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.

  • Joshua

    What was Paul going to do if he arrives to find that Onesimus has been whipped and sold?

    Just by way of perspective, if the endings of the Gospels and Acts 5 are any guide, whipping was what happened when the authorities decided they didn’t have any particular problem with you and wanted to let you go.

    If they wanted to throw the book at you, they crucified you, as Spartacus’s followers found out.

    The Greek word for judgement has a lot more negative connotations than in English (outside of Terminator movies and some preaching) and I imagine this kind of thing is the reason why.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

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

    We still have to argue against torture and executing people with the intellectual capacity of children (in both cases, unsuccessfully much of the time). We still have to argue against society standing idle clucking its tongue while people die entirely preventable deaths due to poverty. We still have to argue against dropping bombs on civilians. We still have to argue against shooting a twitching body on the floor a few more times for luck and calling it just. So having to argue against slavery doesn’t surprise me at all.

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

    Off-topic…it’s only a little while in, but I’m liking Biden so far.  Smart, passionate, and on-message.

  • Peter

    That’s a truly disgusting lesson you seem to take from this, one which I would hope was beneath you. To even suggest that an act of benevolence is possible here is to acknowledge that Onesimus is de facto as well as de jure Philemon’s property, to dispose of as beneficently or as meanly as he sees fit. To suggest he does this “good deed” is horribly akin to that modern and equally disgusting Christian suggestion that the poor exist so that the rich can be seen to be charitable towards them.

    The moral man would deny that Onesimus was ever a slave, and refuse to believe a manumission should be sought or even possible. Paul should have sent a letter denying he has any brothers who hold any human beings as property. That would have been a “hint” that carried real force. But then no one could ever accuse the Bible of being a fount of morality.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The de jure fact here is that Onesimus was Philemon’s property. For that to stop being true under the law, Philemon had to do something. How could Paul have told Philemon to make Onesimus no longer Philemon’s legal property without in the process acknowledging that Onesimus at the time was in fact Philemon’s legal property? And given that

  • Ben English

     Yeah, that’s completely reasonable: expect a first century epistle to use 19th century abolitionist rhetoric. As far as Roman society was concerned, Onesimus was Philemon’s property, de facto and de anything. Saving Philemon’s soul is a polite way of saying “What you’re doing is wrong, dipshit, stop owning people,” not some sort of argument that slavery as a means can justify an an end.

    The lesson Fred is taking from this is that it’s stupid to use the book of Philemon as a justification for slavery. Slavery was a fact of life at the time and Paul dealt with the problem to the best of his capacity, and trying to use the inadequacy of that response from from the hindsight of 2000 years to score points against ‘the Bible’ as a whole makes you look like an ass.

  • Joshua

    The point being argued is not that Paul had the same feelings about slavery as we do. Nor that Paul’s approach was the most moral in his circumstances. It also isn’t that Paul’s approach is a fantastic example for us in our modern culture.

    Rather, it is that Paul did not approve of Onesimus’s slavery and was working to free him in accordance with the laws at the time. Argue about his methods all you want, but Paul knew the culture better than you do, and knew both people involved personally. I suggest he was in a better place to work out the most effective tactic to achieve this than you or I are.

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

    It’s just as ridiculous to read this as Paul trying to make some small-scale, parental-ish strike against the evils of slavery.  If a kid doesn’t end up following through on her parent’s “duty on the basis of love,” the only result is a less-than-perfect room.  When Paul sends a slave back to his owner, with a guilt-trip and a philosophy of I’m-sure-it-will-all-work-itself-out, the result could be the ruin or loss of a human life.

    Paul isn’t striking out against slavery.  He doesn’t give a damn about slavery, and he doesn’t give a damn about slaves.  He gives a damn about glorifying Jesus, and if he has to make pawns of a few slaves in his attempt to do that, I doubt that ever caused him to lose any sleep.

  • Guest

     “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.”

    Wouldn’t it be more equivalent to a minister counseling the husband telling him to grant his abused wife that divorce she wants, and the minister is going to come check up on him and see that he’s done it?

    Sending the slave back to the master is questionable, but like the post points out, the slave was incredibly vulnerable and his life was in danger, and being freed by the master was the best path to his safety.

