Letter Sixteen — Philemon Fridays, Letters to Phil

Dear Phil,

I’m grateful that you have returned to thinking about how the immediate problems between you and Onesimus arose. I had wondered if he found and took with him his peculium. I didn’t know until I began studying that enslaved people, and especially those with household administrative responsibilities, often had a cache of their own cash from work, investments, repaid loans, gifts, etc.

I’m impressed that you maintained so carefully that fund and its accounting for the enslaved persons in your household. You noted that many of your colleague enslavers either claimed those funds as their own when the need arose, or they extracted a tariff on those funds as a sort of administrative fee. I sense that part of your response was that you felt dishonored and hurt that your honest dealing in the case of those funds was met with such a “disloyal response” on the part of Onesimus.

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There are a couple of things I’d like to interrogate with you if that’s all right. At times I have been puzzled by this sense of emotional distress expressed by enslavers (and after them landlords and bosses) when enslaved persons resisted, rebelled, disobeyed, and/or escaped. So often what I have heard in our own history is something like this. “I was a good and kind master. I treated my slaves well, or at least better than that terrible master down the road. How could my slave be so ungrateful, so unkind, so spiteful and selfish, as to leave me?”

I’ve taken some time to think about this and to examine myself. Then I realize how many times I have thought I ought to get a “pass” on bad behavior because I have been so kind, virtuous, generous, or whatever other positive attribute I can whip up for myself, to the person who is now acting quite rationally in response to my bad behavior. I know that when I put myself in that petulant frame of mind, I am patronizing and condescending to the other person – infantilizing the other and putting myself always in the position of the wise, benevolent, and all-knowing “parent.”

I’m not pretending to know what you were thinking or feeling when Onesimus escaped. I’m just trying to put myself in analogous roles and situations in order to understand better. When I respond in such ways, I know that I’m putting my needs, my perspectives, and my agendas at the top of the priority list. And I’m assuming that everyone else is just a bit player in the life drama where I am the screenwriter, producer, and lead actor.

I imagine that this sort of self-centering would be nearly irresistible in a system where the enslaver is the only “real” human being and the enslaved are regarded as less-than-human knock-offs. This has been the perspective toward Black people held by enslavers, landlords, politicians, law enforcement officials, judges, bosses, and every other white person in our society for four hundred years. We’ve made (I’ve made) little progress so far in dislodging this perspective from our brand of the human condition.

The argument, at least in our historical and contemporary setting, seems to go something like this. Why can’t you people (primarily Black people in our culture) just be satisfied with what you have. It’s better than it used to be. We’re making progress, aren’t we? After all, we elected a Black man president, not just once but twice. I know Black people who are doing quite well financially and socially. And I know poor White people who are struggling just as much as poor Black people. Why can’t you just be grateful for what you have? When will it ever be enough?

The answer to that, Phil, comes from a different but related domain. One of our Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was once asked how many justices she thought would be enough women sitting on the Court (yes, we have women in roles of public authority – that’s a discussion for another time). Her answer was when there would be nine women justices on the court, there would be enough. That means all the seats would be occupied by women.

Her response provoked shock and dismay in some quarters, and that was her intention. Her point was that no one (well, no men) found it troubling when all nine seats were occupied by men. So, why would it be troubling if all nine seats were occupied by women. She revealed the hypocrisy of gender in our system.

When will Black people be “satisfied”? When that question is no longer a question that makes sense. That question will no longer make sense when the racial bias and oppression baked into our society no longer determine every outcome for Black people.

Why couldn’t Onesimus just be “satisfied” with what he had? Well, I wouldn’t be satisfied, even if I had the best enslaver in the universe. I’m willing to stipulate that perhaps you, Phil, qualified for that title. But you and I know that enslaving another human being, made in the image of God, led to routine applications of violence, theft, degradation, sexual assault, and murder, as ways to manage the enslaved.

aLater in your letter you expressed a real moment of clarity. I’m so grateful for that. You noted that it wasn’t so much that Onesimus “stole” from you (although the peculium was, after all, his property). It wasn’t so much that he disobeyed you and dishonored your household (perspectives only an enslaver could hold if we’re being honest). His real “crime,” in your view was simply that he left.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m part of an Antiracism book study group. Right now, we’re reading a book about our country’s “Great Migration.” The book is called The Warmth of Other Suns, and the author is Isabel Wilkerson. Over the course of sixty years in the Twentieth century, some six million Black people left the American South and moved into northern states. Often, they had to do this in secret and under grave threat to their lives.

As I thought about writing you today, I reflected on some lines from Wilkerson’s book. They might be applicable here. She quotes one of our historians, John Dollard, who noted, “Just to go away is often one of the most aggressive things a person can do, especially when other options are limited or nonexistent.”[i] Leaving was an expression of resistance, rebellion, and rebirth for people who had known only abuse, oppression, and death.

The Great Migration, Wilkerson wrote, “was the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.”[ii] I think this was as great an “insult” to the enslaving class as the economic, cultural, and political damage that ensued. In a system that was built on White people ruling and Black people serving, the sheer exercise of self-determination was a revolutionary act. Those who left the South during the Great Migration “did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”[iii]

Worse yet, Onesimus left in order to go to Paul – someone whose opinion and esteem you valued greatly. It seems clear that Onesimus wanted Paul to intervene in the situation so that there could be some amicable resolution. In this sense, Onesimus committed no crime by leaving, as long as he came back. And yet, for you, the worst part of it all was that he took this big step without asking your leave.

Yet, he came back. He came back in order to stay within the bounds of Imperial fugitive slave laws, certainly. He also came back in order to be acknowledged, if you were willing, as a beloved brother in Christ and a partner with you in the Gospel mission. He left your household as a rebellious piece of property. He returned as, at least in Paul’s estimation, an equal in the Reign of God. That’s quite a kick in the pants, in both social and emotional terms.

And then, to add insult to injury (from your perspective as I imagine it), Paul made this an issue for the whole Christian assembly that gathers in your household. I suppose this could have been a private letter, between a couple of privileged, “honorable” Roman men. But Paul made it a church matter. So, it would be decided, not by you as the paterfamilias, but by the whole assembly – Gentile and Jew (I assume), enslaved and free, female and male.

I would have needed a fair bit of time to calm down and see straight after the initial storm of the first reading of the letter, probably in my chambers. My temptation to kill the messenger would have been pretty powerful. How about you? Then I would have realized that Paul had me by the theological and sociological throat. Not that he wished to do violence. Quite the opposite was true. But he left no way for you to wiggle out of that grasp, eh?

I hasten to add that I am not enjoying your discomfiture. I am doing my best to empathize with what you experienced and how you responded. I know how I react when I suspect even a whiff of justified recrimination for my ongoing racial biases.

I’d like to think I’m doing well, but I don’t want to risk finding out how untrue that is. When I do find that out, my gut tightens. I begin to sweat. I want to lash out and defend myself in the midst of a shame storm. All because someone has “dared” to point out the truth about me.

I hope you did better than I would have. The evidence indicates that you did. And for that I am glad and grateful.

Yours in Christ,

Low


[i] Wilkerson, page 10.

[ii] Wilkerson, page 11.

[iii] Wilkerson, page 15.

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