Home » Sermons » New Testament » The City, Slavery, and African-Canadians


The City, Slavery, and African-Canadians


              Philemon        Genesis 4:8-17


I: — “The biblical story begins in a garden and culminates in a city,” the pamphlet advertising Knox Summer Fellowship tells us.  The pamphlet is correct. Human existence begins in a garden, ‘ Eden ,’ Hebrew for ‘delight.’ The ‘garden of delight’ informs us, symbolically, that everything we humans need to thrive is given us by the God whose goodness and generosity are boundless.

Then how did we get from the garden to the city? God, we know, created Eden , garden of delight. But where did the city come from? Cain built the first city, and after Cain cities proliferated.

Why did Cain build a city?  Cain has slain his brother. He thinks a city will function like a fort; that is, protect him – protect him from the God who is now pursuing him.  In the wake of Cain’s violation of his brother God asks him, “Where is your brother?”

“How am I supposed to know?” Cain replies; “Is he my responsibility?” Whereupon God puts a second question to Cain: “What have you done?”

Now Cain is squirming as God interrogates him. Cain doesn’t enjoy being pressured. He wants to insulate himself against such pressure.  And so he builds a city. Why a city?   Cain has been condemned by God to being a fugitive and a vagabond.  But Cain can’t endure being a vagabond without a home and a fugitive anxiously looking over his shoulder.  What’s more, murderous Cain has introduced insecurity into humankind, a taste for blood, and the pursuit of vengeance.  Muderous Cain can’t endure the anxiety of living amidst insecurity and vindictiveness. He thinks a city will provide him the preoccupation he needs to keep God’s questions out of his ears and God himself out of his face.         He thinks a city’s population and a city’s distractions will let him forget what he is, what he has done, and what he has brought to others. He thinks he can quiet himself and protect himself by building a city.  He thinks a city will provide the tranquillity of a home and the security of a fort. (The problem, of course, is that everyone else in the city is also a murderer looking for tranquillity and security.)

Cain wasn’t the first to disobey God.  His parents were. Adam and Eve had disobeyed God at the epicentre of their existence. They had made a U-turn that had left them oriented away from God, dis-oriented in every sense of the word. In the wake of their shocking disobedience God expelled them from the garden by God’s own judicial act, and then God had put to them the first question scripture records: “Where are you?”  They didn’t answer. They couldn’t. They didn’t know where they were; they merely knew where they weren’t: they weren’t at home amidst delight.

After God had expelled Cain’s parents from the garden God placed an angel with a flaming sword that turned every which way at the east end of the garden, the end from which they had been expelled, the end through which they would attempt to re-enter.  The flaming sword ensured that humankind could never regain Eden . No human effort at undoing the Fall; no human effort at righting itself before God will ever succeed. No utopia will ever achieve what it promises. The angel with the flaming sword ensures that all attempts at utopias issue in dystopias. The 20th Century saw two attempts at utopias, one from the political right (Nazism) and one from the political left (communism.)         Both proved murderous dystopias.

At this point the Bible unfolds the Genesis-to-Revelation story of the city.  There are scores of cities mentioned in Scripture.  All of them have one thing in common: they are monuments to humankind’s defiance of God, and they are barricades behind which we think we can hide from God.   “We don’t need you,” we cry to God, “because we have our magnificent city, and it both comforts us and secures us. What’s more, we have no time for you because our city fills the horizon of our lives, waking and sleeping.”

Think of Babel . (Genesis 11) “Let us make a name for ourselves. Let us build ourselves a city, a tower with its top in the heavens.”  We aren’t happy with the name God has given us.  In Scripture ‘name’ means ‘nature’ or ‘essence.’         We aren’t happy with the nature God has given us.  Our nature: God’s faithful, obedient covenant-partners?  We don’t want that: we want to create our own nature, fashion our own essence. We want to be self-made people from start to finish.  If we fashion ourselves and programme ourselves then we won’t be accountable to anyone or indebted to anyone.