  • Ben English

     I think a lot of people in modern times, particularly when criticizing the actions, words, and teachings of early Christians, seem to forget the context. It’s so easy to frame Paul as a hegemon because his words have become and still are part of Christian Hegemony. A framed quote from 1 Coritnthians is hanging on the wall opposite me right now.

    During his mortal life? Paul was NOT a hegemon. He was a subversive foreigner preaching a God-become-man-become-God crucified and resurrected, teaching that all were equal under this new God’s new Kingdom. Guilt trips and appeals to people’s better nature were his weapons against injustice: he couldn’t appeal to God or Scripture because Roman law recognized neither his god nor his scripture. If he had demanded emancipation then Philemon could have contacted the Romans and said, hey you know that Paul guy who’s preaching Christ? He’s harboring my slave.

    Would Philemon have done this? Did what Paul actually tried work? We can’t know for sure. But Paul understood Roman society and the individuals involved a lot better than we possibly can.

  • Peter

    Sorry, but if Paul really thought owning people was wrong it was fully in his power to say so. If he thought it was against Christian principles to own people, he could have denied he had Christian brothers who owned people. He chose not to do either of those things.

    What he did choose to do was to suggest two things which are abhorrent. One, that the slave does wrong to the master by choosing to be other than a slave. The second that a master does a good deed by releasing a slave, rather than fulfils a moral imperative or, to put it more forcefully  fulfils the minimum requirements of not-evil. Fred, by saying this re-enacts the parable of the Prodigal Son agrees with this assessment. That’s disgusting.

    The slaveholder can rightfully look at this and ask why then Paul and ask why he never condemns slavery in a situation he has the power and opportunity to do so. The only reasonably answer is that he didn’t want to do so. That’s aid and comfort enough for the slaveholder.

  • Ben English

     And you know this how? Have you found a time machine? Did you channel Paul’s spirit and ask him what his thoughts were?

    What was Paul supposed to do in your mind? He couldn’t force Philemon to free him. He couldn’t appeal to the law–the law was on Philemon’s side. Appealing to the spirit of Christ and Christianity–in which Paul himself wrote that there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free–makes it seem pretty clear that his desire was to see Onesimus freed. His only other option was to send the man into a life of running and hiding that would endanger him and everyone who aided him.

  • Ben English

    Only if the slaveholder reads Philemon  with a willfully blind eye to anything resembling tone, subtext, or the entire rest of Paul’s recorded theological stances. Or in other words, if only the slaveholder reads Philemon, as Fred is pointing out, pre-determined to find defense of slavery.

    Trying to argue that a specific and singular instance in which Paul urged a Roman to free his slave somehow demonstrates that slavery is compatible with the broader Christian ethos is insane. It took a war in the US to free entrenched slavery, and that slavery was far crueler and had an entire half of the country against it.

  • Peter

    Tone? Really? The latter is written in the language and vocabulary of the slaveholder. The same exact language America would speak to Britain when it demanded the return of its errant slaves. Whether Britain used the language of the abolitionist out of true enlightenment or spite for an enemy I won’t argue, but the difference in tone is unmistakeable. 

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

    And you know this how? Have you found a time machine? Did you channel Paul’s spirit and ask him what his thoughts were?

    You’re serious with these questions?  I assess his character the same way I assess the character of any other character in the Bible: I read the Bible.

    What was Paul supposed to do in your mind? He couldn’t force Philemon to free him. He couldn’t appeal to the law–the law was on Philemon’s side. Appealing to the spirit of Christ and Christianity–in which Paul himself wrote that there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free–makes it seem pretty clear that his desire was to see Onesimus freed. His only other option was to send the man into a life of running and hiding that would endanger him and everyone who aided him.

    Paul had very few compunctions about getting himself into trouble while spreading the word about Jesus.  Yet suddenly, he’s so risk-averse that he resorts to pulling this two-pronged guilt-trip on the hope that he’ll get his desired result? 

    Paul also had very few compunctions about saying things that were (at the time) shocking, so I have to agree with Peter that if Paul had wanted to say yet another thing that was groundbreaking and liable to get him into trouble, he could have said slavery was wrong.  He didn’t.

