Question: I was recently reading a prayer of consecration wherein we were asking the Lord and Our Lady to make us slaves to the will of God. How is this not outrageous and horrifying given the history of slavery in our culture?
— Name, location withheld
Answer: Your concern is understandable. The slavery of the colonial period was detestable for many reasons. In biblical times, slavery resulted largely from three causes: one owed large debts, one had committed a range of serious crimes but not capital, or one was a soldier in a losing army. Hence, slavery replaced prison or death. But, the slavery of the colonial period (16th-19th centuries) exploited peoples who committed no crimes, engaged in no war and owed no debt. It was unjust and horrible. The slavery of biblical times was not without serious problems, hence the biblical texts admonish both slaves and slave masters to observe certain limits (cf. Eph 6:5). There is no blanket-approval of slavery as critics allege.
So, prayers that speak of us as “slaves” to God or, subordinately, to the Virgin Mother, need to be understood in the biblical context in which they are meant.
Let’s look at some passages from the Bible wherein the term “slave” is applied to disciples. Often today, the Greek word doulos (slave) is translated as “servant.” But this is a euphemism since a “servant” is paid and free to leave employment. Slaves do not have these options. Hence, our modern translations hide a more provocative image than most of us know. Consider some of the following examples:
- In the Letter to the Philippians we read: “Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil 2:5-7). Notice then, while some translations say he became a “servant” the Greek word is δοῦλος (doulos), which translates “slave.” What this means is that Jesus became wholly obedient to death obeying his Father completely, and though, despising the shame of the cross, he went there because his Father willed it. He did not negotiate a better deal or, like a servant, resign. As a “slave” he obeyed his Father absolutely.
- When Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38), as most modern translations render it, there is hidden from us what she more literally said, “Behold, I am the slave-girl (δούλη = doule = slave girl) of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you have said.” Perhaps we wince at this sort of talk, but that is most literally what it says.
- In Romans 6, St. Paul teaches that, although we like to think we are big-shots, we are actually just little specks of dust in a vast universe. We are going to be slaves to someone: either the devil, the world, the flesh or God. We might as well be slaves to God who loves us. St. Paul writes: “Just as you presented the parts of your bodies as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness for lawlessness, so now present them as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free from righteousness. … For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit that you have leads to sanctification, and its end is eternal life” (Rom 6:19-22). Herein St. Paul presents the paradox, namely that there is no place safer and freer than inside the will of God and in a “slavish” but loving and absolute obedience to his commands. Slavery to God paradoxically provides the greatest freedom we can ever hope to experience. Hence, as our Lord teaches, “Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. … So if a son frees you, then you will truly be free” (Jn 8:34-36). So, “bondage” and obedience to the truth our Lord teaches is the paradoxical and surest way out of destructive slavery. The horrific slavery of the devil and his world are the surest way to miss out on the glorious freedom of the children of God.
In the end, we do best to live in a biblical world and understand its terms, not demand that it conform to our terminology. While words in our times may provoke understandable feelings, we are best served by overcoming this and learning what our Lord teaches in a counter and cross cultural way. “Slavery” in God’s commands is the surest path to true freedom.