Letters to Phil #2 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

Yes, I’m the one who made a big deal about names and nicknames. I didn’t mean to offend you by taking liberties with your given name. It’s a perfectly fine name. I wasn’t trying to make fun of you by suggesting that it was a nickname.

I hope you’ll be gratified to know that some later Christians of note have born your name with honor and pride. At least three elected lawmakers in this country have been named Philemon as well as a famous South African football player and the president of the nation of Cameroon. Your name hardly lives on “in infamy” as you worried in your most recent letter.

Please feel free to call me “Low” in exchange for my over-familiar treatment of your name. I suppose I deserve that. Ha, ha! I’ve been called many things in my life, and that is hardly the worst. At least you will name me “Low” intentionally. I have often been reduced in elevation by accident or verbal sloth — or simply because people can’t figure out how to pronounce my name and seek to reduce their risk of error.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

Whether you can empathize or not, I don’t know. I do know that English-speakers hesitate to say your name aloud because they can’t decide which syllable to accent. In our written text of Paul’s letter to you, the accent falls on the second syllable. I hope that’s actually how you pronounce it.

In any event, you will be “Phil” to me, and I will be “Low” to you — as it should be. Agreed?

This “name game” leaves me wondering something that our scholars discuss at length. Do you think people find you a bit proud or rigid? I apologize for putting the question so crudely. But I know you tire of trips beating around the bush. Here’s what I mean.

Some who read Paul’s letter to you notice what they perceive to be Paul’s “tone.” They suggest that Paul is more cautious and deferential in addressing you than he is, for example, in addressing those “foolish Galatians.” They note that Paul is quite careful not to order you to do anything, although he notes that he could command you if he chose to do so.

Paul had no trouble telling the folks in Corinth precisely what he expected them to do. And he was quite direct with the Roman Christians, whom he had never met in person. So it seems to some that Paul is extra-careful with you.

I’m of the opinion — just to be clear — that Paul was not treating you “gently” out of fear or uncertainty. You probably know firsthand that wasn’t his style. I, for one, don’t imagine that you are more assertive or reactive than any other Roman male in your social position. I think that personal honor and status matter a great deal to all of us men, for good or ill.

I think Paul was correct in appreciating you as a dear friend and co-worker in the gospel. Paul could be unsparing in his vitriol as he verbally sliced and diced his opponents. But he was generous when praise was merited. It’s clear that Paul valued your faithfulness to and love for our Lord and his Church.

So, Phil, I wonder a couple of things. What did Paul want you to do? And why didn’t he just tell you to do it? I know he wanted your faith to “become effective when you perceived all the good that we may do for Christ.” But what in the world did he mean by that?

I know he wanted you to welcome Onesimus “back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother…” But what in the world did he mean by that? I know that whatever he wanted from you, Paul wanted you to do it voluntarily, without coercion, and even happily on the basis of Christian love.

But why, Phil, was Paul so damned indirect and deferential to you in these matters? That’s one of the many questions that bothers us later readers of Paul’s letter to you. I’m sorry for getting too impatient and even confrontational. That’s not my intent. My frustration is certainly not with you but rather with Paul.

Why, Paul, in this most practical and personal of all your letters, did you have to be so unclear? I know. I’ll ask him when I get the chance. But, Phil, I’d like to hear your experience of this first.

It was probably all quite clear to you. That’s why I’m asking you. We who read the letter now are trying to infer a whole backstory that we simply don’t know. I’m asking a great deal already, I’m sure. But maybe you could think back and clarify some of the details of the situation for me. Some of my questions might be answered in the details.

Phil, I don’t know if I can imagine the pressure under which Paul placed you. Perhaps I have some idea of the pressure you placed on yourself. In our time, we continue to deal with the historical consequences and structures produced by the American system of enslavement. One hundred fifty-eight years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and we are still only at the beginning of the process to dismantle the white supremacist worldview that has undergirded that whole system.

Some people think the system is fine and should be covertly and discreetly maintained. Some people think the system has already been dismantled and can’t understand what all the fuss is about. The people who suffer the death-dealing power of the system know that progress is painfully slow. Lately, we’ve taken as many steps backward as forward. We’re in the midst of trying a police officer for the murder of a black man — a murder that should never have happened. We will see if our legal system can resist the pressures of the white supremacist worldview this time.

What we’re asking of people in our time is to change our whole white supremacist worldview. That’s a lot more painful than adapting a few objectionable words and behaviors.

For example, I’m a white man with all the advantages of status, education, opportunity, power, and privilege that my position affords me. I didn’t start out life as a white, male, landowner. But our system gives me every encouragement along the way and provides ladders when I am ready to climb.

I could easily assume that I have earned and deserve all those advantages. Many white men in our society make precisely that assumption. Of course, most of us white men don’t believe that we are innately superior to all other beings, no matter how we act. Most of us have learned to settle for simply being “better” than women and people of other colors.

One of our contemporary authors, a woman named Ijeoma Oluo, has put it this way. “[W]e condition white men to believe not only that the best they can hope to accomplish in life is a feeling of superiority over women and people of color, but also that their superiority should be automatically granted them simply because they are men. The rewarding of white male mediocrity not only limits the drive and imagination of white men; it also requires forced limitations on the success of women and people of color in order to deliver on the promised white male supremacy. White male mediocrity harms us all.”

It’s hard to learn that all my “superiority” is an accident of birth-bequeathed skin tone. It’s equally hard to learn that my gains have been created by enforcing losses on people who look different from me. It is perhaps hardest of all to see that my reputed “advantages” and those of my white, male colleagues have, in fact, led to at least as much social stagnation as social progress. We have spent centuries squandering human giftedness because of gender and skin tone. In the face of such incriminating evidence, it’s easy for white men in my society to lash out in fearful anger and violence.

It’s easy. But it’s not Jesus, right?

Phil, I know your system of caste and category is not based on “race.” I know the whole idea of a skin-toned hierarchy of values makes no sense to you (although you are, I believe, well-acquainted with a gender-based hierarchy of values). I can try to explain more of what I understand in this regard if you’re interested.

But please know that your lack of experience with a race-based system gives me hope. It means that “race” is an artificially constructed human category. Race is not stitched into the human soul or woven into the fabric of God’s creation. If the system was built up, it can be torn down.

Well, that was a lot. I know I’ve pushed you more than I’m entitled to push. I hope you can forgive my presumption and write back when you can. I’m grateful for our partnership in the Gospel.

Yours in Christ,


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