A Tale of Two Systems — Philemon Fridays

Paul’s Letter to Philemon, as it was first received, is a test of the power of the Gospel to change lives under the most difficult of circumstances.  Think about the various trials and tests represented in this letter. Will Onesimus forgive Philemon? Should he? Will Philemon put aside a whole world of imperial domination and slaveholding for the sake of Jesu and his church? How will the rest of the household respond? What about the rest of the church, and the rest of the larger community? What will life be like the day after this letter has been read?

Now think about yourself and your life for a moment. What is the biggest change or choice you must make in order to remain a Christian, if you are one? If not, what parts of your life do you find to be in conflict with your most cherished values and priorities? What would it take to resolve that conflict?

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I encourage you to imagine the situation in which this letter was first read.  This was not a private letter.  Rather it was addressed to Philemon and to the assembly of Jesus followers who gathered at his house.  It is likely that the letter would have read out loud to the assembled believers.  It is also likely that Philemon, as the leader of the congregation, would have read this letter out loud.  He would have read it with Onesimus sitting in the congregation. 

Or perhaps, it was Onesimus who first read the letter aloud as Philemon listened along with the rest of the household (and perhaps invited guests). In either case, the social pressure brought to bear on Philemon would have been intense.  And Paul would have known all these facts as he composed this letter.

What is happening in these early house churches?  The accepted roles and relationships are being questioned.  Paul suggests that the Good News about Jesus turns things upside down.  Women are now in church leadership.  Enslaved persons and masters gather as sisters and brothers in Christ around the same communion table.  Parents and children are church members together.  These changes in role and relationship spill over into “real” everyday life.  And sometimes that spillover does not go smoothly.

We can see evidence of these struggles in Paul’s letters to Colossians and Ephesians.  Even if, as some scholars hold, these are not authentic Pauline compositions, they then reveal the conflict in some of the earliest Christian congregations within two generations after the Resurrection. We can look at the household instructions in those letters directed to masters and enslaved persons, fathers and children, husbands and wives.  These roles and relationships were upset by the Gospel, and the early churches were working out the details.  What might have happened in the little church in Colossae without Paul’s letter and instructions?

We can transpose this into a contemporary key.  Does it matter that a manager and an employee are members of the same church and kneel next to one another at the same communion table?  Or are work and church to be completely separate domains?  When there is labor strife, for example, this becomes an important question. 

I have met such issues in rural settings when landlords and tenants—both members of my parish—have had difficult relationships.  How should a pastor advise and encourage the parties in such disputes, and what difference can it make that the parties are family members in Christ?  Should it make any difference at all?  And what if the Gospel questions the very foundations of such relationships?  What if the Gospel challenges the unjust hierarchies of power that undergird so many of our roles and connections?  Then what?

The Letter to Philemon may be an ancient epistle.  It is also as contemporary and provocative as the latest disagreement at the office or the bank.  This in itself is more than enough reason to read and study the letter in detail.

Before we go further, it is important to compare and contrast Roman imperial enslavement with the enslavement of the Transatlantic slave trade in modern times. To what degree can each system help us to understand the other? But first, let me say another word about language. Generally, I will not use the terms “slave” or “slaves” (and if I do, it will probably be a mistake that should be corrected). I will, instead, use the terms “enslaved person” or “enslaved persons.”

Our language can lead us into bad habits if we aren’t careful. Enslavement was not an accidental condition. It wasn’t like catching a cold. People enslaved other people. It was intentional, systematic, and ongoing. Enslaved people were victims. They were in no way responsible for their situations, even if they sold themselves into enslavement. After all, what kind of system would leave people with that course as the only conceivable alternative? So, in my language I choose not to participate in the possible linguistic “victim-blaming” contained in the terms “slave” and “slaves.”

I want to apply some similar caution to the labels for slaveholders. I will refrain as much as possible from using the label of “master” when referring to Philemon. I think it is more helpful to describe Philemon and others like him as “slaveholders.” I don’t wish to ratify any supposed superiority on the part of so-called “masters.” Nor do I wish to refer to them as “owners,” since they were really kidnappers, thieves, and terrorists. A more neutral term seems better to me.

Finally, it does not appear to me helpful to describe the connection between an enslaved person and a slaveholder as a “relationship.” In the broadest sense, there is a relationship between the enslaved person and the slaveholder in the same way there is a relationship between me and my computer, for example. The word “relationship,” however, tends to communicate a connection of greater intimacy than this proximal exertion of power merits. For the sake of clarity, I think it is more helpful for us to think in terms of the enslaved/slaveholder dyad. That language also reflects more clearly the mythology of the enslaved person as a mere extension of the slaveholder’s body.