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

     Well, we have 7 (maybe 10 depending on who you ask) letters that Paul wrote, out of what was probably decades of writing letters.  I don’t think it’s safe to conclude that the small fraction of Paul’s letter that have survived provide a comprehensive view of what he believed and taught, especially because they were written to specific people in specific contexts and weren’t meant to be a general-purpose guide to the Christian life.  For all we know Philemon and Paul had discussed the issue repeatedly in the past and so Paul didn’t feel the need to recap in his letter.

    Also note that Paul seems to have thought the world was ending in the fairly near future, so sweeping society-wide reform probably wasn’t at the top of his to-do list.

  • Lori

     

    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.”   

    Read that again. They didn’t get suddenly dead for not giving enough. They got dead for lying about how much they gave in an attempt to make themselves look so very, very generous and applause-worthy without having to actually be generous.

  • P J Evans

     And, IIRC, they didn’t tell the same lie, which is how they were found out.

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

    There wasn’t any problem with the stories not matching.  First, Ananias just “brought the rest and placed it at the feet of the apostles,” and Peter somehow (perhaps divine inspiration, perhaps a neighbour or the buyer ratted him out) just knew that he was lying.  Then, his wife Sapphira (she gets a name!) came along completely unaware of this, and answered “yes, that was the price.”  So, no problem with keeping the stories straight.

    Lori: I’ve already conceded that I probably read that wrong.  But then, you probably read that concession after your comment, I suppose.  I know how it is, especially on the hyperactive posts.

  • Joshua

    Paul had very few compunctions about getting himself into trouble while spreading the word about Jesus.  Yet suddenly, he’s so risk-averse that he resorts to pulling this two-pronged guilt-trip on the hope that he’ll get his desired result?

    Well, why not? He has Onesimus’ safety to be concerned about here. It’s not just his own skin.

    Paul also had very few compunctions about saying things that were (at the time) shocking, so I have to agree with Peter that if Paul had wanted to say yet another thing that was groundbreaking and liable to get him into trouble, he could have said slavery was wrong.  He didn’t.

    I remember a number of different occasions in which he was concerned about how Christians and the Christian message will be received, and also him discussing the fact that he changed the presentation of his message to make it palatable to different audiences. He obviously wasn’t primarily concerned with his skin, which had a hard time before he was executed, but was concerned that his message got across.

    This appears to be another example of that behaviour. He chose an approach that would hopefully get a good result: Onesimus free, all the Christians behaving according to secular law. He chose not to make a grand gesture that he may have decided would be ignored by Philemon and branded Christians as subversive in the eyes of the Romans. That would certainly have been my assessment in the circumstances.

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

    I think an analogy may prove fruitful here.

    Spoilers for Tripods by John Christopher, in cleartext. People seem to ignore ROT13d stuff even when it might prove relevant, so I’ll run the risk.

    In the book The City of Gold and Lead, the main character, Will, and his compatriot, Fritz, discover the true Masters of the Tripods, the ones who have taken Earth for their own and rule it.

    They treat the humans drawn into their cities with very little consideration or respect, and for all intents and purposes they are slaves – slaves who are mentally controlled, but slaves all the same.

    What Will and Fritz discover is that the Masters do not hold a unified opinion about how to treat human beings. However, the viewpoints the Masters hold are inevitably culturally circumscribed, and as much as Will hopes for the best – that there might be a faction of Masters the free humans could contact and use as a societal entering edge – he realizes at best that the Master who chose him as his slave represents the highest level of consideration any human being will ever get, and recognizes that the only hope for humanity lies in direct conflict with the Masters.

    Will even recognizes this, as the narrator states, “With a Master kind by their standards…”

    by their standards.

    The analogy should immediately present itself. We, today, have to realize that in the cultural time and place inhabited by Paul there were inevitably strong social forces that circumscribed what people thought was possible or likely, and even the most liberal people of that era have to be described as liberal by their standards, even if today we would see their arguments as fundamentally defective or incomplete, or even offensive to modern sensibilities.

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

    If it makes you feel better, I always read the rot13 text.  But then, it’s easier for me than for most, since I use Linux and always have a terminal console open.

  • Münchner Kindl

     

    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!

