Letters to Phil #2 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

Yes, I’m the one who made a big deal about names and nicknames. I didn’t mean to offend you by taking liberties with your given name. It’s a perfectly fine name. I wasn’t trying to make fun of you by suggesting that it was a nickname.

I hope you’ll be gratified to know that some later Christians of note have born your name with honor and pride. At least three elected lawmakers in this country have been named Philemon as well as a famous South African football player and the president of the nation of Cameroon. Your name hardly lives on “in infamy” as you worried in your most recent letter.

Please feel free to call me “Low” in exchange for my over-familiar treatment of your name. I suppose I deserve that. Ha, ha! I’ve been called many things in my life, and that is hardly the worst. At least you will name me “Low” intentionally. I have often been reduced in elevation by accident or verbal sloth — or simply because people can’t figure out how to pronounce my name and seek to reduce their risk of error.

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Whether you can empathize or not, I don’t know. I do know that English-speakers hesitate to say your name aloud because they can’t decide which syllable to accent. In our written text of Paul’s letter to you, the accent falls on the second syllable. I hope that’s actually how you pronounce it.

In any event, you will be “Phil” to me, and I will be “Low” to you — as it should be. Agreed?

This “name game” leaves me wondering something that our scholars discuss at length. Do you think people find you a bit proud or rigid? I apologize for putting the question so crudely. But I know you tire of trips beating around the bush. Here’s what I mean.

Some who read Paul’s letter to you notice what they perceive to be Paul’s “tone.” They suggest that Paul is more cautious and deferential in addressing you than he is, for example, in addressing those “foolish Galatians.” They note that Paul is quite careful not to order you to do anything, although he notes that he could command you if he chose to do so.

Paul had no trouble telling the folks in Corinth precisely what he expected them to do. And he was quite direct with the Roman Christians, whom he had never met in person. So it seems to some that Paul is extra-careful with you.

I’m of the opinion — just to be clear — that Paul was not treating you “gently” out of fear or uncertainty. You probably know firsthand that wasn’t his style. I, for one, don’t imagine that you are more assertive or reactive than any other Roman male in your social position. I think that personal honor and status matter a great deal to all of us men, for good or ill.

I think Paul was correct in appreciating you as a dear friend and co-worker in the gospel. Paul could be unsparing in his vitriol as he verbally sliced and diced his opponents. But he was generous when praise was merited. It’s clear that Paul valued your faithfulness to and love for our Lord and his Church.

So, Phil, I wonder a couple of things. What did Paul want you to do? And why didn’t he just tell you to do it? I know he wanted your faith to “become effective when you perceived all the good that we may do for Christ.” But what in the world did he mean by that?

I know he wanted you to welcome Onesimus “back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother…” But what in the world did he mean by that? I know that whatever he wanted from you, Paul wanted you to do it voluntarily, without coercion, and even happily on the basis of Christian love.

But why, Phil, was Paul so damned indirect and deferential to you in these matters? That’s one of the many questions that bothers us later readers of Paul’s letter to you. I’m sorry for getting too impatient and even confrontational. That’s not my intent. My frustration is certainly not with you but rather with Paul.

Why, Paul, in this most practical and personal of all your letters, did you have to be so unclear? I know. I’ll ask him when I get the chance. But, Phil, I’d like to hear your experience of this first.

It was probably all quite clear to you. That’s why I’m asking you. We who read the letter now are trying to infer a whole backstory that we simply don’t know. I’m asking a great deal already, I’m sure. But maybe you could think back and clarify some of the details of the situation for me. Some of my questions might be answered in the details.

Phil, I don’t know if I can imagine the pressure under which Paul placed you. Perhaps I have some idea of the pressure you placed on yourself. In our time, we continue to deal with the historical consequences and structures produced by the American system of enslavement. One hundred fifty-eight years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and we are still only at the beginning of the process to dismantle the white supremacist worldview that has undergirded that whole system.

