I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to Scott McKnight's for his wonderful commentary on Philemon and the courage that he showed in being willing to face the issue of the gospel and slavery. McKnight's commentary on Philemon is the New International Commentary series was so good and enthralling it was part of holiday reading over the summer. This sermon is my humble wrestling with what the scripture has to say about the issue of slavery and some reflections on what Philemon says to us about facing large social issues.
Paul’s short letter to Philemon, pleading with him to welcome back his runaway salve Onesimus, gives us a snap shot of how the gospel speaks to what was a specific serious pastoral issue. Paul applies the radically different understanding of our relationships with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and partners in the gospel, to the relationship between a slave owner and a slave. Calling for the grace and peace he gave in his blessing at the start of this letter to manifest itself between them. Commentator Scott McKnight says this is “an important example of how Pauline circles sought to embody a new vision for humanity-the Church.” A place where there was neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor gentile, Greek nor barbarian… in Christ we are one.
Last week we explored Philemon and what it had to say to us about the way of love when it comes to dealing with broken relationships between people. We looked at it from that pastoral level. However, It is impossible for modern readers to look at this epistle and not have some questions to ask about the bigger issue of the relationship between the gospel and slavery itself. It seems the early church was able to formulate an understanding of equality without calling for the abolition of the underlying social injustice of slavery.
There is no evidence that Paul actively sought for Onesimus to be emancipated. In having confidence that Philemon will do even more than Paul asks, some commentators suggest that he has left freedoms door ajar in the hope that Philemon would walk through it. Whether Philemon set Onesimus free falls outside the frame of the snap shot the epistle gives us, it is a story without a beginning or an end.
The sad truth is that Christian Europe and North America did not deal with the issue of slavery until into the eighteenth and nineteenth century. They benefited and flourished economically from slavery. In the western world it is tied to racism, how one group could see another as subhuman enough to simply be considered property, to own, buy and sell. Slavery is also not a thing of the past but a growing modern phenomenon, the United Nations estimate that twenty-one million people are in slavery today, some non-profit organisations place it as high as thirty-five million. About a quarter are forced into the sex industry, about forty percent are under eighteen, forty six percent male and fifty six percent women. Sixty seven percent are in the Asia-Pacific region.
The profits from slavery are staggering, you can imagine agriculture and fishing and manufacture with out the labour costs and slavery in the sex industry is said to make over $100 billion a year. slavery is pervasive, when companies seek for the least cost they can for goods in a globalised labour market. Many countries now ask large international brands to guarantee that no slave or sweated labour is in their supply chain. While not technically slavery, the exploitation of migrant workers and exploitative practises in some industries in New Zealand show we need to on guard even in our own country.
The first thing we need to say is that the early church lives in a slave society and may not have the same sensitivity that we have to it today. Roman society was a slave society. Paul can say neither slave nor free in Christ because that was one of the social divides of his day, you were either free or a slave.
Slavery permeates the whole of the biblical narrative as well. I read through the scriptures each year and as it’s January I’m reading through Genesis and because I’ve been working on this sermon I’ve been more aware of slavery. Abraham was a slave owner when he receives God’s call in Genesis 12 it says he left with his wife and family all his property and in verse 3, the people he had acquired in Harran. When Sarai is unable to have a child, she gives her Egyptian slave girl Hagar to Abraham so she might give him a child. Later Sarai mistreats her, and she flees. God appears to her in the desert and she calls God… ‘the God who sees me’. There is the story of Jacob and again slave girls given to Jacob to have children, in a kind of competition between Rebecka and Leah.
Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers as a lesser evil to killing him. While Joseph says that God used that evil for good, it still says that such enslaving is wrong. It is interesting that in New Zealand history God used a slave for the furthering of the gospel amongst Maori tribes. You are probably familiar with the story of Tarore and her St Luke’s gospel. Tarore is the daughter of a chief, she is killed by a members of the Te Awa tribe, her most valued possession a copy of the gospel of St Luke in Te Reo that she kept in a kete round her neck is taken. At her funeral her father Ngakuku, a christian preaches forgiveness not revenge. Meanwhile her bible remains unread until a slave who can read by the name of Ripahau comes along and as he reads the gospel to Uita the chief responsible for the death of Tarore, Uita’s heart is changed and he becomes a follower of Christ and knows he must take the risky step of asking for forgiveness, which he does and there is peace and reconciliation between the tribes. Ripahau later would read the scriptures to other tribes and chiefs and was instrumental in the spread of the gospel. As missionaries came they found the gospel had gone before them and refreshed peoples hearts, to use a line from Philemon.
We could go on and do a biblical survey, looking at the people of Israel being oppressed in Egypt after they had been treated well and the impact that had on them. We could talk of how after the exile, the idea of being redeemed was that wealthy kin would buy back people who for reasons of poverty had become slaves, and the call of the prophets to deal with the underlying problem of poverty so that they wouldn’t have to resort to such drastic solutions. We can forget that a lot of Jesus parables about servants were not about people in the hospitality industry but slaves in people’s households or royal courts.
