The book of Philemon does not defend slavery

Sometimes your mom just straight-up told you to do something. She played the Mom Card, pulled rank and gave you direct orders.

That was your mom’s prerogative. She had that authority. She was the mom and you were the kid, so she was in charge.

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother — especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

But if your mom was anything like mine — which is to say, if you were lucky enough to have a good mom, and I hope you were — then most of the time she didn’t resort to such direct commands.

A mom’s job, after all, is to raise kids who become good people and not merely obedient drones. A good mom doesn’t just want her children to comply with direct orders, she wants them to have good character — to make decisions and to take initiative, thinking and acting for themselves without always needing to be told what to do.

So sometimes your mom might say something like “Clean your room!” But other times she would simply suggest that a clean room was better than a messy one. It’s so much nicer, isn’t it, when your room is clean? She would remind you that it makes her happy when your room is clean, and that seeing your room clean made her proud.

Most of us, being kids when we were kids, were sometimes a little slow on the uptake. Direct orders were easy to understand, but these indirect appeals to become the kind of people who don’t require a steady stream of commands and rules and orders could be a bit more confusing.

So at some point most of us had some version of this conversation with our moms:

KID: So you’re telling me I have to clean my room?

MOM: I think we’d both be happier if your room was clean.

KID: So you want me to clean my room?

MOM: I want you to want to clean your room.

That’s the key. It wasn’t about giving you rules or orders that she wanted you to obey. It was about her wanting you to want to be good. She wanted you not just to obey but to understand what the right thing was and to choose to do it on your own.

And that, in a nutshell, is the New Testament book of Philemon.

We call it a book, but it’s really only a single chapter. It’s just 25 verses long, less than 500 words in all. It’s barely even an “epistle,” more like a post card.

This pithy epistle isn’t addressed to a local church or community like Paul’s longer letters sent to those gathered in Rome or in Corinth or Galatia. It’s a very personal note addressed to a single, individual person: Philemon. And it addresses a single thing: Philemon’s relationship to another individual, single person — a man named Onesimus.

Onesimus had been a slave. He had been Philemon’s slave. But he escaped. He got away. That was illegal, of course, since Roman law was written by slave-owners and not by slaves. So Onesimus was out of the frying pan and into the fire. He had become an undocumented fugitive who faced severe punishment if the Roman law caught up with him.

As a fugitive, Onesimus was no longer attached to any household, and that meant he was no longer able to participate in the Roman economy. So he was in a dangerous, untenable fix until he found refuge with the itinerant apostle Paul and his crew. Paul welcomed him, not as a slave, but as another member of his little team.

Paul clearly understood Onesimus’ predicament. He knew what the law said about runaway slaves and what it said about those who harbor them. But despite all that business in Romans 13 about the authority of government, Paul never seems to have given any thought to obeying his legal obligations for dealing with this fugitive. And he never seemed particularly worried that they might get caught.

What did worry Paul, a great deal, was that both Onesimus and Philemon were Christians. Two members of Paul’s Christian community were estranged, and that was not how things ought to be. Worse than that, before Onesimus escaped, one Christian had owned another Christian, regarding him as property, and that was also not how things ought to be either.

So Paul did something strange. He sent Onesimus home, carrying this letter.

Onesimus’ arrival there would present Philemon with a choice. Philemon had legal rights — property rights over Onesimus — and under Roman law he was free to act on those rights, meaning punishment and re-enslavement for Onesimus.

And Paul never tells Philemon not to do that. Paul does not tell Philemon what to do at all. He scrupulously, elaborately refuses to do so. Paul’s letter, in fact, is an extravagant exercise in not telling Philemon what to do.

And yet, receiving this letter from the pen of Paul and the hand of Onesimus, Philemon would have to have been an idiot not to have understood exactly what it was that Paul wanted and expected him to do.

And to anyone reading this letter today — even 2,000 years later, after it has been canonized and translated — that message is just as obvious.

Paul has set the stage for a re-enactment of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. He has cast Onesimus in the role of the son, sending him home to ask to be permitted to return to the household as a slave.

