A Word From Saint Patrick (on slavery)

It would be comfortable to think of slavery as something belonging to the ancient world of Greece or Rome. But of course such comfort would be illusionary.

The global slavery Index says this

An estimated 40.3 million men, women, and children were victims of modern slavery on any given day in 2016. Of these, 24.9 million people were in forced labour and 15.4 million people were living in a forced marriage. Women and girls are vastly over-represented, making up 71 percent of victims. Modern slavery is most prevalent in Africa, followed by the Asia and the Pacific region.

Although these are the most reliable estimates of modern slavery to date, we know they are conservative as significant gaps in data remain. The current Global Estimates do not cover all forms of modern slavery; for example, organ trafficking, child soldiers, or child marriage that could also constitute forced marriage are not able to be adequately measured at this time. Further, at a broad regional level there is high confidence in the estimates in all but one of the five regions. Estimates of modern slavery in the Arab States are affected by substantial gaps in the available data. Given this is a region that hosts 17.6 million migrant workers, representing more than one-tenth of all migrant workers in the world and one in three workers in the Arab States, and one in which forced marriage is reportedly widespread, the current estimate is undoubtedly a significant underestimate.

On those last few sentences about the Arab States see this related post.

Which brings us to Saint Patrick’s remarkable, courageous and still relevant words against the great moral wrong of slavery in his Letter to Coroticus. He was a soldier whose men had kidnapped Christians from Ireland. His crimes and those of his men are described In Patrick’s words

I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death, allies of the apostate Scots and Picts. They are blood-stained: blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ …

… the evil-minded Coroticus. He is far from the love of God, who betrays Christians into the hands of Scots and Picts.

… The newly baptised and anointed were dressed in white robes; the anointing was still to be seen clearly on their foreheads when they were cruelly slain and sacrificed by the sword of the ones I referred to above.

… father-slayers, brother-slayers, they are savage wolves devouring the people of God as they would bread for food

… Riches, says Scripture, which a person gathers unjustly, will be vomited out of that person’s stomach … And: ‘What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and yet suffer the loss of his or her soul?

Avarice is a deadly crime … How much more guilty is the one who stained his hands in the blood of the children of God, who God only lately acquired in the most distant parts of the earth through the encouragement of one as unimportant as I am!

… They have filled their homes with what they stole from dead Christians; they live on what they plundered. These wretched people don’t realise that they offer deadly poison as food to their friends and children.

You [soldiers of Coroticus] … kill them, and sell them to foreign peoples who have no knowledge of God. You hand over the members of Christ as it were to a brothel

… those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom

Patrick’s letter brims over with tears of grief. He was a pastor who deeply loved his flock.

Patrick’s stance against the evils of slavery is founded on his Christian faith. If all men and women are made in the image of God, then no person has a right to enslave another. Life is a gift from God, not a product to be used for personal or financial gain.

That stance was not just detached sermonising. He and his flock were in personal danger. He had no fear of confronting evil. At the end of his letter he says this about his letter:

let it be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself. If this takes place, God may inspire them to come back to their right senses before God.

In his love for the vulnerable, in his fearless confrontation of the evils of slavery, in his diagnosis of slavery as greed, in his theological revulsion against using a fellow human being as a tool to be stolen, sold or mistreated, and in his personal courage to say what needed to be said, Patrick’s is a voice that continues to speak powerfully to one of the great moral wrongs of the 21st century world.

Golf and Slavery: an unholy alliance

Two images collided in a Sunday afternoon browse of the net.

One was of the closing moments of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship from the Abu Dhabi Golf Club in the United Arab Emirates. As a Holywood man I always hope Rory is going to win and he was leading into the last round. It wasn’t to be this time and Tyrell Hatton took home the first prize of over €1 million and Rory had to make to with third and €407, 158.14.

The other image was from Aeon Magazine and an article called ‘Gulf Slave Society’ written by Bernard Freamon, adjunct professor at New York School of Law and author of the book Possessed by the Right Hand: The Problem of Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Cultures.