Some people think the system is fine and should be covertly and discreetly maintained. Some people think the system has already been dismantled and can’t understand what all the fuss is about. The people who suffer the death-dealing power of the system know that progress is painfully slow. Lately, we’ve taken as many steps backward as forward. We’re in the midst of trying a police officer for the murder of a black man — a murder that should never have happened. We will see if our legal system can resist the pressures of the white supremacist worldview this time.

What we’re asking of people in our time is to change our whole white supremacist worldview. That’s a lot more painful than adapting a few objectionable words and behaviors.

For example, I’m a white man with all the advantages of status, education, opportunity, power, and privilege that my position affords me. I didn’t start out life as a white, male, landowner. But our system gives me every encouragement along the way and provides ladders when I am ready to climb.

I could easily assume that I have earned and deserve all those advantages. Many white men in our society make precisely that assumption. Of course, most of us white men don’t believe that we are innately superior to all other beings, no matter how we act. Most of us have learned to settle for simply being “better” than women and people of other colors.

One of our contemporary authors, a woman named Ijeoma Oluo, has put it this way. “[W]e condition white men to believe not only that the best they can hope to accomplish in life is a feeling of superiority over women and people of color, but also that their superiority should be automatically granted them simply because they are men. The rewarding of white male mediocrity not only limits the drive and imagination of white men; it also requires forced limitations on the success of women and people of color in order to deliver on the promised white male supremacy. White male mediocrity harms us all.”

It’s hard to learn that all my “superiority” is an accident of birth-bequeathed skin tone. It’s equally hard to learn that my gains have been created by enforcing losses on people who look different from me. It is perhaps hardest of all to see that my reputed “advantages” and those of my white, male colleagues have, in fact, led to at least as much social stagnation as social progress. We have spent centuries squandering human giftedness because of gender and skin tone. In the face of such incriminating evidence, it’s easy for white men in my society to lash out in fearful anger and violence.

It’s easy. But it’s not Jesus, right?

Phil, I know your system of caste and category is not based on “race.” I know the whole idea of a skin-toned hierarchy of values makes no sense to you (although you are, I believe, well-acquainted with a gender-based hierarchy of values). I can try to explain more of what I understand in this regard if you’re interested.

But please know that your lack of experience with a race-based system gives me hope. It means that “race” is an artificially constructed human category. Race is not stitched into the human soul or woven into the fabric of God’s creation. If the system was built up, it can be torn down.

Well, that was a lot. I know I’ve pushed you more than I’m entitled to push. I hope you can forgive my presumption and write back when you can. I’m grateful for our partnership in the Gospel.

Yours in Christ,


Letters to Philemon, #1 — Philemon Fridays

To: Philemon of Colossae

From: Lowell Hennigs of Omaha

Dear Phil,

I hope it’s all right that I call you “Phil.” We twenty-first century Americans are insistently informal on the surface of things. I think it’s one of the ways we try to convince ourselves that we really believe in equality for all people. We don’t really, but that’s something I’m sure we can discuss later.

Your name seems to me to be related to “philema.” If I have this right, that’s the Greek word for the kiss of peace that some of us Christians have shared with one another historically. I hope you’ll correct me if I’m wrong. It makes me wonder if Paul was calling you by the name your parents gave you. Or did he come up with a nickname when you became a Jesus-follower?

The name seems a bit too convenient for my taste. It seems like quite a coincidence that your name has the sense of “peaceful friend” and Onesimus’ name has the sense of “useful” or “handy.” If Philemon really is the name your parents gave you, then I immediately and profusely apologize for my presumption! It’s a quite fine name. I just want to be sure I’m getting this right.

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Phil (still assuming I can call you that), you know better than I that the earliest Christian documents are dotted with such nicknames. Our Lord set the pattern when he started calling Simon “Peter.” In our vernacular, it would be “Rocky,” since “Peter” has become a common and even somewhat formal first name.

We also have the “Sons of Thunder” for James and John, and “The Twin” for Thomas. Paul himself, as you know so well, was renamed from the Hebrew “Saul” after his vocation on the road to Damascus. I wonder how many other nicknames are hiding in plain sight in our early Christian literature. I’m sure they are obvious to you as a native speaker, but we English-speaking folks have to work at it.

