A Letter to a Slave Owner
The week before Thanksgiving I was at the Evangelical Theological Society National meeting listening to the presentation of a paper exploring how pre-Civil War, southern theologians justified slavery on the cotton plantations of the old South that began with kidnapping in eastern Africa, the death of thousands in the suffocating hull of ships crossing the Atlantic, and selling off men, women, and children and dividing families at slave markets in New Orleans, Charleston, Louisville, and Natchez.
Was it legitimate to use the fact that Paul wrote a letter to Philemon, a master who owned a slave in the Roman world of the first century, to justify crimes and the denial that all of us are created in the image of God in the antebellum period of our history or to justify continued racism in 2020?
The use of the Bible to justify slavery before the Civil War and the use of the Bible to justify continued forms of racism in our own day challenges us not to pluck verses out of their context and then use them to legitimize contemporary social structures. People get hurt and sometimes killed when we don’t open ourselves to God’s point of view in his Word, carefully tracking his Story revealed in His Word. What does Paul’s letter to Philemon, a slave owner, reveal about God’ point of view toward masters and slaves?
Paul writes his letter to Philemon with a powerful purpose-- to change how he views his slave, Onesimus. In order to accomplish his purpose, he begins by stressing that Philemon is Paul’s much-loved brother and fellow worker. “to brother Philemon, our beloved brother and fellow worker…”
Paul reveals that the fundamental nature of relationship between believers in Jesus is profoundly altered at its core. We are now brothers based upon our dependence upon the blood of Jesus for our forgiveness and our new birth into God’s family rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. We work together in the cause of Christ not because we are in business together, but because we are family. And Paul will use this brother—brother, sister-sister, brother-sister relationship in Christ to move Philemon to relate to Onesimus on a totally different basis even in the first century when more than a third of the population in the Roman Empire from all different races were enslaved.
LORD, help me to see my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ even more as family in 2020. Help me not to just use the words of family relationship but to concretely act toward fellow believers as members of my family.
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