Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s epistles. Although even identifying the subject matter of the letter is controversial, readers typically understand the letter as Paul’s request that Philemon, a Christian slaveholder, welcome back his estranged slave, Onesimus, and treat him as if he were Paul himself, i.e., with love and gentleness.
I recently read an excellent essay in which Demetrius K. Williams, a black professor and pastor, describes three main strategies interpreters have taken with the letter over the years. (The essay is entitled “‘No Longer as a Slave’: Reading the Interpretation History of Paul’s Epistle to Philemon,” and is published in a volume called Onesimus Our Brother, pictured above. Black interpreters and commentators wrote all the essays in the volume.)
Strategy 1: The Letter Shouldn’t be Part of the New Testament
One strategy has been to question the divine providence of the letter and the appropriateness of its place in the New Testament (NT). Indeed, this seems to have been a popular reading of the letter in the early church. According to Williams, several of the so-called “church fathers,” including John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Jerome referred to opinions that the letter was “trivial, insignificant, banal,” and “unspiritual.”
In recently reading Esi Edugyan’s majestic 2018 novel, Washington Black, I noticed a thematic similarity with Paul’s New Testament letter to Philemon, which I have studied for the past few years as I’ve been writing a novel telling a backstory of the letter. Both works suggest an important distinction between two possible motives for helping someone.
In this post I’ll spell out the distinction in both works, then draw from it what I think is an important lesson for white allies hoping to support their black and brown neighbors in the swelling anti-racism movement. Spoiler alert: What follows will divulge plot information you may not want to know if you plan to read Washington Black (which I highly recommend doing).
After a year of research and just under two years of writing — early mornings, late nights, and everything in between — I’ve finally finished a complete first draft of my first novel. Whew!
Next up: revisions. After working through the many notes I’ve given myself on earlier chapters, I plan to follow this framework for revising, laid out by the good folks at Gotham Writers Workshop. Seems like a wise approach.
The following is an imaginative fictional account of Zechariah’s experience in the temple (Luke 1:5-20). I suggest reading the passage of scripture first, and then my fictional account.
I hurried through the Nicanor Gate and into the Court of the Priests, the sun low in the sky. The smell of smoke, blood, and animal dung drifted on the breeze. I shimmied out of my traveling clothes and immersed in the cool water of the bronze laver. I washed off the hill-country dust, still clinging from the day’s journey, and I thought of Elizabeth. With her tender hip, she couldn’t manage the animals anymore, and the boy from next door knew little about goats; they always looked too scruffy, too dirty when I returned home. If only we’d had a son.
So much for weekly word counts. In any case, still feeling good about my progress. Day by day, staying in the chair. At this rate (~220 words per day) I should have a 350-page draft by the beginning of April!
pelted the windshield of Marcie’s fifteen-year-old sports car as she
turned into the driveway of the subterranean parking lot. Some of the
rain was virtually snow, translucent splatter sticking to the glass
before a wiper blade cast it aside with other unwanted water. As she
descended the steep ramp into darkness, Marcie’s thoughts drifted
back to her annual review meeting that morning. As usual, her numbers
weren’t great, and her supervisor had hounded her about setting a new
round of goals she really didn’t care to meet. She’d spent the
afternoon updating her resume.
Progress on the first draft of my novel is feeling fast and furious. I think I’m around half way there. And the story is so fun right now! Super-exciting. Gonna try to post weekly Friday word counts until she’s done.
Walter returned from the bathroom and struggled to remount his barstool. He gripped the bar with both hands, threw one pudgy leg onto the padded seat, and wriggled and scooted his way up like a seal on the beach. When he had finally resumed his seat, a bead of sweat trickled down his temple, out from under greasy, badly-cut hair. In need of refreshment, he sucked at the straw in his fruity mixed-drink, temporarily lodging the peak of the paper umbrella in his left nostril.
smirked from the next stool over. “Wasn’t sure you were going to
make it,” he said.
up,” said Walter. “Don’t you hate these work functions?”
don’t know,” said Eugene, “they’re all right. Free drinks.”
the boss didn’t treat them like loyalty litmus tests, I’d totally
skip,” said Walter. His eyes drifted to the dance floor as he drew
again on his straw. “Look at Mitch,”
about him?” said Eugene, turning his attention to the man Walter
had fixed on.
threw the first handful on the coffin, and then we all done the same.
Black dirt. Just like the coal. There we were, throwin’ dirt in our
Sunday best, just come from church. After that, the boys from down
the hill started in with the shovels, and by God, Pop was all covered
up in no more than fifteen minutes. Smellin’ that dirt set me
coughin’ and hackin’. Up come some slime and I spit it out, black
too, drippin’ and slimin’ down the grass blades, all thick and slow.
I remember the day I come home and told Pop school wasn’t for me. Too much readin’ and writin’, too much talkin’ and thinkin’. I wasn’t fifteen, but I’d had enough of it to know. What I wanted, I told him, was to work in the mine, to pull out the coal, to do a man’s job. Sittin’ in a chair all day, staring at some woman scribblin’ on a chalkboard, everyone talk, talk, talkin’. No sir, wasn’t for me. I got the fever for that coal, I says to him, standin’ over him, tall and proud, him sittin’ there on the porch, in his rockin’ chair, black dust from the day still in the cracks of his face, under his eyes, between his mouth and his cheeks. Wanna be like my Pop, I told him.