Chains of Earthly Slavery

New issue for September-November, 2021


Slavery has been much in the news recently. The passionate protests unleashed by the death of George Floyd last year seemed to release a dammed-up reservoir of feeling about our world. Whatever we may think of the forms that protest took, we surely must rejoice that sections of society whose experience has been hidden, ignored and denied have found their voice. One discovery that I made as I started to research the phenomenon of slavery is that it is by no means limited to any particular nation or race, nor to any particular historical period. Just as much as human beings have striven to create societies whose members can thrive, they have enslaved other groups. And even if those slaves were – are – kept far out of sight, this makes no difference to the fact that the economic system rests on the exploitation of others. This came out very clearly for me in the anguished debates that took place in Boston, when it became clear that the fledgling colony, founded by Puritans to be an image of a better world, would not survive without servicing the plantation economy that rested on slavery. (cp

I imagine that many readers of Perspectives do not have first hand experiences of slavery. For this reason, we easily think of slavery as a metaphor for every kind of entrapment. It can seem as if our western, first-world societies have exchanged outer conditions of near-slavery for a voluntary enslavement. This being so, it is important to recognise that slavery is an inner state, one which I can change through inner transformation, even if those outer forces that seem to have me in their grip do not change. The articles in this issue, which is based on the stirring promise from our Michaelmas Epistle, that Michael seeks to release us from chains of earthly slavery, may help us to find that inner place of freedom.

As much as it is important to discover again and again our agency in the face of even the severest repression, it is important to recognise the power of systemic wrong. Here, the study of slavery and the ideologies that sustained it can be helpful for us when we encounter more subtle chains. Frederick Douglass was a slave who escaped the American South and became an author and orator in the cause of emancipation. He steadfastly refused to debate the rights and wrongs of slavery, because he saw it as beyond debate what Kant had stated years before: no human being has the right to make another into the instrument of his will – the ‘means’; the only way to be together is to recognise the unique and sovereign will of the other, so that they become our ‘end’ or purpose.

As much as the Michaelmas Epistle addresses us in our inner situation, we can also hear it echoing in the struggle to overcome every kind of domination system. In the end, freedom which rests on enslaving others is itself a kind of enslavement. Reading accounts of the life of the slave-owners in the American South, it is striking how visceral their terror of rebellion was. A quotation by Douglass shows how inner and outer enslavement are intertwined:

“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

― Frederick Douglass, speech at Civil Rights Mass Meeting, Washington, DC, 22 October 1883

Tom Ravetz

For the Table of Contents, please follow this link.

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