Christian defenders of slavery and of unlimited property rights (two categories that overlap significantly) stop there. That is all they want to hear from Paul’s letter and so that is all they are willing to hear from it. They pretend that is all there is to this story — a fugitive slave returned to his master — and thus pretend that it provides everything an authoritarian, a property extremist, a slave-owner or a creditor might ever long for the Bible to say: Authority must be obeyed; rules must be followed; the powerful are rightly in charge; debts must be repaid.

But Philemon did not understand Paul’s letter to be saying that. He did not dare ignore what Paul was clearly suggesting throughout the letter. He understood — because it was impossible to read this letter without understanding — that Paul was also casting him in this re-enactment of the parable. Philemon’s role was to play the part of the Father in Jesus’ story. He was not being asked to forgive Onesimus, or to take him back as a slave. He was being invited to embrace Onesimus and to celebrate his return “no longer as a slave” but as family.

And Paul goes beyond the parable’s hierarchy of father and son, urging Philemon to embrace Onesimus as his equal — “a beloved brother.”

“Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,” Paul writes, “yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”

Paul repeatedly stresses that, as an apostle, he could pull rank. But instead he makes a big show of not doing that, “in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”

Paul says it would “refresh my heart” to hear that Onesimus is “no longer a slave” in Philemon’s household. He writes that he is “confident” that Philemon will do the right thing, and that he knows Philemon “will do even more than I say.”

For all this talk of “voluntary” and unforced action “on the basis of love,” it’s also evident that Paul is not suggesting that Philemon has more than a single valid option. He can freely choose to do what is acceptable, or he can do what is utterly unacceptable.

This closely parallels the “voluntary” aspect of the radical economic sharing Paul urges the Corinthian Christians to adopt in 2 Corinthians 8. Paul wanted to persuade them to be like the Christians in Jerusalem, where, the book of Acts says:

The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

This communal sharing was not commanded. It was always “voluntary and not something forced.” But while it was not explicitly required, it was still regarded as a “duty” — an unavoidable obligation “on the basis of love.”

That is the basis for Paul’s appeal to Philemon — a duty on the basis of love.

Paul finishes his letter to Philemon with this delicious kicker:

One more thing — prepare a guest room for me.

Yeah, Paul is confident Philemon will do the right thing, and that he “will do even more than I say.” Paul refused to give Philemon a direct order, but he’ll be dropping by — soon — to make sure that his non-order has been carried out as it must be.

  • LL

    Sorry,  I’m not well-versed on the Bible, but I must know: does Philemon do the right thing?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I have no idea, actually. The Revised Standard Version doesn’t show anything extra, and the Hebrews book which immediately follows doesn’t seem to discuss the aftermath.

  • Jim Roberts

    Apart from my native curiosity, I rather like that we don’t get to know. Choices like this – the wrong thing or the right thing, both permissible by law and rote, but only one acceptable – are constant and there isn’t much to gain from knowing their resolution.

    I mean, it was pretty rare for someone to have only one slave. Let’s say Philemon did the right thing here, with this one man. Did he then do the same for the rest of the people he owned? And did he do the right thing and talk to his fellow slave-owning Christians about what the right thing was?

    For the sake of learning about how to determine the right choice, the book is enough.

  • VMink

    Hard to say.  Onesimus is sometimes identified as a bishop of the church, and was martyred under the Emperor Domitian, so if they are one and the same, Onesimus may have been emancipated.  As for Philemon, he is believed to have been martyred in the Colosseum under Nero.

    Also, I want these jackwagons who are saying that slavery was good to up and admit that they want to own them some slaves today. It’s biblical, right? The Bible allows it, doesn’t it? And this is a Christian nation, isn’t it? So they should feel free to come out and say that they’d be willing to own another human being. I double-dog dare them!

  • Richard Hershberger

    I think much of the problem is the same as with so much of the New Testament.  For all that Christians talk of not being bound by the Law, many really really want Law.  It is so much easier to grasp than that difficult Gospel stuff.  So they read the New Testament as if it were just an amended version of the Old Testament Law.  If you read Philemon as one section of the legal code, it clearly allows for slavery.  QED.  This is an absurd way to read it, but mere absurdity has never been a great barrier to ones desired exegesis.

  • LL

    They’ve already made clear their desire to enslave someone else, ie, women and children. 