Freamon’s argument is compelling, sobering and unsurprising. I’m not going to do it justice in what is necessarily a brief summary. Do read the essay for yourself. Here are some salient points:

  • Dubai and Abu Dabhi are two of six modern gulf city states, constructed on the back of unimaginable wealth generated by oil and gas and global financial capital. (The others are Kuwait City; Doha in Qatar where the 2022 football world cup is to be held; Manama in Bahrain; and Dammam in Saudi Arabia).
  • Abu Dhabi has 420,000 citizens, who ‘sit on one tenth of the planet’s oil’, are worth about $17 million each on average and have $1 trillion invested globally
  • Each of these 6 gulf states are an example of a ‘genuine slave society’
  • A ‘genuine slave society’ is one that depends on slaves – core functions of its economy and social fabric would not work without slavery
  • In the UAE migrant workers make up 90% of the population. They have very few rights, work in extremely dangerous conditions and are housed in ‘squalid dormitories’ akin to work camps
  • Passports are confiscated. All waking hours are spent working or being shipped to work
  • Domestic female migrant workers face similarly awful conditions. They are essentially property of their employers (the kafala or sponsorship system requires a worker to have their employers’ permission to leave or travel). They are underpaid, or not paid at all, have no access to health care and are frequently subject to sexual exploitation
  • Pretty well all such workers are brown skinned or darker – there is a systemic race issue at the heart of the gulf slave states’ economies
  • Such states, Freamon argues have profound parallels with ancient Greek city-states. The city dominates and the slaves are essential to make it function. To be a ‘genuine slave society:
    • slaves must contribute more than 20% of the population
    • slaves must be essential to the production of economic surpluses for the elites
    • slavery must be a central cultural and economic institution
  • In slave states the slaves will be ‘outsiders’ and considered inferior. Race and ethnicity mark out the lower status of slaves
  • Slavery depends on force and the use of or threat of violence. Freamon argues that both the race / ethnic markers and the role of violence are present in the Persian Gulf societies.
  • Yes, the migrant workers do not have all contacts cut off from their homelands and families but Freamon concludes this is not enough to overturn the overwhelming evidence that these 6 gulf city states are built on slavery

Freamon concludes

If there is to be true abolition in the Persian Gulf, all of the markers of slavery that I have identified, particularly the racialisation of labor and rampant worker abuse and exploitation, must be eliminated.

There are tiny steps beginning to be made but they are only scratching at the surface. Freamon is active in setting up a website Ijmāʿ on Slavery that is seeking to be a catalyst of reform within Islam – for this is an Islamic problem. Racism is not only white on black. Slavery should in theory be illegal under Islamic law.

Golf and Slavery

If Freamon is right – and there is little reason to doubt what he says – the actual courses they play and the opulence which golfers of the European Tour enjoy every time they visit Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are built on slavery.

The money which funds the European Tour’s season long Race to Dubai is tainted with slavery.

Indeed the strategic shift from Europe to the Middle East in the schedule and funding of the European Tour is all due to the attractive power of gulf states money. Quite simply the money on offer from UAE is unmatched anywhere else in Europe. The US Tour has enormous wealth, it doesn’t need Gulf money. The European Tour has fallen significantly behind the US Tour in pulling power. It needs all the money it can get – and seems to be willing to pay a high price.

Next week the Tour stays in UAE and moves to Dubai for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. The week after that it moves to King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia for the Saudi International powered by Softbank Investment Advisers.

The first tour event in Saudi Arabia was controversial, scheduled at it was during the political fallout of the abduction, murder and disposal of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi in late 2018. Rory did not play but a whole host of top-ranked golfers from the US and Europe had no problem turning up.

Tour organisers, sponsors, players, TV rights and a host of other interests all have a common motive in not asking any questions about the morality of hosting and playing major international sporting events in slave states.

This is fantastically hypocritical.

Internationally golf tours and sponsors are desperate to promote inclusion and support anti-racist programmes. But that principled push for inclusion, equality and anti-racism seems to be at best selective – it does not seem to reach brown-skinned people from Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, East Africa and elsewhere.

To be morally consistent, the European Tour – and its players – should refuse to host and play in sporting events in slave societies. Yes they depend on Gulf money, but it works both ways. Major international sporting events bring immense credibility and prestige to those slave states. Tour organisers and world famous players like Rory have real power to effect change that will not happen from within.

I pray to see the day when a famous golfer stands up and says ‘No’ to this unholy alliance between golf and slavery.

