Polls have suggested that Winston Churchill was the greatest Englishman, surpassing William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Oliver Cromwell, Michael Faraday, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, William Turner and (my favorite) Edward Jenner. But which Englishman was the greatest villain? We might nominate Richard the Third, or Lord North who lost the American colonies, or Winston Churchill because of Gallipoli, or Jack the Ripper, or even Tony Blair. But spare a thought for Constantine, the Roman Emperor. He was not English by birth, even if you can call it England before the Angles arrived, but then neither was Cliff Richard or Colin Cowdrey. His birthplace was in what is now Bulgaria, but under Diocletian he fled with his father to York and you can’t get more English than that. It was in England that he established his power base and from there that he took control of the Roman Empire.
Some hail Constantine as a hero for turning the Roman Empire Christian. Others regard this as an act of villainy; rather than turning the Roman Empire Christian, he imbued Christianity with the ethos of the Roman Empire. Christian sources record that he experienced a dramatic event in 312 AD at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, after which he would claim the emperorship in the West. According to these sources, Constantine looked up to the sun before the battle and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words "Εν Τουτω Νικα" ("by this, conquer!", often rendered in the Latin "in hoc signo vinces"); he commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol (the Chi-Rho, the first two Greek letters in Christ), and thereafter they were victorious. You might say that he turned the Christian cross upside down so that it became a sword.
From this harsh beginning stems the whole idea that people might be converted by compulsion, the Crusades and the Inquisition. Another strand of history stemming from Constantine is the holding of religious Councils starting with Nicea in 325 AD. From this comes the dissection of the minute details of what you believe, with the threat of punishment for heresy if you stray from the precise definition of the Trinity or the Mass decreed by the church. The Bible tells us that “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified.
There is nothing in that statement that says your doctrine has to be right in every detail. Of course, we want to be obedient to Christ (that comes with Jesus being Lord) but Christians are allowed to vary in their beliefs on non-essentials. The schism between the Western and Eastern Church rested on a single word – did the Holy Spirit proceed from God the Father alone or from the Father and Son together.
But while Constantine was keen to stamp out heresy and get his doctrine right, there was no reformation of his actions. He had already had his brother-in law and his nephew executed by the time of the Council of Nicea, and the following year he had his wife and oldest son murdered – not exactly the actions of a submissive Christian. For it is submission that Peter demands in our passage for today: 1 Peter 2:18-20
Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.
This is of course a contentious passage. People either say, "Haven't we abolished slavery? Is this any longer relevant?" or they say, "There you are! The Bible condones slavery."
It is clear that despite slavery being abolished in the Western democracies it has by no means been abolished in the world as a whole. According to studies done by anti-slavery groups, there are currently more slaves today than at any time in history! Three quarters are female and over half are children. It is believed that there are around 27 million people in slavery right now. Furthermore, this number does not include people who are not technically slaves but are in a form of servitude tantamount to slavery. This is sometimes called “unfree labor”. The average slave today costs around $90.
Enslavement continues in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. It is endemic in Sudan. The Chinese government recently freed those enslaved by brick manufacturers in Shanxi and Henan. In 2008, the Nepalese government abolished the Haliya system of forced labor, freeing about 20,000 people. An estimated 40 million people in India are bonded workers, many working to pay off debts that were incurred generations ago. In Mauritania alone, it is estimated that up to 600,000 men, women and children, or 20% of the population, are enslaved with many used as bonded labor. In Niger, slavery is also a current phenomenon. A Nigerian study has found that more than 800,000 people are enslaved, almost 8% of the population. Pygmies, the people of Central Africa's rain forest, live in servitude to the Bantus. Some tribal sheiks in Iraq still keep blacks, called Abd, which means servant or slave in Arabic, as slaves. Child slavery has commonly been used in the production of cash crops and mining. According to the U.S. Department of State, more than 109,000 children were working on cocoa farms alone in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in "the worst forms of child labor" in 2002. The ruling junta in Burma is under threat of prosecution for crimes against humanity over the continuous forced labor of 800,000 of its citizens.
But does the Bible condone slavery? We have to be careful in imposing 21st Century norms on things happening 2000 years ago. The Bible was written at a time when slavery was not only widespread, but considered perfectly normal and moral. Slaves at the time were also generally treated much better than the slaves of modern times, and would usually end up being made free after a number of years’ servitude. There is a passage in 1 Timothy 1:9-10 translated in the NIV as "We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine." The word translated 'slave-traders' is 'andrapodistes' which combines the words for man and foot. It apparently means to put someone under one's foot - to control a person completely. In other versions it is translated 'kidnappers'. I think it refers to the practice of pressing people into slavery. Such people are grouped with adulterers, murderers and perverts.
Although the Bible does not specifically condemn slavery, the New Testament contains the principles that ultimately uprooted it. It was evangelical Christians like Wilberforce, who wore themselves out in changing not only the law, but the whole ethos. Nevertheless, if you have no visible means of support except that you go to work every day at a job you dislike for a wage that allows no luxuries are you very different from a slave? Peter’s instruction to slaves can be applied to wage slaves too.
We don’t like submitting. When I was young I used to watch professional wrestling on television on a Saturday afternoon. The commentator was Kent Walton and I suspect that whole bout was choreographed. One particular move that I remember was the Boston Crab when one wrestler would put his whole weight into bending the back of the other wrestler the wrong way. Once in this position, the wrestler underneath would immediately cry, “Submit!” for fear of being left paraplegic. Submission tends to mean something that is forced upon us and we may feel resentful that it has happened.
But Peter instructs us to submit ourselves. Not because we have been forced into it but ‘for the Lord’s sake.’ This is a voluntary submission that we do because we are obedient to Christ. While we may not think much of Barak Obama or Gordon Brown, we submit because we love the Lord. We may smolder with resentment at being asked to acquiesce to a liberal abortion law, or send our children to a school that does not allow prayers or wear a crash helmet on a motor bike or a law that insists that everyone carries health insurance. When these things are the law of the land we must obey the law. There may be things about the law that we don’t like – in a democracy we are allowed to campaign to change the law – but in the meantime we must obey the law. It’s as though your sweetheart comes up and says, “I know you don’t like it, but do it for my sake.”
If you are punished for breaking the speed limit – good! That’s how it should be. If you are executed for murdering an abortionist – good! That is law in action. How is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and you endure it?
But there may come a time when they put you in prison for preaching the Gospel; when they torture you for proclaiming yourself a Christian; when they take away your wife and children; when they pull down your churches; when they deny you employment – it is happening now in certain countries. If you suffer for doing good and you endure it this is commendable before God.
However, you are treated by your neighbors, do good. Constantine never got it right; he continued to do evil things. He had a ‘head’ Christianity not a ‘heart’ Christianity. Good works are not the cause of our salvation, but they are the effect. Repay cruelty with kindness and anger with generosity.