Letters to Phil, #7 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I’m sorry that I have delayed in responding to your most recent letter. But, in fact, I needed to take some time to consider carefully what you wrote and to reflect on my reply.

“Slaveholding, after all,” you wrote, “is not inconsistent with following Jesus as Messiah and Lord.” I must say, Phil, that I didn’t see that one coming. After your indignant protests about your letter being used by other Christians to justify and support the American slaveholding system, I assumed that I understood your position. It is now clear that I was mistaken in that assumption.

I appreciate your clarification of the initial matter. If I understand you correctly, your objection was not so much how your letter was used to justify the institution and practices of slaveholding. Rather, your objection related to the fact of being “used” at all. Am I correct in that description?

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I believe you found the whole idea to be an affront to your nobility and honor as a free Roman man. You noted in your letter that “slaves are used as objects at the disposal of others. Free men are petitioned for favors, not employed as mere pawns in another’s game.” You object to being “used” for any purposes other than your own. Is that the gist of your complaint?

I hope we can return to this conversation about noble male honor and shame at a future time. Again, if I have misunderstood or misconstrued your views, I hope you will set me straight on the matter. But I want to focus on your assertion about slaveholding being “not inconsistent” with Jesus-following. I must admit that your offhand comment left me somewhat breathless.

You continued, “If Paul thought there was a conflict, why didn’t he tell Christians to free all their slaves and to oppose the whole Imperial slave system?” That, of course, is the question that has bothered theologians and commentators for the last two thousand years.

Paul’s cryptic and ambiguous language has kept us guessing, reading between the lines, formulating hypotheses, and writing both papers and policies. That is certainly true of Paul’s little letter to you. It’s job security for Biblical scholars. But Paul’s coyness has not led us on its own to clarity.

You agreed that Paul counseled slaves in the Corinthian congregation to secure their freedom if the opportunity presented itself. But, you continued, that was in no way a blanket condemnation of the system of enslavement. Instead, you suggested, Paul was merely pointing to the path of common sense and self-preservation. I don’t agree with the entirety of your conclusion here, but fair enough.

Then you pointed to Paul’s language in his letter to the Galatian Christians. I wasn’t sure if you knew that correspondence. We have suspected that Paul’s letters were carefully preserved and that copies were circulated to other congregations – often as collections of letters.

You noted that Paul rendered certain human categories superfluous when compared to our oneness in Christ. “For whoever has been baptized into Christ has donned Christ as clothing,” you quoted. “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free man; there is not ‘male and female,’” you continued, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”*

You then noted that immediately after this stunning declaration of the Gospel, Paul used an extended metaphor to make his real point. The real point, you observed, was in the previous sentence. “For all [you Galatians] are sons of God by means of ongoing trust in Christ Jesus.”**

You quite correctly observe that in the preceding paragraph, Paul relies on the metaphor of the pedagogue to make his point. The pedagogue in question was certainly imagined to be an enslaved person put in charge of the safety, education, and discipline of the (free) male heir of the household.

Why, you ask, if Paul so disapproved of the institution and practice of slavery, would he then affirm that institution and practice in a theological object lesson. Why, indeed?

You further note that Paul uses another enslavement metaphor and story in the succeeding paragraph – the story of Hagar and Sarah. One of our contemporary scholars, Jennifer Glancy, has pursued similar observations.

Glancy writes of Paul in Galatians, “having incidentally announced that within the Christian community slave and free are not relevant categories, Paul introduces imagery that stresses acknowledged legal and cultural differences between slave and free.”*** It seems you have a scholarly supporter for your argument.

Phil, this strikes me as a modified argument from silence. As a preacher, I have used sermon illustrations from events and realms I might find offensive or have discovered later to be inaccurate. I’m willing to grant Paul the same need for growth.

For example, a favorite old chestnut for preachers is the story about catching monkeys by putting a brightly colored ball in a jar and then tying the jar to a tree. The story is that the monkey reaches in to grasp the ball. The monkey’s fist around the ball is now too large for the mouth of the jar. The monkey refuses to release the ball and is trapped by the monkey’s overweening and now deadly greed.

