Sunday, September 09, 2007

Off-the-cuff commentary on Philemon

As I said in a prior post, I am not putting my homilies for this weekend online, as they pertain to parish finances, and good or bad (some of both in both cases), that's not really for everyone's ears or eyes.

Well, as I listened to the readings at all six Masses, I had time to reflect on the second reading, from St. Paul's letter to Philemon. I wonder--did anyone hear anything in the homily yesterday or today address this letter?

It concerns Onesimus, a slave who ran away from Philemon. Verse 18 -- "And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me" -- may refer to a theft, although that's a guess.

Now, this raises a subject of interest to us: the institution of slavery, something that has been around for a very long time, and by the way, still happens, both under new guises and pretty much as it always did. One of the criticisms of Christianity, particularly at its inception, is that apparently, Christians didn't seem too bothered by slavery. This letter perhaps, but more, other passages in Scripture, referring to slaves being obedient to their masters "as to the Lord," are cited to buttress this point.

Well, a couple of things we might mention. While slavery is odious no matter what, we should realize the nature of its practice is varied widely over the millenia. We tend to think of the most cruel manifestations of it, particularly as was practiced in our own country, not realizing how differently it was practiced in other ages -- i.e., the ancients moderated it in ways moderns did not. Also, realize the great reason we are offended is that we have inherited a notion that all humanity have essential dignity and worth, and are most fundamentally equal in that regard, even if not equal in many others. We might ask, where did this notion come from? It came from the Bible, particularly from the New Testament, which nonetheless was not novel in this regard, but drew on the Old. More than that, it came from the Church--i.e., this message did not preach itself, it was spread as the Christian Faith spread.

It is worth noting that slavery faded as a social institution for many, many years, only to be brought back in the modern age--I mean, around the time of the great explorations by Europeans of Africa and the New World. One might wonder what changed--well, what changed at the waning of slavery was the gradual conversion of Europe. What changed again involved several things, but notable was this came in the wake of a Renaissance. "Renaissance" means rebirth--did you ever wonder what the coiners of that term thought was being born again in their midst? It wasn't Christianity, but the values and vision that preceded Christianity. It was about this time that individual nation-states began to come into their own. And, it was about this point that the shift of power between Church and state slid decisively -- and thus far irreversibly -- toward the state. It was the real beginning of the idea of the secular state.

Well, of course, most of us have been taught, in school, that the new "modern" ideas were great advances. And I am not suggesting there weren't great advances involved. Yet let's be clear, that it was in this context that the "great explorers" went out, decided to work together with slavers from Africa -- not Christian -- and create their own systems in the New World. The Church denounced them, and they--as well as their political patrons--said what politicians and their allies in the media, in academia, and in business (don't kid yourself, "embryonic stem-cell research" is big business!) say to this day: the Church should shut up and pray.

So, all this is to give context.

One more thing, of course, is that we wonder about why Paul and Peter and others did not call for abolition of slavery. We might recall that they did not have the great blessing we do, of the real ability to change our governments; or, for those in the world today who don't actually have the legal means to do so, still have the idea of doing so, because of the great spread of this idea. So we consider it very normal to talk about changing such things; where, in Paul's time, just how might someone make such changes? That was insurrection. They might be forgiven, I think, for not seeing that as particularly promising. In any case, our Lord did not establish the Church to be a political movement, yet its clear enough in the New Testament that it would, in time, have great political ramifications. The Sanhedrin and the Roman authority were able to see that; or else the Christians who presented the Gospels in that light, saw it.

So what's all this got to do with our text? Well, if you look at it closely, you can see this at work repeatedly.

Paul begins by making himself someone in bondage: "a prisoner," writing to Philemon, "our beloved co-worker." The tone of the letter suggests Philemon would view Paul with great deference--and here he makes himself a slave, like Onesimus! That might have been rather awkward for Philemon.

Then, Paul alludes to the authority he enjoys -- "to order" Philemon about -- an authority that can only be moral, it has no other teeth. So now who is the master? Paul repeats, he is a "prisoner." (NB: I am commenting on the entire letter, about half of which you heard at Mass.)

There are many clever turns of phrase throughout, so there is no question Paul is sending a clear message, but on the surface might seem rather meek. "I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary." At first blush, this might seem terribly deferential to a slave-holder; ah, but I can't believe it isn't a poke at the fact that Philemon uses force--on Onesimus!

So Paul says, have him back, "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord."

Now, we might hear the reference to Onesimus as a man as the revolutionary part, but not so--it was the reference to him as a "brother." Actually, this is not even as strong as Paul has been elsewhere, when he says we are no longer "slave nor free," and so forth, because all are made new, and one, in Christ.

What we refer to as "Western Civilization" (now supposedly so secular that the European Union can't bring itself to acknowledge its debt to Christianity!) is so suffused with these ideas that while many congratulate themselves on casting off the shackles of religious influence, they really have no idea. No one does: can we really imagine what the world would be like if everything that was a result of the spread of the Gospel were somehow extracted from our language, our institutions, our laws, our mores, our customs, our categories of thought? The idea of "universal human rights" sounds, and is offered as, thoroughly secular. But again, where did this idea come from?

Well, we have nothing to tell us how Philemon responded, but we do know what became of this idea, which Paul presented so forcefully in his many letters -- of all barriers broken down or made insignificant in Christ -- it changed the entire world.


the Joneses said...

We had a good sermon, but it focused on the Gospel - no mention of Philemon.

I was thinking as the lector read that if Philemon didn't free Onesimus, he was either brave or stupid - because Paul makes it pretty clear that that's what he expects to happen.

Sarada said...

I remember my New Testament professor saying that the only reason Philemon was in the Bible is that everyone knew it was written by Paul.

He also stressed that slavery under the Romans was very different from the kind in our recent history. Roman slavery was more what we could call indentured servanthood. Working for a set period of time, usually because of debt.