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Slavery as a Spiritual Good

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Yes, friends, we are throwing caution to the winds today and jumping directly into the briar patch of political correctness, for there is still a great deal of hyperventilating nowadays over the South’s ‘peculiar institution’, ranging from groups like Black Lives Matter and the Southern Poverty Law Center to conservative Republican politicians and Evangelical Christians.  All of them condemn Southern slavery as inhuman, evil, backwards, etc. because it denied black folks certain rights, the ability to achieve the American Dream, and so on and so forth.  If man was made simply for materialistic ends, they would be right.  As it is, however, this is not what man was made for, so their arguments miss the most important point.

Man was made for union with God, for union with the All-Holy Trinity through union with Christ’s Church, which is His crucified, risen, ascended, and glorified Body.  Everything that helps us achieve that end is a blessing; everything that hinders, a curse.  And what is one of the chief truths that the Apostles taught regarding the attainment of this wondrous salvation?

[21] And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch,
[22] Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.

—Acts 14:21-2 (bolding added), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/k/kjv/kjv-idx?type=DIV1&byte=4870956

This is contrary to the wisdom of the world, an overturning of its values.  But this is precisely what the Lord Jesus Christ did in His life and teachings:

 . . . Christians are inspired by the vision of the “crucified God”, of Christ the “lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Pet. 1:19), who carries the weight of the upturned pyramid, and they, too, prefer “rather to take wrong” (I Cor. 6:7), because to “suffer” wrongfully “in the behalf of Christ” (cf. Phil. 1:29), is a “thankworthy” gift from God (I Pet. 2:19-20).

 . . . All the scandals in the history of the Church are because no one wants to bear injustice.  We all want to uphold our own dignity and justice; no one wants to take the blame or to suffer a bit of injustice, whereas the Lord tells us not to resist the evil one, and to prefer rather to suffer injustice, as St. Paul exhorts the Corinthians, than to go to civil courts (cf. I Cor. 6:7).

—Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, Christopher Veniamin, ed., Dalton, Pa., Mount Thabor Publishing, 2012, p. 172

And, lo!  The priceless fruit that grows from such humility is holiness, sainthood!  Let us take a short look at but one such beautiful life, that of Saint John the Russian Slave (+1730):

 . . .

Besides the ancient saints, righteous ones, hierarchs, and martyrs, a great and shining cloud of new saints, the majority of them martyrs, has appeared from the time of the taking of Constantinople by the Turks until today. By their martyrdom they strengthened the Faith and adorned with new and unfading crowns our venerable Orthodox Church, which alone stands unchanging and immovable from the time of the Apostles by whom she was founded. And this recalls the word of Haggai the Prophet, who said: “Great shall be the glory of this house (i.e., the Church); the last greater than the first” (Haggai 2:9).

One of those new saints is Saint John the Russian, whose sacred tabernacle is the boast of the blessed island of Euboia, for here did this saint wish to rest and to sanctify the place even more, though it had been sanctified from before by the righteous David the Elder[1]and many other saints.

The righteous John was born in a village of southern Russia, of parents pious and Orthodox, for the blessed race of the Russians has the same spiritual Mother as we—the Orthodox Church—and as given birth to many great saints. Saint John came into this world around the year 1690, when Peter the Great was reigning in Russia. I surmise this from the fact that when John was a brave young lad he was a soldier in the war which that daring Tsar waged against Turkey in the year 1711. In that war, John, together with thousands of other Russians, was taken prisoner by Tartars. The Tartars sold him to a Moslem cavalry officer who was from Procopion in Asia Minor, which is near Caesarea of Cappadocia. The Agha took him to his village. At that time Turkey was filled with an innumerable multitude of Muscovite slaves who groaned under the harsh yoke of the Moslems, and the majority of them, in order to lighten the burden somewhat, alas! denied the Faith of Christ and became Moslem.

John, however, from childhood was nurtured “in instruction and admonition of the Lord,” and he loved God and the religion of his fathers exceedingly. He was one of those young men whom the knowledge of God makes wise, as the wise Solomon declared saying, “The just man is wise even in his youth. For honorable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by number of years. But wisdom is the gray hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age” (Wisdom 4:8-9).