Now, back to the two systems. In what ways are the systems similar? Both the Roman and Transatlantic systems regard enslaved persons as commodities, objects that can be used, bought, and sold, inherited, and disposed of as the slaveholder pleased.

In both systems enslaved persons experienced what Orlando Patterson labels as “natal alienation.” Enslaved persons, by definition, have no legal family connections. Enslaved persons have no fathers and cannot be fathers, according to the legal codes in each system. Marriages involving enslaved persons cannot be legitimate or binding, according to those laws. Families brought into being by enslaved persons have no legal standing or integrity in these systems.

In both systems, violence is applied to enslaved persons as the preferred means of control, coercion, and abuse. And in both systems, slaveholders could do whatever they wished sexually to and with their human property.

Additionally, in both systems slaveholding is undergirded by an ideology of supremacy and dehumanization. In the Transatlantic system, this ideology is completely racialized. But in both systems, philosophers apply their skills to create systems of meaning that render slaveholding reasonable and even necessary. The Transatlantic system was launched, in fact, when Portuguese traders and rulers called upon Christian theologians to develop theological justifications for the system and the horrific abuse it entailed.

The Roman system was rooted in the Mediterranean culture of honor and shame, which was grounded more in the Roman ideal of manhood than in the racialization of human diversity. But even in this difference there are similarities. In the Roman system, enslaved persons defined and displayed the full definition of “shame.” In the Transatlantic system, enslaved persons defined and displayed the full definition of “not-white.” The system of measurement was different, but the function of the system was the same.

The two systems shared a double vision of the personhood of the enslaved persons. Enslaved persons were not regarded as persons. They were socially dead, as noted above. However, if it suited the system to regard an enslaved person as a person, then so be it. In America, enslaved persons were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of voting representation (of course, only white persons were actually represented). If an enslaved person broke a Roman law—even as the explicit direction of the master—that enslaved person could be held responsible for the action and be liable to legal sanction just like any other person. That’s how domination systems work.

The Roman and Transatlantic slave systems had in common the need to control enslaved bodies. The systems exercised this control through ideology and terror. The systems shared an absolute terror of slave rebellion and did everything possible to prevent such revolts—up to and including crucifixion by the Romans and lynching by white Americans.

In the next “Philemon Fridays” post, I reflect on the whether the Christian Bible approves of enslavement or not.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

1. What is the biggest change or choice you must make in order to remain a Christian?

2. What might have happened in the little church in Colossae without Paul’s letter and instructions?

3. What do you think about the change in terminology from “slave” to “enslaved person”? What other habits of language might you consider changing when you think about them?

4. What if the Gospel challenges the unjust hierarchies of power that undergird so many of our roles and connections?  Then what?

5. How do you react to the idea that Christian theology played a fundamental role in the construction of “whiteness” as a racialized and dominant identity in the European world?

References and Resources

McCauley, Esau. Reading While Black:African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2020.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Text Study for John 2:13-25 (Part 4); 3 Lent B 2021

Part Four – Politics in the Pulpit

White scholars, preachers, and pew sitters squirm as we consider the Temple Incident. The squirming becomes sweating when we begin to discuss Christian civil disobedience. No, that’s not right. The sweating begins when we consider “politics in the pulpit.”

The general rule in white, mainline congregations on that one is quite simple. Don’t do it. When pastoral leaders engage in something that resembles Christian civil disobedience, such as participating in a peaceful public demonstration for Black Lives Matter, the response from some parishioners is somewhere between panic and outrage. So, this text requires us to dig deeper into such responses and look ourselves in our (white supremacist) faces.

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The fact that this is even an issue betrays our privileged, colonial position in the culture. If we resist Jesus’ actions, we are reading the text from the perspective of the religious, economic, and political establishment, not from the perspective of the oppressed and exploited people Jesus represents. That perspective is largely the viewpoint of white male supremacy that dictates the terms of power and the pace of “change.”

I think of the words of Ijeoma Oluo in this regard. She’s worth quoting at length (as is often the case).

“How often have you heard the argument that we have to slowly implement gender and racial equality in order to not ‘shock’ society? Who is the ‘society’ that people are talking about? I can guarantee that women would be able to handle equal pay or a harassment-free work environment right now, with no ramp-up. I’m certain that people of color would be able to deal with equal political representation and economic opportunity if they were made available today. So for whose benefit do we need to go so slowly? How can white men be our born leaders and at the same time so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?” (Mediocre, pages 7-8).

