An Analysis of the Letter to Philemon
The Church creates a better world. The Church challenges social injustices. The Church encourages liberty and basic human rights.
We have all heard these messages, coming down from the pulpit or rising up from our faith communities. Christians defend the notion of the Church’s relevancy and radical moral teachings. However, has this been traditionally accurate? Has formational doctrine truly defended human rights historically and in the 21st century?
In his letter to Philemon, whom we can reconstruct as a wealthy Christian in the 1st Colossae, Paul appeals on behalf of a runaway slave, Onesimus. The following is a general framework of the Epistle:
- Greetings as a fellow prisoner and slave of the Gospel and addressment towards the entire church in Philemon’s house (vs. 1-3)
- Appealing to the ethos and generosity of Philemon’s character and love for Jesus and the saints, as well as the encouragement Paul has received through their relationship (vs. 4-7)
- Requesting, not commanding, Philemon to generously receive Onesimus as if it were Paul himself (v. 16-17)
- Offering to repay any debts owed on behalf of Onesimus (vs. 18-20)
- Appealing, again, to Philemon’s ethos, knowing that he will go beyond the expectations of Paul (vs. 21-22)
- Benediction (vs. 23-25)
An inductive reading of this text explicitly shows that Paul is addressing the institution of slavery, both through the words he used and entreaties regarding the relationship between Philemon, the slave owner, and Onesimus, the slave. Yet, we are faced with one, insurmountable obstacle: Paul never demands the manumission of Onesimus, though he appears to have the authority to do so (v. 14).
In addressing this difficulty then and now, we will examine both how Paul’s anti-manumission attitude has been legitimated and justified by fundamentalists as well as provide a critique of Paul words, or lack thereof, and their application today.
Intentional Tonal Ambiguity and Euphemisms
My initial reaction to Paul’s letter was marked with attention to the overwhelming mixed messages that surround this letter. My 21st century expectation is that Paul will eventually demand the manumission of Onesimus in the name of the faith; yet this never occurs. Rather, what we see is that Paul’s open-ended letter has both served to legitimate and justify slavery, while also serving as a basis for an abolition movement. Therefore, there is a pressing need to sort through this vagueness.
First, a word-analysis of this brief epistle shows that Paul never actually uses the Greek equivalent for “slave”, though this has never lead scholars to doubt a conceptual connection to this epistle. Instead, in speaking of Onesimus, Paul uses the term doulos, which refers to a slave or bondman, but typically was associated with submission to the mission and vision of Christ. Implications of this intentional use are: (1) Paul recognizes the sensitivity surrounding the topic (2) Paul is seeking to preserve the dignity of Onesimus and emphasize his newfound faith (v. 10).
Secondly, as already noted, Paul never explicitly addresses the issue of manumission. While he speaks to the gracious attitude in which Philemon is to receive Onesimus, he fails to testify what should come after. Within this structure, Paul’s concern seems to not be centered on the freedom of Onesimus but on the relationship master-slave. In other words, Paul is not seeking to condemn the institution of slavery or forms of it, but is rather seeking to transform individual relationship within that institution.
Rather than criticize Paul for this miss-appointed goal, cultural relativity should challenge us to recognize Paul’s actions as radical and admiral when we take into account the values and expectations of the 1st century. Furthermore, his greater concern for the relationships between masters and slaves seem relatively justifiable considering his views of the future and God’s salvific plans. Simply put, Paul’s belief that the return of Christ was too near (c.f. Romans 13:11) for the deconstruction of the slave institution. Therefore, his concern was, instead, directed at what was feasible within this short period of time: love.
Based on all the above observations, it seems to me that Paul, in his effort to retain the master-slave relationship with no clear and direct exhortations to liberate Onesimus, Paul’s letter follows a fairly simple psychological manipulation strategy, built upon passive-aggression. After establishing his apostolic authority, Paul appeals to the ego and character of Philemon, knowing him as person of love and worthy of thankfulness, and that he would act accordingly in regards to Onesimus (v. 4-7). However, Paul’s generous words do not stop there. After those initial words, he asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in the faith (v. 16), with a very telling statement in between that appeals to his apostolic authority, and that highlights his passive-aggressive role: “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do” (v. 8).
It is because of Philemon’s generous and loving character that he should receive Philemon back, free from retribution. In other words, if Philemon were to adhere to social norms expecting the punishment of Onesimus, then it would be a direct contradiction to his respectable character. While Paul’s plea might seem just for Onesimus, he is certainly backing Philemon into a corner. Should Philemon punish Onesimus and maintain the social role as Lord in his household while losing his reputation in the Church, or should he show grace as Christ would and perpetuate the future disobedience of other slaves? To say the least, Philemon is between a rock and a hard place, and Paul has put him there.
As if this were not enough, Paul goes a step further to reach his goal. He appeals to Philemon “on the basis of love (v. 9)” and not on command. However, before Paul even gets to his request, he is very clear that he “could be bold and order you, [Philemon], to do what you ought to do (v. 8).” Though Paul constructs his letter in a way that makes it appear that Philemon is actually coming to the decisive decision of receiving Onesimus as a brother, or foregoing retribution for his crime, but this is not the case. Paul is actually pushing Philemon towards an expected decision, and if Philemon does not do so then Paul will essentially command him into submission at a later point, since he reminds Philemon he has to authority to do so.
Therefore, what do we do in light of this manipulative pattern and these passive-aggressive commands that Paul makes of Philemon? Does Paul have to right to violate his friendship with Philemon in his defense of Onesimus? How did Philemon interact with Paul’s clandestine words?
Contemporary Slavery, a Critique
On December 2, every year, the world unites as a global community to celebrate the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery which, in 1949, marked the United Nation’s adoption of the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. Formally, this ended the historical practice of slavery and the slave trade. However, people still live captive and in bondage today.
Do we not experience similar oppression within the marginalization of minority communities around the world? Do we not experience similar oppression within the exponential growth of African Americans incarcerated today? Do we not experience similar oppression within the social stratification between social classes and the lack of vertical mobility within societies? Do we not experience similar oppression within gender issues and ageism? Could we be slaves to our own ideologies, social norms, and institutions?
Today, slavery has taken a new identity, masked by the language of human rights. We no longer speak of master and slave, free and servitude; rather, we talk of inalienable rights, human dignity, and the value of all life. Therefore, we see the same patterns of oppression and subjugation in the institutional and informal violation of these human rights. When people are fenced in and prevented from moving within the borders of their own state, refused an ethnicity or nationality, or denied the right to marry based on gender identification, are their rights not violated, and have they not being enslaved to the values, biases, and ideologies of others?
It is in this recognition, a new understanding of slavery, that we must adopt an alternative response to the one of Paul’s. Radical transformation begins with a subtle action, a spark that initiates a blaze. In this challenge, the human rights of all people, especially based on differences, must be defended and preserved; not passive aggressively or through coercion, but according too free will and grace. Truly, we must recognize that the various manifestations of slavery create a complex networks of solutions that are not universal, but are contextualized according to the issues.