Another city is built, and others after that. Babylon looms. Babylon is a terrible city. It carries off God’s people into exile and torments them.  Babylon , of course, is that wicked city which shouldn’t have surprised God’s people since they already knew, regrettably, what cities are about.

But Babylon doesn’t last forever. Eventually there’s a return to Jerusalem , ‘Hier Shalem,’ city of shalom, city of salvation.  Jerusalem is surely the God-given antidote to toxic Babylon and all cities like it.

Hier Shalem, city of salvation?  Jerusalem is the city that slays God’s prophets and crucifies God’s messiah. It isn’t the antidote to anything.

For this reason Jerusalem must give way to the New Jerusalem.  The New Jerusalem is new not in the quantitative sense of ‘most recent,’ the chronologically most recent version of ‘same old, same old.’ The New Jerusalem is new in the qualitative sense of ‘entirely different.’  The New Jerusalem is unlike any previous city in that it is the first city whose sole builder is God.  It is the only city God’s Messiah adorns.

This city, be it noted, includes a garden.  The New Jerusalem recovers and restores the old, old garden, Revelation 22 tells us. Only now the garden’s tree of life is the occasion not of humankind’s incomprehensible sin but of the healing of the nations.

There’s only one problem concerning the New Jerusalem: no one has seen it. It’s been promised, but the promise hasn’t been fulfilled.  The promised city isn’t here.

Or is it?  The city of God is the kingdom of God . Jesus insists that wherever he, the king, is present, the kingdom is operative.  (After all, everyone knows there can’t be a king without a kingdom or a kingdom without a king.)  Jesus Christ the King, risen triumphant over sin, evil and death, now ruling and ceaselessly pouring forth the Spirit; Christ the King is in our midst. Therefore his kingdom is present and operative.

Then why is Christ’s kingdom still disputed? It’s disputed because the world lacks the spiritual qualification to see it.         The kingdom can be seen only by those who are kingdom-sighted, just as colour can be perceived only by those who are colour-sighted.  Colour-blind people don’t see colour and aren’t expected to.  But let us be sure of one thing: those whom the king has rendered kingdom-sighted; they most certainly recognize the presence of the kingdom and rejoice in it.

Actually, the kingdom-sighted see both the kingdom of God and what the apostle Paul calls “this present evil age.”         They see both, and see both simultaneously.  (In other words they aren’t naïve.)  But even as they see both simultaneously, they don’t see both with equal vividness and clarity. Their perception of the kingdom predominates.

When I hold a book in front of me in reading range and look at it I see the printed page clearly, in focus, and everything else on the periphery less clearly, less focused, less vivid.  Or I can hold a book in front of me and look not at it but rather what’s behind it or beside it. Now everything else is clear, focused, vivid, while the book (I can see it and therefore know it’s there) I can’t read because it’s unfocused.

Tell me: which is more focused, clear, vivid for you: the kingdom of God or this present evil age? Both are here (for now); both are occurring simultaneously.  But both can’t be our primary focus simultaneously.

On the day that God has appointed, the city of God , whose only builder is God, will shine forth beyond dispute.         Until that day the city of God , the kingdom of God , remains superimposed on this present evil age.  Only the kingdom-sighted can see the present kingdom; but they do see it, and see it as the city of God, which city of God they know will one day stand forth alone, unobscured, no longer disputed because indisputable.

What are Christians to do in the meantime?  Our task is never to build the kingdom, build the city of God . (Remember, anything we build we pervert.)   Our task is to discern the kingdom; discern it, exalt it, point to it, and point others to it.

In the meantime Christians live in the overlap of kingdom and present evil age; we live in the superimposition of the city of God upon the cities of humankind. We aren’t naïve; we recognize the startling contradiction between the city whose builder is Cain and the city whose builder is God.  Yet we aren’t paralyzed by the contradiction.  We know what we are to discern and to do.


II: — Cain violated his brother Abel.  We humans violate each other – violate each other lethally – in many different ways. One such violation, deadly to be sure, is slavery.  We violate our sisters and brothers who are made like us in the image and likeness of God. Every time someone is enslaved, anywhere in the world, Cain slays Abel afresh.           Slavery is a blatant contradiction of the city of God , a blatant contradiction of the kingdom.