Oluo’s words could be transposed quite easily into the Temple Incident. Who was resistant to changes in the Temple system of wealth extraction? It certainly wasn’t the people who had to decide between getting groceries and buying a pair of doves for the required sacrifice. It certainly wasn’t the people who had to decide between a visit from their friendly Roman legionnaires and having enough money to clothe their children. The people who reacted negatively to Jesus’ Temple intervention were those who benefitted from the system of exploitation.

With whom do we identify? And what is the place of “political witness” in the life of Christian congregations? Here we privileged, powerful, and positioned white people can learn a great deal from the experience and expertise of our sisters and brothers in Black congregations. I deeply appreciate the writing and witness of Dr. Esau McCauley in his book, Reading While Black. I want to quote extensively from that work here.

We white folks have a long history of treating Black Christian political witness as bothersome (at least) and far too extreme (most of the time). McCauley rehearses the criticism of Dr. Martin Luther King’s actions in the Birmingham bus boycott from eight white mainline religious leaders. We Lutherans have our own tales of shame as when, for example, James Forman was summarily rejected by Lutheran authorities when he presented them with a plan for reparations from the church. McCauley describes the pushback as a question. “Was [King’s] public and consistent criticism of the political power structure of his day an element of his pastoral ministry or a distraction from it?” (page 49).

In most of our white mainline congregations, the honest answer would be obvious. Pastors do spiritual things, not political things. White people generally thought that Dr. King should stay in his lane and tend to his flock. Of course, as McCauley points out, such a binary approach was not an option and would not be considered in most Black congregations. The privilege of separating religion and politics is a mark of white supremacy and not a mark of biblical Christianity. The Temple Incident is a case in point.

I can imagine some of the critiques applied to Jesus during and after the Temple Incident, especially by those in power. What does that stupid rabbi think he’s doing? He may know the Bible, but he knows nothing about the real world. Why doesn’t he mind his own business and help people deal with their problems? We liked him a lot better when he was healing people and handing out bread.

But now that damned fool has gone from preaching to meddling. Doesn’t he know the Romans are watching? What if they decide to strike back? And doesn’t he understand that the whole Temple system depends on that money? How will we keep the doors open if people stop buying the animals and using the Temple banking services? He’s going to have to be dealt with, one way or another.

McCauley then works through the “quietist” texts in Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2. He suggests that Romans 13 cannot be used to justify violent revolt. But there’s a lot of distance between armed insurrection and doing nothing. “Submission and acquiescence,” he writes, “are two different things” (page 51). Indeed, we are called to pray for the welfare of government officials. But that is also not an invitation to inaction. “Prayer for leaders and criticism of their practices are not mutually exclusive ideas,” McCauley says (page 53). “Both have biblical warrant in the same letter” (1 Timothy).

McCauley discusses the inherently political and politically explosive nature of Jesus’ ministry. This was not Jesus’ innovation but rather a fulfillment of the trajectory in the Jewish scriptures to challenge and upset the rulers of this world, beginning with the Egyptian Pharaoh. “It was precisely inasmuch as Jesus was obedient to his Father and rooted in the hopes and dreams of Israel,” McCauley writes, “that Jesus revealed himself to be a great danger to the rulers of his day” (page 55). The Temple Incident is a clear illustration of this revelation.

McCauley reminds us that “those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57). This means, of course, that those of us who remain silent are not following in the footsteps of Jesus. That’s not something I’ve preached very often, nor have I heard it with much frequency in our pulpits until recently. John 2 presents an opportunity to at least point this out.

“Protest is not unbiblical,” McCauley concludes, “it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s own word and vision for the future. His vision may await an appointed time,” he continues, “but it is coming” (page 62). Analysis of the human condition in most of our mainline pulpits is limited to individual consolation and comfort. In order to avoid the political and social justice conversation, we retreat into individualized “spiritual disciplines” that may offer us personal serenity but do little to inform our social consciousness or energize our public witness. I know that in some cases such disciplines do in fact inform and energize. But my observation is that such connections are exceptional.

I come now to some real dynamite in McCauley’s chapter. I will quote the paragraph fully.