Thus also the blessed John, having that knowledge which God gives to those who love Him, was patient in slavery and the ill-treatment of his master and the insults and annoyances of the Moslems who called him kiafir—that is, unbeliever—thus showing their contempt and aversion. Procopion was the army camp of the Christian-hating Jannisaries,[2]and John was their abomination because to his master and to all who urged him to deny his Faith he answered with firm conviction that he preferred to die rather than  fall into such a fearful sin. To the Agha he said, “If you leave me free in my religion, I will be very eager to carry out your commands. But if you force me to change my faith, know that I will rather surrender you my head than my Faith. A Christian I was born and a Christian shall I die.”

God, seeing his faith and hearing his confession, softened the hard heart of his master and, with time, the Agha came to bear with him. The great humility and meekness which adorned John contributed to this also.

The blessed John, therefore, was left in peace without further promises and threats from his Moslem lord, who had him in his stable to care for his animals. In one corner of the stable he would lay down his tired body and rest, thanking God because he had been deemed worthy to have as a bed the manger in which our Lord Jesus Christ Himself had lain at His birth as Man. He was dedicated to his work, affectionately caring for the animals of his lord, and they, perceiving the love which the saint had for them, would look for him when he was absent. When he petted them, they would look at him with love, and would whinny with joy as though they were talking with him.

As time passed, the Agha and his wife came to love him. They came him as a dwelling place a small room near the hayloft. Yet John did not accept it, but continued sleeping in his beloved stable so that he might be able to bring his body into subjection by a life of privation and asceticism amid the smell of the animals and the stamping of their feet. At night, however, that stable would be filled with the prayers of the Saint, and the smell would become an odor of a spiritual fragrance. The blessed John made that stable into a hermitage. There he lived according to the rule of the Fathers, kneeling and praying for hours, taking a little rest by curling up on the hay without any covering except for an old coat. Many times he ate only a little bread and water, fasting most days and chanting with a quiet voice the psalms of David, which he knew in the Slavonic tongue: “He that dwelleth in the help of the Most High shall abide in the shelter of the God of heaven. He shall say unto the Lord: Thou art my helper and my refuge. He is my God, and I will hope in Him.. For He shall deliver thee from the snare of the hunters and from every troubling word (Ps. 90:1-3). They laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness and in the shadow of death. (Ps. 87:6). Unto the Lord in mine affliction have I cried, and He heard me (Ps. 119:1). The Lord shall keep thy coming in and thy going out, from henceforth and for evermore (Ps. 120:8). Unto Thee have I lifted up mine eyes, unto Thee that dwellest in heaven. Behold, as the eyes of servants look unto the hands of their masters, . . . so do our eyes look unto the Lord our God, until He take pity on us” (Ps. 122:1, 2).

He would even silently chant the psalms while he followed the horse of his master, according to the duty of a stable-boy, when his master was taking a ride in the country. With the blessing which the Saint brought to his house, the Turkish cavalry officer became rich and was one of the powerful men in Procopion.

The holy stable-boy—besides the prayers and fasting which he did day and night inside that stable, winter and summer, lying upon the dung like another Job—would go at night and keep vigils standing in the narthex of the chapel of Saint George, which was built in the hollow of a rock near the house of his Turkish master. He would go there secretly at night, and every Saturday he would partake of the immaculate Mysteries. And the Lord, Who examineth the heart and the reins, looked upon His faithful slave and caused his fellow slaves and other believers to cease from mocking and insulting him. And the Lord also gave many riches to John’s master, who understood whence such blessing had come unto his house and proclaimed it to his fellow citizens.

 . . .

But after a few years, during which the blessed John lived with fasting, prayer, and sleeping on the ground, the end of his life approached. He became ill and lay upon the straw in that stable which he had sanctified with his supplications and the privation of his body for the sake of the name and the love of Christ, Who became man like unto us and was crucified for our love. Foreseeing his end, he called for a priest and asked to partake of the immaculate Mysteries. But because of the fanaticism of the Turks, the priest was afraid to bring the Holy Mysteries into the stable openly. However, he was made wise, according to divine enlightenment, and taking an apple he dug it out, lined the cavity with beeswax, and placed the divine Communion inside. Thus he went to the stable and gave Communion to the blessed John, who, upon receiving the immaculate Body and Blood of the Lord, surrendered his holy soul into the hands of God Whom he loved so much. This took place on the 27th of May, of the year 1730.[4]

In this manner reposed Saint John the Russian, the new Job, who passed his life upon a dungheap, the second Lazarus who endured the mockings of his fellow servants and whose wounds his master’s dogs —who also slept with him— did lick.

