I'm not easily shocked. Still, the sound of my jaw hitting my desk may have been heard throughout Vancouver a few days ago when something I read truly shocked me.

In an effort to comprehend conservative and evangelical Christians, I read the blog "God's Politics" from time to time. The blog, initiated by Jim Wallis and various colleagues includes writers from many points on the spectrum of religious belief, including Diana Butler Bass who recently visited us, and is intended to foster a dialogue on religion, Christianity, politics and values. I have discovered that faith-based blogs such as this one can include posters' comments as venomous as those on so-called secular blogs, which accounts for my reading posts less frequently than I did initially.

Beginning last fall, I received a number of informational e-mails about the efforts of the tomato-workers in Immokalee, Florida to receive a penny more a pound for the tomatoes they pick. Pickers normally pick and load two tons of tomatoes in a working day, for which they are paid about $50. McDonalds and Yum! Brands (owner of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC) have agreed to the request; Burger King has not.

Sculpture on the grounds of the Christ Church Cathedral, Anglican Diocese of Zanzibar, Tanzania, which was built on the site of a slave market

What began (and continues) as a story about financial exploitation of migrant labour, has evolved into one that the British newspaper The Independent describes as slavery and human rights abuse, based on evidence found by their reporter, including workers shackled and chained into their trailers at night. This report of slave conditions was subsequently confirmed by U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy and Vermont's Senator Bernie Sanders.

The story appeared in God's Politics at the end of January, and a heated debate ensued, mostly about migrant workers and immigration. And then I came across this comment:

"I think those slaves should be obedient to their masters and not try to leave the situation they are in--that is the absolute teaching of God's word. If you don't believe that, you're going to start thinking that we can't apply Paul's ancient situation to our modern one. You're going to suggest that Paul didn't speak God's word to all people in all times."

That's when my jaw dropped.

It seems that the poster was referring to Paul's letter to Philemon (Philemon v. 8-10, 14-15), which I read as Paul's encouraging Philemon to accept Onesimus as a beloved brother, rather than a slave although admittedly, Paul says nothing about setting Onesimus free. Clearly, others read that letter as an acceptance of slavery.

In any case, thinking about this astonishing post, I wondered whether Paul's letter to Philemon was one of the biblical bases for the Church of England's support of slavery 200 years ago. More likely, the Church turned to Paul's first letter to Timothy for biblical validation of the 'appropriateness' of slave-holding.

And yet, notwithstanding the apparent biblical basis for its trading and holding of slaves, in March 1807, 201 years ago, the Church agreed to abolish slave-trading. (Since the Church of England was the biggest slave-owner at the time, the Church's agreement was a pre-requisite to the parliamentary abolition.) Twenty years later, the British Parliament abolished slavery itself.

I now find myself grateful that the person who wrote a post saying "I think those slaves should be obedient to their masters" caused me to see opportunities where I hadn't seen them before. While I had focused on how preposterous it was to believe in slavery because Paul might have written approvingly about it, I now recognized that it was more important to remember that, despite the apparent biblical support of slavery, the Church of England came to see that slavery is wrong.

That recognition gave me hope, or at least cautious optimism, that the Church might also come to see the role of women in our church, and the role of gay, lesbian and transgendered people in new and enriching ways.