    They wouldn’t call it slavery, they’d call it “protecting” or somesuch nonsense, but having almost complete power over another person to do whatever you want with/to with no expectation of consequences (or an expressed desire to have no consequences other than God’s “judgment”) sure sounds like slavery to me.

  • LL

    Eh, I like to know these things. The instances in which people have actually freed slaves are rare enough, it would be nice to know every time they occur, as proof that not everybody agrees that slavery is OK. I like stories in which people actually do the right thing, instead of just thinking about doing the right thing. 

    See, we all thought this was a settled question, at least in the U.S., but have since been unpleasantly educated otherwise. 

    A debate over whether slavery is OK, in the 21st century. 

    I mean, I don’t think the “rightness” of slavery was ever debatable, even back in the Roman times, it seems to be one of those things that is self-evidently wrong. But I would think that there’d be no need to debate it now, in the supposedly enlightened America of the 21st century. But I was wrong, apparently there is. 

  • http://www.metagalacticllamas.com/ Triplanetary

    Exactly. Patriarchal marriage and slavery are tightly woven together. A fact tjat modern liberals tend to be uncomfortable with, since most of them dont want to be bothered to actually inconvenience their middle class lives just for the sake of principles.

  • Lori

    A debate over whether slavery is OK, in the 21st century.  

    I think there are some people who would be more than happy to bring back slavery in the US, but in general I don’t think that’s the debate we’re having. I think what we’re doing is talking about slavery as a substitute for , or possibly a subset of, other discussions, namely Biblical inerrancy and Southern Pride/permanent white supremacy.

    I know people who believe that the Bible says it’s OK to have slaves. None of them actually think slavery is OK in modern times or want to bring it back or would own slaves if that was an option.  What they will fight to the last breath over is whether or not the Bible could possibly have been wrong about slavery and/or whether their however-many-greats grandfather was a bad person or even (gasp) unChristian for having owned other human beings as property.

    That second one is often leavened with a total denial of the financial and/or social benefit that they and the rest of their family continue to enjoy to this day as a result of the wealth accumulated by that slave holding ancestor,  although that’s obviously not the case for everyone since many slave-build fortunes and social reputations didn’t survive once the slaves were freed.

    I’m not sure this actually makes the situation better, but I’d rather criticize folks for the wrong/stupid they’re actually advocating than for a wrong/stupid that they’re not.

  • VMink

    Oh, I’m talking about how some of these guys are saying that slavery wasn’t all that bad, after all.  I want them to stop their weasel words, and just up and say they wants SLAVERY, in as many words.  They already do that to women with their patriarchal “complimentarian” nonsense, but it’s all couched in these terms and words that mean “slavery” without saying “slavery.”

    I want them to at least have the intellectual honesty to say what they want.  Otherwise they can acknowledge that we don’t DO that sort of crap anymore for many very damn good reasons, and they should shut up about it being good because we’ve decided, as a society, that it WASN’T.

    The logic, I admit, is kind of circular.  I’m sorry, I’m in a ‘flames from the side of my face’ kind of mood. :(

  • caryjamesbond

    I mean, I don’t think the “rightness” of slavery was ever debatable, even back in the Roman times, it seems to be one of those things that is self-evidently wrong. 

    Well, it wouldn’t have been debatable, but in the opposite direction. Remember, this was a society that worshipped Aristotle, and he said: “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”

    This was considered to be THE final word on slavery right through the Middle Ages. You don’t see significant opposition to slavery until the renaissance.

  • Carstonio

     Excellent assessment. Some of the less fanatical ones seem to misinterpret criticisms of slavery as accusations that all whites or all white Southerners are bad, or that the modern ones are being held accountable for the wrongs of their ancestors. The latter sounds very much like the fundamentalist version of original sin. I doubt that any reasonable person would actually advocate that type of accountability for slavery. But it is very fair to hold people accountable for (ahem) whitewashing the history of slavery and for treating accusations of racism as worse than racism itself.

  • Patrick

    This article made me so angry that I had trouble coming up with appropriate words.  This is what is left after deleting about 99% of what I wrote.

    Philemon is the Bible’s equivalent of a minister counseling an abused wife to stay with her husband, in hopes that she can change him and improve his soul.  Its the equivalent of a Catholic Bishop telling the mother of a molested child that she shouldn’t go to the police because the criminal justice system won’t save the molester’s soul from his sin, and the Church’s secret ministrations can.