Slavery is rampant in the world today.  At the end of 2009 there were approximately 29.2 million humans enslaved throughout the world. The average value of a slave (right now) is $340 ( U.S. ); the lowest market value is for debt-bondage slaves ($40-$50), while the highest market value is for sex slaves ($1895.)  In India there are currently 40 million ‘bonded labour’ slaves, people of the ‘untouchable class’ in the caste system who labour to pay off debts incurred generations ago. Nigeria boasts 800,000 slaves (or 8% of the nation’s population.)  As of 2002 there were 109,000 child-slaves working as forced labourers on cocoa farms in the Cote d’Ivoire . Millions of people toiled as slaves in the former Soviet Gulag system of penal labour.  Slave-trafficking remains big business, with approximately 800,000 people trafficked every year across national borders.


III: — Slavery is as old as humankind. Slavery thrived everywhere throughout the Roman Empire . When the apostle Paul penned his letter to slave-holder Philemon, there were 60 million slaves throughout the empire. We mustn’t deceive ourselves.  ‘Slave’ was not then and is not now and another word for ‘employee.’ A slave was deemed subhuman. Aristotle spoke of slaves as animated tools.  In the Roman era slaves had no rights before the law; slaves had no means of appeal against their masters.  The Latin expression concerning slaves was non habens personam; that is, ‘not having a face.’


Paul wrote to Philemon in the year 62 (approximately.)  Tacitus, a first century Roman historian and senator, relates the story of the murder of Pedanius Secundus in 61.  Pedanius Secundus happened to be murdered by one his own slaves.  Whenever a slave slew a householder the custom was that all the slaves of that household were to be put to death – an obvious attempt at telling slaves that if any one of them misbehaved then all of them would be executed.  All the slaves of Pedanius Secundus’ household were executed; that is, all 400 of them, including women and children.

  Slavery is iniquitous. Slavery of any sort means that a human being is regarded as and deployed as – as an animal? On the contrary animals customarily receive much better treatment than slaves.  Slavery means that a human being is regarded as less than an animal, is regarded as a tool, stick, a stone, an implement, an object than can be replaced by any similar object as surely as any one hammer or screwdriver can be replaced by any other hammer or screwdriver.

The apostle Paul knew slavery to be iniquitous. Then why didn’t he rail against it? The reason is simple: he knew that railing would be pointless and would do nothing to assist the people who needed help most, the slaves themselves. Railing would only strengthen the resolve of slave-owners to maintain the social arrangement that looked upon slavery as economically necessary and socially desirable; a social arrangement, in other words, that was impregnable.

Paul chose another approach.  Instead of attacking the institution of slavery frontally he attacked it tangentially; he sought to undermine it covertly; he sought to erode it, erode it little by little.  Having declared unambiguously to the Christians in Galatia, “All are one in Christ Jesus, and therefore in Christ, before Christ, there is neither slave nor free,” he was confident that the gospel of the new creation in Christ wherein social class-divisions are transcended; this new creation would emerge in the midst of a people in whom the gospel worked as surely as yeast leavens the dough in which it lurks.

Paul’s letter to Philemon embodies the logic of his tangential assault on slavery; the letter also embodies the mood of Paul’s approach (namely the appeal of love rather than loud denunciation); and the letter embodies Paul’s confidence that the gospel which transforms the heart is effectual and therefore accomplishes what it declares.

While Paul customarily wrote to congregations, in Rome or Philippi or Thessalonica, for instance, his letter to Philemon is written to an individual, one man. (The letter to Philemon is the only letter we have that Paul wrote to an individual.)

Paul’s letter didn’t end the institution of slavery overnight. At the same time there’s widespread agreement that what this letter embodied, working quietly like yeast for years, caused the ferment that helped much of the world renounce and denounce slavery.