 . . .

Esset Agha, an old man who was a descendant of the Moslem cavalry officer who was the master of Saint John, narrated with simplicity to the many Christians of Procopion the many and various benefactions of which his family had been deemed worthy by God through the prayers of the righteous John. He would speak with elderly sobriety and say: “My children would not live except for a short time, and would die while yet infants. They would not reach that which we call ‘childhood’ so that we might rejoice in them. Their unfortunate mother, after she had lost hope in the wisdom of medicine, fled without my knowledge to the relics of the slave John, so that he might grant her a little child which would not die while yet young, so that we also might rejoice to se it as a young man, or even a young girl. She offered beeswax and other gifts to the lamplighter so that he might entreat John for her, and she promised furthermore that if her supplication was heard and John granted her a child she would call it ‘the child of John.’ In truth the righteous John heard the supplication of my wife. God granted us a strong little boy whom we called, as you know, Kole Guvan Oglu (that is, “Son of the Slave John”), and he lives through the power of God and the prayers of John even until today, and he is studying in a school.” The child was known to all, both at home and at school, by this name of Son of the Slave John. And if anyone who did not know him would ask, “Who is the Son of the Slave John?” he immediately would answer with childish pride, striking his chest and saying with joy, “I am the Son of the Slave John.”

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/OrthodoxInfo/conversations/messages/1382

(Thanks to Mr Cristian for the link to St John’s life.)

Who was the more blessed, the master or the slave?  The one who had riches and ease or the one who was poor and afflicted?  The life and miracles of St John give a clear answer.

Fr Moses Berry, a priest of the Orthodox Church whose forebears were slaves in the States, attempts to give a similar warning to African Americans:

Our present crisis, which is a spiritual one, had its beginnings in social integration.  I won’t say that integration was the downfall of the black man in this country, but it did present a real problem.  When we were segregated, it was very clear that we were not “of this world.”  I’m not suggesting that it was ever a heavenly existence for us, but we did not look for our peace here and now, but in the world to come.

 . . . We took our eye off the genuine prize, which is otherworldly Christianity, and we started focusing on what we could attain in this present world.  We have bought into every idea that the national advertising industry waves in front of us.  We have succumbed to the desire to make everything in this world belong to us whether it was for us to have or not.  . . .

Nowadays we have forgotten how to be poor—how to make the best of what little you have without resenting not having everything that’s put out in the marketplace.  How to be thankful to God for everything He brings our way.  There are stories of slaves who were beaten until their bones were bare, and at each fall of the lash on their backs would cry “Lord, have mercy.”  Even in their extremity they remembered God.  We have forgotten Him in our abundance, crying only, “I want more.”

—‘Lost Heritage of African-Americans’, An Unbroken Circle, Fr Paisius Altschul, ed., St Louis, Mo., Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, 1997, pgs. 67-9

Is it not clear?  The things modern America holds up as exemplary - the comfortable middle-class life with plenty of entertainment, new cars, tasty food, etc. - is spiritually deadly.  For any man or woman (be he white, Asian, black, etc.) to clamor for them or to protest their lack of these things is a terrible mistake.

This is not a blanket condemnation of anyone in the middle or upper classes:  God does give to some wealth, even great wealth, to be used for certain purposes He has decreed.  Nevertheless, it is important to remember who the blessed ones really are in this world:

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, 10 but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. 11 For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits.

—James 1:2-4, 9-11, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1&version=NKJV

In all of this, we are not wistfully longing for the return of Southern slavery to the world, only a proper Christian view of and reaction to it.  And the ongoing acrimony surrounding it from so many points on the social-political spectrum is fairly good evidence that we have not yet reached that point.

Author: Walt Garlington