Letters to Phil #10 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

You are quite right when you protest that I am using standards of judgment in your case that convict me and my time with equal certainty. You point out that you were in the first generation of Christians do deal with the revolution in social relationships called forth by the Good News of Jesus. You note that Christians in my time have the benefit and burden of two millennia and still have worked out very little.

If anything, Phil, we western, post-Enlightenment Christians have made many of the dimensions and dynamics of human enslavement far worse than they were in your time. We can agree, I think, that enslavement was both pervasive and systemic in your culture, as it has been in mind. “Rome was a slaveholding empire,” Jennifer Glancy writes, “No one who lived in the empire could avoid participating in its slave-dependent economy.”[i]

I assume that you agree with this description. As a result, the imperial enslavement system must have been regarded as both normal and necessary. “Slavery was so basic a structure in the ancient world,” Glancy writes, “that challenging it might have seemed as odd as asking why water was wet or ice cold.”[ii]

Photo by William Fortunato on Pexels.com

Enslavement in the imperial system “was how things got done,” Tom Wright notes. “It was the electricity of the ancient world; try imagining,” Wright continues, “your home or your town without the ability to plug things in and switch them on, and you will realize how unthinkable it was to them that there should be no slaves.”[iii]

I know the force of Wright’s illustration may be lost on you, but I’m sure you get the gist of his point. Would you agree that human enslavement was regarded as a normal and necessary feature undergirding the Roman imperial system? That’s certainly how it appears from my vantage point.

I rehearse what you know far better than I to set up my next acknowledgment. Chattel slavery was regarded as normal and necessary in the American system as well. The economic necessity built into the system can be demonstrated with hard numbers. On the eve of our American Civil War, “the nearly four million enslaved people were by far the country’s most valuable economic asset,” writes Clint Smith, “valued at approximately $3.5 billion, they were worth more than all of the country’s manufacturing and railroads combined.”[iv]

So, the number of enslaved people in our country in 1860 was comparable to half the population of the Roman Empire in your era. We know that enslaved people made up nearly half the population of Italy in your time, but the percentage of the population in such bondage was lower in most of the provinces. Approximately one in eight people in the United States was enslaved in 1860. And the economic impact of the products of enslave labor was felt in every corner of the American economy, not just in the south.

Unlike you, Phil, I live with an historical memory that is designed to protect the moral innocence and purity of “white” people. We Northern Americans are desperate to believe that we and our forebears are on “the right side of history” (whatever that means). It was, we tell ourselves, those wicked Confederates who were the enslavers and rebels. My ancestors didn’t own slaves, we tell ourselves. Therefore, I am not guilty and should not be “unjustly” accused of complicity in the horrors perpetrated by those on “the wrong side of history” (whatever that means). And I certainly should be expected to pay any costs associated with setting that history right.

If only it were that simple. As with the Roman empire, our American economy was founded and sustained on the backs and the graves of enslaved people. In our case, they were all Black. The economic dependence on the wealth wrapped up in enslaved Black bodies was so entrenched that former “slave states” have, to this day, not recovered from the economic shock that the end of enslavement produced. Those states remain the most impoverished states in our nation.

Of course, that economic reality is also rooted in efforts to sustain the enslavement system long after it was formally outlawed in this country. Wealthy, white landowners created an economic system that maintain their dependence on and control of low-cost Black labor. That system established a share-cropping arrangement which was often enslavement under the cover of law.

And, there was – and is – our system of incarceration which (under the Thirteenth Amendment to our federal constitution) allows enslavement to be applied to those who have been convicted and sentenced by our judicial system. It may not surprise you to learn that the great majority of those caught up in this system of incarceration are Black men.

My point, Phil, is that we Americans spent a couple of centuries creating a political, economic, and cultural system that was utterly dependent on the coerced and uncompensated labor of enslaved Black people. When that system was firmly in place, it was then perceived and described as the normal and necessary order of things. Disrupting that system meant rupturing the social fabric that had been stitched firmly together with threads made of Black skin.

It may be that Paul was unwilling to advocate such a social disruption in the Roman imperial system. Or, it may be that he calculated that the nascent Christian community was incapable of fomenting and then surviving such a cultural revolution. It may be that he finally thought it wasn’t worth the bother in light of Jesus’ hoped-for imminent return. What do you think led Paul to refrain from attacking this issue?

It may be that you, Phil, feared the costs of such an upheaval in your own household and community. I can tell you that in our time a lot of well-meaning people are in favor of significant change until they become aware of the social and personal price tag of such change. Then, it seems, all bets are off. Perhaps you granted manumission to Onesimus. But it’s clear that Christians didn’t bring about the abolition of enslavement in the Roman system. If anything, we Christians enhanced and encouraged it.

In the American system, there is another element which continues to be regarded (at least covertly) as both normal and necessary. That element is white supremacy. At its core, the American system asserts the supremacy of wealthy, white, male, landowning citizens above all. Others are to be in the service of that privileged, powerful, and propertied class.

White supremacy requires racism – the assertion and belief that human worth and dignity are tied directly to skin tone. Racism produces “race” – the construction of inferior Others who are identified and evaluation solely on the basis of skin tone. Race makes possible chattel slavery, segregation, and the hierarchical system that still organizes American society today.

Phil, I know you dealt with your own artificial hierarchies of gender, class, ethnic origin, and religion. So, I suspect you have some understanding of what I have described. It is clear that you earlier Christians tackled the real divisions in your communities. It’s also clear that you made some real progress in welcoming Gentiles into those communities of faith. That was Paul’s real target, and he focused on that target with an archer’s intensity.

In fact, it is that history of overcoming the Jew/Gentile boundary that continues to give some of us later Christians hope, inspiration, and guidance. Despite our sorry history in the past two millennia, we have been some artificial human boundaries assaulted. And in some limited cases, those boundaries do fall.

Women have been (re)admitted to formal church leadership – something your generation embraced but which was retracted in the following generations. Language, gender orientation and identity, class – all these have been dismantled at some times and in some measure. After all, we know that God shows no partiality, even though we do.

Yet, as many of our writers note, for every step forward in the progress toward authentic human community, there is often an equal and opposite step back into oppression and exploitation. Blessed Paul reminded us that our battle really is against the principalities and powers that seek to take life and spread darkness. Thus, we have not “arrived” in the New Creation now any more than you did.

Thanks for indulging me in this wandering wondering, Phil. I look forward to your next note.

Yours in Christ,


[i] Glancy, Slavery as Moral Problem, Kindle Location 15.

[ii] Ibid, Kindle Location 516.

[iii] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, page 32.

[iv] Clint Smith, The Word is Passed, Kindle Location 3116.

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