Reflecting on Philemon 9-10, 12-17
We just passed a devastating anniversary. On August 20, 1619, the first African slave ship arrived in the British colony of Virginia. Four hundred years ago, the ancient commerce of slavery brought its demonic practices of brutal abduction, starvation, and torture to our shores. Human beings were purchased in exchange for food, and 250 years of slavery commenced.
I think of those terrified human beings as I read Philemon today. By now we all know what a masterpiece of persuasion was Paul’s letter to this first-century slave master. Onesimus, the runaway slave who had become a Christian and a beloved helper to Paul, was, by law, owned by Philemon and was effectively stealing from him by staying away. Paul knew that, if Onesimus complied with the law and returned, he could have a leg cut off in order to discourage him from further flight. Paul understood that Philemon would need to be “managed.” He would not give up his right to revenge easily.
So Paul wrote his charming letter to the “owner” of Onesimus, reminding him that, in Christ, there is no slave nor free. We assume that Onesimus returned to his Christian master with no loss of limbs. And yet, in other places of the New Testament, slaves were told to obey their masters, and masters how to manage slaves (Eph. 6:5-11; Col. 3:22-4:1). Just when we thought the scriptures could be wrestled free of their cultural conditions, they shape-shift again.
The practice of slavery is as old as the human race. As long as there is work to be done, humans have been enslaved to do it. Most horrific is to remember—and we must—what devout Christians so many of the slave-holders were.
In what ways is the sin of slavery still abounding in the world?
Kathy McGovern ©2019