Deuteronomy 23:15-16 – The Old South, The New South, The Past, The Future…

Posted: March 24, 2017 in 05-Deuteronomy
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Deuteronomy 23:15-16

Shelter to Oppressed Slaves

As you know, I am a Southern boy and am proud of my Southern heritage. I am very proud of the certain aspects of the Southern heritage. Honor. Integrity. Doing the right thing because of honor regardless of the personal cost. Family. Community. Unashamed faith in Jesus Christ. We are a unique people, Southerners are. Even Southern blacks are different from black people from other parts of the country. There is just something unique about us.


I am equally proud too that the South of the 21st century is about economic progress for all as much as anything else. There is a pragmatism about Southern blacks and whites these days. We do not riot and burn down cities here because we are pragmatic people, both black and white. For years and decades, the South lagged behind the rest of the country in economic development. Southerners in the latter quarter of the 20th century and here in the 21st century have learned that it’s the economy, stupid! When the water rises all boats are lifted. Therefore, Southerners are all about working and bringing in jobs so that we do not live in states where there is a large class of people, black or white, dependent on the government. We don’t burn down our towns because it’s bad for business. I was never so proud of being Southern in the 21st century than I was in how the world watched Charleston in the aftermath of the shootings at Emmanuel AME Church. Anywhere outside of the South, riots would have occurred. The reaction in Charleston was to come together and say that one person’s evil was not going to destroy our town. We have fought hard over the last 50-60 years to shed our past in the South. And Charleston, one of the epicenters of the slave trade in a different set of centuries, showed the world that Christian love is the answer to evil. It was, too, as practical as it was theological. Southerners are practical people and the violence and destruction of Henderson, MO drives away people and business. For decades, businesses stayed away from the South because of institutional racism and we don’t want it said of us that business will stay away.


As a 21st century Southerner, I love the things about our past that are pure and honorable, but I am realistic about the scourge that kept people away from South and isolated us for centuries. Some old-school, redneck Southerners (a vanishing breed) want to ignore racial slavery. Although we are generations removed from actual slavery, we are only decades removed from remnant it left behind after slavery was outlawed, institutional racism. We work hard in the South now to ensure that everyone has a fair shot because of our past. Although we in the South do not care for “playing the race card” in situations where it’s just not justified, I do think that the South of today is far different from what it once was. We embrace our past but it is horrid nature of slavery and institutional racism that drives us to be the best place for business and the best place to live now. Some old school Southerners want to ignore the negatives of the past and glorify the past in all its aspects but pragmatic Southerners are driven by the ugliness of our past to make the present South an inviting place to live, work and play. It seems to be working. The South is very business friendly. The South, what was once the poorest area  of the country, is now the fifth largest economy in the world. The majority of the fastest growing cities in the country are in the South. Opportunity is here and it is hard to do that without people perceiving that the South has changed.


The fact remains though that slavery was here. It was ugly and it was wrong. The Bible was even used to justify slavery and institutional racism in a sick and twisted attempt to justify owning and oppressing people of a different race. Everything we do in the South now is to get beyond our past. It was wrong and most people of Southern heritage and intelligence in the 21st century will admit that it is that stain that we try our best to get beyond with each passing decade. Charleston is proof that we love our heritage but we will not let our past define our response to the present and future.  Slavery based solely on the color of someone’s skin was wrong and we know it. No matter how you try to justify the practice as part of our historical past, it was wrong. Using the Bible to justify it was wrong and a sin in and of itself. The fact that the South of today is a magnet for business and people is proof of the change in the South. Yet, it was our dogged determination to cling to our slavery and subsequent institutional racism of the past that kept people away until we admitted it was wrong and changed the society.


The contrast of the South that I know, love and am extremely proud of today and the ugliness that slavery was to the South was what I thought of when I read these two simple verses this morning in Deuteronomy 23:15-16. Let’s read it together now:


15 If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. 16 Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.


Runaway slaves, here in this passage, were to receive asylum and freedom. When slavery leads to oppression and loss of dignity, Israel was to give asylum to such persons. Israel was to treat those who had indentured themselves to others as having the rights of any other human being. Implicit in the fact that a slave in Israel might run away was an indication of the fact that the slaveholder had become abusive of the slave’s rights to dignity and honor as is required to all who are made in the image of God – and that’s all of us.


