Every year on the last night of the Proms, the audience enthusiastically engages with the fantasy that ‘Britons never never never shall be slaves.’
Probably now few people take that seriously. But many more are still taken in by the myth that has poisoned British politics especially in the last three years. The idea that we are special.
Not only, that we will never be slaves. But that we washed our hands clean of slavery and slave dealing many years ago. And that modern Britain is a model of equality and fairness and slavery a thing of the past.
Let’s leave aside modern day slavery for the moment. There is plenty of that going on in one way or another. Look back to the legacy of slavery in our own city. Many Liverpool families became extremely wealthy as a result of the slave trade. Some, like the Horsfall family who built this church and several others, maybe did this as a way to atone for their family’s sin: the generations before them that were actively involved. The family continued to benefit from the amassed riches. The cathedral too. The whole city became rich because of the slave trade. Well known streets are named after slave traders: Penny Lane, Bold Street, Tarleton Street. The notable anti-slavery campaigner William Roscoe has to make do with an insignificant back alley.
So what all this means is that we can never be pure. Even if we try to abjure all the benefits of modern western civilisation we can’t avoid the fact that everything we eat drink and wear, the way we travel (even if we don’t drive) is bound up with wealth and riches that is somehow extracted from the poorest people of the world.
None of us have slaves. Few of us if any have paid servants in the way the families that used to live round here did. But we all benefit from the exploitation of others.
And we ourselves will never never never be slaves!
Don’t be too sure about that. We are slaves in so many different ways. Slaves of the system whether we seem to benefit from it or not. (Think of the rich recluse who is surrounded by high security fences, locked gates and guards. Are they free?)
So what can we do? We can continue to beat ourselves up for our part in oppressing others, in some ways still being the slave masters. We can bemoan the structures of western capitalism which keep us enslaved, and struggle to change things. We can, and sometimes should do that.
But as always Jesus forces us to look deeper. First of all, he reminds us that slaves don’t have the luxury of choosing whether or when to do any of their tasks. If it’s their job to have the supper ready for their master when he comes in, they have to do what that takes even if they are feeling fed up, or have a headache, or just fancy a day off.
Then he turns the tables. ‘You’ he says, ‘the rich master, who can expect slaves to fulfil your every need, are actually a slave yourself. You’re a slave of God, and your job, your role, your whole being, should be devoted to doing God’s will.’
It sounds harsh. It sounds as if God is a tyrant, a cruel master who doesn’t care about the welfare of his servants, his slaves, as long as they cater for his every whim.
They seem to contradict other words of Jesus like ‘come to me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’
There’s a paradox there. It’s the same paradox that is expressed in the Book of Common Prayer, in the collect for peace at Morning Prayer: ‘O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom.’
How can we be free if we are only doing another’s will? Doesn’t freedom mean being able to do what we want?
Imagine you are a fish. And you are a very intelligent, inquisitive fish, very interested in the world outside your pond. You see lots of people and animals running around at the water’s edge; they are doing all sorts of things and you wish you could be doing the same thing. So with a great burst of energy, you flap your fins and somehow manage to jump out of the water onto the land. But within a few seconds you are gasping for breath and it’s only the quick thinking of one of the humans on the bank who picks you up and throws you back into the water where you can breathe again.
Yes, we can be free. But our freedom doesn’t mean anything unless it’s the freedom to be ourselves. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who lived and worked here in Liverpool in the late 19th century, was reflecting on the way
natural things and creatures behave as they are created to do… the way they act expresses the nature of what they do. They don’t have any choice in the matter, but that is their glory.
We humans do have a choice. We can choose to act in the way God intends us to do, or we can go against our nature and in the end make ourselves unhappy. Hopkins puts it like this:
I say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Chríst – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Jesus says to his disciples: ‘I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’
There’s not really any contradiction with the idea that we are slaves doing our duty. What this means is that we are friends of Jesus: actually we are more, because by our baptism we share his life; in a very real way each one of us is Jesus. And the more we enter into that life, the more we will be fulfilling our true vocation and the less we will feel like reluctant servants or unwilling slaves.
And the less we will want to divide the world and our neighbours into those who are free, like us, and those who must be kept under to keep the world ticking over as it always has. The less we will see the need for borders to keep out those others. If we discover that our true happiness consists in being the person God made us, we will recognise all our brothers and sisters as kindred spirits. But discovering who we are is a lifelong process and most of us are just beginners.