woensdag 20 april 2016

Humane Slaveholders

We like so much to hear it: that, while in Antiquity Jews like the Greeks and Romans held slaves, they did so in a slightly more humane way.

Slavery will be dealt with intensively again this week, because at the Pesach seder we remember how we were slaves in Egypt. And how we have been liberated, but always kept a sensitivity to what it means to be a slave.

From that sensitivity we cherish the thought that there are several ways to keep slaves. For the Romans, for instance, the life of a slave did not count at all. Illustrative of the entire honor- and lawlessness of Roman slaves was the usual punishment for them, namely  crucifixion. Which was applied i.a. to quell harshly the revolt of the slave leader Spartacus (around 72 before the beginning of the era). It led to the crucifixion of more than 6,000 slaves along the road from Capua to Rome.

Such a complete denial of the humanity of slaves is supposed not to fit with the rules of the Torah, which states that the compatriots, who had sold themselves into slavery because they could not pay their debts, should be released in the Sabbath year (every seven years). And is written on the Sabbath as a weekly day of rest that it is meant for everyone, including slaves, servants and foreigners and even livestock.

But historical-scientific findings seem to leave little of that almost idyllic picture, in practice these provisions probably have not functioned as they had been intended. Even from rabbinic discussions on these texts, says researcher Stoutjesdijk from Tilburg University, it appears that the rules were not at all respected.

That might be a downer for our sense of self. Remains thát we so badly want it: to promote humane relations within our sometimes ruthless socio-economic systems. Let’s continue to want that, and if the Passover story helps us do this, continue to tell the story.