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Dear Philemon

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Sep 04

Text: Philemon 1:1-21

Today we read from a provoking text, Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is a challenging text because it addresses slavery quite explicitly, but we really have to wrestle with the text to understand Paul’s meaning. It’s a provocative text, because over the years, Philemon has been used by both pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists to support opposing arguments. What should we make of this letter?

The great African American theologian Howard Thurman was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University in the 1950s and 60s. One scholar writes, “Thurman recalled how his illiterate formerly enslaved grandmother would not allow him to read Paul to her. Slave owners, she said, constantly employed Paul’s letters to promote docility among the slaves.”(1)

Was the experience of Thurman’s grandmother a misuse of Paul? Or is the defense of slavery consistent with Paul’s message? What does he actually say? Why should it matter to us? Before we engage these questions, let’s ask something even more fundamental about how we do theological reflection.

Where do we begin? Where do we begin when we reflect on what is sacred, or consider what is ethical, when we think about moral life, or ponder our lives-in-community? Where do we start our reflection when we are touched by something holy, or when we experience the brokenness of the world, or we engage the urgent problems of our age? Do we begin with the grieving family who has lost a child to gun violence? Do we begin in the streets of Aleppo? Or in the slave quarters with Thurman’s grandmother? Yes.

And for Christians, The Bible also figures in there somewhere! For some, scripture is the starting point for religious, spiritual and ethical reflection—a singular source and infallible authority. For others, scripture is less exalted—a collection of wisdom handed down from our forebears—important, but less central to our way of navigating the world. And for some, Biblical texts are on par with other literature—say great poetry, or the sacred texts of other traditions. In this congregation, I suspect we have members at just about every point along this spectrum. Whether it’s our singular starting point, or just somewhere in the mix, all of us look to scripture in some way to inform our understanding of what is sacred and good and right.

John Wesley had helpful way of speaking about religious understanding. He identified four sources of divine revelation: scripture, tradition, reason and experience. If you think about it, you can see that each Christian denomination (and each individual Christian!) draws on our own unique blend of these four sources. It can be a bit of a juggling act to keep these four in the air all at once! Sometimes one of them just wants to fly off in its own direction. But we need to keep them working in concert, even if there’s an uncomfortable tension.

So, what do you say we head directly into that uncomfortable tension? Let us ask: “What does the Bible teach regarding slavery?” Our moral selves, our experiential selves, and all our cultural norms condemn the institution of slavery. The enslavement of human beings has devastated countless lives. Almost 250 years of chattel slavery in this country alone had devastating material consequences that are still playing out in wage and wealth gaps, education gaps, segregated neighborhoods, patterns of ownership, policing practices, sentencing guidelines…The list goes on and on.

But what does scripture say? Does is support what our reason concludes—that slavery is an abomination? Does it confirm what human experience tells us—that it is dead wrong? Is slavery explicitly sanctioned by scripture, as some pro-slavery voices argued? Or is the very idea of slavery anathema to the gospel?

In sorting this out, we need to acknowledge first, that The Bible does not speak with a unitary voice on the issue. Neither the Hebrew scriptures nor the New Testament conveys a single, clear message. And let us not fall into the common error of thinking that the New Testament’s message is somehow superior to the substance of the Hebrew scriptures. Both are contradictory within themselves. In the Hebrew scriptures, the entire story of Exodus is about the Israelites escaping into freedom from bondage in Egypt. This release from bondage is a defining moment in which God acts decisively for the welfare of God’s beloved people. This powerful narrative, at the very heart of Torah, teaches that the conditions of servitude do not support human flourishing.

In stark contrast to this story of liberation, passages in Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers not only permit slavery, they also condone it, giving explicit directives about who may be enslaved, how slaves are to be passed on as property, and how slaves are to be treated.(2)

In the New Testament, too, is the painful and familiar “slaves obey your masters,” which is found in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter. This is undoubtedly where the slave owners in Thurman’s grandmother’s day got their ideas. That these letters were most certainly not written by Paul himself, but rather by someone claiming Paul’s authority, hardly matters. The damage is done.