    These are things that you’re against.  But they become invisible to you when they’re in the Bible, and phrased in flowery language. 

    That blindness is the same reason that people defend Biblical slavery.  They’d never accept slavery next door.  But in the Bible it gains the rose tinted aura of a morality play featuring characters rather than real people.

  • AndrewSshi

     That’s not entirely right.  A lot of the moral theology of the Middle Ages came from canon (and thus Roman) law, which considered slavery to be more or less an accident of circumstances and not reflective of any innate quality of the slave. The Aristotelian notion of “natural slaves” had some adherents, but plenty of people who didn’t buy it.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Who the hell wants to own another human being? I certainly don’t.

  • Deborah Moore

    The epistles are letters.  They aren’t narratives.   Some of them are better described as sermons, but  many are literally letters that Paul (or others) sent to churches or individuals. They are, in effect, the main history we have of the early Christian church, and they are maddeningly incomplete.  (For instance, Paul often sends his greatings to people by name who we know absolutely nothing about, except that Paul sent them his greatings, so they must have been leaders of some local church).

    I wish we had a more complete narrative of the early Christian church, but Paul’s letters are usually the best we have.  And, unfortunately, if Philemon wrote back, his letter was not preserved.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    This communal sharing was not commanded. It was always “voluntary and not something forced.”

    Umm, except if you don’t share enough, you end up suddenly dead.  Acts 5:1-11  Not exactly what I’d consider “voluntary and not something forced.”

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Philemon is the Bible’s equivalent of a minister counseling an abused wife to stay with her husband, in hopes that she can change him and improve his soul.

    Yeah, I pretty much have to agree with this. I agree with Fred that Paul is not-too-subtly arguing here that Philemon’s ownership of Onesimus is wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that making  Onesimus’  fate Philemon’s to decide in this situation is decidedly Not Cool.

  • vsm

    The situations aren’t at all equivalent. For one, abusing a spouse or a child is illegal and widely considered immoral. The situation isn’t even similar to pre-civil war United States, since by then several other countries had banned slavery. In Ancient Rome, the idea that owning others wasn’t perfectly moral was utterly radical. I find it difficult to be mad at someone who’s at least vaguely on the right side in those circumstances.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    Philemon is the Bible’s equivalent of a minister counseling an abused
    wife to stay with her husband, in hopes that she can change him and
    improve his soul.  Its the equivalent of a Catholic Bishop telling the
    mother of a molested child that she shouldn’t go to the police because
    the criminal justice system won’t save the molester’s soul from his sin,
    and the Church’s secret ministrations can.

    Except that those bishops don’t typically end their counsel with “Oh, and by the way, I who totally have the authority to force you free your slave, will be paying you a visit shortly, and I will be VERY disappointed if you haven’t.”

  • rizzo

    “I want you to want to clean your room. ”
    Yeah my mom never came up with a good argument on WHY exactly I should want to clean my room, so I’m a messy roomer to this day.  Fortunately she did better when it came to things like ‘not keeping slaves’ and ‘treating everyone the way you like to be treated’ so I turned out pretty decent:)

  • EllieMurasaki

    Philemon is the Bible’s equivalent of a minister counseling an abused wife to stay with her husband, in hopes that she can change him and improve his soul. Its the equivalent of a Catholic Bishop telling the mother of a molested child that she shouldn’t go to the police because the criminal justice system won’t save the molester’s soul from his sin, and the Church’s secret ministrations can.

    Supposing the parent of a child rape survivor actually gives a flying fuck about the state of the rapist’s soul: how is pursuing justice through the law incompatible with letting the Church do its soul-saving bit? And why would it be necessary for the domestic abuse survivor to save her abuser’s soul, rather than getting herself to somewhere that he can no longer put his soul at risk by hurting her and leaving the soul-saving to someone he can’t, won’t, or at least hasn’t hurt?

    And what has this to do with Paul doing the thing where Dad wants Kid to independently arrive at the notion that a clean room is a desirable thing, but Dad will be inspecting Kid’s room tomorrow and there will be unspecified consequences if it is not clean?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    [H]ow is pursuing justice through the law incompatible with letting the Church do its soul-saving bit?