It doesn’t take too much study to notice that Paul loved a good theological pun as well. Did you ever notice that (stupid question, I know, but I have to ask)? For example, when Paul wrote to you about Onesimus, he said that Onesimus “used to be useless to you, but now is useful to you and to me.”

Translation is easy if one pays no attention to things like word-plays. But capturing those nuances is one of the real tasks of the translation art. Perhaps we can get into the details of Paul’s statement here later. But he is certainly sly in his vocabulary in that line.

Paul’s clever play on words escapes us in our English translations. But I’m curious if you heard the play on “euchreston” for “useful” and our Lord’s title as Messiah, that is, “christos”. It jumped out at me one day in my study of the letter, but I want to check if I’m just making something up that wasn’t there in the beginning.

Some people in my time who study Paul’s letter to you think that Paul is making a play on Onesimus’ name. There is certainly a connection in the meaning of his name –“useful” or “handy.” Paul was thinking about how useful or beneficial Onesimus had now become (at least to him) and how useless he was to you as one who had escaped from captivity.

But the actual word-play seems to me to be with “Christ.” Is that how you experienced it? That makes the most sense to me. I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on this matter.

I apologize if I use terminology that offends you in these letters. I have some idea what it’s like to be responsible for things earlier in life which I regret (and even am ashamed of) now later in life. I hope that you will take my questions, terminology, assumptions, and descriptions in the spirit in which I offer them. I want to know you and your experience as a fellow Jesus-follower, so I can make progress in my own journey of faithfulness. I’m grateful for your patience.

To get back to the puns on “Christ.” In some parts of the English-speaking Church, for example, baptism is referred to as “Christening.” The literal meaning of that word has faded with time and habit. But it really means “Christ-ening.” It means being endowed with Christ.

I always think of Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatian Christians: “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me…” Do you know that letter? I can’t help but think that Paul is offering a pointed pun on Onesimus’ baptism into Christ – that he was “without Christ” (“a-Christos”) formerly, but now he is benefitting from Christ (“eu-Christos”). Do you think I’m on track here, or not?

I have so many questions, and I’m grateful that you’ve agreed to be patient with my ignorance and my curiosity. What about Onesimus and his name? Maybe in another letter we can talk about his birth and growing up. But my question for now is simple. Was “Onesimus” his “real” name?

I know that in theory enslaved people didn’t have legal or “real” parents. But did someone give Onesimus that name when he was born? Or was it attached to him at some later time? Was he named as an individual person, or was this just a label for “generic enslaved person”?

I know that “useful” was the description that slaveholders attached to enslaved people generally. And “useless” was the description most often attached to enslaved people in literary accounts of the time. It might surprise you to know that people in my time make whole academic careers out of comparing enslavement in your time and mine. When Onesimus was talking with other enslaved people in the household, did they use a different name for him?

I know I should ask him, but I’m curious about your recollections and reflections on this matter.

Enslaved people in the United States and the Caribbean were routinely deprived of their family names and birth names. Some kept their African names, but generally those names didn’t transfer to the next generation. Enslaved people didn’t have surnames, except for the surnames of their slaveholders.

In fact, that’s often how people have discover the white parentage of “mixed race” children in old records. When those children have the master’s surname as their legal name, the situation becomes obvious. This produces the reality that some people of African descent have English or Irish or German or Spanish surnames, even though most of their ancestors were born in Africa. Did you have something similar in your time?

So, along with their freedom, enslaved Africans suffered the white theft of their names, their heritage, their identities, and their personhood. One of our scholars on enslavement calls this “natal alienation.” He says that this is a characteristic of real slave systems – both yours and mine.

So, that’s why I’m wondering about Onesimus’ name. It appears to me that he keeps the name throughout his life – although maybe you can tell me if the Onesimus in Paul’s letter to the church as Colossae is also “our” Onesimus. But did Onesimus come with that name, or was it applied to him like a brand or tattoo?

I apologize for that last comment. It may be gratuitous, and I don’t mean it as an insult. But I’m wondering if it describes reality accurately.

