Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On Slavery: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus

Some weeks ago, one of the scripture readings in most of the mainstream denominations' churches was from the Letter of Paul to Philemon.

This letter -- hardly more than a short note or a slightly long memo -- is unusual in that it deals with only one issue, slavery. A practical social policy question, it would seem. Not a theological one.

From the point of view of human rights activists, it's pretty tepid stuff. It's ambiguous enough to have been cited as a support for slavery in the USA, both before and after the Civil War. For fervent anti-religionists, its lack of any condemnation of slavery reveals the morally compromised nature of Christianity. For the Christian Right, this letter by Paul refutes the misreadings of the Bible by liberals, who hypocritically use it to support radical programs of social change that undermine the orderly rules laid down by the governing authorities -- who are, of course, ordained by God.

Martin Luther had a similar opinion and held that Paul was upholding the social status quo, affirming the runaway slave Onesimus' legal status as a slave and upholding the law by returning him to his owner, Philemon.

True enough, Paul doesn't condemn slavery out of hand. He doesn't inveigh against it at all: he makes no criticism of the way it's practiced in the Roman world. He doesn't forbid it as a practice for Christians.

He merely writes to his Christian friend, Philemon, that he, Paul, is sending back to him his runaway slave whom Paul has come to know and love as a son during Paul's imprisonment. Paul asks Philemon, of his own free will, to release Onesimus.

Despite Paul's attempts to constrain Philemon's choice by using heavy rhetorical arm-twisting, guilt-tripping, and double-binding, he doesn't threaten Philemon with any dire sanctions if he doesn't comply. Paul has no power to compel Philemon to give up his legally recognized and culturally legitimate property rights. "The church" at that time being thoroughly decentralized -- literally anarchic, Paul does the only thing he can do. He makes this an issue of love: faith has turned a slave into a brother who can no longer be regarded as a slave.

This is a form of radicalism that goes over the head of conventional rightist and leftist perceptions and practices. Perfect love not only casts out fear, it casts out slavery. The bonds of union within the Body of Christ, says Paul, make it impossible to own and exploit a brother (or sister), regardless of the rules of The Empire. "In Christ 'there is no slave or free' " may be a better sound bite. But the Letter to Philemon shows how, even without possessing the state's power of compulsion, the powerless can learn to turn an uplifting slogan into a living reality.

The Letter to Philemon is what the late Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, would call an example of "revolutionary subordination".

Revolutionary subordination extends not only to personal relationships of mutual subordination within the community of faith but also to relations with the civil authorities. In that context the concept is very similar to civil disobedience. That is, the power of the civil authorities is recognized as being, in fact, dominant over us. However, it's not "ordained by God" as the Christian Right would have it (based on what Yoder attacked as a mistranslation of Romans 13).

Accepting the reality of the power of the state merely means that we know it will come down hard on us when we refuse its worst demands, as we often must. When that happens, our punishments are part of our witness to a better way. The way is non-violent, acceptant of subordination in its civil sense, and insubordinate in its rejection of cultures of domination, exploitation and injustice.

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