‘A person is a slave to whatever masters him’ 2 Peter 2v19
The big personal question in daring to confront the epicentre of the historic slave trade turns out to be: ‘Actually… how free am I?’ That might seem facile when we are talking about the mass captivity of thousands of back Africans, imposed deportation and forced labour, lives and history altered forever by the action of heartless, powerful white men with ships, weapons and chains. Surely power gives freedom and wealth allows all sorts of choices of which poverty cannot even dream? Yes, on one level – the external, material one.
Yet if outward actions are coming from an inner source – if behaviour starts with decisions made in the secret place of the hearts of men – there was and is something deeper at work behind all this, a whole way of thinking and being. Perhaps the people who drove the massive engine of the slave trade were as much ‘captives’ as those they enslaved and in some ways – rather insidious ways that harden the heart and shut down the spirit – even more-so!
What use is a philosophical discussion when we are talking about the abuse of humanity on a massive scale? Yet I find all I have to offer in the face of this horror – and the inescapable sense of shame that follows when we realise how complicit, how blind, how complacent our nations remained for so long in what was happening – is my own experience of what true freedom is. I don’t mean materially, but in the ways I really am free to choose how I live and what I do and the feelings of hope and possibility I carry.
It seems to me, standing like a small child – with very short hair! – in front of a great black tsunami of evil, that the only way to face this overbearing spirit of captivity – to deny it any foothold in me and to refuse to be fearful or driven by it – is to both take refuge in this precious inner freedom and to palpably live it out. That is why I have had my head shaved, almost as an act of defiance – a statement of both vulnerability and identification but also bare-headed insolence and courage! This is my alignment with “the truth that sets you free” that Jesus spoke of (John 10:10) that He Himself demonstrated when He stood before Pilate and refused to defend Himself except to say, in effect, ‘You are not doing anything to me that God hasn’t permitted”.
We know that many of the black slaves were able to hold onto their inner freedom – just think of the negro spirituals that grew out of that era. How strange that those who were the most impoverished had the bigger spirits and the slave drivers were actually the ones being driven by their lust for wealth. Riches are as much of a snare as poverty – like two sides of the same coin. This picture from the time reminds us that the African chieftains were drawn by the same greed and desire in selling their people to the whites.
I have been thinking, in fact, that when Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6v24) He didn’t actually give a third option of being neutral or serving neither! In other places He said “Those who are not against Me are for Me” as well as “If you are not for Me you are against Me”. Again, it’s clearly one side or the other – but there is no sitting on the fence! We like to think we can be disinterested and uncommitted, but apparently this is not an option that is available. Whose side are we on – Capitalism or Love?
These are root issues – the underlying attitudes and beliefs that lead to events. It is of course too late to undo what was done and therefore a moot point to make, but in revisiting the history it is surely part of our responsibility to ensure that none of those roots remain in us now – or we will undo what we set out to do before even starting!