Eliezer of Damascus was the trusted slave of Abraham. He managed all of Abraham’s worldly affairs. He was, until Ishmael and Isaac arrived, Abraham’s heir-apparent. We have no reason to believe that he ever tasted the business end of a whip. We have no reason to believe that he was malnourished or ill-clothed or mistreated in any way. We have every reason to suspect that he partook in the prosperity of Abraham.
I prefer my life to his. Freedom is of great benefit, and I desire for all to have it (1 Corinthians 7:21).
Plaguing our conversation about slavery, however, is the ill-founded, overly emotional, untrue presumption not only that freedom is generally preferable to slavery, but that there is no lower level of existence than that of a slave. This is only true if you embrace libertarianism wholeheartedly. For my part, would I choose to be a slave? That depends. A slave to whom? And what are my other choices? I would much rather be Abraham’s slave Eliezer than…
…A Lame Beggar in First-Century Jerusalem. To be a slave was to have someone to provide your food, clothing, shelter, and medical treatment (such as it existed). Beggars had it far worse. Since they could not work, no one wanted them as slaves. They lived or died by the generosity of passers-by.
…An Inmate in the Texas Prison System. Before you get all high-and-mighty about how superior American culture is to slavery-permitting ancient Judea, take a moment to consider the fact that one in three black men in America can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. Yes…I know…you don’t have to lecture me on it…American prisons have color TV and yada, yada, yada. But whatever the amenities, our prison system is an environment in which 200,000 inmates in 2011 were raped. Entirely because of prisons, there are actually more men raped than women every day. Add to that the utter pointlessness of prison life. We think we are so advanced, but Hannibal Lecter was not all wrong when he said, “We live in a primitive time, don’t we, Will? Neither savage nor wise. Half measures of the curse of it; a rational society would either kill me or put me to some use.”
Call me crazy, but I’d much rather live what we imagine to be the life of Eliezer of Damascus than to pass aimless days behind bars trying to avoid sexual predators.
…A Steelworker in Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Mill.
The life of a 19th-century steel worker was grueling. Twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. Carnegie gave his workers a single holiday-the Fourth of July; for the rest of the year they worked like draft animals. “Hard! I guess it’s hard,” said a laborer at the Homestead mill. “I lost forty pounds the first three months I came into this business. It sweats the life out of a man. I often drink two buckets of water during twelve hours; the sweat drips through my sleeves, and runs down my legs and fills my shoes.”
For many the work went without a break; others managed to find a few minutes here and there. “We stop only the time it takes to oil the engine,” a stop of three to five minutes, said William McQuade, a plate-mill worker in 1893. “While they are oiling they eat, at least some of the boys, some of them; a great many of them in the mill do not carry anything to eat at all, because they haven’t got time to eat.
The demanding conditions sapped the life from workers. “You don’t notice any old men here,” said a Homestead laborer in 1894. “The long hours, the strain, and the sudden changes of temperature use a man up.” Sociologist John A. Fitch called it “old age at forty.”
For his trouble, the average worker in 1890 received about 10 dollars a week, just above the poverty line of 500 dollars a year. It took the wages of nearly 4,000 steelworkers to match the earnings of Andrew Carnegie.
Did Eliezer labor for Abraham? Of course he did. Did he labor in any way approximating the experience of these men? Hardly. And his compensation, measured in terms of quality of life, was far better.
…Any Lifelong Minimum-Wage Employee. Of course, there’s a place for minimum-wage jobs. I made minimum wage as a college student delivering pizzas. You’ve got to start somewhere. But no one can build a life around long-term minimum-wage employment.
I’m not saying that you can’t survive on minimum-wage employment. People are creative in making ends meet, and other sources of funds are often involved. Nevertheless, even if you can scrape by on minimum-wage employment for now, eventually age or illness will incapacitate you for your job, and it is nearly impossible for someone working a minimum-wage job to save enough to provide for the needs of old age.
…An Abandoned Senior Adult in a Cheap Nursing Home. All of the adjectives in that sentence are important. Not all nursing homes are cheap. Not all senior adults in them are abandoned. But a study from fourteen years ago reported that 44% of nursing home residents claim to have been abused themselves and that 95% have been neglected or have witnessed the neglect of another resident. And every pastor has seen the nursing home resident who has absolutely nobody visiting them or overseeing their care.
Our libertarian culture promotes independence, which certainly has its benefits. Perhaps we see less clearly its drawbacks. Our families are dissolving and our economic system builds no lasting bonds or obligations between employers and employees. Independence is a wonderful thing when you’re young and healthy, but all of us begin life as a dependent, and most of us will end life as one. Highly independent societies are less suited to meeting the needs of those seasons in our lives.
We adapt to this in the United States, of course, by growing government more and more. A full 53% of the entitlement budget goes to senior adults. Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid amount to 60% of the federal budget. Whatever you think about where things stand now, it is possible to become a slave to the government. In some ancient Oriental societies, in fact, every citizen was considered to be a slave to the state.
One way of understanding the life of Eliezer of Damascus is to recognize the better forms of slavery as a confluence of work and family. Family is covenantal. For us, in our economic system, the workplace is merely contractual. Although we are thankful for the many benefits of our capitalist wage-labor economy, something inside us keeps yearning for and trying to recover the benefits of covenantal slavery without succumbing to the many ills and wrongs of slavery that led us to abandon it.