And now to the story the letter reflects.  Onesimus was a runaway slave.  He fled to Rome where he lost himself in the crowded city.  While in Rome he met Paul. Through Paul’s ministry Onesimus came to throbbing faith in Jesus Christ.         Paul loved Onesimus. He spoke of Onesimus as “my child,” meaning, “someone dear to me whom I fathered into faith.” So dear was Onesimus to Paul that when Paul sent him back to Philemon he wrote, “I am sending Onesimus back to you; I am sending back my very heart.

Since it was such a wrench for Paul to send Onesimus back, why didn’t he keep Onesimus with him in Rome ? Because he wanted to preserve Onesimus’ life. Paul knew that while Onesimus had managed to keep secret so far his status as runaway slave, the secret couldn’t be kept forever.  Onesimus was from Colosse. People from Colosse visited Rome all the time. In no time a visitor from Colosse would come upon Onesimus, recognize him, and turn him in. Once discovered, Onesimus wouldn’t be sent back to Philemon; once discovered Onesimus would be tortured by the Roman government and then executed.

As I’ve mentioned already, there were 60 million slaves throughout the Roman Empire at this time. In order to discourage slaves from escaping, any runaway slave, once caught, was executed. Anyone who helped a slave to escape or harboured a runaway slave was also executed.  When a runaway slave was caught, a white-hot branding iron seared the letter “F” in his forehead; “F” for Fugitivus, “runaway.” The branding itself was torture, and it was followed by greater torture: crucifixion.  Paul loved Onesimus and wanted him to keep him alive  Little wonder he sent Onesimus back.

But back as what?  If Philemon received Onesimus and said nothing about the slave’s having departed months earlier, Onesimus would be back alive, all right, but back as a slave once again.  In other words, from the perspective of Roman officialdom, Onesimus would be the slave he had always been.

But Paul wasn’t operating from the perspective of Roman officialdom; Paul operated from the perspective of the gospel.  And according to the gospel – in Christ we are new creatures who live in a new world where old distinctions and divisions mean nothing – according to the gospel Paul was sending Onesimus back as a free man.  When Paul sent Onesimus back he asked Philemon to receive him as a “beloved brother in the Lord.”

To make this latter point crystal clear, Paul added, “Receive him as a beloved brother in the flesh.” To receive anyone as a brother in the Lord ought to be enough to overcome within the church all the social differences and distinctions that riddle a society. Ought to be enough; but, sadly, a congregation can think itself sincere in claiming to receive everyone as brother or sister in the Lord while maintaining (perhaps unknowingly) the social standoffs that curse a society. For this reason Paul added, “Receive Onesimus as a brother in the flesh.” In other words, Onesimus the slave and Philemon the master were henceforth to be looked upon, and to look upon themselves, as blood-brothers without distinction. Not only was Onesimus not Philemon’s spiritual inferior; henceforth Onesimus was to be Philemon’s social equal.  Right here Paul undermined the institution of slavery.  To be sure, it would take decades before slavery was abolished in the empire; still, it was undermined here.

Then Paul added something more.  “You and I are partners, Philemon; receive Onesimus as you would receive me.” Philemon was to receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul, his partner in the gospel. Paul, we must remember, was a Roman citizen. A Roman citizen could never be made a slave.  Then while the Roman government would continue to look upon Onesimus as a slave, Philemon was never to treat Onesimus as a slave.  The slave who was not only a brother in the Lord was also virtually a brother in the flesh and also virtually a Roman citizen.  Philemon was never to look upon Onesimus as a slave again.

Paul knew himself to be an apostle and knew himself recognized as an apostle. He spoke with apostolic authority. Yet when he writes to Philemon he sets his authority aside.  Gently he writes, “Although I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.” As an apostle he could tell Philemon, a Christian, what Christian truth required Philemon to do. But Paul feared that if he did this Philemon might obey him, to be sure, but obey him grudgingly. And so Paul writes, “For love’s sake, your love’s sake….” Elsewhere in the letter Paul says he knows Philemon well; he knows that Philemon has a heart as big as a house, a heart that overflows with love for God’s people. In the past, Paul reminds Philemon, Philemon’s love has been an immense comfort and joy to Paul himself. Appealing now to Philemon’s love Paul pleads, “For love’s sake take Onesimus back; and take him back not as a slave but more than a slave.  Take him back as beloved brother; but not merely as a brother in the Lord but as a brother in the flesh. Receive him as you would receive me, a free man and a Roman citizen who can’t be enslaved.”

