Philemon is one of those books ultra-conservatives wish they could omit because, to preach from Philemon is to adjust your necktie and excuse Paul’s failure to condemn slavery on the grounds that he was simply speaking within the cultural norms of the day and that the world has changed a great deal since then. The minute a preacher allows that cat in the house, he must either admit Paul’s misogyny and homophobia are also cultural artifacts or slip into convulsive seizures of exegetical slaloms, caroming into the orange traffic cones as he tries and explain why we hold onto Paul’s unbridled oppression of women and gays while disavowing his acceptance of slavery. Can’t have it both ways, Bubba.
struggle to find ways to preach an uplifting, nurturing,
good-for-all-time-zones message from, the other book being
of Songs. What makes preaching difficult is our pastors’
presumption, told to them by the Easter Bunny, I suppose, that
the bible is and must always be The Good Book and the stories it
tells must be enriching morally. This is, of course, ridiculous
as it presupposes the Holy Bible is some kind of G-rated
children’s book rather than what it actually is: the progressive
self-revelation of God. There is no promise whatsoever that
every pericopae between its covers will be uplifting and
inspiring or that the ending of these stories will be in any way
moral or, for that matter, fair. This notion of a “good” book is
more trifling nonsense handed down through generations and
tattooed upon our collective DNA, creating false expectations
from what is in many ways a dreary and oppressive tome. It is
important the seeker see the bible for what it actually is and
leave our kindly eight-grade Sunday School recollections in the
parking lot. Fairness is not a quality of God. Justice implies
fairness but the two are not one and the same. Cleaning up
Philemon and Song of Songs in order to make these works more
palatable for your Big Hat Church Ladies is sin. Distorting,
abridging, rounding the corners off the Word of God is sin.
Paul’s letter to Philemon has almost nothing to do with the slave, whose name was not Philemon but Onesimus, and benignly accepts the practice of slavery, which violates every quality of God. A wealthy Christian and likely a bishop in the Church at Colosse, Philemon presumably owned several if not many slaves. But “slave owner” and “Christian” would seem at odds to one another. During America’s shameful legacy of slavery, many slave owners used this epistle and other passages to justify the barbaric and inhumane practice of slavery while having a clean conscience about it. What’s interesting about this letter is Paul imbues Onesimus with human dignity. There is nothing in the bible that supports the common ignorance among white Americans that slaves—and all blacks by extension—were somehow less human than whites. Skin color plays no noticeable role in Paul’s benign acceptance as slavery, in those times, was more a matter of circumstance than of biology. You could become enslaved to pay off a debt. You might be born into slavery, or be a criminal sentenced to indentured servitude. There was no suggestion that Onesimus was somehow less human than Philemon. More to that fact, Paul’s argument was that not only was Onesimus Philemon’s equal, he was Philemon’s brother, something many southern whites in America deny to this day as they cling to the ignorant belief that blacks are somehow less human than they.
Most of us do believe, however, that Paul was acting within the cultural norms and speaking with the understanding of his day. Which places the church at odds when we make cultural and moral adjustments for Paul where slavery is concerned while defending a plain-text reading of Paul’s misogynistic and homophobic rhetoric elsewhere. We become extremely selective in terms of what we choose to make allowances for and what we interpret as universal. If we’re banning women from the pulpit, we should also ban them from the classroom as Paul insisted on both. If we are granted free reign to hate LGBT persons, then we should also reinstate slavery. Systemic cherry-picking through the bible, deciding which deprecated cultural aspects to keep and which to scrub, is a lousy and hypocritical way to study God’s Word. It’s either all writ in stone or it is all subject to reasoned inquiry, which is the definition of theology: rational inquiry into spiritual matters. Philemon is one of those books ultra-conservatives wish they could omit because, to preach from Philemon is to adjust your necktie and excuse Paul’s failure to condemn slavery on the grounds that he was simply speaking within the cultural norms of the day and that the world has changed a great deal since then. The minute a preacher allows that cat in the house, he must either admit Paul’s misogyny and homophobia are also cultural artifacts or slip into convulsive seizures of exegetical slaloms, caroming into the orange traffic cones as he tries and explain why we hold onto Paul’s unbridled oppression of women and gays while disavowing his acceptance of slavery. Can’t have it both ways, Bubba.
Homecoming: an Amistad replica finally completes its voyage to Cuba.
The major fault with literalists—those among us who
embrace the bible as literal and universally applicable without
placing the bible's eternal and infallible truths within the
context in which those words were written and translated—is they
miss God's truth by failing to properly interpret language and
theme, understanding the speaker and the context in which those
words were spoken. Literalists apply a universality and moral
component the bible was never intended to have. God's word
itself has no moral component, it simply reveals God to us.
Morality is about our response to God's word. It a response that
requires mature, sober examination of and rational inquiry into
scripture, something literalist tend to dismiss as a "trick of the devil," a distortion
of God's word. Only, the exact opposite is true: a direct and
literalist application of scripture to modern life, with no
context given to the times and situations in which scripture was
written, grounds and therefore limits the universal application and meaning of scripture.
If we cannot free scripture from the cultural accretions of the time it was given,
we are all forced to practice a faith not unlike the Amish people, who see things like
electricity and motorized vehicles as worldly. Modern life is subjective while God's Holy Word is
not. Segregation was considered modern life in 1951 but is
considered hateful and wrong now. What we consider modern life
now will be considered quaint and antiquated fifty years from
now. Liberating God's Word, His eternal truth,
from the cultural mindset of the time it was given--properly and prayerfully in the context of those historical times,
traditions and themes--provides an
unchangeable, infallible and uncontradicted truth that is
applicable to any age.
"Whatever he owes, I'll pay it." That's a broad statement, one rarely made. The words have power to heal those suffering under a crushing debt; those living with great anxiety and fear. The simple comfort of having that burden lifted, that pain unconditionally assuaged, represents the power to heal. In our culture, it is extremely rare for even well-off Church Folk to go in their pocket and help someone out without expecting something in return or without talking about them like a dog. The Bible paints borrowers as slaves [Proverbs 22:7] to the lenders, but here Paul isn't lending Onesimus anything. This is a gift. One that came with no strings attached and no conditions to meet. Precious few among us would do something like that. It was also a guarantee Paul didn't need to make. He says, in verse 8, that, as an elder in the Christian church, he could order Philemon, a believer, to treat Onesimus humanely. But, instead, he appealed to Philemon as a brother, as a fellow Christian who loves the Lord.
For his part, Onesimus didn't have to go back. Going back to his master meant a return to slavery and certain severe punishment. Onesimus' obedience to Paul was actually and act of faith to God: to trust God for his deliverance and to find peace even within his bondage. As Christians, Philemon and Onesimus were now more than merely master and slave: they were brothers in Christ, with certain obligations to each other. The runaway slave, now free but returning willingly to his master, and the master treating the returning slave as a brother in Christ, form a powerful testimony to the transformative power of Christ's love.