And You Shall Be Free Indeed

During the Feast of Tabernacles a year and a half ago, I found myself visiting the ruins of what had been one of the most extensive Jewish communities in the New World.  It was a place of profound ironies, as Jews who had come to the Netherlands and to various Dutch colonies in search of religious freedom for themselves found themselves as slave owners in a remote riverside community where their wealth and status depended on the labor of human chattel who farmed sugar for their profit, while they piously built synagogues and other structures [1].  Were they aware of the ironies of being a nation who celebrated their freedom from cruel slavery in Africa and yet profiting from the slavery of those who were children (or grandchildren) of Africa?  As it happens, the freedom that came to the slaves of the Dutch world in the 1860’s meant the decline of the Jewish Savannah because it was no longer profitable to grow sugar under the conditions of free labor, and so the community was abandoned to become haunting and obscure ruins today.

It should go without saying that the Night To Be Much Observed is emphatic in the way that it celebrates freedom from slavery.  Indeed, freedom from slavery undergirds a great deal related to the Sabbath in its largest sense.  Deuteronomy 5, for example, gives as a justification for the command to observe the Sabbath rest not only for oneself but for one’s children, one’s servants, and even one’s animals as the way that God delivered Israel from slavery and thus could not compel others into bondage in turn in the way that they suffered under it.  During the annual Sabbaths commanded in Leviticus 23 (and elaborated on elsewhere), generosity was commanded to those who went without, to the point where landowners could not fully exploit their property but had to allow gleaning by the landless poor so that they would have the opportunity to work and eat from the sweat of their labor.  Debts were forgiven during the Sabbath year (which also allowed the land to rest) and during the Jubilee year slaves were to be set free from their bondage and property was to be restored to its original owners so that a reset button could be pressed that would reduce the inequality present within Israelite society.

It is very clear to us that we are to celebrate the freedom of the oppressed from their oppression, and for those who fancy themselves to be just and equitable people, it can be difficult to realize that oppression enslaves all who are involved within it.  The Egyptians as well as the Israelites were enslaved by the oppression that was suffered by the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  For while the Israelites suffered slavery in their bodies, being compelled to build cities of bricks without straw and to labor for the benefit of the Egyptian elites, the Egyptians themselves and their rulers were enslaved by fear of revolt and of the loss of a labor source that they had become accustomed to and could not do without.  When we depend on the oppression that we inflict upon others to make our own lives easier, we are slaves to the oppression that induces us to remain unjust because we cannot bear to face the harm that we have inflicted upon others or to do for ourselves what we would rather compel others to do on our behalf.

The quintessential example of the way that oppression enslaves the oppressors and not only the oppressed is that of the slaveowners of the antebellum South, although the example of the Dutch Jewish slaveowners of the Judensavannah in Suriname ought to remind us that this was a broader situation.  Although slavery was common in the Western world up to the 19th century (and remains common today in civilizations that have a large degree of captive prisoners who are compelled to labor as in China and the United States), the United States was the only major nation of the world where the end of slavery came about purely as the result of force (to which we may add Haiti as the only nation where a successful slave revolt ended slavery, at great cost to the character and well-being of the Hatians themselves).  Among the most important reasons why this was so is because while in larger imperial nations (like Great Britain) or nations with authoritarian governments (like Brazil or Napoleonic France), it was not necessary in most nations for the consent of the slaveowners themselves to be taken into consideration in ending slavery, while in the case of the United States, it was impossible to end slavery peacefully without the consent of the slaveowners themselves, regardless of the justice of the claims of the enslaved themselves.  It was only when the slaveowners themselves placed themselves beyond the protection of the law by rebelling against the threat of their preeminent position and the security of their human chattel that the United States was able, at a great cost in blood and treasure, to free the slaves.  And it was the lack of consent on the part of embittered and defeated Southern whites (as well as the victorious but by no means just Northern whites) to the granting of full equality to the freed slaves that long delayed the implementation of efforts to grant that equality in law and in practice.  It is obvious to see the chains that the slaves themselves were bound by, but less obvious to recognize the way that the South (and the North) were themselves enslaved by the slavery themselves that made them hypocritical to their ideals of freedom and equality, forced to make embarrassing compromises to keep from violent civil disorder, and subjected to living in continual fear that God’s justice would not sleep forever.

To live in fear is to be a slave.  It is not surprising that the most common command in the Bible given is for the listener to be strong and of good courage, to trust in the Eternal and to have faith that He would set things right.  It is also not surprising that regardless of our physical status in this world, the Bible points out reciprocal obligations, so that those who are enslaved in this world are told that they are God’s freemen and are to obey God in sincerity of heart and not merely seeking to look good and to manipulate others.  Likewise, those who are free in this life are told that they are God’s slaves, bound to serve and obey Him, and thus are to be as compassionate to others whom they have power and authority over in the knowledge that they wish for God to be merciful and kind to them in turn.  In such an age as we live in today, it is common for people to be paralyzed by fear that our property is insecure because of the threat of government takings, or that our health and lives are insecure in the face of pandemics, or that our freedoms and liberty are insecure because of the threat of dictatorial government, and so on and so forth.  Fear is one of the few things that unites our frequently divided world, although what it is we fear depends on what aspects of our lives and our existence we consider to be the most vulnerable to unfriendly authorities, be it pro-life Supreme Court justices or unconstitutional usurping of authority by elected officials, or the anarchy and violence of antifa brownshirts.  How is it that we can live without fear even if we do not have the power to control the world in which we live or even to meaningfully influence the situations that we are called upon to cope with?

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Bible, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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