But the gospel does have an impact. As we see from the glimpse we have in Philemon, Paul sees that as we come to faith in Jesus Christ, our relationship fundamentally changes, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says “ our community with each other is founded solely on what Christ has done for us” Not on social status. Paul invites Philemon to see Onesimus no longer as a slave with no status, but as a man and a brother in Christ, no longer useless but useful as a partner in the gospel.
In the letter to the church at Corinth this understanding of the family and household of God has other practical application. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul talks of people going ahead at Christian gatherings and eating and having their full and those who come late missing out. Those who came late were most probably slaves who couldn’t come till they had finished their work, Paul says in the Christian community, you wait for those who wait on you so you may eat together as equals in Christ.
In second Corinthians Paul encourages slaves not to be upset with their position, he is concerned about revolt, but also to get free when they can. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul turn the roman household code on its head by making it not a means of keeping people in their place, but a way of showing Christian love and service by submitting to each other in reverence to Christ.
In 1 Timothy 1:11 which we are going to look at next week, Paul lists slave trading in a list of things that are morally wrong, slaves in roman society were usually either the off spring of slaves or captured in warfare. But slave traders were people who would kidnap people and then sell them as slaves and this was seen as immoral and wrong. That practise was the basis of the slave trade from Africa and black birding in the Pacific and was where in more modern times slavery was denounced. It is the basis of a lot of modern day slavery as well.
The question needs to be asked why didn’t this new way of being together automatically result in a movement to oppose slavery? Why did Christian slaves remain so? Why were Christians on both sides of the abolition debate? In the Us the bible belt and the old slave states virtually coincide? How do we apply the gospel and the church as a place of the hope of change to our world today?
Firstly, it is easy to find ourselves immersed in our culture and society rather than in the scripture and its implications. We like those in the first century world find ourselves with cultural blind spots. It is easy for us to be products of our society and time. It’s as simple as that. We can become settled and comfortable in the place where we are and forget Jesus call to come and follow him. Jesus warns of the danger of wealth and comfort when he says you can serve God and mammon, and you know what it’s easy to find ourselves in the impossible place of doing both. It’s why in the Old testament God continually sends the prophets to critic what is going on and call the people back to God’s ways. It is why God raises up those sorts of people within the church as well. Historically we could look at St Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, whose revival gave the spiritual vitality that underpinned the movement for the abolistion of slavery and so much social reform, even the new monastic movement in our own time, who chose a radical path. They invite us to revaluate ourselves by confronting us with the uncomfortable demands and call of the gospel, to move us back towards Christ.
The second thing is that one of the voices we don’t hear in the book of Philemon is Onesimus, Paul speaks for him as an advocate. We don’t know what he has told Paul about his life as a slave, the process of forgiving and being healed that he has had to go through, his pain and his suffering, coming to realise that in Christ he has real worth, not just as property we don’t hear his story or his voice. If we are to see each other as beloved brothers and sisters, then we need to hear the voices of people who are impacted the most by things like slavery and poverty and abuse. We need to hear them look at the scriptures and ask the difficult questions, even wrestle with that age old question in the wisdom literature ’How long O God, How Long… will you allow this suffering to go on, will you abandon me.’ But also as they speak hear the gospel ring true again of transformation and new creation in Christ. St Patrick was a ardent anti slave voice in Ireland because he had suffered as a slave taken in a raid. Scott McKnight says that it was not till after the revolution in Haiti amongst black slaves demanding freedom that the abolition movement took off. In England, when former slave, Olaudah Equiano wrote his biography and outlined the abuses, violence and evil he had experienced it resulted in a petition going to parliament to stop the salve trade. It is why the trusted voices of people like Martin Luther king Jr and Desmond Tutu, are so powerful and important. It is the power of the voices in the women’s movement as well and those we hear in the me too movement challenging sexual harassment and the abuse of power.
Lastly Philemon is just a quick snap shot into both a personal pastoral issue and a larger social injustice. It does not provide us with a overarching solution or even all the answers to our questions. One of the things it does is that it brings theology down to a personal step. One step forward. The way to change is being prepared to take that step forward. We don’t know what impact Paul’s letter had on Philemon, as a church leader and slave owner/household head, it may have been radical he may have been willing to not just forgive and welcome Onesimus, but free him, maybe his household was radically changed… its out of the picture we have. But how the gospel relates to slavery and to other issues of injustice comes down to that personal step, leaving the door ajar so that we may walk through it…
My mother’s family name was Sharp. One of our ancestors was Granville Sharp who was know as the father of the movement to abolish slavery… his journey started one day in the streets of London, a simple clerk he came upon a runaway salve by the name of Johnathan strong who had been beaten and left for dead. Granville Sharp took him to see his brother, who just happened to be the royal physician and Johnathan Strong was given the best of medical care and restored to health , when his previous owners saw this they had him arrested and were going to ship him off to the Caribbean to work in their plantations. Grenville sharp paid a lawyer to defend him in court arguing that you couldn’t own another person in England. He failed in that, but he went on to train himself in the law and fight several other legal cases, till he succeeded, the justices used to quake as this simple clerk came into their court room because of the rightness and justice of his cause.
How does the gospel relates to slavery and other injustices in the world today is an unfinished story, the open ended nature of Philemon invites us to take a step and write it with our lives, to change the picture for our suffering brothers and sisters, for Christs sake.