    What is there daring to admit? They already silently consent (often by ignorance, sometimes by deliberate shutting-eyes-and-humming ignorance) to almost-slavery, child-slavery, and debt-slavery in 3rd world countries that produce the goods they buy in America/ first world: the rare earth for cell phones and computers mined by villagers kidnapped and forced to labour to fund a civil war in the Congo; the female workers sewing clothes in factories with locked doors; the children sold into debt slavery by poor parents in India cutting stones and making carpets; children held like slaves to pick cocoa beans in West Africa coast; etc.

    They are also willing to accept (silently, sometimes by ignorance) the modern equivalent of slavery in the US itself: black people sentenced to prison doing a lot of service work. Fred and the reports he linked to called it a modern chain gang.

    So as long as they don’t protest these current forms of slavery, I don’t see why they should abhor the traditional form.

  • Münchner Kindl

     Actually, not quite. Philemon is the minister telling the abusive husband to stop. It’s the equivalent of the Pope telling the bishop to stop molesting. Paul, with the authority of an apostle (as Fred pointed out) wrote to Philemon, the person with power in this relationship.

    And, as  Fred pointed out, Paul was going to check up on it.

  • Matthias

     But Paul did deny that he had Christian Brothers who owned people. He told Philemon “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” If Philemon considers Paulus as his partner than he should also consider Onesimus as his partner. And if he didn’t do that paulus would consequently no longer be his partner.

  • Baby_Raptor

    “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?”

    The way it was told to me was that I needed to be there to be an example, be the main instrument god worked through, and to continue praying. I needed to be there to continue showing him what a godly person really acted like, and if I was faithful enough, god would eventually work through me to save him. 

    Plus, you know, leaving someone you’ve married is a sin. Marriage is for life and all. (Not mocking people who believe this, mocking it being used as reason for not leaving an abusive partner.) 

  • http://mistermunshun.blogspot.com/ Carl Eusebius

    Fred, your morality is entirely secular. You’re spinning biblical stories to match secular morality. It’s nothing more than that, spin. How about just dropping the spin and the Christian baggage and embracing the secular morality that already underpins your own morality?

  • Sigaloenta

     This is very true — bearing in mind that Paul and Philemon are both members of the master class.

    Another thing that might be helpful to keep in mind (and not just because I’m still dunning for my interpretation of reconciliation on a personal level more than legal status) is the social place of manumission in Paul’s and Philemon’s and Onesimus’ world: it is seen (at least through the eyes of the master class) as the confirmation of  a really good relationship: obviously, this principally means that only slaves who prove their loyalty and trust and good-will toward their masters are “rewarded” with manumission , but also that Greco-Romans don’t generally manumit slaves whom they don’t cherish and imagine that they have a positive reciprocal relationship with.

    (Cf. the letters of Cicero and his family on the manumission of secretary Tiro; Pliny and Seneca — proof, by the way, that  non-Christian Romans are perfectly capable of asserting the essential brotherhood of all men (including brotherhood with their slaves on a fundamental level) without thereby having a problem with the institution of slavery or even feeling bad about possessing the people whom they claim to love and respect “just as if they were free-born.”)

    Furthermore, manumission wasn’t the end of the (highly exploitative) relationship between slave and master: (cf. the quip circulating in the generation before Paul that sexual submission was “a disgrace for a freeman, a necessity for slave, and a duty for a freedman”).  Former masters had a lot of power over their freedman, could still demand their labor, and could petition to re-enslave them if they proved “ungrateful” or negligent. So again, the relationship between Philemon  and Onesimus is always dependent — as defined by the master class — on the master’s “generosity” “love” “affection” “trust.”  

    So whether or not we think that Paul is suggesting that Philemon manumit Onesimus, what he is definitely suggesting is that Philemon should reconsider his attitude toward his slave: think of him as a person who can be trusted with “partnership” (i.e. a trusted position in the management of his affairs — or perhaps church affairs) and should be considered “useful”  (the standard word for a good slave). So he’s trying to set up the relationship  in which manumission would make sense — as a confirmation of that relationship.

  • histrogeek

     No one knows. Philemon is only known through this one letter; basically we get one side of the conservation and before any reaction at all. Onesimus and Philemon are appear nowhere else, not in other epistles, not in Acts. So no evidence at all one way or the other.
    That said, given Paul’s notorious willingness to call people out, Philemon would have had enormous pressure to comply. A major religious leader and probably a friend or at least familiar acquaintance who is coming to visit, and who just laid a pretty big guilt trip on you, it would be rough going. And odds are that despite the personal nature of the letter, its contents were almost certainly known to other members of his community.