    1) Because in Patrick’s (somewhat) hypothetical scenario, the Bishop said “that she shouldn’t go to the police.”  He didn’t claim Bishops always do this, but that in an analogous scenario, they do.
    2) Because in the original scenario, that of Philemon & Onesimus, justice through the state’s law would have demanded that Onesimus remain Philemon’s slave.

  • Patrick

    Please spell out, precisely, in very clear terms, what “consequences” Paul was capable of inflicting on Philemon, and how those consequences would have helped Onesimus.

    Paul is WORSE than the modern clergy sending the victim back to the abuser, because at least theoretically the modern clergyman could report the abuser to the police if that stupid, stupid, decision turned out to be exactly as stupid as experience tells us.  What was Paul going to do if he arrives to find that Onesimus has been whipped and sold?

    Paul’s reasoning is exactly as the same as the horrible stuff Mr. Clark has criticized in the past.  He wants to give Philemon the chance to do the right thing, and he’s so convinced that’s the right course of action that he’s willing to put Onesimus at risk in the process.  We’ve seen that before, and we all properly recognized that step one when dealing with abusers is to *protect the victim.*

  • EllieMurasaki

    My point didn’t have anything to do with the scenario’s applicability as an analogy to Philemon, nor with the Philemon situation itself.

  • Patrick

    Authority?  Did Paul have some kind of army or police force that I don’t recall reading about back in Sunday School?

  • EllieMurasaki

    That would depend entirely on a bunch of things, some of which I would know if I had studied the law and culture of the time both in general and as pertinent to that particular small religious sect (I have not; my interests lie elsewhere), and some of which I cannot know because they’re things too specific for context to tell us and the letter itself is silent.

    Though I do seem to recall that Christians of the time were protocommunists and I also seem to recall that they didn’t have much to spare to take care of the less fortunate, among whom many of them were numbered anyhow. It seems entirely plausible to me that someone not a member in good standing of the local church would be denied financial support from that church.

  • Kirala

    Umm, except if you don’t share enough, you end up suddenly dead.  Acts 5:1-11  Not exactly what I’d consider “voluntary and not something forced.”

    No, you end up dead if you say “Look how generous I am! I’m giving all my money away!” when, in fact, you are profiting from the deal. Peter’s pretty clear in verses 3-4 that it’s the lying part that’s fatal.

  • caryjamesbond

    For one, abusing a spouse or a child is illegal and widely considered immoral. The situation isn’t even similar to pre-civil war United States, since by then several other countries had banned slavery. 

    Abusing spouses/children was also not at all a bad thing until…pretty recently. In rome, you could just flat out expose a child if you didn’t want it (for example, a deformed child.) Not to mention that Rome was one of those “bangin’ 12 year old boys is fun!” societies. 

    However, to give Paul some credit- the tone of the letter (“him who is my very heart”) and the fact that, apparently Onesimus went back doesn’t indicate that this is Paul schlepping the kid back in chains.  Paul was in prison himself, so he wasn’t in a position to be sending anyone anywhere unless they wanted to go. 

    From the circumstances, it seems Onesimus probably willingly returned. I’d imagine Paul indicated that “we can save your bosses soul and I’ll come by to make sure you’re OK and free you if he doesn’t.”

    Also, remember this wasn’t New World slavery.  Roman/Greek slavery was a very different affair. Slaves would routinely work their way to freedom and take slaves of their own, slaves were often educated, and were generally treated pretty well. Slaves were still a pretty expensive proposition and thus worth protecting- it wasn’t until the mass importation of African slaves made buying new slaves cheaper than feeding old slaves that you really get the new world brutality in slavery.

    Which is not to say that slavery is good, or acceptable. Just that Onesimus wasn’t exactly being sent back from New York to pick cotton in Mississippi.

  • vsm

    Don’t forget that Paul was considered a holy man who had some kind of a connection to the man upstairs, and personally knew Philemon. When someone like that tells you to clean up your act, chances are you listen.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    It’s a fair cop; I guess it could certainly be taken that way, that the lying is key.  It certainly could be interpreted otherwise, if one were so inclined, but either way works for me.