“The question that ought to keep Christians up at night is not the political activism of Black Christians. The question should be how 1 Timothy 2:1-4 came to dominate the conversation about the Christian’s responsibility to the state. How did we manage to ignore the clearly political implications of Paul’s casual remarks about the evil age in Galatians and his wider reflections on the links between evil powers and politicians? How did John’s condemnation of Rome in Revelation fall from view? Why did Jesus’ public rebuke of Herod get lost to history?”

We might add, how did Jesus’ act of civil disobedience fail to motivate white, privileged, mainline Christians to embrace such public and prophetic actions as normal for us? “It may have been,” McCauley continues, “because it was in the best interest of those in power to silence Black voices. But if our voices are silenced,” he declares, “the Scriptures still speak” (page 64).

It is not the case that radical liberal political crazy people have cherry-picked Scripture for a few proof texts to underwrite their causes. It is the case that our positions determine our reading. If we read without analyzing our social positions, we will read inaccurately and narrowly. It is not that Blacks carved an anti-slavery position out of a pro-slavery Bible. It is the case that slaveholders whittled their Bible down until the anti-slavery ammunition was removed.

McCauley’s work can help us to see that white mainline Christians do that more broadly. It is not that individual conversion is in the Bible and social justice is not. It is the case that privileged, powerful, and positioned people prefer a Bible that contains the former but not the latter. Such a pared down text then allows us to stay where we are. But if we stay where we are, we will not follow Jesus where he goes.

References and Resources

Croy, N. Clayton. “The Messianic Whippersnapper: Did Jesus Use a Whip on People in the Temple (John 2:15)?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 128, no. 3, 2009, pp. 555–568. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25610203?seq=1. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.

Domeris, William. The ‘enigma of Jesus” temple intervention: Four essential keys. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222015000200038.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-3.

Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

McCauley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2020.

Myers, Alicia D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-5.

Ruiz, Gilberto. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/cleansing-the-temple/commentary-on-john-213-25-2.

Salmon, Marilyn. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22.

Shore, Mary Hinkle. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-4.

Witherington, Ben. “Jesus and the Temple Tantrum (A Study of John 2:13-17).” https://www.seedbed.com/jesus-and-the-temple-tantrum-a-study-of-john-213-17/.

White Pastoral Poverty

I have heard tell of white (like me) pastoral colleagues who weary of conversation, reading, study, and calls to action when it comes to anti-racism work. Some note that they are already hard-pressed by The Pandemic and all its related complications. Some note that they have their hands full already with partisan political posturing without adding conversations about race to the mix. Some even suggest that since they have no people of color in their neighborhood or township or county, for them the conversation is beside the point.

In the spirit of Christian charity, I hope and am willing to concede that these responses may be the results of frustration and fatigue. I know in my own case, however, that frustration and fatigue do not create new thoughts in my head. Instead, they tend to lower my inhibitions, unfilter my words, and render me unfit for decent human company.

I am not throwing the first stone of judgment since I am freed from the slings and arrows of parish ministry in my retirement. But it is painful to hear that such conversations are taking place in the white, mainline pastoral guild.

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If we strip away the superficial aspects of the complaint, the basic question is simple. What’s in it for me? Issues of racial justice don’t impact me and my ministry directly. I’m doing fine as I am. Why should I bother with this stuff when I have so many other things demanding my energy and attention?

Few of us would admit to such a jaundiced view out loud. But I have asked that question on many occasions as a pastor. I’m not proud of that admission, but it is no less true because of that.

The problem is, of course, that it is the wrong question. It is not the wrong question merely because it is so damned arrogant and selfish. It is the wrong question because it tacitly assumes that there is nothing “in it” for me as a white person to engage in conversation with Black and Brown and Asian people and their faith practices and traditions.

With a few exceptional moments, I have lived and worked that way for a lifetime. I am ashamed by my ignorance and grieved by what I have missed. The question presumes that if I am a white person with no connection to Black, Brown, or Asian people, that I am not missing anything. The question presumes that my whiteness is sufficient and self-sufficient. In fact, we White Christians are deficient and incomplete on our own and by ourselves.

Seventy-five percent of white Americans have no connections to Black, Brown, or Asian people in their lives – me included. The percentage is actually higher for White Christians. We who try to live as if Whiteness is enough have hollowed out our humanity almost beyond recognition.

That’s not a judgment merely on our white identities. It is, rather, contrary to a description of God’s intention for Creation. It is not good for us to be alone. We cannot be fully and authentically human and Christian if we whittle ourselves down to mere Whiteness.

