by Bruce Reyes-Chow
Epistle Reading: Philemon 1-21
For Sunday, September 8, 2013: Year C – Lectionary 23
On a first read of this week’s passage one could easily come away with a powerful story of reconciliation and faith: slave runs away with stolen times of owner, owner and slave become Christian, owner welcomes back slave and all is forgiven.
Cue the Bubbles, Kittens and Unicorns
But wait just one minute. There are huge problems in this passage that really are not just about the “reconciliation” story that so many have come to accept from this short letter from Paul.
- Why does Paul not challenge Philemon to not only give up slavery, but seek forgiveness for slavery in the first place?
- Why should Paul expect Onesimus to go back and trust Philemon based on a letter from Paul?
- Why do we not realize and name the dangers of this kind of passage in modern day interpretation?
The Easy Answer
The easy answer is that this passage is all contextual and that Paul was was actually being pretty radical for his time. Not only was he asking Philemon to make a huge economic shift, but he was also asking him to fundamentally alter the ways in which he understood his relationship with another human being who was once a slave, but now a mutual member of the body of Christ.
This may all be true, but when it comes to application, I fear that most folks are not willing to go to great lengths to understand the exegetical nuances and historical context of this letter.
A Context of Control
The overarching theme of this passage viewed through the lens of slavery and oppression is this, “Slaves go back to your masters and seek their Christian mercy.” Again, we can argue the profound nature of Paul’s letter or that we should love your enemies, but in this case we must also acknowledge that the “enemy” has used passages like these throughout history to ensure they hold onto power and control over other human beings.
Like other passages whose interpretations has been skewed to further exclude women, same-gender loving folks and others, while there may be some contextually profound nuggets to be unearthed, when bent to the whims of human history, we often use these kind so passages to justify modern day exploitation and marginalization.
Hiding Behind Holy Texts
So while we must continue to examine the historical context and culture the day, we cannot hide behind that exercise, pretending as if no harm can be done by these words present in our Holy Texts.
Some might argue that this passage has done far more harm than good in the world, so only by challenging historical realities of how these kinds of passages have been used in ways that feed power and privilege are we more likely to avoid doing it again and again.
The Hardest Question
The real question is that when dealing with this passage: Are we willing to challenge how Philemon has been used historically to justify slavery and putting the impetus for reconciliation on those who have been enslaved?
The hard question is: Do we pretend that no harm done by hiding in the comfort of our Biblical interpretation?
Bruce Reyes-Chow is a San Francisco based writer, speaker and consultant who muses on faith, race, parenting and technology. Through his experience as a pastor, organizer and blogger he is committed to expressing a Christian faith that is beautifully complex, unimaginably just and excruciatingly gracious. Bruce is a frequent event speaker and is the author of the eBook, The Definitive-ish Guide for Using Social Media in the Church (2012), and But I Don’t See You as Asian: Curating Conversations about Race (2013). You can connect with Bruce at www.reyes-chow.com or via @breyeschow on most social media sites