  • Seraph4377

    Perhaps my reading is unduly generous to Paul, but it sounds to me like he’s playing a bit of a gambit here, one where Philemon’s soul is a secondary consideration at best.  The way I see it, there are two possible scenarios for Onesimus:

    1) He remains on the run for the rest of his life.  If caught, he suffers some serious, potentially fatal rough treatment on his way back to being re-enslaved.

    2) He returns to Philemon with a letter that states, in the most thinly veiled of terms, that owning other Christians is something One Does Not Do…and that Paul will be showing up soon to make sure Philemon isn’t doing it anymore. 

    The latter course of action sets Onesimus free in a way that makes him safe from the law, which is probably why he agreed to it. 

    Does Paul have an army or police?  No, the army and police are on Philemon’s side, which is why Paul is trying to circumvent them, using the authority he does have…authority that Philemon is subject to, since he’s a member of the Christian community.  If you’re a Christian in this time period, it’s not something you do because it’s the default setting for your culture, it’s because you  really care, and the last thing you want is for everyone to shun you because you disobeyed an Apostle.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    However, to give Paul some credit- the tone of the letter (“him who is my very heart”) and the fact that, apparently Onesimus went back doesn’t indicate that this is Paul schlepping the kid back in chains. Paul was in prison himself, so he wasn’t in a position to be sending anyone anywhere unless they wanted to go.

    I doubt Paul would have had to drag Onesimus back in chains, even if he could.  If we’re making mom-analogies, I’ll analogize to a different mom-analogy: the guilt-trip.  And Paul, in this story, is more than capable of making one of the greatest guilt trips in the history of humanity: it would make Jesus very, very sad if you didn’t do what I want you to do.  He makes that guilt-trip to both Philemon and Onesimus. 

    My question is one of Jim’s: was Onesimus Philemon’s only slave?  Did Paul give one flying rat’s ass about any slave who wasn’t a Christian and enslaved to a Christian?

    This little story, to me, only serves as more evidence of something I’ve thought for quite some time: Paul is a narcissistic prick and monomaniacal jerk.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     On your account, what would be different if instead of sending Onesimus back to Philemon with that letter, Paul sent the same letter to Philemon through a courier who wasn’t an escaped slave of Philemon’s?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    Which is not to say that slavery is good, or acceptable. Just that
    Onesimus wasn’t exactly being sent back from New York to pick cotton in Mississippi.

    I guess I’m misunderstanding you, then, because it sure does sound like you’re saying Roman/Greek slavery was acceptable. At least for a while, anyway.

  • Seraph4377

    Yes.  Yes, he was.  Anyone who reads the Bible to get an idea of the character of the writers pretty much agrees on that.  Fred has admitted as much before, though in somewhat gentler language. 

    As for your questions, there’s no way to know from the text.  The best we can do is speculate from what we know of history (which makes “no” the probable answer to #1). 

  • caryjamesbond

    I guess I’m misunderstanding you, then, because it sure does sound like you’re saying Roman/Greek slavery was acceptable. 

    There is a fundamental difference between “not as bad as” and “good.” Which is a subtlety that you sometimes do not quite grasp.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    There is a fundamental difference between “not as bad as” and “good.”

    I agree. Also, there are many fundamental differences between other pairs of phrases that I didn’t use, and I’ll probably agree with you if you list them as well.

    With respect to acceptability, though… you seemed to be suggesting that Onesimus ought to accept the risk of being re-enslaved, in part because it was Roman/Greek slavery, not American slavery. I inferred from this that you believe Roman/Greek slavery, unlike American slavery, was the sort of thing that Onesimus ought to accept the increased risk of.

    Which seems to me a reasonable example of something being considered acceptable.

  • Seraph4377

    Onesimus would remain in hiding and in danger – along with the Christians sheltering him – until Philemon received the letter and legally emancipated him.  If Philemon obeyed Paul’s “suggestion” – and Paul was clearly confident that he would – this option got Onesimus away from the spearpoints quicker. 

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Which, in turn, makes “no” the answer to #2.

  • Seraph4377

    Entirely possible, though even the most unsympathetic reading of Paul would probably consider them wealth that Philemon should divest himself of so that he can pay his full attention to Being Christian.