I forget that fact almost every day. I settle for the little nub of humanity left when I limit myself to Whiteness. So, I’m grateful for the reminders that human life is about so much more. I’m grateful for the reminders that people with other experiences and social locations can enrich my life and I can enrich theirs, if only I will engage in the conversation as a partner and be willing to listen and learn.

I need to engage in anti-racism work and relationships not only out of love for neighbor. I am not in the position of all-powerful giver here. I need to engage in that work and those relationships out of love for self. If my vocation is to be fully and authentically human, then I dare not cut myself off from the resources God provides.

My most recent reminder of this reality is Esau McCauley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. McCauley is assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, a priest in the Anglican Church in North American, and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

McCauley did his doctoral work with N. T. Wright, and it pleases me to hear echoes of that relationship in his writing. But his work is no mere echo of a giant in the field of New Testament studies. McCauley is a careful and close reader of Christian and Hebrew scriptures, a careful thinker about biblical theology, and a clear-eyed interpreter of texts from an historic and contemporary Black perspective.

I don’t take McCauley as a representative of “Black theology” as a whole. That’s not the point and would be insulting to McCauley and to Black theology – a variegated and complex field (just like White theology). I do experience him reading scripture texts from a social position I cannot occupy. I can’t read the texts that way myself, but I can listen and learn and have my eyes and ears opened to new (at least to me) insights.

This is one reason to engage in such studies. I cannot live, read, think, or act out of a social location other than my own. How can I know what the larger world is really like if I am limited to my own understanding and experience? How can I be fully and authentically human if all I know is a small, cramped, and often not very attractive slice of that human experience?

Without the voices of Black, Brown, and Asian theologians, I am stuck with, as McCauley describes it, “a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice” (page 11). I will no longer be content with such an anemic view of Reality.

The question I want us white pastor types to ask is this? What do I need in order to be a better Christian and more fully human? And one answer I want us to give is that we need to listen to and learn from our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers. We need to do that for a very long time, especially we white males who have called the shots for too long.

We White Christians need to continue to learn that faith and politics are separated only to maintain the privileged, powerful, and propertied in their places. Black Christians have not been saddled with the social quietism that is assumed to be The Truth in most of our White congregations. “How might Jesus’ words inform a theology of political witness of the church?” McCauley asks in a chapter about political engagement in the church. “Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following,” he concludes, “in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57).

We White Christians need to continue to hear and practice a vital and passionate engagement with Scriptural texts for our lives here and now. We need to remember that from our social location, we are going to hear things in the texts that will convict us and demand conversion. We need to remember that others will hear words of liberation and life in the same texts. If we do not listen to the other voices, we will end up with a “slaveholder’s canon” designed to underwrite our White supremacy. And we will continue to be God-awful boring.

In particular, we benefit from the constant reminder that God is not only a forgiver but a liberator. We benefit from the constant reminder that Jesus not only welcomes the little children but challenges the powers that be. We benefit from the constant reminder that salvation is not merely about individuals but is about systems and the restoration of all of Creation.

The topics McCauley addresses in his work are, by and large, areas I have not addressed in my preaching and study over the last forty years. My ministry, education, and understanding have been impoverished as a result. He outlines, for example, a New Testament theology of policing based on an examination of Romans 13 and Luke 3. This is a deep and sophisticated discussion that opened my eyes to new possibilities in the text.

As he comments on the Magnificat in Luke 1, he asks, “Is this not the hope of every Black Christian, that God might hear and save? That he might look upon those who deny us loans for houses or charge exorbitant interest rates in order to cordon us off into little pockets of poverty and say to them your oppression has been met with the advent of God?” (page 87).

As I read that, I was wishing that someone might have preached such a gospel to my father who loved farming so dearly but was forced by federal and state policies to leave the farm and work “in town.” McCauley, as a side effect of his comments, reminds us that poverty and injustice easily cross the Color Line. We need our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers to keep rubbing or White noses in that truth until we get it.

We desperately need other witnesses to remind us that racialized “colorblindness” (even of the Christian variety) is, after all, just blindness. “God’s vision for his people is not the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness,” McCauley writes (page 106). A colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness – White colleagues, that’s what we have now.

“Instead,” he continues, “God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated,” McCauley concludes, “not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God” (pages 106-107).

I am certain that McCauley and I would disagree about any number of textual, theological, and social issues. That’s the good news. My education is deficient, and my training is incomplete without such conversation. “What I have in mind then,” McCauley writes, “is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ” (page 22).

That’s one reason why we White Christians need to do this work. I thank God for the chance to be a partner in such a convicting and generative conversation.