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The True Dignity of Human Beings – Nyssa on Slavery

January 31, 2022 · Fr. Stephen Freeman

One of the most rewarding aspects of reading historical material is how it reveals the human mind even at a great remove from our own. There is a myth in our culture that history is the story of progress. It presumes that only in our modern times have we begun to free ourselves from the false ideas of the past. What you discover when you actually read historical materials is that many of the worst ideas ever espoused were specifically “modern” ideas (eugenics, racial superiority, abortion, euthanasia, etc.).

Occasionally, you come across a piece of ancient writing that simply shatters these false assumptions. A case-in-point is this excerpt from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s fourth homily on Ecclesiastes. He is writing in the 4th century, A.D., when the Church is squarely in the Byzantine period. The homily is a commentary on Ecclesiastes 2:7 in which the writer describes his growing wealth and his acquisition of slaves. Nyssa uses the occasion for the most scathing critique of slavery in the annals of Christian preaching. It shows a wonderful clarity of theological insight and understanding – something that would and should have been available and understood both by his contemporaries and by Christians of all times. He did not invent this understanding – he simply demonstrates that its ideas are timeless and not the product of some later historical progress.

There is truth. It abides. There is sin. It obscures. From the 4th Homily on Ecclesiastes – St. Gregory of Nyssa Ecclesiastes 2:7 I got me slaves and slave-girls, and homebred slaves were born for me, and much property in cattle and sheep became mine.

The writer of Ecclesiastes sets out in careful order virtually everything in his own experience through which the futility of our activities in this life is known. But at this point he touches on what appears to be a more serious piece of evidence from his deeds through which he can be accused of the affliction of arrogant pride. What is there in what he has laid before us so far which leads to such a level of conceit? He has told us about a valuable house, an abundance of vines, elegant gardens and water features, nicely constructed swimming pools, extensive beautiful parkland. Yet, none of this can compare to his presumption that, as a human being he believes he can lord it over people who in essence are just like him. Because then he goes on to say: “I got me slaves and slave-girls, and homebred slaves were born for me”.

Do you detect the excessive arrogance? An utterance like this shows that he is exalting himself against God. We know from the words of the prophets that absolutely everything is subject to the supreme authority in the universe (Psalm 119/118.91). But this man counts as his own what truly belongs to God and gives to the likes of himself the kind of power which makes him think that he can be the master of men and women. When he sees himself as so different from those who are subject to him one can only conclude that pride has led him to go beyond what is appropriate for his nature. “I got me slaves and slave-girls.” You are condemning to slavery human beings whose nature is free and characterized by free will. You are making laws that rival the law of God, overturning the law appropriate for humankind. Human beings were created specifically to have dominion over the earth; it was determined by their creator that they should exercise authority. Yet you place them under the yoke of slavery, as though you are opposing and fighting against the divine decree.

Have you forgotten the limits of your authority? Your rule is limited to control of irrational creatures. In scripture we read: “let them rule over birds and fish and four-footed creatures”. (Gen 1.26) How then do you go beyond what is subject to you and exalt yourself against a nature which is free, counting people like you among four-footed or footless creatures. “You subjected everything to humankind” declares the scripture through prophecy and it goes on to list what is under human control: domestic animals, cattle and sheep. (Psalm 8/7.8) Surely human beings have not been born to you from domestic animals? Surely cattle have not given birth to human offspring? Irrational creatures alone are subject to humankind. “He makes grass grow for animals and green plants for people’s slaves”. (Psalm 104/103.14) . But you have torn apart the nature of slavery and lordship and made the same thing at one and the same time enslaved to itself and lord of itself.

“I got me slaves and slave-girls.” Tell me what sort of price you paid. What did you find in creation with a value corresponding to the nature of your purchase? What price did you put on rationality? For how many obols did you value the image of God? For how many coins did you sell this nature formed by God? God said: “Let us make human beings in our own image and likeness” (Gen 1.26). When we are talking about one who is in the image of God, who has dominion over the whole earth and who has been granted by God authority over everything on the earth, tell me, who is the seller and who the buyer? Only God has this kind of power, or, one might almost say, not even God. For scripture says that the gifts of God are irrevocable (Romans 11.29). God would not make a slave of humankind. It was God who, through his own will, called us back to freedom when we were slaves of sin. If God does not enslave a free person, then who would consider their own authority higher than God’s?

How can people be sold who have dominion over the earth and everything on the earth? It is essential that the assets of people being sold are sold with them. How can we value the contents of the whole earth (Genesis 1.26)? If these are beyond any valuation then tell me, what is the value of the one who is over them? If you said “the world in its entirety”, even then you would not have found anything approximating to the value (Matthew 16.26; Mark 8.36). Someone knowing the true value of human nature said that not even the whole world is worth enough to be given in exchange for the human soul. So when a human being is for sale, it is nothing other than the lord of the earth being brought to the auction room. This means that creation as we know it is at the same time being put up for public sale. That is earth, sea and islands and all that is in them. How then is the purchaser going to settle the payment? What will the vendor accept considering the greatness of the property involved in the transaction?

Did the little notebook, the written agreement and the calculation in obols trick you into thinking that you could be master of the image of God? What utter folly! If the contract was lost, if the writing was eaten by moths, if a drop of water fell on it and washed it away, where is there any proof that you have a slave? Where is there anything that supports you in being a master? You have somebody who is named as your subordinate, but beyond the mere name I see nothing. What did such power add to your real nature? It did not give you extra years or any genuine superiority. Your lineage is still human, your life is similar, the sufferings of the soul and the body prevail upon you both in the same way, with you as master and another in subjugation you are still both affected by agony and delight, gladness and distress, sorrow and joy, anger and fear, disease and death. Surely there is no distinction in such things between slave and master? Do they not draw in the same air when they breathe? Do they not see the sun in a similar way? Do they not both sustain their life by taking in nourishment? Is not the make-up of their bodily organs the same? Do they not both return to the same dust after death? Do they not both face one and the same judgment? Is not the prospect of heaven and hell the same for them both?

So when you are equivalent in every way, tell me in what particular way you have more so that you think you can become master of another human being even though you are a human being yourself. “I got me”, you say, “slaves and slave-girls,” as though they were a herd of goats or swine. After saying “I got me slaves and slave-girls,” he added the good cheer that comes through flocks and herds. For he says “And much property in cattle and sheep became mine”, as though animals and slaves were subject to his authority to an equal degree.

This text is copied from the website Early Church Texts – edited by Revd Andrew Maguire

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