There is a tendency to look at slavery as something of the past. But it is estimated that there are today over 27 million people in the world who are subject to slavery: forced labor, sex trade, inheritable property, etc. As those who have been redeemed from the slavery of sin, followers of Jesus Christ should be the foremost champions of ending human slavery in the world today. The question arises, though, why does the Bible not speak out strongly against slavery? Why does the Bible, in fact, seem to support the practice of human slavery?


The Bible does not specifically condemn the practice of slavery. It gives instructions on how slaves should be treated (Deuteronomy 15:12-15; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1), but does not outlaw slavery altogether. Many see this as the Bible condoning all forms of slavery. What many fail to understand is that slavery in biblical times was very different from the slavery that was practiced in the past few centuries in many parts of the world. The slavery in the Bible was not based exclusively on race. People were not enslaved because of their nationality or the color of their skin. In Bible times, slavery was based more on economics; it was a matter of social status. People sold themselves as slaves when they could not pay their debts or provide for their families. In New Testament times, sometimes doctors, lawyers, and even politicians were slaves of someone else. Some people actually chose to be slaves so as to have all their needs provided for by their masters.


The slavery of the past few centuries was often based exclusively on skin color and was forced slavery against the person’s will. In the United States, many black people were considered slaves because of their origin on the continent of Africa; many slave owners truly believed black people to be inferior human beings.


Let us be clear. The Bible condemns race-based slavery in that it teaches that all men are created by God and made in His image (Genesis 1:27). At the same time, the Old Testament did allow for economic-based slavery and regulated it. The key issue is that the slavery the Bible allowed for in no way resembled the racial slavery that plagued our world in the past few centuries.


In addition, both the Old and New Testaments condemn the practice of “man-stealing,” which is what happened in Africa in the 19th century. Africans were rounded up by slave-hunters, who sold them to slave-traders, who brought them to the New World to work on plantations and farms. This practice is abhorrent to God. In fact, the penalty for such a crime in the Mosaic Law was death: “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). Similarly, in the New Testament, slave-traders are listed among those who are “ungodly and sinful” and are in the same category as those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, adulterers and perverts, and liars and perjurers (1 Timothy 1:8–10).


Another crucial point is that the purpose of the Bible is to point the way to salvation, not to reform society. The Bible often approaches issues from the inside out. If a person experiences the love, mercy, and grace of God by receiving His salvation, God will reform his soul, changing the way he thinks and acts. A person who has experienced God’s gift of salvation and freedom from the slavery of sin, as God reforms his soul, will realize that enslaving another human being is wrong. He will see, with Paul, that a slave can be “a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 1:16). A person who has truly experienced God’s grace will in turn be gracious towards others. That would be the Bible’s prescription for ending slavery.


The runaway slave here in this passage is also symbolic of the asylum from sin that Jesus Christ provides us. Yes, we have sold ourselves into slavery to Satan through our sins and we will forever be slaves were it not for our ability to run to Jesus Christ and find refuge. Once we find him and run to him, we are no longer slaves to sin and to Satan. We are free in Him. We can lead lives of freedom through Jesus Christ. He cancels the debt that made us slaves to Satan. We are free now to run as free men. We are no longer a slave to fear. We are a child of God.


That too is the thing that I think that I see in the South today. Today, we are a society that is no longer bound by its past history of ugliness. We are now free from the sins of the past. We are living in a new era of freedom and prosperity. Why are people coming to the South in droves now? We had shed our sinful past and now live in a region that is seen as a region of opportunity, a region of growth, a region rejuvenated by its new life by shedding its old one. Yes, there were good things bout the South that we keep and revere but we have shed the ugliness that once was and embrace the power that is the economic engine of the South. Even though we had great qualities about us in the past, the stain was the stain and it prevented us from becoming what we could become.


Isn’t that the idea. Redemption. We remember the sins of our past. They are part of our story. But we are redeemed in Christ. No longer can our past be held against us. We are now free in Christ. We can now flourish when we admit that we are sinners and beg Jesus to give us asylum in Him. In Him, we become a new person, a free person.


Amen and Amen.

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