and other European countries. Gullible people are enticed to come here with the promise of work, only to have their documents seized and forced to work under the threat of violence to them or their families. Women and young girls are brought here from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia and forced into prostitution or sexual slavery. Early or forced marriage slavery affects millions of women and girls all over the world. When families cannot support their children, the daughters are often married off to the males of wealthier, more powerful families. These men are often significantly older than the girls who are forced into serving their husbands, oftentimes in an environment of physical, verbal and sexual abuse.
It is estimated that children comprise about a quarter of slaves today. Most are domestic workers or working in cocoa, cotton or fishing industries. Many are trafficked and sexually exploited. In war-torn countries, children are kidnapped and sold to political parties to be used as child soldiers.
In his various letters in the New Testament St Paul frequently uses the phrase ‘in Christ’. He meant that if you are a baptised member of the Church you are in relationship or union with Chris’. And, he taught, that for all who have this relationship with Christ in the Church there is ‘neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female … all are one in Christ Jesus’. It means for us that whatever our professional, social and sexual differences, once we are members of the Church – or ‘in Christ’ – all of us are equal: not the same but equal in dignity. All are fully children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, equal in God’s eyes and equally deserving of the full respect of each other.
This is the principle that led St Paul to ask Philemon to accept back in Christian love, and not punish, the runaway slave. It’s the principle that eventually inspired Christians 1800 years later to work for the abolition of slavery – but not without considerable cost, especially in the USA where it led to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. And, surely, it also must propel us and all in the Catholic Church to bring about an end to distinctions based on law, sexuality and gender?
Holy Name, Jesmond
8 September 2019