  • histrogeek

     Actually single slave owners are not that uncommon. Slaves have always been expensive and housework before machines was extensive. Even in the South, a very different, much more commercial system than the Greco-Roman world, a majority of slaveowners had no more than 2 slaves.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Fred, your morality is entirely secular. You’re spinning biblical stories to match secular morality. It’s nothing more than that, spin. How about just dropping the spin and the Christian baggage and embracing the secular morality that already underpins your own morality?

    Off my side, you’re making me look bad.

  • caryjamesbond

    roof, by the way, that  non-Christian Romans are perfectly capable of asserting the essential brotherhood of all men (including brotherhood with their slaves on a fundamental level) without thereby having a problem with the institution of slavery or even feeling bad about possessing the people whom they claim to love and respect “just as if they were free-born.”

     This also ties into the essentially difference between Roman (and even later European) slavery and New World slavery. Socially speaking, the two systems were completely different.

    In Rome, and even in later societies (England, for example, had slavery for white people within England past the discovery of the Americas) slavery was an escapable condition.  Often is was used to pay off debts, there were rules (if rarely enforced) about the treatment of slaves, and slaves were often well educated, able to earn money, and buy themselves. When they did, they were seen as “real people.”  Slaves were often educated tutors and doctors, for example, and would earn their freedom or be freed, and then go on to work in the community like any other educated man. Slaves were also a much scarcer commodity, even in the most expansionist periods of Roman history. In the Americas, you had the triangle trade shipping thousands upon thousands of slaves a year- to the point where in some places it was cheaper to starve slaves and buy new ones then it was to feed them. Now, as was pointed out, Roman masters had a great deal of control over freedmen- however, particularly in Rome, the client system (sort of an early feudalism) was the norm, and a rich man would’ve had a great deal of control over his clients anyway. So again, a freedman in rome would’ve had much better social standing than one in America.   Even further- one thing Rome did not really have as much of a problem with was racism, so a freed slave, particularly a freed Greek slave, would not face the intense racism a new world freedman would face. 

    In the Americas, however, you have North American and South American styles of slavery. In South America, most of the first groups coming over were all male, which meant they took wives and concubines among the slaves. So in South America (and in places like New Orleans that were founded by the same groups) you see a strict social hierarchy- quatroon, octroon, mulatto- all these denoted exactly how much of a “real person” you were. In north America, you had settlers who were often already married, or had white women coming along with them to provide a pool of marriage candidates. So you get the idea of “one drop,” where any African blood at all made you a slave.    

    Now, before I get jumped on- obviously, owning people is BAD. So is murder, but there is a difference between shooting someone in the head and torturing them to death.  However, given a choice between being a Roman or American slave- Rome all the way. I’d even rather be a Roman slave than an English serf- at least as a Roman slave, your master was responsible for feeding and housing you, and you could get out.  

    And again- I really don’t see any way for this event to happen without Onesimus consenting- especially since we still HAVE this letter. Also, given that Paul is essentially appealing to the better angels of Philemon’s nature, I’d say it would be a safe guess that Philemon was not too incredibly psycho. Also, Paul is not writing this letter to a general audience- he’s writing it to someone who he appears to know fairly well. I suspect Paul knew that a gentle, loving (but very firm) suggestion would probably be better than a raging condemnation of what everyone in the world (literally, at this point in history) thought was perfectly fine. 

    And as for Paul’s power over Philemon-  Paul was an apostle.  This not only meant that he had moral and spiritual authority, it meant he had actual magical powers.  Given that not all that long ago Ananias and Sapphira got smoked by Peter, this is less “bishop suggests” and more “Don Corleone asks nicely.” 

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    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 muchnicer, 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.

    I would hate it when my mother would do that.  It felt so passive-aggressive.  A lot of the time I wish she would have just tell me when the cleanliness or lack-thereof of my room passed an unacceptable threshold and needed to be addressed.  

    Implicit information tends to go over my head, but I take direct instruction very well.  

  • Barry_D

     “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.”

    I’d like to meet these uncomfortable modern liberals. 