One of my Dad’s lifelong friends was Bill Spikes. They were adolescent boys together. Bill was dating Winnie when my dad was dating my mom. Winnie and Mom were cousins and they both attended the little country church where I spent the first eleven years of my spiritual life. There’s a funny story about the time they decided to sing in the choir just to be able to sit near their sweethearts, only to discover as the service was about to begin that they had chosen WMU Sunday to sit down in the midst of an all-female choir.
Bill was a farmer, but farming wasn’t always good to Bill. Dad went off into education, then into politics, then into business. Eventually, in 1987, the last business that Dad started—the one that succeeded—relocated its manufacturing operations into a facility in Monette, Arkansas, where Bill was living. Bill Spikes came onto the Ashley Lighting payroll right away.
Bill had long been a smoker, as had Dad. Bill paid for a lot more tobacco than he enjoyed, however. The warehouse was perennially littered with cigarettes from which Bill had taken one or two puffs, only to set them down in order to free his hands for work and then leave them forgotten on the steel crossbeam of a pallet rack. The amount of smoke he actually inhaled, unfortunately, was enough to give him lung cancer in the mid-1990s. He sought treatment, of course, but as is so often the case, the cancer got the better of him. His health declined. He found himself unable to work much, then unable to work at all. In 1997 (just a few months before Dad also died of cancer), Bill succumbed to the disease and died.
Throughout his illness, no matter how many hours he actually was able to work, Bill’s paycheck kept coming to him. Indeed, after he died, Bill Spikes kept getting paid, until Dad’s accountant read him the riot act and told him he could get into serious trouble for such a thing (In posting about this, I’m making some assumptions about statutes of limitations). Dad felt both a desire and an obligation to care for his sick friend and employee as well as for his family.
I submit to you that my father’s actions are anti-capitalistic. Great Christianity; bad business. I also submit for your consideration that he was acting more like a master and less like an employer. He had ceased to barter with Bill Spikes for goods and services in exchange for a wage. Instead, a deeper, more covenantal relationship took charge.
Dad did not do this sort of thing for everyone. He did not do it for others who were his friends. He did not do it for others who were fellow church members with us. The fact that Bill worked for Dad, in conjunction with Dad’s feelings toward Bill, motivated Dad’s actions.
The employer/employee thing is a transaction. The master/slave thing is a relationship. The transactional part of Bill’s life had ended. He could provide no goods or services for the company. Dad nonetheless felt an obligation toward Bill, not just because of their friendship, but because Dad felt that Bill was under his charge in some way. Under systems of slavery, masters are under obligation to care for their slaves and to provide for their needs. This has been true in almost every slaveholding system. The slaves’ food comes from the master. The slaves’ housing comes from the master. The slaves’ clothing comes from the master. The slaves’ medical care comes from the master. This obligation to care for slaves commenced before the slaves were able to contribute much in the way of work and well after the precipitous decline in their productivity due to old age. It was a cradle-to-grave obligation. The proximity of slave-master instruction to family instruction in the New Testament is informative. Together these “household codes” address the relationships among those who are part of the family. Although there were wage-workers in the epoch (James 5:4, and, indeed, the categories of “slave” and “wage-worker” were not mutually exclusive), slaves were more than workers; they were members of the household.
Now, I’m a free-market capitalist. I do not like this slave system. I do not like it for a number of reasons. Masters often were incentivized to provide the minimum level of care: the poorest food in the household, the worst clothing, the leakiest shelter, and the most rudimentary medical care. I do not like the way that it robs people of their freedom to pursue other alternatives. I also do not like the way that it gives labor no financial incentive to excel in their work. The slave who is more efficient or diligent in his work does not profit thereby. As a result, the only incentive left to give to slaves to elicit their labor is to threaten violence (which Christian masters were forbidden to do in Ephesians 6:9) or to make them so much a part of the family and to make them love you so much that they want to see the whole enterprise succeed. That’s difficult to do with a large workforce, so I favor instead the capitalist system of letting owners and employees have a joint financial stake by which employees get paid for their labor and owners get to make a profit from their efforts.
I will, however, offer this caveat: The biggest drawback of our wage-labor economy is the way that companies take the best years of people’s lives and then send them on their way. I like better than that the relationship between Dad and Bill. I like better than that the relationship between Abraham and Eliezer. I like the idea of employers and employees having, where it makes sense, a more covenantal relationship in which employers take some responsibility for the welfare of their employees. I’m not saying that I want the government to mandate anything like that; I’m just saying that I admire it and see the value of it.
Of course, however good a master Abraham was to Eliezer, you still have the horrible treatment he gave to Hagar. The achilles heel of every system of slavery has been the sinful hearts of the slaveholders. There’s the fatal flaw of slavery that has rendered it unworkable. It places too much power into the hands of sinful men, and they abuse it. But let us not pretend that the Thirteenth Amendment put away forever the abuse of the poor and weak at the hands of the rich and powerful. Jesus told us that we would always have the poor with us. Alas, the same is true of the heartless rich.
Not all of the rich are heartless, however. Slavery in and of itself, separated from the stupidity of racial superiority theories and from the cupidity of robber-barons, can never be the best existence for any human being, but has sometimes been far from the worst.