Paul’s Letter to Philemon, as it was first received, is a test of the power of the Gospel to change lives under the most difficult of circumstances. Think about the various trials and tests represented in this letter. Will Onesimus forgive Philemon? Should he? Will Philemon put aside a whole world of imperial domination and slaveholding for the sake of Jesu and his church? How will the rest of the household respond? What about the rest of the church, and the rest of the larger community? What will life be like the day after this letter has been read?
Now think about yourself and your life for a moment. What is the biggest change or choice you must make in order to remain a Christian, if you are one? If not, what parts of your life do you find to be in conflict with your most cherished values and priorities? What would it take to resolve that conflict?
I encourage you to imagine the situation in which this letter was first read. This was not a private letter. Rather it was addressed to Philemon and to the assembly of Jesus followers who gathered at his house. It is likely that the letter would have read out loud to the assembled believers. It is also likely that Philemon, as the leader of the congregation, would have read this letter out loud. He would have read it with Onesimus sitting in the congregation.
Or perhaps, it was Onesimus who first read the letter aloud as Philemon listened along with the rest of the household (and perhaps invited guests). In either case, the social pressure brought to bear on Philemon would have been intense. And Paul would have known all these facts as he composed this letter.
What is happening in these early house churches? The accepted roles and relationships are being questioned. Paul suggests that the Good News about Jesus turns things upside down. Women are now in church leadership. Enslaved persons and masters gather as sisters and brothers in Christ around the same communion table. Parents and children are church members together. These changes in role and relationship spill over into “real” everyday life. And sometimes that spillover does not go smoothly.
We can see evidence of these struggles in Paul’s letters to Colossians and Ephesians. Even if, as some scholars hold, these are not authentic Pauline compositions, they then reveal the conflict in some of the earliest Christian congregations within two generations after the Resurrection. We can look at the household instructions in those letters directed to masters and enslaved persons, fathers and children, husbands and wives. These roles and relationships were upset by the Gospel, and the early churches were working out the details. What might have happened in the little church in Colossae without Paul’s letter and instructions?
We can transpose this into a contemporary key. Does it matter that a manager and an employee are members of the same church and kneel next to one another at the same communion table? Or are work and church to be completely separate domains? When there is labor strife, for example, this becomes an important question.
I have met such issues in rural settings when landlords and tenants—both members of my parish—have had difficult relationships. How should a pastor advise and encourage the parties in such disputes, and what difference can it make that the parties are family members in Christ? Should it make any difference at all? And what if the Gospel questions the very foundations of such relationships? What if the Gospel challenges the unjust hierarchies of power that undergird so many of our roles and connections? Then what?
The Letter to Philemon may be an ancient epistle. It is also as contemporary and provocative as the latest disagreement at the office or the bank. This in itself is more than enough reason to read and study the letter in detail.
Before we go further, it is important to compare and contrast Roman imperial enslavement with the enslavement of the Transatlantic slave trade in modern times. To what degree can each system help us to understand the other? But first, let me say another word about language. Generally, I will not use the terms “slave” or “slaves” (and if I do, it will probably be a mistake that should be corrected). I will, instead, use the terms “enslaved person” or “enslaved persons.”
Our language can lead us into bad habits if we aren’t careful. Enslavement was not an accidental condition. It wasn’t like catching a cold. People enslaved other people. It was intentional, systematic, and ongoing. Enslaved people were victims. They were in no way responsible for their situations, even if they sold themselves into enslavement. After all, what kind of system would leave people with that course as the only conceivable alternative? So, in my language I choose not to participate in the possible linguistic “victim-blaming” contained in the terms “slave” and “slaves.”
I want to apply some similar caution to the labels for slaveholders. I will refrain as much as possible from using the label of “master” when referring to Philemon. I think it is more helpful to describe Philemon and others like him as “slaveholders.” I don’t wish to ratify any supposed superiority on the part of so-called “masters.” Nor do I wish to refer to them as “owners,” since they were really kidnappers, thieves, and terrorists. A more neutral term seems better to me.
Finally, it does not appear to me helpful to describe the connection between an enslaved person and a slaveholder as a “relationship.” In the broadest sense, there is a relationship between the enslaved person and the slaveholder in the same way there is a relationship between me and my computer, for example. The word “relationship,” however, tends to communicate a connection of greater intimacy than this proximal exertion of power merits. For the sake of clarity, I think it is more helpful for us to think in terms of the enslaved/slaveholder dyad. That language also reflects more clearly the mythology of the enslaved person as a mere extension of the slaveholder’s body.
Now, back to the two systems. In what ways are the systems similar? Both the Roman and Transatlantic systems regard enslaved persons as commodities, objects that can be used, bought, and sold, inherited, and disposed of as the slaveholder pleased.
In both systems enslaved persons experienced what Orlando Patterson labels as “natal alienation.” Enslaved persons, by definition, have no legal family connections. Enslaved persons have no fathers and cannot be fathers, according to the legal codes in each system. Marriages involving enslaved persons cannot be legitimate or binding, according to those laws. Families brought into being by enslaved persons have no legal standing or integrity in these systems.
In both systems, violence is applied to enslaved persons as the preferred means of control, coercion, and abuse. And in both systems, slaveholders could do whatever they wished sexually to and with their human property.
Additionally, in both systems slaveholding is undergirded by an ideology of supremacy and dehumanization. In the Transatlantic system, this ideology is completely racialized. But in both systems, philosophers apply their skills to create systems of meaning that render slaveholding reasonable and even necessary. The Transatlantic system was launched, in fact, when Portuguese traders and rulers called upon Christian theologians to develop theological justifications for the system and the horrific abuse it entailed.
The Roman system was rooted in the Mediterranean culture of honor and shame, which was grounded more in the Roman ideal of manhood than in the racialization of human diversity. But even in this difference there are similarities. In the Roman system, enslaved persons defined and displayed the full definition of “shame.” In the Transatlantic system, enslaved persons defined and displayed the full definition of “not-white.” The system of measurement was different, but the function of the system was the same.
The two systems shared a double vision of the personhood of the enslaved persons. Enslaved persons were not regarded as persons. They were socially dead, as noted above. However, if it suited the system to regard an enslaved person as a person, then so be it. In America, enslaved persons were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of voting representation (of course, only white persons were actually represented). If an enslaved person broke a Roman law—even as the explicit direction of the master—that enslaved person could be held responsible for the action and be liable to legal sanction just like any other person. That’s how domination systems work.
The Roman and Transatlantic slave systems had in common the need to control enslaved bodies. The systems exercised this control through ideology and terror. The systems shared an absolute terror of slave rebellion and did everything possible to prevent such revolts—up to and including crucifixion by the Romans and lynching by white Americans.
In the next “Philemon Fridays” post, I reflect on the whether the Christian Bible approves of enslavement or not.
1. What is the biggest change or choice you must make in order to remain a Christian?
2. What might have happened in the little church in Colossae without Paul’s letter and instructions?
3. What do you think about the change in terminology from “slave” to “enslaved person”? What other habits of language might you consider changing when you think about them?
4. What if the Gospel challenges the unjust hierarchies of power that undergird so many of our roles and connections? Then what?
5. How do you react to the idea that Christian theology played a fundamental role in the construction of “whiteness” as a racialized and dominant identity in the European world?
References and Resources
McCauley, Esau. Reading While Black:African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2020.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1982.