    Another thing to remember is that those other slaves, if they exist, can be dealt with later.  Onesimus is a crisis.  He’s staying with other Christians, which could easily: 1) get them arrested; 2) feed anti-Christian sentiment (“That crazy Jewish splinter group is trying to steal your slaves!”); and 3) cause a schism, with some members siding with Philemon and some siding with those hiding Onesimus. 

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    With respect to acceptability, though… you seemed to be suggesting
    that Onesimus ought to accept the risk of being re-enslaved, in part
    because it was Roman/Greek slavery, not American slavery.

    You seem to overlook that his choice was not “accept the risk of being re-enslaved” vs “Not accept the risk of being re-enslaved”. It was “accept the risk of being re-enslaved” vs “Spend the rest of his life as a hunted fugitive while bringing danger on anyone who gave him comfort”

  • Jam

    As you indicated the slave Onesimus may have been the bishop martyred under Domitian and we cannot know for sure.  I had read someplace that this fellow Onesimus  had been a member of the council that canonized the New Testament.   This might explain why this personal letter was included,  

  • SisterCoyote

    I want to love this article. And, on some level, on a purely… content-based level, I guess, I do.

    But. But the fact that on October eleventh, 2012, that somewhere in this country, there is someone sitting down and claiming that slavery should be legal – that slavery is Christian – that is the basis for this article, and the context in which it was written, and honestly, I cannot be but furious that it had to be written at all.

    God, we live in a world where we still have to argue against slavery. What the actual fuck.

  • vsm

    Is there really much point in having a position on the acceptability of a social relation that ceased to exist over a thousand years ago and has little relevance to what is happening today?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

     Maybe, but he must also have been a pretty charismatic guy, given that he evidentally converted all those people and founded so many churches.

  • Sigaloenta

    It’s instructive, I think, to compare Paul’s letter with one of Pliny the Younger (c. 100 CE) writing in a similar situation, on behalf of a friend’s freedman who has fled to him and whom he is seeking to reconcile (FWIW, Onesimus may be in the same position: there’s interestingly no evidence in Paul’s letter that indicates he’s a fugitive, and it’s quite possible that he went to Paul to be a mediator — an option that was open for slaves and did not necessarily make them class as fugitives):

    9.21

    Gaius Pliny to his dear Sabinianus, Greetings:

    Your freedman, with whom you said you were rather enraged, came to me and threw himself at my feet as if clinging to yours. He wept much, begged much, and also kept quiet about much: in short, he proved to me his true repentance; I believe him reformed because he understands that he did wrong. You are angry, I know, and rightly angry — I know that, too.  But the glory of kindness is greatest when there is the justest reason for anger.  You cherished the man and, I hope, you will cherish him again; meanwhile, it is enough to allow yourself to be entreated.  You may get angry again, if he proves to deserve it: you will do it more excusably because you were entreated.  Give some concession to his youth, concession his tears, concession your own forbearance. Don’t torture him — indeed don’t torture yourself, since you, as gentle as you are, are tortured when you get angry. I’m afraid that I’ll seem not to ask but to compel you, if I add my prayers to his; I’ll add them nevertheless: all the more abundantly and lavishly insofar as I reproved him very sharply and severely (I strictly warned him that he was never to come begging to me again.)  This condition for him, whom it was right to frighten, but not to you.  For perhaps I shall beg again, I shall receive my request again; only may it be something that befits me to ask, befits you to grant.  Farewell.

    (SPOILERS: Sabinianus was reconciled with the freedman, as we find out in letter 9.24)

    The tone of Paul’s letter is so different: nothing about abject repentance and reform (although implicit, perhaps, in the language of Onesimus having gone from “good for nothing” (akhrestos) to “honest” (khrestos) and the implication that he is now a Christian), nothing about punishment or chastisement. 

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     Nope.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     I “overlook” it because it doesn’t seem true.

    If I were an escaped slave, and the person who gave me temporary sanctuary said “I will write to your former master and convince him to free you”, I think I would far prefer to wait there until my former master agreed to free me, than to return to my former master’s estate carrying the letter. If urged to do the latter instead, I would consider that running an unnecessary risk.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Narcissists are often very charismatic and make excellent first impressions.  Doesn’t make them safe people though…as the Onesimus situation demonstrates.


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