Letters to Phil #9 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

Yes, Paul does appear to speak in opaque riddles at times, even in the very same letter! Like you, I have puzzled over and been frustrated by the ambiguities and contradictions in the first letter to the Church at Corinth. “For indeed in one Spirit were all were baptized into one body,” Paul writes, “whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free persons, and we are all were made to drink one Spirit.”[i]

That does indeed seem like Paul is walking back his bold assertion to the Galatian Christians – that in our baptism there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus.[ii] One of our best historians on the topic, Jennifer Glancy, says, “Unlike Galatians, 1 Corinthians does not suggest that divisions between slave and free are obsolete among the baptized. Rather,” she writes, “1 Corinthians proclaims that both slave and free are incorporated into the body of Christ.”[iii]

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If you (and Glancy) read Paul correctly, then he is not telling the enslaved persons in Corinth – or Galatia – that baptism into Christ translates into the abolition of the slaveholder/enslaved relationship between Christians. In your perspective, if I may presume to speak for you, Paul’s counsel to escape enslavement if the chance presented itself could only apply in situations where the slaveholder was a pagan, and the enslaved person was a Christian. Is that how it seems to you?

Otherwise, you seem to argue, Paul counsels Christians to remain in their current life situations. Christian slaveholders are not obliged to manumit their Christian slaves. Christian slaves should not seek to escape from their Christian slaveholders. Single and married people should not seek to change their situations either, as Paul discusses in the first Corinthian letter. Do I have your position right?

From our perspective, it seems that Paul is assuming that Jesus will return in rather short order. So why bother to make major personal, communal, and social changes? Paul may have viewed all that as, in our idiom, a waste of good red tape. To his credit, Paul doesn’t believe for a minute that these relationships will persist into the New Creation. To his detriment, Paul seems to argue that, as a result, it’s not really worth the bother to make significant changes in those relationships now.

I understand you to say (and to believe that Paul says) that our oneness in the body of Christ transcends our mundane human divisions and distinctions. As a result, and in the shadow of the New Creation, those divisions and distinctions no longer matter. It’s not necessary, you seem to argue, to change our social arrangements, since they are temporary and only of this world. I’m not persuaded by that argument, from Paul or from you.

Yes, Phil, I know that Paul told the Philippian church that our citizenship is in heaven.[iv] But I’m just not convinced that this is license to ratify current earthly relationships just as they are. I’m not convinced especially in cases, like enslavement, where the relationships are so contradictory to Paul’s own standards of bearing one another’s burdens for the sake of Christ.[v]

Glancy pushes the issue by examining how it might work out in a Christian household – one where the slaveholder family and the household slaves are all now Christians and members of the same house church. Prior to conversion, the slaveholders could have all sorts of access to the bodies of the enslaved persons without the “permission” of the enslaved persons and with no consequences, either legal or spiritual. Her questions are twofold. Did Paul believe conversion changed that relational equation, and if so, how did that work out in practice?

When Onesimus returned to your household as a baptized member of the body of Christ, did that change your decisions about whether to use a whip on him? Did that change your decisions about whether to discipline him with branding or a slave collar or a tattoo? Did that impact your decisions about whether or not to sell him off as more trouble than he was worth? I don’t mean to be impertinent. These are real questions in my mind.

Paul asks you to regard Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but rather more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me [Paul] but how much more to you – both in the flesh and in the Lord.”[vi] It seems to me that in that sentence Paul moves “from preaching to meddling” (as we might put it in our vernacular). It’s that last phrase – “both in the flesh and in the Lord” – that I suspect caused you great consternation.

It’s one thing to regard all this change in status as “spiritual,” that is, “in the Lord” and not really impacting mundane matters. But what about “in the flesh.” I suppose Paul could be arguing that in baptism, you and Onesimus had become members of one “family,” rather than merely members of the same “household.”

I understand that “family” and “household” are pretty much synonyms for you and don’t carry the same weight the ideas do for me and my time. I wonder if it might be more accurate to suggest that Paul expected you to treat Onesimus as “kinfolk,” in the same way that you would treat Lady Apphia and Master Archippus. That would be a revolutionary change and would be asking a great deal of you and your biological kin. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Paul treads so lightly in his request (command) to you.

Glancy argues that “Paul never stated that he saw slaveholding as incompatible with the gospel. He believed,” she continues, “that within the church community, divisions between slave and free should be immaterial. We may nonetheless infer,” she concludes, “that Paul was insensitive to the actual impact of slavery within the community of believers”[vii] That may have been the case as Paul was writing his first letter to the church at Corinth. I’m not sure it was his position at the end of his mission, when he was writing his letter to you.

It seems that Paul’s certainty of the nearness of our Lord’s return faded with each passing year of his mission. In the Thessalonian letters, that return seemed poised to occur at any moment. The Corinthian letters seem to portray a sense that the return was somewhat delayed but still relatively imminent. The letters to the churches at Rome and Philippi have a quite different flavor when it comes to this certainty of the nearness of our Lord’s return. These letters show a much greater concern for how the Good News of Jesus Christ impacts our relationships and reality in the here and now – our life “both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

I belabor this point because it matters much more in my time than it does in yours. We have no reason to believe that our Lord’s return is imminent. Nor are we excused from the responsibility and opportunity to begin living the reality of that return in our here and now. Yet, we white Christians spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to maintain Paul’s early view that changing mundane matters is just a waste of good red tape.

Cornel West, one of our contemporary sages, has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Here’s what we know from our horrible history of enslavement, oppression, segregation, and genocide on this continent. When we try to separate life in the flesh from life in the Lord, we lose our capacity to love in public. And when we fail to love in public, we are certain to fail to love in private as well.

This separation of life in the flesh from life in the Lord (which Paul seeks to overcome in your household, I think), leads us to deform our humanity and our faith, deceive ourselves, and deny the humanity of those we enslave, oppress, segregate, and erase from the pages of history. Paul’s ambiguous and overly careful words about enslavement have bequeathed to us what another of our great contemporary writers, Willie James Jennings, has called a “diseased Christian imagination.”

We imagine that, somehow, we can deny the physical humanity of our sisters and brothers while embracing their baptismal identity in Christ. That diseased imagination has created historical trauma for the heirs of the enslaved as victims and for us heirs of the slaveholders as perpetrators. I can tell you that a Stoic denial of the importance of the here and now is no antidote to that diseased imagination. Nor is the western Christian dualism which pretends that our earthly actions have no cosmic consequences.

I don’t know for sure how you have worked this out. I can tell you that two millennia later, we’re not doing very well. The history of our lives together in the flesh, long buried under the detritus of white supremacy, is rising to the surface, and demanding to be heard. Some of us, me included, find this to be good, if painful, news. But many more of us are exerting every legal, political, economic, social, and violent option to avoid the truth that could set us (all) free.

Nowhere is that more obvious and militant than in our Christian churches. Many of us would rather commit institutional suicide than to hear inconvenient truths about white supremacy. I wonder how that sort of conversation went in your time?

Yours in Christ,


[i] 1 Corinthians 12:13, my translation

[ii] Cf. Galatians 3:28

[iii] Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today, Kindle Location 339f.

[iv] Philippians 3:20.

[v] Galatians 6:5

[vi] Philemon 16, my translation

[vii] Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today, Kindle Location 447.

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