Then towards the end of the letter Paul adds “I write you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”         What’s the “more?” The “more” is that Philemon will go one step farther than taking back Onesimus without punishing him; Philemon will take the ultimate step of releasing Onesimus from slavery altogether.  In the Roman Empire a slave-owner could grant a slave his release at any time.  Paul has piled up reason upon reason, Christian ground upon Christian ground not merely for humane treatment of a slave but for the outright release of a slave. The gospel requires that slaves be freed.

In one of the glorious paradoxes in which the gospel abounds, Paul, a prisoner himself in Rome and awaiting trial, did more than the world will ever know to free enslaved people everywhere.


IV: — Yet because Cain is always among us (because Cain is always within us, slaves have to be freed in every era, in every corner of the world.  Slaves had to be freed in Canada .

The first black slave to be transported directly from Africa to Canada was Olivier Le Jeune, assigned a French name while crossing the Atlantic . The first, he was by no means the last; slaves were regularly imported from the West Indies and from New England; by 1759 there were 1132 slaves in New France.  When the British defeated the French in 1760, the British brought even more slaves to Canada .

The American Revolutionary War found United Empire Loyalists flocking to Canada and bringing black slaves with them.  In addition many slaves appeared in Canada who weren’t attached to Loyalists but who were simple fugitives, hoping that the bondage they were fleeing in the United States they wouldn’t find in Canada . There appeared in Canada as well 3,500 free black loyalists; they had been American-owned slaves and had been granted their freedom by the British when they sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. In fact they had been promised the same privileges and rights as the white Loyalists. These free black loyalists settled in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia . They had been promised land. Soon they realized most of them would be granted no land at all.  The few who did get land were assigned land that was useless. All they could do was deliver themselves into the hands of white people eager to exploit them. At the same time the black victims of broken promises were now segregated in churches and schools or even excluded from churches and schools.

Fifty years after the American Revolutionary War the War of 1812 broke out. Thousands of black American slaves fled to the British for protection.  Once again they were promised land and freedom in Canada . Formally known as “Black Refugees,” the first of them arrived in Halifax in 1813. They were welcomed enthusiastically as a large supply of cheap labour.  Immediately following the War of 1812, however, a severe economic recession, along with a sudden influx of white immigrants from Britain , pushed the black people even farther down the social order and removed the little economic opportunity they had had.

While Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833 ( France in 1848) slavery continued to thrive in the United States . In 1850 the USA passed the Fugitive Slave Act, promising even harsher treatment for runaway blacks and anyone who assisted them.  Not surprisingly, many more slaves fled to Ontario , whose black population now numbered 40,000.  In the same year (1850) Ontario reacted by passing the Common School Act.  This act permitted separate schools for blacks.  If no separate school existed, then black children could be made to attend class at separate times from white children, or be made to sit on segregated benches. We must note that while black/white segregation was legal in Ontario only in the school system, de facto segregation occurred everywhere else (e.g., black people in Ontario could neither vote nor sit on juries; interracial marrying was enough to provoke a riot).

Between 1910 and 1912 1,300 black persons immigrated to Canada . They settled in Alberta and Saskatchewan . Immediately white people on the prairies demanded legislation to preserve the Canadian West for Caucasians. The Canadian government prepared the legislation but never enacted it out of fear of damaging relations with the USA . Less formal means were deployed to prohibit black people from entering Canada ; for instance, the physical and financial qualifications for black immigrants were made insuperably difficult, while Canadian immigration officials who disqualified blacks were surreptitiously rewarded.  The result was predictable: by 1912 all black immigration to Canada had been halted without Canada ’s ever having declared a racist policy formally.

