1984 and the Politics of Language

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“How can Christians believe a God who condones slavery?” is the question we began examining in my previous blog “The Truth About God and Slavery“. Is the Bible evil because it does not directly prohibit slavery and provides rules about how a slave should be treated? Today’s topic is broadened to include both apologetics and an understanding of God’s destiny for us. We have a lot of new ground to cover.

The Bible does not condemn all forms of “slavery” because slavery (as translated in English) referred to all types of “employment”. The idea of that employment is similar to slavery may seem repugnant to us, but when we trace the history of Biblical slaves and modern employees, as we will briefly in this blog, we will find that their treatment and status were not so different, and in many cases, Biblical slaves were better treated and had a higher status than modern employees.

DO WORDS MATTER?

George Orwell’s book “1984″ lays out the blueprint for public mind control and omnipresent surveillance by a ruling elite: the clever use of “doublethink” and “Newspeak”. That is, craft words for an unappealing policy in a politically correct way, and the masses will not know they are being controlled.

For instance, in the novel, the state has a “Ministry of Propaganda” to control news, arts, entertainment and education, but calling it that would be politically incorrect. So it calls it the “Ministry of Truth”. A “Ministry of War” is offensive, so it is called in Newspeak the “Ministry of Peace”. The state has a militarized police force that monitors, arrests and tortures dissidents, but rather than calling it the “Ministry of Torture,” it is called the “Ministry of Love.”

You might think such deception wouldn’t work on a 21st century population, but it does. The US government is robbing its citizens by devaluing its currency and transferring wealth to the very financial institutions which caused the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 – how do they get away with it? By calling the printing of money “Quantitative Easing.” QE 1, 2 and 3 have come and gone and no one cries “no taxation without representation” like they used to at the Boston Tea Party. Modern governments have learned that raising taxes and calling it what it is started revolutions (French and American in recent history), so they have come up with an ingenuous way to do the same thing by calling it a different name. They “strengthen” social security. They “empower” the underprivileged. (I cringe every time I hear someone in government or on TV promise they’re going to “empower” someone!) They “stimulate” the economy, though mainly bankers feel the stimulation. This is the essence and evil of “politically correct” language. People become conditioned to accept new words rather than real change.

America right now has no less than 16 spy agencies that virtually constitute an “invisible government” with the right, power and classified budget to intrude into and harass the lives its citizens, especially their personal lives over the Internet. How can they do this without any revolt from their citizens? Because instead of calling it “Big Brother Bureau” or “The Ministry of War on Citizens,” they call it the “US Department of Homeland Security” or the “National Security Agency”. To be sure I believe there is a role for intelligence agencies, but 16 of them? It’s an unprecedented expansion of power that is sugarcoated with euphemisms, doublethink and Newspeak.

What does this have to do with the issue of “slavery”? Is it possible Bible-doubters have fallen victim to more Newspeak? From a purely economic point of view, the word “slave” has simply been updated to “serf,” “indentured servant,” and now “employee”. The words “lord” and “master” have been replaced by “knight” and “baron,” and now “employer” and “boss”. “My master” is more emotive than “my boss”. “Employee” is more acceptable than “serf”. Words have changed, but how much have the relationships and conditions changed? We will look at the evidence in a moment.

SLAVERY versus EMPLOYMENT

Before then, let’s deal with the racism aspect of the word “slave”. The English word “slave” has its etymology in a racist past: the “Slavs” were enslaved by the Vikings and Romans. Combined this with British colonial history, we English speakers are particularly sensitive to the word “slave”. In most people’s minds, slavery is linked to racial discrimination. We despise the word “slavery” because it implies racism, violence and forced servitude.

The Bible never uses the Greek word “sklabos,” the equivalent of our English “slave,” because it had not yet been coined by the time the Bible had been completed. Therefore the Biblical use of “slavery” is distinct from the modern use.

For one, it was not race-based. According to the Bible, fellow Jews can become contracted as “slaves” for 6 years. Compare this to the modern employee who is typically “mortgaged” (French for “wage of death,” mort + gage) for 30 years, the Biblical slave worked on better terms. His limited term of employment was long enough to offer job security and short enough to offer freedom. There was nothing derogatory or racist about being a Jewish slave to a Jewish master. It simply meant “belonging to another”. There was no hint of racism.

Even in the case of ancient Egyptians and Israelites, the Egyptians disliked the Israelites because they looked down on all shepherds; “for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:34). It was economics, not race, that was at the root of the hostility. Egyptians did not mind having Joseph as their Jewish prince. Their attitude changed as the Jewish descendants prospered. Hence God sent Moses to deliver the oppressed Jews out of Egypt.

