From the Letter to Philemon:
I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother — especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Philemon 14b-16 (NRSV) – February 28, 2014.)
There’s really very little in the Bible that makes me angry. I find a good deal to object to, to be annoyed by, and to wish wasn’t there, but very little that riles me. Paul’s letter to his friend Philemon, however, just plain pisses me off.
Paul has somehow encountered the runaway slave Onesimus while he, Paul, is imprisoned. Onesimus has become a follower of Christ like his owner, Paul’s friend Philemon, a leader of the Colossian church. Paul sends the slave back to his owner with this letter which can be interpreted as carrying a strong hint, but never actually saying, that Philemon should manumit Onesimus.
It is maddening that Paul apparently does not view slavery as incompatible with Christianity. Not once in this letter does Paul condemn slavery either in general or as it specifically applies to Onesimus. He does not try to persuade Philemon that Onesimus, “a beloved brother . . . in the Lord,” is deserving of his freedom. In failing to do so, Paul gives tacit approval to the economic institution of slavery.
He had done so before. In his first letter to the church in Corinth he wrote:
Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. (1 Cor. 7:20-22)
Now I know that Paul expected the parousia to happen at almost any moment so staying in slavery, or in marriage, or in a single state, or whatever was not a big deal. And I know that in the Corinthian letter Paul was using slavery more as a metaphor or as an example to make a theological point. But . . . this text and especially the letter to Philemon were used for so long to justify the institution of slavery, the very idea that one human being owning another as a piece of property, was acceptable before God . . . and it just pisses me off that Paul didn’t demand of Philemon that he set Onesimus free. Every time I read the letter to Philemon I get angry!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.