Letters to Phil #8 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I was struck by your thoughts regarding Paul’s “unwanted” interference in your household affairs. Things were just fine, you suggested, as long as baptism was offered only to free Roman citizens and to freed persons (with the prior permission of their patrons, also known as their former slaveholders). It was, as you noted, when Paul took it upon himself to baptize Onesimus that things, in your estimation, “began going downhill in a hurry.”

“And then,” you wrote. Well, to be accurate, it was, “AND THEN!” And then, Paul sent Onesimus back (or did Onesimus volunteer – more on that perhaps later), letter in hand, with the request that you would regard Onesimus “no longer as a slave but rather more than a slave, a beloved brother…”

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It must have compounded the insult when Paul instructed Onesimus to read the letter aloud to your house church rather than reserving that honor for you as the paterfamilias. I’m not surprised that you grabbed the scroll out of Onesimus’ hands and read it aloud a second time to make sure Onesimus wasn’t fabricating the whole thing. After all, everyone knows that “slaves always lie.”

Of course, Onesimus wasn’t lying.

It’s hard for me to keep from judging your situation based on my own values and assumptions, but I’ll do my best to discipline myself in that regard. That being said, what did you expect? Given your own experience of conversion and new life when you heard the Good News, did you believe it wouldn’t have the same impact on others – even on enslaved persons?

I know that many of your peers do not believe that enslaved persons even have souls that could be reached by the Gospel. I understand that the consensus view among them is that the enslaved are little more than cattle with two feet or tools covered with skin. We don’t expect cattle or carts to respond to the proclamation of the Gospel.

But, Phil, did you (do you?) see enslaved persons in the same way as your peers? More to the point, did you see enslaved persons in the same way after your own conversion and baptism into Christ?

I am reminded of an image from your own cultural setting. One of our theologians, Mark Allan Powell, reports on the baptisms of the Gauls a few centuries downstream from your own time. He notes that the story may be an idle tale, but it makes the point I want to raise.

Hard as it may be for you to imagine, the Empire will become “Christian.” It will also extend into central and western Europe (perhaps that is easier to imagine). The Gauls will become grudging citizens of the Empire and conditional converts to the Christian faith.

“As the story goes,” Powell writes, “when a converted warrior was baptized, he would hold one arm high in the air as the missionary dunked him under the water.” The one arm remained dry. Perhaps you can see where I’m heading with this image.

That arm was the warrior’s sword arm. Duly christened, the warriors would proclaim exemption for the “unbaptized arm” and ride off to commit murder and mayhem in the name of the Emperor.

Phil, did you withhold your whip hand from the baptismal waters so you could continue to enslave those who belonged to your household? I am being flippant and perhaps unnecessarily rude at this point. But I think it’s a serious question for all of us baptized Jesus followers regardless of the century.

Powell uses the story to assert that we modern Christians often act as if our wallets and purses have been spared the transformative dunking (he is, after all, writing about the Christian’s relationship to money). But we American Christians have behaved for centuries as if our immersion into Christ is limited to our “inner persons” and has no impact on our external practices.

Western Christians were (and are) tied up in theological and moral knots when it comes to evangelizing the people we concurrently abuse, exploit, and oppress. Some Christians take the missionary imperative of the Gospel at face value and sow the seed of the Good News indiscriminately (if you’ll pardon the pun). The result, not surprisingly, is that the seed of Life takes root in many hearts and begins to grow.

Perhaps that happened in your case. I’m not clear if you heard Paul preaching in Colossae or Ephesus. Perhaps you invited him to your home for further conversation. He seems familiar with your household and comfortable there. It’s clear that you exposed your family members to the life-changing Word of the Spirit in one way or another, and that Word did its work. That’s obvious in the conversion and faith of Lady Apphia and Master Archippus (please greet them for me).

I can only surmise that Onesimus overheard you, or Paul, or both, speaking about Jesus. Perhaps you assumed that he didn’t hear you. Perhaps it didn’t occur to you that he might listen in and be affected by what he heard. Or perhaps it simply didn’t occur to you that he and other enslaved persons were in the room. They might have been as invisible in that moment as the furniture or the mosaics on the floor.

In any event, it appears that Onesimus (and perhaps others) did hear something that moved him to action. I’d be very glad to hear just what did happen that brought him to Paul in Ephesus. But that’s for another letter, I hope.

We Christians have wanted to have it both ways when it comes to the Gospel and enslaved persons. In his letter, Paul certainly treats you with honor, deference, and respect as the master of the house. However, I wonder if the purpose of his letter to you was really to upend and dismantle the structures of the household and put in place a new system of relationships in Christ. Interference in the affairs of your household, indeed.

The British and American slave system understood the problem all too well.  In the mid-1600’s some enslaved persons were converted to the Christian faith and were baptized.  In these years before the separation of church and state, these enslaved persons asserted that their baptisms rendered their enslavement illegal.  They petitioned the British crown for their freedom.  Laws were enacted to render such petitions invalid.  Here is an excerpt of such a law from the Commonwealth of Virginia, decreed by King Charles II (apologies for the odd spellings).

“WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are enslaved persons by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme, should by vertue of their baptisme be made ffree; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome; that diverse masters, ffreed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavour the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though enslaved persons, or those of growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament.”

The line of note is, “The conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome…”  I wonder how Paul would have assessed such language. In our time, we don’t hold our sword, or whip, arms out of the waters of baptism. Instead, we have limited the power of the baptism to a purely “internal” reality that has no impact on external relationships and structures of power.

That disfigured and demented understanding of the power and impact of baptism has perverted the Christian witness on our continent for five hundred years. In truth, it’s not that much different now. We don’t regard baptisms of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, Middle Eastern, and other people as limited to their interior souls. Instead, we now make our sacraments and our conversions purely individual. We focus on a “personal” relationship with Jesus, so we don’t have to deal with the “public” side of that relationship.

Our baptismal fonts and our communion tables are the most racially segregated sites in North America. It seems to us at this distance, that the first reading of Paul’s letter to you was likely part of your community eucharist. Guess who’s coming to dinner, indeed!  Common table fellowship was and is critical to the unity and identity of Jesus followers. 

Was Onesimus welcomed to that meal as a brother in Christ? I can only imagine the chaos that might ensue in some of our congregations if a similar thing took place today. And yet, we know the indictment leveled against Jesus in the gospels.  “This man welcomes sinners,” we read in Luke’s account, “and eats with them.”  Welcome and table fellowship are inextricably linked in the life of the church. 

Was it possible for you to acknowledge Onesimus as a brother in Christ and also to keep him from the Lord’s Supper in the church that met at your house? If enslaved persons were viewed as “cattle on two feet,” why would anyone bother to baptize such creatures, much less to admit them to the Lord’s table?

That was probably overly blunt. I apologize. And I hasten to add that the same question applies to white (supremacist – and that’s all of us white Christians) congregations in America at this date. So, the question is equally as blunt to me as it is to you.

I look forward to hearing from you again.

Yours in Christ,

Low

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