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

     

    We, today, have to realize that in the cultural time and place inhabited
    by Paul there were inevitably strong social forces that circumscribed what people thought was possible or likely

    Well, people who don’t believe Paul had any kind of special access to God have to realize that.

    That said… there are, of course, people who believe Paul and the other apostles were in touch with a Divine wisdom that transcended the limits of a particular culture. In fact, this belief is not uncommon among Christians; for many of them, this is why Paul should be taken more seriously than other writers in other places and other times. And it’s not clear to me why those people should necessarily evaluate Paul by the standards of his culture.

    The difficulty, of course, arises if I both want to treat Paul as expressing the preferences or nature of a culture-transcending deity, and as operating within the standards of his culture, at the same time. That requires some careful balancing.

  • caryjamesbond

    The difficulty, of course, arises if I both want to treat Paul as expressing the preferences or nature of a culture-transcending deity, and as operating within the standards of his culture, at the same time

    Arguing within the Christian paradigm- this is exactly what Paul had to do. It doesn’t matter that God has enlightened PAUL (and from the letter, it appears Paul is opposed to slavery) unless Paul can use that enlightenment to enlighten others.  Philemon is as unquestioning in the morality of owning a slave as you and I are in owning a shovel. Paul has to convince Philemon that slavery is bad, operating within the cultural paradigms of a Roman world. Preaching “slavery is evil and YOU ARE EVIL SLAVEMASTER” would get you A) ignored, B) ridiculed (imagine someone saying “you’re enslaving that horse you ride!”) and C) thrown in jail. Within the Roman world, Paul is using the best argument. Not the most powerful argument, or the one rooted in the hghest moral principles, but the one that will achieve actual results- Onesimus being freed and Philemon freeing his other slaves (if any, they would’ve become Christian when their master did.)
    Paul’s goal wasn’t lofty rhetoric, it was results.  

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

    Implicit information tends to go over my head, but I take direct instruction very well. 

    So much this.

    People who hint or imply what they should really say plainly tend to annoy me when they get so subtle I can barely figure out what they’re trying to actually say to me.

  • EllieMurasaki

    http://teabagsinfusion.blogspot.com/2010/05/ask-culture-and-guess-culture.html explains
    the problem excellently. I’m a Guess Culture. This drives me buggy in offline interactions, but online I’m a lot more outspoken and a lot less concerned about being thought rude, and also a lot of the subtleties I miss offline are simply not communicable online, or else come with a pause/play button and a slidy bar attached to the timestamps, so it’s a lot easier for me to figure out what other Guess types want.

  • histrogeek

    One of the earlier arguments that hit me hard (easy to do I’m afraid) is comparing Paul’s treatment of Onesimus to forcing a wife to return to an abusive husband. There are some real parallels there (not perfect as I’ll explain) and very, very unfortunately many Christians have done just that and justified their actions citing Paul’s. So return victims to the abuser is a way to interpret the epistle; it’s not justified morally or even textually, but that doesn’t make it less common. And that practice clearly needs to be stopped.
    I don’t think that is the best parallel to the situation in Philemon though. First Paul didn’t immediately return Onesimus to Philemon; Onesimus traveled with Paul for a time before returning to Philemon. So Paul would have some understanding of the situation. Second Paul did immediately tell Philemon that he (Paul) would be coming soon to see how things were going. Under the circumstances what we are dealing with is closer legally (though not morally) to social workers returning children to their parents: keep the child out of immediate danger, investigate the situation, re-unite the family , follow up to make sure the situation is OK.
    The legal condition of a Roman slave was somewhat analogous to children today. They were legally assumed to have a guardian. Even after emancipation a former master was assumed to have certain rights and responsibilities for the freedman or freedwoman (as patron and client). Paul was faced with the problem that many social workers face: break the law by cutting your client away from their parent/guardian, “release” your client and let them fend for themselves by looking the other way when they run again, or try to use what power you can to protect them and improve their lives.
    What Paul did was make a compromise (without any guidelines it should be noted) to protect Onesimus and create a favorable legal outcome for him (Onesimus). Is it ideal? No, but ideally children wouldn’t be abused and people wouldn’t have owned slaves.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

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

    I absolutely despised this kind of treatment. It didn’t work on me then and it doesn’t work on me now. It led to logical debates when I was a child, screaming matches when I was a teenager, and it leads to me shutting down and ending the conversation entirely now. If someone wants me to do something, they’d better tell me they want it straight out, not play mind games.