Thinking about the colour of my skin

This is a reflection I wrote for the PS column of Contemporary Christianity

It is also published on Jesus Creed on Christianity Today’s website.

Galatians 3:28 is one of the better-known verses in the Bible: 

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

Christians, rightly, rejoice at its liberating truth – all joined ‘in Christ’ through faith are ‘one’. This unity transcends the great religious, socio-economic and gender divisions of the ancient world. The implications are astounding – in God’s eyes all human beings are of equal value and dignity regardless of religion, ethnicity, net-worth, social standing, intelligence, physical disability, education, gender, age, or skin colour.

However, it’s one thing to affirm an inclusive principle, it’s quite another to put it into practice. From its earliest days, a challenge for the church has been to live up to its calling to be a radically inclusive community in contrast to systemic inequalities that define the world.

At this point Wilberforce is often referenced (rightly) as an inspiring example of Galatians 3:28 in action – taking on, and defeating, the economic and political might of the slave trade. His dogged determination, and eventual success, is a story worth telling. 

But I wonder if it also rather too conveniently air-brushes the darker history of Christian rejection of the radical social and political implications of Galatians 3:28. 

Perhaps if you are reading this you might be like me, a Christian with roots in Northern Ireland evangelical Protestantism. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about theology and the intersections between evangelical identity, faith and politics. I’ve also thought a lot about gender, particularly how innumerable gifted women have experienced marginalisation within the church and the inbuilt privilege and assumptions I have as a man. For centuries the dominant paradigm was that women were simply inferior to men. If we had space, we could quote Chrysostom, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Hodge and many others. More recently, modern ‘complementarians’ shy away from the inferiority argument, instead making the historically novel, and logically questionable, claim that women are equal in status and gifting with men and yet selected leadership roles in church and family are open only to men.

But why is it, I ask myself, that it took the death of George Floyd for me, in my 50s, to even begin seriously to think about the colour of my skin?  

Over the last few weeks I’ve begun to read up on slavery and the bloody history of white colonialism in Africa (too many atrocities to name but we could start with Britain in multiple places, German genocide in Namibia and millions dying in the Congo under Belgian rule). And then there are the tens of millions more men, woman and children kidnapped and transported to lives of unimaginable brutality in a global slave trade designed to prop up the developing economies of the colonial powers. And this doesn’t even include the violent suppression, and local exterminations, of indigenous populations in places like Australia and the United States. To this you can add Apartheid in South Africa and the appalling more recent history of deliberate systematised racism in America post-Lincoln (summarised in this excellent video by Phil Vischer of Veggie Tales fame). 

And white Christianity has been, and is, deeply implicated in this toxic history. Yes, that’s a sweeping statement but one, I think, that is impossible to deny. White supremacism isn’t a delusion of the radical left, it’s a defining assumption of modern Western history. Underneath it is an ability of those claiming the name of Christ to detach political and economic activity from what they profess to believe. In other words, to read the words of Galatians 3:28 but leave their radical implications conveniently behind in favour of power and money.  

Edward Colston. Wikipedia

Take Edward Colston, so recently thrown into Bristol harbour (well his statue at any rate). A slave trader who made vast profit from human lives, but also a churchman and philanthropist, well known for his generosity to good causes (hence his statue). 

So is this PS just an exercise in ‘white guilt’? After all, you may be thinking, ‘What has all this got to do with me? I’m not responsible for the past. Nor do I live in the racially segregated USA.’ 

Well, let me suggest that recent events are challenging that sort of detachment, wherever you live. If you are a white follower of Jesus and haven’t thought about what that means as a Christian, then this is a good time to start. Indeed, the very problem with ‘whiteness’ is that it is taken to be the ‘norm’ – and we don’t think about what seems to be normal (which is why I’d never thought seriously about being white until now). 

One Christian scholar challenging these sorts of assumptions is Professor David Horrell who has studied how Galatians 3:28 has been applied by white Western Bible interpreters. He concludes that 

“… though it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge it, is not our racialised identity one significant part of that complex intersection of facets of identity to which we should – indeed must – pay attention? …  Assuming that our interpretation is uncontextualised – unmarked, unlocated, unraced – is, I would suggest, no longer a feasible option.” 

