Letter #3 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

Thanks so much for clarifying a number of things for me in your last letter. No, it hadn’t occurred to me that Paul wasn’t being deferential toward you but rather gentle with you.

I certainly understand that the negative relationship between slaveholding and Christian discipleship didn’t become clear to you in a single flash of insight. It’s obvious, now that you’ve opened my eyes, that Paul was meeting you where you were at the time. And he was encouraging you to take steps that would bring you to an entirely different world of understanding.

Phil, that’s been my experience in reading and studying Paul’s letter to you. As you know, I first came to this conversation for purely pragmatic reasons. I knew, from previous experience and study, that I didn’t know much about the institution of slaveholding in the Roman system. My study soon brought me to the idea of enslavement as “social death.”

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A scholar named Orlando Patterson asserted that enslaved persons were regarded as having no life in themselves. Identity and existence, Patterson argued, were only rooted in the person of the slaveholder and not in the body of the slave. Does that fit with your prior experience and understanding?

As the Lord orders our lives for the good, I’ve been engaged in this study during turbulent times in our culture. In the American system, as I’ve mentioned, enslavement was racialized and imposed predominantly on Black people from Africa. I know you don’t have the same social constructions in “your” system, and that makes some difference. But comparing and contrasting the American and Roman systems is helpful to me in this study. So, I began to read much more about the American system.

I learned a great deal of history that had been hidden from my eyes and awareness. There was a great deal of social and political theory that was new to me as well. My point is that as I learned more, I began to see my present and my past with new eyes.

This hasn’t happened all at once, of course. I know Paul’s reported experience of conversion was a move from blindness to sight. “Something like scales fell from his eyes,” Luke reports in his account of Paul’s transformation. It hasn’t been like that for me. My impression now is it hasn’t been like that for you either.

And yet, once we know something, it’s very hard to “un-know” it. Once we see something, we perhaps wonder how we ever missed it before. Let me give you an example.

In the American system, social death was attached specifically to Black skin. So, it’s been difficult, even after the end of enslavement, for white people to treat Black people as if they have an independent existence.

I was watching an advertisement related to home ownership the other day. I know you understand what I mean because you have similar public promotions at the theater and the stadium. This particular advertisement featured people of many races and ethnicities. It was intended to promote the idea that home ownership could be enjoyed by all. And yet, in a piece clearly intended to include all sorts of people, not a single Black man was included.

My point is not to critique the advertisement, although I think it was an unfortunate exclusion. My point is that until quite recently I wouldn’t have even noticed this glaring omission. I wouldn’t have bothered to look. The person most fully and intentionally excluded from our system of home ownership — the Black man — was easily overlooked in a presentation designed and intended to showcase inclusion. Again, I don’t think it was intended. But I am distressed by how easily that exclusion continues to happen.

Yes, I can see that sort of exclusion everywhere — now. But the most painful aspect of seeing with new eyes is looking at myself and my past attitudes and actions. Years ago, I worked for our larger Church as a liaison with Black churches in a geographic area.

I know the idea that Christians would segregate by skin tone is both odd and offensive to you. But it has been and continues to be the norm for American Christians. More on that in another letter, perhaps.

At any rate, when I think back now to my actions and decisions in that relationship, I feel regret and shame. I can’t imagine, in hindsight, anyone less qualified or experienced to be in that role. I performed as a white savior in an “underprivileged” Black community. I didn’t listen to the wisdom, insight, and counsel of Black pastors who knew far more and far better than I.

I was involved in projects designed to keep white churches in business and that treated Black people as means to white ends. In our current language, I was an exploitive colonizer who expected appreciation and praise for my efforts. And, to my embarrassment now, that’s precisely what I received.

No, I’m not being too hard on myself or my white colleagues. It’s so easy to see it all now in hindsight. Someone might suggest (and some have) that I did the best I could with what I knew at the time. But that’s not true either.

If I had wanted to actually learn something, I could have immersed myself in antiracism literature for years. I was surrounded by people willing to gently educate and form me if I’d shown even the least inclination. I was in a position to bring about growth in awareness and action among the people I represented. I did none of that. I assumed I knew enough.

I see now that I was not merely blind, but willfully blind at that. The miracle is that my Black colleagues not only tolerated my destructive arrogance and assertive ignorance. They loved me in spite of all that.

Phil, I can’t help but wonder if you look back in similar ways? Do you remember your pagan life and shudder with shame?

You have far more reason than I to plead a more innocent variety of ignorance. I grant you that, certainly. Your greatest philosophers were certain that the enslaved were somehow naturally suited to and destined for their condition. Your entire society — like ours — was built on the institution of enslavement and the caste ideology that undergirded it. “Normal” people knew that slaveholders were doing only what they were “required” to do.

Yet, you and I know the verdict on enslavement was not unanimous in your time and space. Dio Chrysostom demonstrated that every enslaved person has a free ancestor somewhere in the past. So, every enslaved person lived at the end of a chain that began with the theft of a free human body.

I had the words of Dr. King and Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer in my head beginning in young adulthood. I could have read James Baldwin and Angela Davis and James Cone if I wanted to. But I didn’t.

I know those names don’t mean anything to you. But I had more than enough philosophers and poets and playwrights and historians and theologians who could have instructed me if I had wanted to listen and to see. But I didn’t.

Now, I may know and see more than I did in the past. I’m grateful for that, and you have had no small part in that growth in awareness. But I am bothered even more now by what I still don’t know — and what I don’t know that I don’t know. This learning and growing in faith, hope, and love is a lifelong process and task. Nowhere is that more true than in efforts to live more often as an antiracist.

Do you ever worry about what else you have to learn and what you might be missing?

So, Phil, Paul’s letter to you arrived in the middle of that process of awakening, I believe. He was giving you new eyes and inviting you to see again for the first time. I think, in some small way, I understand.

Until next time.

Yours in Christ,

“Low”

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