    I don’t like being manipulated, and I seriously dislike other people claiming they know how I feel.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    People who hint or imply what they should really say plainly tend to annoy me when they get so subtle I can barely figure out what they’re trying to actually say to me.

    I can usually figure out what they want without any trouble. And I get very angry when they attempt to bullshit and manipulate me and pretend they know me better than I do. It’s incredibly insulting.

    Here’s what they’re really saying: “I want you to do this thing for me, but I want to gaslight you into thinking you’re doing it for you so that you don’t feel I owe you anything.”

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

    Well, people who don’t believe Paul had any kind of special access to God have to realize that.

    That said… there are, of course, people who believe Paul and the
    other apostles were in touch with a Divine wisdom that transcended the
    limits of a particular culture. In fact, this belief is not uncommon
    among Christians; for many of them, this is why Paul should be taken
    more seriously than other writers in other places and other times. And
    it’s not clear to me why those people should necessarily evaluate Paul by the standards of his culture.

    I disagree.  Paul certainly had numinous experiences that he considered to be coming from God (he mentions some in his letters) and perhaps they were, in fact, coming from God.  But Paul’s interpretation of those experiences would certainly be influenced by his cultural background.

    To put it another way: what God says may not be influenced by culture, but what we hear and how we interpret it will be.

    I personally think that’s why a) there are many different religions and b) it’s dangerous to interpret any one sacred text as the carved-in-stone absolute truth for all time.  If you see religions and sacred texts as representing people’s reactions to God in different times and places (which is how I tend to see them) then these texts represent what God wants shaded by the cultural beliefs, knowledge, and expectations of the people who created them.  The latter is the bit that can get us into trouble.
     
    For example, people raised in a culture that considers owning a slave as unproblematic as most of us consider owning a cat may not immediately think, “Slavery is wrong, I should free my slaves!” when they hear God’s message of liberation and brotherhood.  That doesn’t mean God approves of slavery, it means that people didn’t make that connection because it was too far “outside the box,” so to speak.

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

     (nods) As I said,if I both want to treat Paul as expressing the preferences or nature of a culture-transcending deity, and as operating within the standards of his culture, at the same time, that requires some careful balancing.

    One way of balancing that is the one you suggest here: that God transcends culture, but Paul is constrained by his culture, and therefore parts of what he says should be treated as Divinely inspired while other parts are not. The task then becomes deciding what subset of the text we’ll treat that way at any given moment.

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

    I think if I were ever to become a parent, I would try to aim for this:

    Me: “Do Thing X, please.” (a direct request, but phrased with culturally-appropriate nice words)
    Kid: “Why?”
    Me: “I am asking you to do Thing X because (legitimate reason).” (assertion of authority, but explaining why I am doing so)

    So it’d be like “Cut the grass, please” and “I’m asking you to because I have to do (other thing) and if you do it, it saves me time later. I also want you to get used to doing tasks you may not necessarily like, but which need to be done to keep a generally tidy appearance. Also, tall grass is less safe because you can’t see an animal or an object that could hurt you.”

    Loquacious, yes, but better than trying to wheedle, cajole, or just plain assert authority without a reasonable foundation. “Because I said so,” should only be used for dire situations in which there is no time for debate or discussion.

  • P J Evans

    Also, tall grass is less safe because you can’t see an animal or an object that could hurt you.

    Or that you really, really don’t want to step on, like the dead skunk I found in the grass doing the first mowing in spring. (Natural causes, or we’d have found it much sooner.)

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

     I don’t know that I would put it that way exactly.  I would argue that Paul’s ministry as a whole was divinely inspired, but what he said, did, and believed as a result of that inspiration were shaped by what he already believed.  All of our experiences are shaped by our beliefs, after all.

    So I don’t see it so much as breaking it up into the “parts that are from God” and the “parts that are from Paul” as saying it’s ALL from Paul, based on God.

    The best analogy I can think of is when I’m writing a paper: it’s not like some parts are from me and some are dictated directly by the data — it’s ALL from me, based on the data.   It’s not like I’m making things up out of thin air, but how I interpret (and even in some cases how I analyze) the data is going to be shaped by my pre-existing beliefs about the way the world works — much as we like to pretend it isn’t! 