The story is often used to illustrate the perils of holding possessions too tightly. It’s not a bad point in homiletical terms. You know – “where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also,” etc. But as far as I can tell, the story is a preacher’s fable, passed from one pulpiteer to the next.

I had a colleague who served for years in Madagascar. He scoffed at the story. “Monkeys aren’t that stupid,” he growled, “but preachers often are.”

You might think I digress without end, but bear with me, Phil. I didn’t use the illustration because I approved of or participated in monkey-hunting. It seemed plausible at the time and worked for my purposes. I’ve since learned to avoid such “just so” stories in general in my sermons.

In addition, I’m opposed now to killing and/or eating of any animals – monkeys included. I also recognize the story as another colonizers’ trope that portrays Africans as rudely clever in their uncivilized and somewhat savage setting. I’ve learned a bit and grown a bit. I wouldn’t use the story again.

My point is that Paul’s use of enslavement stories does not entail his approval of the Imperial enslavement system. Do I wish he had used different stories to make his point? Indeed, I do.

Jennifer Glancy describes the problem well. “Paul promises a suspension,” she writes, “of the categories of slave and free, male and female, within the Christian community. His rhetoric, however,” she continues, “insists on the consignment of human persons to places in society that are defined by these very categories.”****

So, Phil, I’m not suggesting that your reading of the Galatians text is somehow “wrong.” I am suggesting that it may not serve as the secure and certain evidence you suppose. I have hopes that perhaps Paul thought better of his rhetorical choices later in his life. In the heat of the Galatian controversy, the blessed Paul may not have been thinking as clearly as he might later have wished.

I also have hopes that perhaps Paul grew and deepened in his understanding of the Gospel and its meaning for how we live as Jesus-followers. One of the reasons I treasure his letter to you is that I believe it is perhaps one of the final letters he wrote before his execution as a martyr.

I’m not suggesting he knew this outcome in detail as he wrote. In fact, I know he asked you to prepare a guest room for him in anticipation of a future visit. I’m sure he hoped that would happen. It seemed, however, that the anticipated visit never took place. I wonder how long you kept that room ready for him after you learned of his untimely death. It would have taken me a long time to recover.

In any event, Paul knew his time was running out, I suspect. So, his words to you have, for me, some of the flavor of final instructions for friends after a lifetime of prayer and reflection. I take this letter as a revelation of Paul’s heart when it comes to you, to Onesimus, and to enslavement. I’d like to think that Paul was less sanguine about enslavement as the years wore on, and clearer about what I see as the inconsistency between slaveholding and following Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

It should not surprise you at this point, Phil, that I don’t agree with your offhand observation. I hope you know my disagreement doesn’t come with a sense of moral superiority or condescending judgment. I live in a time replete with similar assertions – many of which have found their way into our laws and social norms.

Recently, for example, we observed the anniversaries of two conflicting legal decisions. On May 18, we remembered the infamous decision of our highest legal body in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. In that decision the court ruled that Black people had no rights which White people were bound to respect.

That decision ratified a system of racial segregation and separation which gave legal sanction to de facto black enslavement under the color of law. The decision asserted that such a system was not inconsistent with a society that proclaimed “liberty and justice for all” as one of its cardinal virtues.

On May 17, we remembered another legal decision – Brown v. Board of Education. That decision overturned Plessy and opened the possibility that common humanity might result in equal justice under the law for all. That decision led to some great strides in dismantling the covert system of White supremacy in our nation. But I am sad to report that during most of my life, our society has resisted those gains and rolled back the progress at every opportunity.

Next week we remember the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a duly-sworn officer of the law. Perhaps that is a commonplace for you. In theory, it’s not supposed to happen in our system (although in fact it happens somewhere nearly every day). The ideal of oneness in Christ is still a distant dream in our churches, and equal justice under the law for all is an equally distant dream in our society.

Unfortunately, the argument that unjust systems can co-exist with the Gospel has not lost its power to persuade and pacify. I look forward to your reply (I think).

Yours in Christ,

Low

*Galatians 3:27-28, my translation

**Galatians 3:26, my translation

***Slavery in Early Christianity, Kindle Location 675

****Slavery in Early Christianity, Kindle Location, 753.

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