The story goes that Martin Luther King Jr. used to carry around a copy of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited everywhere he went. In that book, Thurman tells a story about his grandmother, who had been a slave in the American South before the Emancipation. She would often have her young grandson read aloud to her from the Bible, mostly from the Gospels, sometimes from the Prophets, but never, said Thurman, from the New Testament Epistles.
Why? Because the Epistles contain verses that, on their face, suggest a blithe acceptance of slavery. For example, 1 Peter 2:18 states, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” At least four other passages in the Epistles express a similar sentiment: Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1, and Titus 2:9.
While such passages don’t endorse the institution of slavery (rather, they assume the existence of it and direct the behavior of slaves given that assumption), they also don’t condemn it, as any morally-aware person should. My guess is that Thurman’s grandmother once experienced these passages as bludgeons, notoriously used by white preachers and slave masters to keep Black slaves in line.
While most contemporary Christians would like to disown these verses, the hard fact is they remain part of the New Testament, sprinkled there like a virulent sneeze on a birthday cake. For any Christian who understands the New Testament as authoritative scripture, the challenge becomes how to situate them within the only acceptable view of slavery—that it’s a moral abomination.
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 most of 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.”
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 →
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 →
At the beginning of last school year my daughter made a friend who has had an especially hard childhood. As the year wore on, she learned and told us more of his story. My wife, both of my daughters, and I all began to feel equal measures of compassion for him in his suffering and anger at the injustice he has experienced. Toward the end of the school year and through the summer we began to connect with him regularly as a family and to help him in various ways. As the new school year starts, this process of connecting and helping is only increasing, to the joy of us all.
Recently, he was at our house to help celebrate my daughter’s birthday. He arrived around noon, after the group had eaten breakfast. He had not eaten anything all day. We asked him what he would like to eat, and began getting out some of the copious leftovers to heat up. His response was that we didn’t “have to” do this for him. This is often his response when we try to help him with something. He says this (at least in part) because he doesn’t want to be a burden to us, which is understandable: none of us wants to be a burden. Continue reading →