The prophet Jeremiah reminded Bible-believing employers of his day (ca 500BC) to proclaim liberty to their “slaves”.

JEREMIAH 34:9-10
9 that every man should set free his male and female slave—a Hebrew man or woman—that no one should keep a Jewish brother in bondage. 10 Now when all the princes and all the people, who had entered into the covenant, heard that everyone should set free his male and female slaves, that no one should keep them in bondage anymore, they obeyed and let them go.

The term slavery was not used in the derogatory way as it is used now. It was understood then as the word “servant” or “employee” is now. The Apostle Paul instructed the Galatians to not look down on any slave. He made the point that in Christ is equality.

Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither SLAVE nor FREE, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

There is nothing derogatory about being a Christian slave. We are to become “slaves” of God, meaning we belong to Him.

Romans 6:22 (NKJ) But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.

The New King James renders the Greek “doulos” as “slaves” but the King James renders it “servants”. The American Standard, English Revised, Webster’s and Young’s all use “servants”. Weymouth’s says “bondservants”. The word “doulos” is used with the highest dignity in the New Testament, of people who voluntarily submit to the ownership of Jesus Christ! To become Christ-like, we must learn to give up our rights and liberties on this earth to attain a far greater promise and freedom which God wants to give us.

SHORT HISTORY OF 2 ECONOMIC CLASSES

In Bible times people were classed into 2 economic categories: free or slave (Gal 3:28, Eph 6:8, Col 3:11, Rev 6:15, 19:18). Today we might say: entrepreneur or employee; business owner or worker.

It is arguable that the condition of the Biblical slave was better than the condition of the modern employee. In ancient times, a slave and his family were entitled to 3 square meals a day, had a relationship with his master, and could expect the protection and security of a contract that would last 6 years, which was renewable if he wished. Many slaves became so close to their masters that they were considered relatives or adopted as sons. Abraham’s slave “Eliezer” was rich in his own right and Abraham considered whether Eliezer would become Abraham’s heir to the covenant and promises of God. Mephibosheth’s slave “Ziba” had 15 sons, 20 servants and much real estate, hardly the picture of a slave most non-Christians typically assume (2 Samuel 9:10).

If a master abused a slave by hitting him or her, God commanded the master to let the slave go free. This differed from colonial slavery, during which slaves and/ or their children were tortured, dismembered, and executed for the most trivial offences like not gathering enough crops.

Exodus 21:26-27 (NIV)
26 An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.

Why would a master hit his slave? I don’t know. War may have had something to do with it. Slavery was one way to end the constant wars of the ancient world. Instead of mass execution of all males, their lives were spared on promise they would serve. Slavery was certainly a better option than death. Deuteronomy 20:10-11 says peace if preferable to war, “When you go near a city to fight against it, then proclaim an offer of peace to it. And it shall be that if they accept your offer of peace, and open to you, then all the people who are found in it shall be placed under tribute to you, and serve you.” There was always a risk that those whose lives were spared would want to start another war. Hence some slaves, especially the warriors, may have been treated harshly.

This was how Israel’s war with Babylon ended. Babylon carried away many Jews as slaves. Daniel was one such “slave” who ended up being promoted to the second highest ranking office of both Babylon and the succeeding empire of Persia (Daniel 2:48, 6:1-2). Which career path had more promise – that of the ancient slave or modern employee?

In my next blog I’ll take you through what the New Testament has to say about slavery. You may be surprised!

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Interested in more answers? We have the “Answers Series” (up to 10 hours) which tackle the most common questions people ask about God & religion! Check it out.

What other objections against God have you heard non-believers say? How do you answer them?

  • Joan Westaway

    Some years ago, whilst driving a tractor on our family farm, I was reflecting on a revelation around the word ‘bondslave’, and this little poem (my very first!) began to form:

    Set free, set free from the bond of sin
    Set free, set free to bind myself to Him
    Set free to be a bond-slave of the Lord
    Set free, set free to serve…

  • Saint

    hmm… the term “employee” is the euphemism version of the word “slave” was totally out of my imagination. Thank you for writing this article Ps. Steve! this will change my view on slavery in the bible. before reading this article, everytime I saw the word “slave” or “slavery” in the bible it meant forced labour to me, therefore it wasn’t of no surprise for me to find out that the slave would be treated unfairly.

    However, I still have one question here. If God does not condone slavery then how come in Exodus 21:26 an owner is only required to let the slave go when he hits the slave by the eye and destroy it even though in the previous 2 verses (exodus 21:24) it is mentioned that “an eye for an eye…”?

  • Alice SavedbyGrace Leong

    This is a must read!