Enough of my questions for now. We agreed in this exchange of letters to answer one another’s questions. I will stick to that bargain. You asked me why I’m interested in a little letter more than two thousand years old and from half a world away. I’ve asked myself that question a dozen times. I still don’t have it all worked out. But I’ll give it a try.

At first, my reasons were purely practical. Because this is a letter from the blessed Paul, it made it into the collection of documents we now call the New Testament. I know you find it amusing and confusing that we study your letter as scripture. But we do, and I think the “why” of that may get clearer in our future correspondence.

In any event, I settled on the letter addressed to you because I had limited time to study it with a group of people. Your letter is short. Not a noble or intellectually impressive reason, but there you have it.

Quickly, I learned the story behind the letter. I realized that I needed to understand enslavement in your time and mine if I had any chance of understanding the letter. The more I studied, the deeper I was pulled in. That is certainly the case in my desire to understand your culture and your faith experience.

More than that, I was forced to learn much more about enslavement, oppression, racism, history, and my own culture as an enslaver and beneficiary of enslavement. What started out as a simple way to do some Bible study has become an emotional and intellectual and political project for a lifetime. As we write, I imagine I’ll share a fair bit of that project with you.

And I have to wonder if you found yourself in a similar kind of lifetime project once this letter was unfurled in your community. But, that’s a topic for another letter.

Greetings to Apphia, Aristarchus, Onesimus, and all the saints in your household. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours in Christ,


“It’s Not My Fault (or Problem)!” — Philemon Fridays

“Racism — It’s not my fault, or my problem.” The argument shows up with amazing frequency on social media. I didn’t do it, so I can’t be held responsible. I don’t own slaves. No one in my family has ever owned slaves. I didn’t steal any land, nor did any of my forebears. I have a deed that demonstrates the truth of this. I have earned and paid for everything I have. So, get off my back. Besides, you weren’t a slave. You haven’t had any land stolen from you. So, suck it up and get over it.

As I have studied Paul’s Letter to Philemon, I have learned that these are not new arguments. As ancient philosophers thought about slavery, they found inherited enslavement was the hardest practice to justify. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, there was no worse fate than to move from free to enslaved. Many ancient thinkers believed that forcing a free person into enslavement was inherently wrong and dishonorable. So, relying on “born” slaves was, on the surface of the argument, preferable to any of the other paths to enslavement. But, in fact, this view just kicked the philosophical can down the genealogical road.

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Jennifer Glancy describes the argument from origins made by the ancient writer, Dio Chrysostom. In short, he argued that if you go back far enough in anyone’s family tree, you will find a free person. If you followed that family tree far enough, you “would eventually reach the moment in which a free person had been illegitimately reduced to the status of a slave,” Glancy writes, “most likely by an act of violence.” (Glancy, Enslavement in Early Christianity, KL 1459). So, for some ancient thinkers, born enslavement was not enough of a story to justify the practice. At some point, you will run into someone who is free. Either that person’s life doesn’t matter, or a crime was committed that is carried down the generations.

Is receiving stolen property a crime? In general, we think so. It is possible to receive stolen property in ignorance, although the circumstances of the transfer usually raise questions that must be willfully ignored. That is not the case, however, when it comes to enslavement in either the Roman or Transatlantic systems. We know that in either case, someone at some point was free and then was not.

The same is true of all land in North America. At some point, Europeans arrived and took what was not theirs. In this case arguments are made that Native peoples didn’t own the land or didn’t believe in the concept of ownership. The fact that a system of deeds and titles did not exist is neither de facto nor de jure proof that there was no ownership. In fact, the United States Supreme Court had to create a settled law that Native peoples did not own the land which they occupied. In the 1823 decision in Johnson v M’Intosh, the Court used the “Doctrine of Discovery” to support the claim that the United States was the only entity entitled to purchase land from the Natives.

In Unsettling Truths, Charles and Rah write, “The Native occupants of the land would be deemed inferior to the superior claims of the image-bearing Christian presence of European settlers. This sense of sovereignty and superiority of the European-American people would be a common-sense assumption explicitly and implicitly expressed throughout US history” (page 104). Every non-Native claim to land ownership on this continent is therefore legally rooted and grounded in that act of national theft and violence sanctioned and sanctified by the highest court in the nation. Receiving stolen property remains a crime.