In other words, if you are a Christian, you are a Christian first and a white person second. It is as Christians we are called to reflect theologically and critically on the intersections of whiteness, power and injustice. This means beginning to appreciate that our reading of history, theology, the Bible and Christian identity is deeply shaped by our whiteness. And then to put those assumptions under the searchlight of texts like Galatians 3:28.

In doing so we will be better placed to begin to seek out, befriend and listen to non-white voices and perspectives. This is especially needed in such an ethnically monochrome society like Northern Ireland. Maybe, just maybe, as we do so we will begin to understand, and to feel, what it means in day-to-day experience to be non-white within a ‘default’ white culture. And once we begin to see things through non-white eyes, perhaps, just perhaps, we will find ourselves called to act against systemic inequality in the church and wider society.

Patrick – an ancient voice against slavery

Recent figures estimate that there are about 46 million slaves in the world today. The Global Slavery Index says that slavery exists in 167 countries. India has the highest number of slaves and North Korea the highest percentage of slaves per capita.

One oft overlooked aspect of St Patrick’s legacy is that he was one of the very first voices of the post-biblical Christian world protesting against slavery. (It would be an interesting piece of research to trace the development of Christian opposition to slavery. I’m sure it exists).

slaveryHis Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus can be read at the Irish Academy website. In it, Patrick tells the story of how the soldiers has brutally attacked a group of new baptised Christians, killing many and kidnapping others to sell on to ‘apostate Scots and Picts.’

Patrick had a letter delivered to the soldiers, asking for the return of the prisoners. The soldiers scoffed at his request.

Several things stand out from Patrick’s letter.

First, rather than stand idly by, he gets involved. He does so out a moral obligation to stand up for those with whom he is ministering.

I have a part with those whom God called and destined to preach the gospel, even in persecutions which are no small matter, to the very ends of the earth. This is despite the malice of the Enemy through the tyranny of Coroticus, who respects neither God, nor his priests

He is willing to confront Coroticus and asks for help from others in doing so.

I ask insistently whatever servant of God is courageous enough to be a bearer of these messages, that it in no way be withdrawn or hidden from any person. Quite the opposite – let it be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself.

How might Patrick’s actions be a challenge for us today to get involved for slaves who cannot act for themselves?  Organisations like IJM and Tearfund act on the behalf of slaves. Maybe the best way we can celebrate St Patrick’s day is to give to their work.

Second, as a pastor and a leader he grieves with those impacted by violence and injustice.

That is why I will cry aloud with sadness and grief: O my fairest and most loving brothers and sisters whom I begot without number in Christ, what am I to do for you?… I grieve for you who are so very dear to me.

How does Patrick’s compassion for victims speak to us today?

Third, he begins to articulate a theological critique of slavery. It takes this form:

  • No-one has a right to enslave another human being for whom Christ “died and was crucified.”
  • It matters how wealth is made.

    Riches, says Scripture, which a person gathers unjustly, will be vomited out of that person’s stomach.

  • God will judge those who act unjustly. Violence will reap its reward

So where will Coroticus and his villainous rebels against Christ find themselves – those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment of time. Just as cloud of smoke is blown away by the wind, that is how deceitful sinners will perish from the face of the Lord.

  • In contrast, Christians can have hope even beyond brutal injustice and death.

This unspeakably horrifying crime has been carried out. But, thanks to God, you who are baptised believers have moved on from this world to paradise. I see you clearly: you have begun your journey to where there is no night, nor sorrow, nor death, any more.Rather, you leap for joy, like calves set free from chains, and you tread down the wicked, and they will be like ashes under your feet.

And, remarkably, but in authentic Jesus fashion, he even holds out the offer of forgiveness to Coroticus and his men if they repent and release the captives. It seems as if they were at least nominally Christian. God’s grace is available to all, but it needs a response of faith and a turning to a new life.

However late it may be, may they repent of acting so wrongly, the murder of the brethren of the Lord, and set free the baptised women prisoners whom they previously seized. So may they deserve to live for God, and be made whole here and in eternity.

This is a remarkably rich Christian response to injustice and slavery within a short letter from the 5th Century. Part of this may be because Patrick was, of course, a slave himself. He knew first hand what it was to be torn away from his home and family and trafficked to a foreign land. Indeed, Patrick is the only person we know of in the 5th century who was enslaved and lived to tell the tale.

Comments, as ever, welcome.