In early 20th Century Canada black people found they could get only the most menial jobs.  Sleeping-car porters were almost exclusively black, for instance, while dining-car waiters were exclusively white.  Even the federal government permitted racial restrictions in hiring and promotion practices within the civil service.  Housing discrimination abounded.  In fact when I was a teenager in the late 1950s I knew that black players on Toronto ’s professional minor league baseball team regularly responded to advertisements for rental accommodation only to be turned away when they appeared in person.

There’s a point about all of this that we must note carefully. Canada (after 1867) has never enacted race-legislation; nevertheless, race-discrimination has been upheld by Canadian courts as legally acceptable.  In 1919 a Quebec appellate court deemed it legal for a theatre to restrict black people to inferior seating. In 1924 Ontario courts upheld a restaurant which refused to serve black people.  In 1941 the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Montreal Forum Tavern in its refusal to serve black people.  The courts consistently upheld racial discrimination as legal in a country that boasted of having no racial legislation.

Canadian courts have decreed that racial discrimination is illegal. The Canadian Bill of Rights and the Human Rights Commission have strengthened the courts in this regard.  Passing legislation, however, does nothing to alter attitudes in individuals. Black people, faced with persistent discrimination, have formed the Black United Front in Nova Scotia and the National Black Coalition of Canada.  Studies undertaken by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have revealed that most employment agencies will agree, if asked by prospective employers, to screen out non-white job applicants.  Once hired, black people as a group appear at the lowest end of the wage scale without regard for training or experience.  An Ontario Human Rights Commission study has disclosed that black people who hold a Master of Business Administration degree earn 25% less than white people with the same degree and the same professional experience.


Two hundred years ago, on the 10th of February, 1806 , a Toronto newspaper carried the following advertisement:  “For sale. Two slaves. Peggy, aged 40, adequate cook, $150. Her son, Jupiter, aged 15, $200.” Two hundred dollars for a fifteen year old black boy was a great deal of money in 1806. Whoever purchased these slaves was clearly expecting enormous work from them, since a horse would have cost far less.

“Why keep talking about something that happened 200 years ago?” someone objects; “All of that is long gone; let’s move ahead.” We can “move ahead” only if we remember that the last racially segregated school in Ontario was shut down as recently as 1965.


V: — Murderous Cain built the first city. He named the city ‘Enoch,’ named it after his son Enoch.  Ever since Cain’s ‘Enoch’ the city has been humankind’s monument to its God-defiance. We think that the city we build provides us a safety from the long arm of God and security from our fellow-citizens – who, of course, are murderous, just like us – or why else would they look to the city as a shield against insecurity and vindictiveness?

Cain named the first city after his son.  After whose Son is the last city named?  The last city, the final city, is the New Jerusalem.  It is the kingdom of Christ the King, Son of the living God.  It is the holy city.

We who are the people of the great king can see the holy city just because we are kingdom-sighted.  Seeing the holy city we want only to witness to it, since it is now superimposed it on whatever earthly city we inhabit.  We want only to point to and point others to the kingdom, a city that cannot be shaken.

We aren’t naïve.  We know the history of all earthly cities.  We know the history of Canada and the history of black people in Canada . We know the history of Rome and Colosse and the history of slaves in Rome and Colosse. But like the apostle Paul, we have been apprehended by the king and appointed to his kingdom. Then the truth of God that Paul urged upon Philemon is the same truth that we must do whenever we have opportunity to do it.

“I am sending Onesmimus back to you, Philemon; I am sending you my very heart.  Receive him as you would receive me.”   And as Philemon does just this, the city of Enoch , sought-after refuge of murderous Cain but no refuge at all; the city of Enoch is eclipsed by the city of God , named after God’s Son, in which city, John tells us, the nations of the world are healed.

You and I have been appointed to render the city of God visible as we identify and resist the violation of any human being, anywhere.  For by God’s grace, the author of Hebrews reminds us, we have been granted citizenship in a kingdom, the city of God , that cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28).


Victor Shepherd

11 August 2010