At some point, the land belonged to others and was taken. At some point, the bodies were free and were stolen. How many transfers of ownership does it take before the theft disappears? How many generations does it take before enslaving becomes irrelevant? When does the White benefit from black enslavement no longer stand as a debt in need of repayment? The petulant argument doesn’t answer these questions except to say that it was long enough before I came along.

That’s historically and morally incoherent. In his classic work, Inhuman Bondage, David Brion Davis argues “that racial slavery became an intrinsic and indispensable part of New World settlement, not an accident or a marginal shortcoming of the American experience. We must face the ultimate contradiction that our free and democratic society was made possible by massive slave labor” (page 6). For the receipts, please read the works referenced below.

For example, my “people” arrived mostly from Germany between 1880 and 1920. In historical terms, these folks did not and could not enslave people. But they and I have benefitted and continue to benefit from systems, structures, and surpluses built by black people for the exclusive advantage of white people. And they settled on and “developed” land that was taken. The passing years have not changed those facts. If anything, successive practices of Jim Crow, redlining, rolling back Civil Rights gains, and ignoring the humanity of people of color have amplified and magnified the offenses.

The petulant argument that it’s not my responsibility simply asserts that at some point the people who owned the land and inhabited the bodies simply didn’t matter. Is it any wonder that we treat their descendants as if they do not matter as well? Denying and erasing responsibility — also known as “forgetting” — is the surest path to repeating the crimes against humanity that we, the perpetrators, try so hard to forget. And it is the path toward the subhuman reality of white people in the West.

I come at this from a couple of angles. First, I take seriously the argument that Charles and Rah make in Unsettling Truths. They refer to the work of Rachel McNair in Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. McNair proposes the concept of “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress,” identified by the acronym, PITS. McNair’s work has been with Vietnam veterans, who experienced a form of PTSD — not because of what they suffered but rather because of what they did.

Mark Charles wonders, based on his own experience of trauma-survival, whether something like PITS can describe part of the White reality in the West. “Is it possible,” he asks, “that PITS also has a complex version for people who lived their entire lives perpetrating dehumanizing violence against people of color?” (page 176). He notes that trauma can have transpersonal and transgenerational manifestations and effects. It’s not just the problem of “those people way back when.” He asks, “are whites experiencing the phenomena of a generational trauma that can be labeled ‘the trauma of white American’?” Charles believes that is the case.

I think he’s on to something. If he is anywhere close to correct, then the petulant argument is one manifestation of a trauma response — denial. There can be no healing and reconciliation without truth-telling to defeat that denial. If Philemon accepted Paul’s counsel and urging in how to respond to Onesimus, I have to wonder what sorts of truth-telling (aka “confession”) were part of the building of that new relationship? Did Philemon suffer from some variety of PITS for which he and his household needed healing? Did the Roman Empire, as an authentic slaveholding society, suffer from the culture-wide version of the syndrome and need a healing that was not to be found?

A second dimension of response to the petulant argument comes from Heather McGhee’s new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. McGhee describes the “zero-sum game” of White racism — the notion that any gain for people of color must come at the expense of White people, and especially of working class white people. She reviews how this ideology is used to weaponize working class whites politically, economically, and socially against people of color in order to sustain the power, privilege, and property of white elites.

The reward for working class whites is what W. E. B. DuBois called the “white wage.” This is the sense that working class whites may not be much but they are at least better than those colored people. This status is the payment made for sustaining the system. McGhee describes what could be called the “white tax.” This is the cost to working class whites in terms of education, opportunity, voting rights, housing stock, and public amenities when people of color are deprived of those benefits. Often some working class whites are caught in the blast radius of such discrimination — and continue to vote against self-interest in order to continue receiving the “white wage.”

McGhee describes in detail what she calls the “Solidarity Dividend.” This is the opposite of the “white tax.” In fact, when racial discrimination has been reduced, working class whites have benefitted as well. It is in the economic and social self-interest of working-class whites to forego the “white wage” and embrace the Solidarity Dividend. Again, that requires an honest reckoning regarding race (aka “confession”) before real solidarity can be accomplished.

