A Reflection from Reading Paul’s letter to Philemon
I did a presentation last night at one of our local, historically African American Episcopal parishes, remembering that it was four hundred years ago that the first slaves were brought to the American colonies from Africa. I was assigned to read and reflect on Paul’s letter to Philemon.
Paul was writing to a person who was indebted to Paul. Paul claims a superior status to Philemon, at least as members of the new Christian Church, and even the congregation that meets in Philemon’s home. Paul says, “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” What if Paul had not been jailed and given a chance to ponder this? Many of the saints that I have studied were imprisoned or under some kind of arrest or convalescing from an illness wherein they received spiritual insight. So Paul’s appealing to Philemon comes from Paul’s own lockdown and opportunity to ponder.
Paul continues, “But I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” Paul wants Philemon to change from within, not from without. This is an opportunity for Philemon to cleanse his soul. This is an opportunity for Philemon to evaluate what it means to walk in the Way of Christian relationship.
Slaves don’t end the desire to have slaves. There may be uprisings and revolts but the real demise of slavery is to destroy it in the heart of folk. The so called slave masters who decide to turn and follow the real Jesus, end slavery, and better yet, end the idea of slavery as immoral and sinful.
Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian who died saving Ruby Sales in 1965, had every opportunity to not get involved with the racism that was going on in Alabama. But he returned to that place because of a turning in his heart. And while it cost him his life, he was a major turning of the heart for many white people to take a look at what real Christianity looks like.
Howard Thurman, in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, (whose grandmother did not care for Paul’s writings) when asked to go and speak to a mostly white audience about racism and discrimination, asked “why?” He argued that “Negros did not commit the sin here. I and my kind were the victims in this travesty. But I’ll go.” I think this is what Paul is saying to Philemon. He is having Philemon to look at Onesimus as victim and wants him to be moved from victim to brother. Much of our victimization today is based on skin color, perhaps not so much for Onesimus.
The paradigm of skin color transcends race and is a false god, but unfortunately gained negative traction. This traction is made manifest even within African American Communities. The Brown paper bag test is something I grew up with as a child in Nashville, Tennessee. As I lived between two predominately African American colleges (Fisk University, and [at the time] Tennessee A&I, later to be Tennessee State University) my mother would say that if the skin color of a student was paper-bag brown or lighter they probably attended Fisk, but if darker, they attended A&I. Most of the time it proved to be true, at least in the 50’s and 60’s. The new Baal for us is Race. And it too is a false god. And it pervades even down through those taught to worship it, even against themselves.
Other gods of discrimination and oppression manifest a modern slavery with their respective masters. There is the slavery of Religion in this country where false Christianity tries to use the whip on other walks of faith. There is Nationality where American citizens consider all other nationalities less than children of God. There is Sexual Orientation where heterosexuals make no room for gays and lesbians to live in comfort. There is Mental Illness where so-called sane people try to overlord those with intellectual or emotional challenges. All of these are manifestations of modern day slavery.
We as Christians are called to break the false gods that enslave people, no matter what our station in life is. Paul says “in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” Every one of us needs to ponder about who we are enslaving. At some level we all may be Philemon, left to ponder about what to do about our relationship with our Onesimus. And now as Paul ends his letter, so I too close:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.