During the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the New Testament letter to Philemon was used by slaveholders and slave traders to justify their wicked practices (Thompson).
Sometime in the middle of the first century, the apostle Paul sent the letter to Philemon, a wealthy Christian slaveholder who hosted a church at his house in Colossae. The occasion for the letter was Paul’s encounter with Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon, found Paul in prison, and become a Christian under Paul’s influence. Paul sent both Onesimus and the letter to Philemon to persuade him to welcome Onesimus generously and not harshly: “welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul writes in verse 17.
The “Traditional” Reading
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those who claimed to be Christians and favored slavery saw in the letter scriptural evidence that Paul did not object to slavery, and thus justification for their continued practice of it. On this “traditional” reading, Paul is concerned that he has been harboring a slave who has done something illegal according to Roman law (running away), and thus Paul is motivated by a legal obligation to send Onesimus back.
If this account is correct, then Paul felt some obligation to uphold the institution of slavery, indicating that he did not see it as wrong. Continue reading →
I recently got a spammy chain-letter-style Facebook message from a professing Christian with whom my only contact has ever been on social media. The message seemed to have been sent to his entire list of “friends”. Among other things, the message complained we have excluded God from our schools by banning prayer, and that events like school shootings and terrorist attacks are the result: God is a “gentleman,” said the message, so God will step out of the way, withholding his protection, if we ask God to.
The message was not the first time I’ve encountered this kind of position, and not the first time I’ve been bugged by it. There were too many troubling claims in the message to tackle all at once, so I thought, today, I’d address the question of prayer at school.
There is something deeply right and beautiful about the principle, “From each according to her ability, to each according to her need.” To the extent that this principle encapsulates the doctrine of communism, I’m a communist at heart.
I see this sort of economic arrangement in the following passage from the New Testament Book of Acts (2:44-45): “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The picture here is of a community in which people give what they have generously, property is considered communal, and everyone’s needs are met.
Around 1970, when my father was about to be drafted and sent to war in Vietnam, he and my mother hurriedly married and headed for Canada. Two years later I was born in North Vancouver, British Columbia, an American born abroad. After 18 years in Canada, I migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area—the place where my father spent much of his youth, and where many of his family members still lived at the time. Though on the surface this move was for university and athletics, in retrospect I believe I was drawn south by a deeper unconscious desire to understand my Americanness.
When I recently learned of a need for workers from my company to travel to Vietnam, this same desire caused my insides to leap. I volunteered as quickly as I could. Something inside me longed to push yet farther into my own history by visiting a country I knew little of, yet that had so profoundly shaped me and my family. There was something I needed in Vietnam. Continue reading →
I’m working in Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) for a couple of weeks on a project. Work has been pretty demanding, so I haven’t seen much of the city yet, but one thing is very clear: in Saigon, the scooter is king.
Every morning and evening our team is shuttled between our work site and our hotel in a private van—driven by someone else, thank heaven! On these journeys we are surrounded by streams of scooters going every which way. I would guess that the ratio of scooters to non-scooters on the road is at least 10 to 1.
In traffic, I feel like a blood cell, traveling out through an artery and back through a vein, surrounded by other blood cells and platelets, swirling and flowing around me. The traffic is dynamic, alive, and organic. It seems like chaos at first, but in fact there is an underlying order to it, and accidents are very rare. Everyone is following the path of least resistance, people drive slower, and it all somehow works. Things I’ve marveled at in traffic: Continue reading →
Like the rest of the New Testament, the Lord’s Prayer was originally written in Koine Greek (though Jesus likely spoke it in Aramaic). When we read it in English, we are reading a translation. Pope Francis recently argued that scholars should seek a different translation of the line of the Lord’s Prayer traditionally translated, “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4, NIV). (Incidentally, Francis expressed this view in a television interview in which he was not speaking ex cathedra. Thus, faithful Roman Catholics need not interpret his view, here, as infallible.)
Francis’s concern is that the traditional translation is theologically suspect, since it seems to imply that God might actively push us or guide us into a situation where we are likely to sin (a state of “temptation”). According to Francis, as a good father God would not do this. “It’s Satan who leads us into temptation — that’s his department” (Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2017).
For this reason, Francis would prefer a translation that implies a more passive role for God, like “Do not let us enter into temptation,” or “Do not let us fall into temptation.” The implication of these alternative translations is that when we find ourselves in temptation, we have led ourselves there; God has merely allowed us to do so.
My latest post is published on Medium.com. Choice quote:
A while back a more seasoned colleague gave me some networking advice. He recommended that when I am looking for someone to talk to at a networking event, I should not talk to people who are by themselves. Rather, I should seek out people who are already talking in groups of two or three and try to break into one of those groups. Why? Because the “loners” typically aren’t well-connected and generally won’t be useful business contacts. At the time, I remember thinking this was a twisted piece of advice, though I held my tongue.
I’ve been given much. It’s been given to me to hear, understand, and embrace the gospel of Jesus. I’ve been given a wonderful family; dear friends; a healthy church community; opportunities to receive a good education, to work at a solid job, and to write; and a mind and motivations to make good on those opportunities. I bet you’ve been given some similar things.
According to Luke 12:48b, Jesus requires much from people like us: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
I’ve always read this verse as imposing a requirement to produce for Jesus. All the things I’ve been given I should somehow offer back for the purposes of his kingdom and glory. I should use my gifts to further his ends—faithfully loving him, loving my neighbors (be they family, friends, or strangers), serving my church community, providing for my family, and sharing the good news in deed and word.
To be clear, in reading the passage this way I’ve not been snared by a works theology, believing that I must earn my standing before God (this standing, too, is a gift of grace in my view). Rather, I’ve simply believed that Jesus has goals, that following Jesus is in large part about furthering those goals, and that everyone ought to pull their own weight—serving in accordance with their God-given opportunities and abilities. And, I still don’t think this reading of the verse is wrong; it just might be too narrow. Let me explain. Continue reading →
Here is a poetic encouragement to patient trust in God that has been soothing my soul since my friend Peter Hough shared it with me a few weeks ago. I can’t help but pass it on:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
The Apostle Paul at his writing desk, by Rembrandt. Image credit: jesuswalk.com
Lately I’ve begun reading commentaries on some of the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament as part of my research for a novel I’m writing telling the backstory of Philemon. My aim is to understand Paul better—since he’ll be an important character in the novel—and especially his attitude toward slavery, since that is one of the novel’s key themes.
The first commentary I’m reading is James D.G. Dunn’s commentary on Galatians, since it has the earliest version of Paul’s claim, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), which seems important to Paul’s attitude toward slavery. (He makes something like this claim in other places too, e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:13, Colossians 3:11).
I’ve understood for some time that Galatians is one salvo in a theological battle over whether gentile Christians need become Jews (by performing the “works of the law” and, for males, becoming circumcised) or whether their faith in Christ is sufficient for justification before God. (Paul, of course, holds the latter position in the letter.) However, in reading Dunn’s commentary what I’ve been surprised by is whom Paul appears to be tussling with in Galatians. Continue reading →