I wonder if the Roman system suffered from some of the same liabilities as our own culture. The honor and shame hierarchy of the Roman system was not racialized in the way our system is. However, there was an intense appreciation of better/worse, more/less, gain/loss. The ancient Mediterranean world was a limited good culture, as Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out repeatedly. It was an honor/shame culture as well, so status was worth more even than money. How often did that get in the way of cultural progress? Often, it would seem. Was that culture a reality that the Good News of Jesus could overcome in the household of Philemon? We don’t know for sure.

“Racism — It’s not my fault, or my problem.” The petulant argument is a trauma-induced denial of reality and responsibility. As has often been said, when it comes to racism, not even the past is past. This an ideology and a system that requires most of us to be regarded as less than human to one degree or another. Only the few at the “top” are treated as fully human and having that personal worth. When we white people participate in and benefit from a system of increasing dehumanization, we cease to be fully human and miss out on the dividends that abundant life offers.

Did Philemon experience Paul’s letter as an invitation to authentic and abundant life? Do we?

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.

Philemon Fridays — An Introduction

I’m going to dedicate my Friday posts for the next few months to Paul’s Letter to Philemon. I want to introduce that project in this post.

Why study Paul’s Letter to Philemon? My initial reasons were purely practical. I have served over the last ten years as an interim pastor in a variety of settings in eastern Nebraska and Western Iowa. Interim ministry is intended to be quite limited in time. In order to lead congregational bible studies that stood a chance of getting finished, I decided to focus on “little books.” The Letter to Philemon is one of the littlest of the little books in the Christian canon.

What I discovered in this letter is a trove of technical and interpretive challenges as well as a load of social and political dynamite. I was hooked after the first time through. The study of this letter became a standard part of my interim ministry tool kit for reasons that will become clearer as we study together. As my dad often said, it’s better to be lucky than good!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I am not a professional scholar of the Bible. I have no delusions that I am producing a commentary on the text. That is not to say there is no scholarship or study behind this work. I am blessed with a certain facility in languages. I have maintained and improved my skills in New Testament Greek over the years. While I am no Greek scholar, I have some passable translation abilities. I have translated the text of Philemon a half dozen times, and I keep trying. I hope my translation is helpful while not veering too far into paraphrase or inaccuracy.

Scholars are fairly certain this is an authentic letter from the Apostle Paul to a man named Philemon. Paul is responsible for between one-quarter and one-half of the New Testament as we Protestants have it. Paul started, supported, and encouraged numerous congregations across the eastern Mediterranean, mostly in what we could call modern-day Turkey and Greece.

Philemon was a householder and slaveholder in the city of Colossae, in the Lycus River valley. He was, in Roman terms, the paterfamilias, the official and actual head of a household. Apphia and Archippus were members of that household, although Paul doesn’t specify their relationships. After all, they knew who they were and how they were related. It’s fair to assume that they might have been wife and son to Philemon, but we can’t be certain of that.

Other believers gathered in Philemon’s house for community events, worship, study, and fellowship. We don’t know the makeup of that group, but we know that Philemon was at least the host and was probably the leader of that little faith community. We can’t know the size of the group, but we can speculate that it was made up of a mixture of men and women, free persons, freed persons and slaves, adults and children, and people of a variety of social and economic situations. Perhaps the group had as many as two dozen members, depending on the size of Philemon’s house.

Onesimus was an enslaved person in Philemon’s household (we think). It may be that Onesimus is the first to read the letter aloud to the community assembled in the house of Philemon. We think this was Paul’s typical procedure. He sent the letter in the hands of a personal assistant. That person would not only read the letter but could also interpret what Paul wrote, answer questions and even expand on the teaching if necessary. We think that Phoebe performed such a role, for example, in delivering Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Onesimus may have that role here and therefore would have had a significant voice even if it were an “offstage” presence in the letter. It’s worth imagining that reading scenario as one of the possibilities for the letter. That may have been a step too far in this highly charged situation. It may be that Philemon is the one who first reads the letter aloud to the gathered community. That scenario has its own explosive potential, as I hope you will experience in the following Philemon Friday posts.

