Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Runaway Slave


Philemon 1-21


Frederick Douglas was a runaway slave. From those humble beginnings he went on to become one of the most influential statesman, orators, authors, and social reformers of his generation, all this during a time in our country when African-Americans were still not free. He was a remarkable man, and his story is powerfully laid out for us in his gripping autobiography, The Narrative and Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave  as well as his second book, My Bondage and My Freedom.

Frederick Douglas was also a Christian. He was converted at an evangelical revival. He was captivated by the vision of freedom and liberation contained in the pages of Holy Scripture, and in the person and radical teaching of Christ the savior of the human race. Douglas had every reason to reject the Christian faith. He saw more than most the cruelty and hypocrisy of those who profess to be Christians. He writes,

I have seen my master tie up a lame young woman and whip her upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip. And in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture. "He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes."

He breathed out prophetic fire against such wicked distortions of the gospel,
“between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.”

Douglas was at the center of a growing movement among Christians to abolish the practice of slavery in the United States.  The controversy stirred by “abolistionist”—as  they were called—divided many of the protestant churches in two. The fault lines tended to run between the north and south of the country. The issue was more than just an ecclesiastical squabble, but a deep cultural divide. Both sides had passionate commitments to the Christian faith and both sides insisted that the Bible championed their cause. At the heart of the debate was tiny Epistle of Philemon, which at a mere 335 words is among the shortest books in Holy Scripture. Indeed our Epistle reading today contains the book in nearly its entirety.

The letter concerns a man named Onesimus, who like Frederick Douglas, was an escaped slave. He has run away from his master Philemon, a wealthy Christian of Paul’s acquaintance, who hosts a congregation of Christians in his home. This Onesimus, had not only run from Philemon’s service but it is also implied that he robbed him.

The runaway ended up in prison where he came under the teaching and the influence of Saint Paul, and was converted to the faith. Paul is writing his letter from prison and he means that it should accompany Onesimus on his return to Philemon as a kind of recommendation. He asks that Philemon would not punish Onesimus for his treachery but that he receive him, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”

Interpreters have differed widely on how Paul’s letter should be understood.
One defender of slavery, Augustus Longstreet wrote, 
It appears plain to me why this epistle has been preserved. It is that men may see that it is possible to hold slaves and go to heaven.” 

Another, Theodore Clapp, said,

“[Saint Paul] entreats Philemon not to punish Onesimus with severity, but to treat him in the future as a reformed and faithful slave…Paul did not suggest to Philemon the duty  of emancipating Onesimus, but encouraged him to restore the slave to his former condition, with the hope that, acting under the holy principles of Christianity, he would in future serve his master, ‘not with eye service,’ as formerly, ‘but in singleness of heart, fearing God.”

It must be said that even for Paul merely to suggest that Philemon forgive Onesimus and not punish him was a radical suggestion that undermined the cultural institution of slavery. In Roman culture, a runaway slave was entirely subhuman. To desert one’s household was unforgivable and worthly of death by crucifixion or at the very least severe beating and branding. Paul not only instructs Philemon not to punish him but suggest instead that he be embraced as a brother and as if he were Saint Paul’s very own son.

Abolistionist readers of this text insisted that it needed to read in light of the freedom and equality of all the saints in Christ. We must not forget Paul’s words from Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It is true that Paul, elsewhere instructs slaves to submit to their masters, “as to Christ” (Ephesians 6:5-9). He gives the same instruction to women in regards to their husbands that they should submit to them, “as to the Lord.” In both cases however, the more surprising instruction of Paul to husbands to lay down their lives for their wives and to masters to regard those under their authority as their equal, is too often ignored.

Regardless of where our rank in society is, we are to mutually “submit to one another in love.” There is all the difference in the world between the loving submission of equals and tyranny of the powerful over the weak. Masters are to relinquish any thought of superiority over their slaves and to, “give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.”

There can be no coercion between brothers and equals. Paul models for Philemon a leadership that makes its appeal through love, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (1:8-9).

Apologist for slavery often pointed out how Paul makes no command that Philemon free his slave, and this is true. Instead on the basis of the love that he knows Philemon has for him and, “for all the Saints,” he appeals to him to do what he knows is right. He is confident that Philemon, “will do even more than I say.” He even not so subtly lays a guilt trip on him, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”

What is it that Paul is beating around the bush, suggesting that Philemon do? He says, “I wanted to keep him [Onesimus] with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”

His implication is clear, Onesimus should be set at liberty so he can return to serve Paul, not as a runaway slave and fugitive, but as a free man at the blessing of his master!

What became of Onesimus? We know that Saint Paul made him with Tychicus, the bearer of his Epistle to the Colossians (Col. 4:7-9) which suggests that Philemon did set him free. Ignatius, writing around the year 110AD, refers to a Bishop in Ephesus of the same name. Saint Jerome and other Church Fathers suggest that he was the same man as the former slave of Philemon. Bishop Onesimus suffered Martyrdom for the faith. 

Perhaps you are thinking that Paul should have been more direct with Philemon? It is easy for us to see—from where we are today—with the moral clarity on slavery that progress brings, but we stand on the shoulders of these small beginnings.  Although Paul does not directly condemn the institution of slavery, he pulled the pin on a grenade and set it rolling.

In Jesus’ time the disciples were impatient for change and asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” They imagined the immediate overthrow of the powers that be, a revolutionary regime change in which Ceasar would be deposed and Christ enthroned as King, but Jesus’ Kingdom revolution was of a different sort. It was a revolution of hearts and minds.  It is a revolution that makes its appeal through love rather than coercion. He said it was leaven working invisibly, gradually, and subtly through a lump of dough.

The Gospel sowed the seeds for the abolition of slavery, it sowed the seeds also for the liberation of women, which eventually grew into the movements of freedom and liberation of the modern world.  Some victories are slower than others. Indeed we have only scratched the surface in understanding the full implications of the Gospel. The cost of discipleship has always been too high. G.K. Chesterton said, 

“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.” 
Between our halting attempts, and the Christianity of Christ, there is yet the widest possible difference.