Of course, slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient world. One scholar observes, “Without exception, biblical societies were slaveholding societies. The Bible engages remarkably diverse cultures — Ethiopian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman — but in every one of them some people owned the rights to others.”(3) In ancient Rome, between one third and one half of residents were enslaved people.(4)

For people in the biblical world, then, slavery was understood to be part of the natural order of things. So much taken-for-granted, that it would be nothing short of astonishing, to find a straightforward biblical argument for the abolition of slavery.

Is this what we encounter in Philemon? The story is this. Paul was in prison, where he met Onesimus. We do not know why Onesimus is in jail. Possibly simply because he has run away from Philemon, to whom he “belongs” and this is considered a kind of theft.

In jail, Paul and Onesimus have become close and Paul has come to love Onesimus with a great affection. And so Paul writes to Philemon to convince the slave master—a fellow Christian—to look with mercy on Onesimus and to welcome him back, not as a slave—but as an equal.

Paul writes, “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love” (v. 8-9) With clear emotion, Paul tells Philemon that he has become like a father to Onesimus; Onesimus like a son to him. He writes that Onesimus has become “quite useful” to him during Paul’s imprisonment. We do not know in what way; Paul does not say. But the implication is that they share a spiritual intimacy. Perhaps even, Onesimus has become an evangelist with Paul.

Paul entreats, “I am sending him—my own heart—back to you.” (v. 12)­­

Clearly something has happened that has touched Paul deeply. Something significant, because Paul urges Philemon to embrace Onesimus “as you would welcome me,” (v. 17) “no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (v. 16).

Perhaps this is a conversion moment for Paul, himself. He sees Onesimus so clearly. We might even say he sees with the eyes of Christ. Through this friendship Paul understands that all the boundaries and hierarchies of the social world are dissolved. Paul sees him, first and foremost as a beloved child of God. Perhaps this is the direct experience that leads Paul to write later in his letter to the Galatians, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27-28)

What happened to Onesimus? Did he return to Philemon? If so, how was he received? Because we don’t know the end of the story, Paul’s letter leaves room for divergent interpretations. Is the point that slaves should be returned to their masters? I doubt it, though some have argued exactly this. Is Paul arguing that Onesimus be manumitted? That is how I read the text. Is Paul arguing that Onesimus be recognized as a partner with Paul in sharing the good news of the gospel? It seems so.

I noticed, as I was reading commentaries on this passage, is that most of the scholarly concern centered on the authority of Paul. And much of it too, on Philemon’s viewpoint. How will Paul persuade Philemon? What argument from one powerful person to another will prove convincing? Why should Philemon believe that Onesimus’s conversion in jail is anything other than a ploy to trick Paul and thereby gain his freedom? These are questions that the powerful ask. We could call this doing theology “from above,” where what matters is those who are in charge and in control.

But what of Onesimus? Doesn’t his experience count for something? It should! If we consider his perspective, we might ask rather different questions. What was life like for him in Philemon’s household? How did he become enslaved? Was it through a crushing burden of debt? Was he taken as a prisoner in war? Was he treated cruelly? Did he fear for his life? Did he have to leave loved ones behind when he fled? Did he fear for them? What did he learn in that jail cell when Paul introduced him to the gospel? What was the “good news” for Onesimus? And what did Paul learn from him?

These questions represent a “view from below.” Liberation theologies—Black theology, Latin American Liberation theology, feminist, and womanist theologies—urge us to begin with experience, and not just any experience, but with the lives of the oppressed. For liberation theologians, human suffering and concrete material conditions are the starting point for theological reflection. Because, as Jesus makes known, God cares for “the least of these.”

And so John Wesley’s juggling act is a bit trickier. It’s not just a question of keeping all four balls in the air—scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. There is a tension between them, and some of them are weighted more heavily than others.

In conclusion, I could make the definitive claim about Paul—that the letter to Philemon argues against slavery. (I believe it does.)

But isn’t it equally important to hear the voice of Howard Thurman’s grandmother reminding us that Paul has been used to build the master’s house?

1) Thurman’s recollection is reported by Greg Carey, “What The Bible Really Says About Slavery,” Huffington Post, August 22, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/slavery-and-the-bible_b_880756....
2) Leviticus 25:44-46 “As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.” See also Exodus 21:1-11; 25:39-55; and Deuteronomy 15:12-1.8
3) Carey.
4) Carey.

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