    Again, I also think it’s worth keeping in mind that Paul was writing to Philemon, not to us.  He didn’t even think there was going to BE an almost-2,000-years-later, much less expect people to be reading his letter then.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s messages worth hearing in the letters — I do — but I think we need to remember that ultimately they’re the words of Paul to Philemon, not the words of God to us.  If Paul were writing a letter to slaveholders in the 19th century Southern US, I doubt it would say exactly what he said to Philemon (though of course there’s no way to know what he WOULD write).

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

    I think we need to remember that ultimately they’re the words of Paul to Philemon, not the words of God to us. 

    I agree completely, both that it’s true, and that it’s important to remember.

    So I don’t see it so much as breaking it up into the “parts that are from God” and the “parts that are from Paul” as saying it’s ALL from
    Paul, based on God.

    Well, OK.

    I will accept for the sake of comity that, as you suggest, it’s all from Paul, based on God, and that therefore we cannot (or at least ought not) treat some of the text as Divinely inspired while other parts are not, as I’d initially suggested.

    All of that said: we agreed a minute ago that it’s important that we not treat the letter to Philemon as “the words of God to us.” That suggests two possibilities: either none of the text is the words of God to us, or some of the text is the words of God to us and some of it is not.

    Most Christians reject the first possibility, which leaves us with the second.

    The task then becomes deciding what subset of the text we’ll treat that way.

  • Lori

     

    Here’s what they’re really saying: “I want you to do this thing for me,
    but I want to gaslight you into thinking you’re doing it for you so that you don’t feel I owe you anything.”   

    In the case of Fred’s mom example, this assumes that the mom doesn’t actually see any inherent value in the child keeping a clean room and simply wants it clean because she prefers it that way. At least in my mom’s case, that wasn’t true. My mom was actually trying to teach me to value a clean space so that when I moved out on my own I wouldn’t live in squalor. She considered that part of her job as a parent.

  • Lori

     

    First Paul didn’t immediately return Onesimus to Philemon; Onesimus
    traveled with Paul for a time before returning to Philemon. So Paul
    would have some understanding of the situation. Second Paul did
    immediately tell Philemon that he (Paul) would be coming soon to see how
    things were going. 

    My current job is really repetitive and boring so I tend to have a lot of random thoughts while working.  One thing that occurred to me last night was that this discussion assumes that the letter strategy was all Paul’s doing and I don’t know that that’s true. As you say, Onesimus traveled with Paul for some time and they obviously discussed the situation in some detail. It makes just as much sense to assume that the letter was a gambit that they agreed on together. More in a way, since Paul didn’t take Onesimus back to Philemon, he sent him.

    That strikes me as an important distinction. Onesimus had the courage and resourcefulness to have run away in the first place, so if he didn’t think the letter was a good idea he could simply have refused to deliver it and gone on the lamb again. Assuming that the letter was preserved because it was delivered, Onesimus must have been a willing participant. People have rightly pointed out that Paul had no way to force Philemon to do the right thing and was therefore taking a huge risk with Onesimus’ life. By the same token, Paul couldn’t have forced Oneimus to take the letter and go back. It’s a huge understatement to say that I’m not Paul’s biggest fan, but I really don’t think the person who wrote that letter would have say, threatened to turn Onesimus in. Even if you think Paul’s just that big a bastard, he would have been implicating himself so it just wasn’t going to happen.

    He could have refused to give Onesimus any further aid, but even that would simply have left Onesimus with the choice of trying Paul’s solution or continuing on his own again. For Onesimus it would have been about balancing risk and potential reward. Paul wasn’t sending Onesimus from a place of safety and freedom back into slavery. He was sending Onesimus from one kind of danger, which would have continued through the rest of Onesimus’ life, into a different kind of danger that had at least the possibility of resulting in permanent safety. A calculated risk.

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

    Okay, here’s an example: pretty much any given American liberal. All of American liberalism is an uncomfortable attempt to ignore that the injustices they recognize in society are fundamental to the shape of the society itself, because they’re unwilling to give up that society, no matter how rotten it is, in favor of a less extravagantly materialistc but largely more just one that might be possible in the absence of capitalism.


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