We often forget, perhaps willingly, that slavery was once legal throughout the American colonies, Pennsylvania included. I’m going to read in a few moments from the Journal of John Woolman, who was a Quaker born in New Jersey in 1720. He became one of the earliest and most effective abolitionists. Still, it wasn’t until 1780 that the commonwealth passed a “gradual emancipation” law that declared that children born to enslaved women in were to be considered free. Those held as slaves continued as such until freed by the slaveholder or by death. And slavery was as brutal in the North as in the South. In the mid-eighteenth century a black man was convicted of a crime and executed in Perth Amboy by being burnt alive, with persons of color from all neighboring townships forced to witness the execution.
Looking back on those times, we want to ask how people could have allowed it. We want to think that we would have been the ones who would have stood up and said, “No!” Woolman’s Journal gives an insight into how even somebody who knew, deep down, that the customs and law of the time were wicked could calm and soothe his conscience. As background to this passage, it helps to know that Woolman was a notary who was paid to sign off on transfers of property of all sorts.
“My employer, having a negro woman, sold her, and desired me to write a bill of sale, the man being waiting who bought her. The thing was sudden; and though I felt uneasy at the thoughts of writing an instrument of slavery for one of my fellow-creatures, yet I remembered that I was hired by the year, that it was my master who directed me to do it, and that it was an elderly man, a member of our Society, who bought her; so through weakness I gave way, and wrote it; but at the executing of it I was so afflicted in my mind, that I said before my master and the Friend that I believed slave-keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion. This in some degree abated my uneasiness; yet, as often as I reflected seriously upon it, I thought I should have been clearer if I had desired to be excused from it, as a thing against my conscience; for such it was. Some time after this a young man of our Society spoke to me to write a conveyance of a slave to him, he having lately taken a negro into his house. I told him I was not easy to write it; for though many of our meeting and in other places kept slaves, I still believed the practice was not right, and desired to be excused from the writing. I spoke to him in goodwill; and he told me that keeping slaves was not altogether agreeable to his mind; but that the slave being a gift made to his wife, he had accepted her.”
“I’m only doing my job.” “It could have been worse.” “It wouldn’t last long.” “It was my wife’s decision.” “I needed to keep peace in the house.” “I didn’t want to offend anyone.”
Let’s talk about Jesus. He confronted some of the most entrenched abuses of his own day, practices that had their justifications. Roman coins had the image of Caesar stamped on them: Augustus Caesar, who claimed the title divi filius, “son of a god”. Images and idols could not be carried into the Temple, so moneychangers were needed to prevent that. Likewise, if the Law required animals to be sacrificed, a pilgrim coming from North Africa or Persia couldn’t carry a cage of pigeons that whole way. It made sense to set up a few stalls where they could buy them right there. So far, so good.
But we all know what happens when people bid for the contract and sweeten the deal, right? Kickbacks, exploitation of those who could least afford to be there, artificially high prices, the poor being elbowed out of their place as part of the congregation, the sellers forgetting why they were there in the first place, and who-knows-what-else Jesus saw going on.
“And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all
But you have made it a den of robbers.’”
Yes, there were times that Jesus expressed lenience, as when hungry people plucked grain to eat on the Sabbath, or when a sick man whom he healed took up his bed and walked away with it, again on the Sabbath. But when what was going on destroyed people’s relationship with God or degraded them as human beings, he had no patience.
Jesus emphasized that it is one thing to be stuck without good choices, but it is another to deny that you have choice, or to sell out. When you do that, what you sell is more than you will ever realize.
“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” [Mark 8:34-37]
(Now, I warn you, I’m going to stop preaching and start meddling.)
I’ll start with myself, though. I have to admit that I am where I am because of how unfairly others have been treated. William Penn may have made his treaties with the Indians, but for the most part, this land was not borrowed. A big chunk of the wealth that built our economy came from slave labor. As for myself, specifically, I can point to scholarships that helped me out in seminary that came from the Duke Foundation (as in Duke University), whose money ultimately derived from James Duke’s ability to encourage smoking and sell a lot of cigarettes in China. My education is tied to an increased rate of cancer and emphysema. Do I not, then, owe it to someone to say that I cannot undo the past, but I refuse to repeat injustice in the future? So hear this: “Don’t smoke, don’t vape, don’t chew, don’t juul. Just don’t.”
Jesus’ words also mean that what we think is to our benefit may not be worth anything in the long run, so be prepared to forgo what you consider to be owed to you, because you might lose your soul over it. You may have a legal right to say anything, but if it is hate speech, or even simple gossip, you don’t have any moral right to open your mouth. Maybe people have a legal right to own an assault rifle, but children deserve safe schools more than you deserve whatever warm and fuzzy feeling you get from having an AR-15 in the house. Maybe you don’t own any weapon like that, but do you have stock in a company that sells them? There are places in the world where prostitution is legal, but what does it do to everyone involved in the business? There are spots where you could farm poppies for opium and heroin production. Could you look into the eyes of someone whose child has overdosed? These things give fuller meaning to “making a killing”.
Just be aware that you kill yourself at the same time. And for what? There’s a scene in A Man for All Seasons where Thomas More is on trial for treason that he has not committed, but Henry VIII wants him found guilty. One of More’s former proteges steps forward and gives false testimony against him that everyone in the court recognizes will guarantee conviction and a death sentence. More notices that the witness is wearing a chain and badge identifying him as the new attorney-general for Wales and says to him, “Richard, it availeth a man nothing to sell his soul for the world. But for Wales?”
An English teacher I had in high school told us on the first day of class, “I want you all to know that I can be bribed – but that none of you can afford my price.” I hope nobody else ever could, either, for their sake as well as for hers.