Thursday, February 5, 2015

St. Gregory of Nyssa (died c. 395 AD) Early Christian Abolitionist 1

In researching Christian abolitionism for the series the writing of St. Gregory of Nyssa keeps coming up as the earliest explicitly abolitionist writer whose work we know of today.  As he, himself, wrote that his older sister, teacher and, in many ways, his model, St. Macrina the Younger, advocated the equality of all members of their household, including the slaves, "servants" in some translations, talking her mother into "humiliating" herself by living as their equal.  From that it's likely that there was already Christian abolitionism before St. Gregory wrote his Fourth Sermon on Ecclesiastes.   In that sermon he cited a large number of textual references from scripture to back up his call for the freeing of slaves, skillfully showing that someone who tried to do what they call for could not justify keeping people in slavery.

More than one thing I've looked at noted that St. Gregory, despite him being one of the most influential of the preachers and writers of the fourth-century  didn't make much of an impression with his calls for freeing slaves and radical equality.  The hardest moral teachings of the Hebrew-Christian tradition to put into place in life haven't been the ones dealing with sex, they're the ones dealing with material gain.   Even many people who have had no problem with living within the most orthodox sexual code of conduct have had an enormously hard time giving up luxury and material excess.  But, as our founding father - slave holders show, even a totally secular declaration of equality hasn't been anything like a success in the most extreme expression of that, enslaving and totally dispossessing other people of their freedom and the product of their labor.

I am going to post parts of St. Gregory of Nyssa's sermon during this month as part of this series.  It is on a passage from Ecclesiastes, chapter 2 which is a fitting description and condemnation of Thomas Jefferson's "enlightenment" era, slave-based lifestyle.

7 I purchased male and female slaves,
and I owned slaves who were born in my house;
I also possessed more livestock—both herds and flocks—
than any of my predecessors in Jerusalem.
8 I also amassed silver and gold for myself, 
as well as valuable treasures taken from kingdoms and provinces.
I acquired male singers and female singers for myself,
and what gives a man sensual delight—a harem of beautiful concubines!
9 So I was far wealthier than all my predecessors in Jerusalem,
yet I maintained my objectivity:
10 I did not restrain myself from getting whatever I wanted;
I did not deny myself anything that would bring me pleasure.
So all my accomplishments gave me joy;
this was my reward for all my effort.
11 Yet when I reflected on everything I had accomplished
and on all the effort that I had expended to accomplish it,
I concluded: “All these achievements and possessions are ultimately profitless— like chasing the wind!
There is nothing gained from them on earth.”

If you here's a link to some  more modern translation  than the one I'll be using. I'll be quoting the one  from a website that has a lot of his writings and other materials related to him and his works.

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