Letter 17 — Letters to Phil, Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I was struck by one thing in particular in your last letter. “Of course,” you wrote, “in hindsight I can see that Onesimus is exceptional in his abilities and gifts. He is a valuable and useful servant of our Lord Jesus and a capable leader in the Church. So, I’m not surprised, now, that Paul wanted him to come and serve in the mission work while Paul was in prison.”

Phil, I have to ask something that will probably offend you. Do you find that this “exceptional slave” theory is a common view among members of the congregation there and elsewhere? We have something in our system of white supremacy in this culture (whether you actually do or not). It’s often referred to as the “exceptional negro” concept.

The whole idea is rooted in the assumption that, as a group, certain people are below some standard of being “normal.” In our system, “normal” is often still defined as being white, male, heterosexual, of northern European origin, and probably wealthy and educated in a modestly privileged setting.  People fitting some other descriptions are less than normal. Therefore, when the “less-thans” perform well in the system, it is regarded as surprising…as exceptional.

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This frame of reference makes all sorts of hypocrisy and oppression not only possible but, well, “normal.” For eight years, we had a Black president and First Lady in the White House. That was hailed as a triumphant milestone in the fight against systemic racism and White supremacy. It was that. But it was also written off in subtle and not-so-subtle ways as exceptional.

The Obamas succeeded in a system created to block their success. When they succeeded, they were applauded for their appearance, their diction, their erudition, their graciousness, their skills, and many other things. All of those accolades were much deserved. But the subtext was always there. The Obamas were, somehow, abnormally “normal.” That’s code language for the fact that they are successful in a system designed intentionally to prevent that success.

“African-American success and the unusual accomplishments of these African-Americans, this concept suggests, distinguish the exceptional Negroes from the normal underachieving African-Americans,” Jarvis Williams wrote in a 2016 blog post.

“Those who believe in the ‘exceptional Negro’ concept might often think that it’s normal and nothing ‘exceptional’ when folks from other races and ethnicities achieve success,” Williams continues, “but rather abnormal when members of non-African American races and ethnicities fail to achieve what an outer group thinks it should achieve (e.g. when someone from a certain ethnic group becomes a preacher, instead of a medical doctor when that particular group is well represented in the medical profession).”[i]

Phil, I know that this perspective on “exceptional slaves” is represented even in the Scriptures that undergird our faith tradition and community. You pointed to some of that language in your letter. In what has become known as the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives us a report of that great sermon Simon Peter gave on the day of Pentecost. In that sermon, Peter refers to the words of the prophet Joel as a prefiguring of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all believers.

The prophet declares that a sign of the kingdom come will be the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon “all flesh.” That outpouring will be most evident as it takes place in the lives of human beings, but the implication is that all of Creation will receive that gift. The Spirit will give the gift of prophesy to sons and daughters, and the gift of holy dreaming to young and old men alike.

“Even upon my male enslaved persons and upon my female enslaved persons, in those days I will pour out my Spirit,” Peter continues the quote. I focus on “even” in that sentence. It is regarded as even more remarkable that enslaved persons shall receive the gift of the Spirit.

It’s not remarkable from God’s perspective, I would hasten to add. But both the prophet and Peter recognize that this is not only unexpected but rather was regarded as simply impossible. Even though the outpouring of the Spirit is a completely “democratic” experience – that is, given to and accessible to all people, regardless of station in life – that fact must be noted in the prophecy and in the quote simply because it is so “abnormal.”

There are examples in your own culture of the “exceptional enslaved,” many of which are part of your awareness, I’m sure. The most notable, on the one hand, for his military success was Spartacus, of course. That’s a name that struck panic into the hearts of Roman slaveholders, I believe. Yet, in our time, it is a name that represents those who rebel in the name of freedom. But, in any event, he was exceptional for his leadership and military prowess.

There is also, Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher from your own era. It would amuse you to know that his words and work continue to inform and challenge people in our own era. Epictetus was, it would seem, regarded as an “exceptional slave,” and was freed from enslavement relatively early in his life. He appears to have maintained the lifestyle of an enslaved person for his whole life, however, living simply and alone for most of his adult life.

My point is that these “exceptions” were regarded as aberrations, as oddities that proved nothing about the general capacities of enslaved persons. Is that how you view Onesimus and his gifts and abilities in the life of the church? That he is a wonderful exception to an otherwise dismal rule?

Or perhaps, Onesimus represents that portion of the enslaved population which somehow “naturally” rises to the top and is able to perform in “normal” systems. That was the proposal late in the 19th century in this country that came to be known as the “talented tenth.” White northern elites sought to establish educational institutions that would seek out and educate the one in ten Black men who could manage the demands of “normal” (white supremacist) society.

For some time, influential leaders in the Black community supported and participated in this effort. Both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois endorsed this perspective and worked to bring it to reality. In fact, DuBois wrote both a famous essay and a formative book entitled The Talented Tenth to encourage this perspective and project.

For DuBois, this designation, however, did not describe some sort of limit on the abilities of Black people. Instead, he used it to describe the responsibility of the Talented Tenth to uplift the whole of the Black Community. In his essay, he wrote these words. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.”[ii]

Later, DuBois backed away from this perspective to a large degree, because of the ways in which the “exceptional negro” hypothesis was used to coopt the Black elites while at the same time continuing to assert that the vast majority of the Black population were capable of nothing more than being the “mudsills” of society (I’m sure you remember my reference to the “mudsill” speech in a previous letter).

Just as Epictetus was often used to make the case that enslavement wasn’t so terrible and that there was no reason to attack the institution and system, so this “exceptional negro” mythology is used to maintain the system of white supremacy in our culture. When that doesn’t happen – when too many Black people get a bit too exceptional – the historic response has been a violent backlash. I could go into a long description of how this worked in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a hundred years ago, but I think I’ve mentioned that horror in another letter.

I can’t help but think of the response to the Spartacus revolt and those six thousand crosses that lined the road between Puteoli and Rome. The message was quite clear. This is what happens when the enslaved class steps out of line. How did that work out in your congregation and in the congregations there in the Lycus valley?

It’s clear to me that you and Onesimus came to some sort of mutually agreeable accommodation and that Paul got his way, at least in the short run. But I fear that Onesimus was, in fact, an exceptional enslaved person, whether he wanted to be or not. As I read the words on enslavement in the letters we now call Colossians and Ephesians, it seems that the Roman enslavement system got the upper hand and drove back any attempts to make enslaved persons social equals as well as spiritual equals.

In our system, Black people can be “exceptional” as long as they don’t rock the boat too much. Or they may be able to rock the social boat if they have accumulated enough wealth and power to insulate themselves from the worst consequences of the inevitable White backlash.

We have an elite athlete, Colin Kaepernick, who is an example of this. As long as he was willing to just perform for White pleasure, he was well-rewarded. The minute he used his platform to call out white supremacy, he was deprived of those rewards. The backlash was so obvious. He should have been grateful for his rewarded exceptionalism. He should have just “shut up and played.”

I wonder if Onesimus experienced that same sort of treatment as he worked with Paul and became a noted leader in the churches in the Lycus valley over time.

As always, Phil, I hope you can see that my time has improved very little over yours when it comes to the challenges of Paul’s letter to you. And we have had the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight to try to figure things out. It’s not about intelligence, of course. For us, it’s about power – the power of white supremacy.

You are, Phil, what we in our time call “a good sport.” I look forward to your next letter.

Yours in Christ,


[i] https://thewitnessbcc.com/problems-exceptional-negro-concept/.

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Talented_Tenth.

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