Here is Merriam Webster's definition of peonage:1a : the use of laborers bound in servitude because of debt b : a system of convict labor by which convicts are leased to contractors 2: the condition of a peon.
Peonage began within a few years of the Civil War. The emancipated slaves were violently taken to feed the economic interests of the white land owners and politicians.
African American men, women, and boys were regularly arrested for almost anything, even being unemployed. They were fined, jailed, and contracted out to the state, to corporations, and to family businesses. Thirty to forty percent of these “convicts” died during their term of labor. The horror of their living conditions, food allotments, and required labor is grievous. This fiendish system was in operation into the 1940's.
This morning we read one Psalm from the daily office: Psalm 97.
The Lord is King! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Cloud and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him, and consumes his adversaries on every side. His lightenings light up the world; the earth trembles, the mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth . . . . The Lord loves those who hate evil; he guards the lives of his faithful; he rescues them from the hand of the wicked. Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.
Unless every person enslaved in peonage was wicked, which of course I do not believe, this Psalm rings hollow. It seems that only those with power to enslave had a chance to rejoice, be glad, and be safe. The evil deeds were not brought to light by the lightening of the Lord. The enemies of the innocent were not consumed. The lives of the powerless were not guarded, nor were they rescued. No light dawned for them.
So what do we make of the opposing stories?
I believe that these nearly voiceless people are some of the bravest souls who have ever lived. When I die, I fully expect to meet all kinds of unknown people who are now the shinning lights of the worlds to come. I believe in the declarations made in Psalm 97, that one day “all the peoples [will] behold God's glory,” and when that happens everyone will know the righteousness and justice of God's foundation.
What has the world lost because of peonage? Who can say?
Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Amos 5:24