Paul probably wrote this letter while he was under arrest in Ephesus. Ephesus was the major political, economic, and religious center in the region. It was sometimes referred to as the third city of the Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. It is likely that Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus at time he wrote to Philemon.  This makes the travel time and distance manageable for all.  This is particularly the case since Paul describes in verse twenty-two his hopes for traveling to see Philemon in the near future.  We’ll learn more about Paul’s imprisonment later.

Dating any of Paul’s letters is always tricky business, and the Letter to Philemon is no exception. I connect this little letter to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in content and theme. There’s lots of debate about the date of Philippians, but I think it’s fairly late in Paul’s ministry—just before he wrote his Letter to the Romans. Many scholars would put the writing of Philippians some time between 59 and 61 CE. I believe Paul wrote to Philemon at about the same time.

The letter raises more questions than it answers. What does Paul want from Philemon? What did Onesimus do? Was there any deeper connection between Onesimus and Philemon? Why does Onesimus return “home” at the risk of his own life? Does Philemon free Onesimus from enslavement? If so, what happens to Onesimus, Philemon, and the rest of the household after the fact? How do these people continue to have relationships, if they do, after the dust settles? Why does the Church seem to support the institution of enslavement even after this letter becomes part of the Christian canon? What does it have to say to us now — if anything at all?

Thus, the Letter to Philemon is a gift from Paul that keeps on giving—to the energetic reader and to the Church as a whole. I will speculate on responses to some of those questions as we go along. But they are just that—speculations.

Scripture functions in several ways for us Christians. It is a door to life with God through the cross and resurrection of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s Word in Scripture changes hearts and minds and brings us into the new life beginning here and now. Scripture is also a window into the lives and faith of first century Christians. We can look through the frame of that window and see some things about our ancestors in the faith.

Christian Scripture is also, and most important, a mirror. If we are willing to look, we will see ourselves. When that happens, we can repent of that brokenness we view and rejoice in the grace we experience. I hope we can allow Scripture to function in all of these ways for us in this study.

Part of the mirror we call the Letter to Philemon will reveal to us our own racism and white supremacy. Most of us who will be part of this conversation are a lot more like Philemon than we are like Onesimus. As we’ll see later, the Roman Imperial slave system and the modern Transatlantic slave system have a number of similarities and differences.

It’s instructive to read these systems alongside one another and to use them as tools for understanding both systems. But we can’t just map the modern Euro-American system on to the Roman system, and we won’t try to do that. Nonetheless, we can learn more about enslavement then and now than most white people have learned in their traditional history classes.

We’ll also see that the Roman system is not racialized in the way the Transatlantic system is. We’ll see that Roman imperial society is not racialized the way American society is. That being said, we can once again see some similarities in the systems that will help us to become better acquainted with our own racism and what it can mean to be allies in the anti-racist cause in our own time and place.

I have found the study of this letter to force me to think about the Transatlantic slave trade, about racism and anti-racism, about white privilege and supremacy, and about the Christian church’s role in each and all of these issues. The study of this letter has led me to read a number of historians, theologians, scholars and novelists—mostly black but not exclusively so—who describe the deep complicity of white Christianity in the system of white domination that is so deeply rooted in our American history and culture. I hope I can share some of those perspectives with you during the course of our conversation.

I don’t know anything really. I’ve read a fair bit. But I’m no expert in any of this—just a student trying to figure some things out. So, I will get any number of things wrong in this conversation. If we are to be allies in the anti-racist cause, we white-privileged folks are sure to get it wrong in many ways.

I hate to get it wrong, whatever the “it” may be. Nonetheless, taking the risk is a first, small step in solidarity with those who are told all the time, not that they get it wrong but rather that they are the definition of wrong. It’s not asking much of me to be vulnerable to a little criticism in order to move our conversation forward.

If you want to play along on this track, I encourage you to read Paul’s Letter to Philemon several times in the next week. It won’t take long, and you won’t need to hurry. Next week, we’ll dive deeper into the text.