Paul’s Slave Mentality

So this week, I’m back to try to convince you to take a look at classicist Sarah Ruden‘s new book Paul Among the People:The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his Own Time. I rarely plug a book this much and that should say something about how informative and thoughtful I think this book is. Rob Dreher at Beliefnet calls Ruden a “joyful iconoclast.” And that she is. She takes on three of the major iconic objections to the morality of Christianity –homosexuality, slavery, and the treatment of women– and dispels the myths surrounding the angst that has been leveled at Paul. That Christianity supported or at least turned a blind eye to slavery is not as common a salvo as it has been in the past. But its still there, lurking in the background. Did Christianity support slavery? The evidence can be damning. The early church fathers stopped short of denouncing slavery. In the US new denominations were created over the slavery issue prior to the civil war with Christians divided on the morality of slavery. Here’s a sermon from 1838 entitled “Slavery” quoted in Ruden’s book:

The epistle to Philemon was written by Paul, while a prisoner at Rome. Philemon was a slave-holder, residing at Colosse. Onesimus, a fugitive slave belonging to Philemon, was converted to the Christian religion at Rome, under the ministry of Paul. The epistle sends him back to Colosse, with a letter to his owner; in which he entreats Philemon not to punish Onesimus with severity, but to treat him in future as a reformed and faithful slave . . . Paul did not suggest to Philemon the duty of emancipating Onesimus, but encouraged him to restore the slave to his former condition, with the hope that, acting under the influence of the holy principles of Christianity, he would in future serve his master, “not with eye service,” as formerly, “but in singleness of heart, fearing God.

Ironically Paul’s letter to Philemon was used by pro-slavery and abolitionists alike to support their cause. Church father, St. John Chrysostom pointed to Philemon as evidence that the church could not completely condemn slavery. After all, didn’t Paul send runaway slave Onesimus back to his master and instruct Philemon to take him back and not to engage in the usual abuse reserved for runaway slaves? Is this proof that Paul supported slavery? Wouldn’t it have been better if Paul had used his authority as an apostle to condemn slavery and command Philemon to set his slaves free?

Maybe not. Ruden begins her deconstruction of the slavery myth by pointing out what Onesimus was. He not just a slave but a runaway slave which seems to have been worse than being a prostitute:

The most subhuman slave was the runaway; his only ties to society had been the uses that real people could make of him, and he now forfeited these ties. He was a little like a raped or adulterous woman, but unlike her he bore all of the loathing and fury, in this case the extreme loathing and fury that come when absolute privilege is disappointed. As a rule, a runaway was simply a lost cause: a far-out outlaw as long as he could sustain it, and a tortured animal or a carcass when caught.

Does sending Onesimus back sound so bad? Would we really want Paul to advocate this sort of status for anyone? Well, you say, perhaps Onesimus could have been sheltered by the church. Ruden has a reply for this as well:

we have to picture Onesimus’s options in the real world, as Paul would have pictured them if at any point he considered simply telling Philemon to set the slave free. How would Onesimus have survived? Certainly at this period, the church had no formal, salaried posts. And anyway, who would have accepted as a church authority someone who had once been a runaway slave? To survive on his own, did he have trade skills, or savings to set up a business? Day laborers tended to be half-starved wretches, losing competitors with slaves. If he were to become a client freedman, would he have had any advantages over a well-treated slave? And anyway, a client dealt on his patron’s behalf in public. How could a former runaway do this?

Seen in this light, Paul’s admonition that Philemon to take Onesimus back into his household was a kindness. To receive him back without the customary whipping was a call for not only mercy, but given Philemon’s position in society, grace as well. However, to receive him back as a brother in Christ, now that was revolutionary. Ruden points out that Paul didn’t just want to restore Onesimus as a slave but to transform him into a human being through the gospel:

Paul had a much more ambitious plan than making Onesimus legally free. He wanted to make him into a human being, and he had a paradigm. As God chose and loved and guided the Israelites, he had now chosen and loved and could guide everyone. The grace of God could make what was subhuman into what was more than human. It was just a question of knowing it and letting it happen. The way Paul makes the point in his letter to Philemon is beyond ingenious. He equates Onesimus with a son and a brother. He turns what Greco-Roman society saw as the fundamental, insurmountable differences between a slave and his master into an immense joke.

And this is where things get really wild. Paul doesn’t condone Onesimus’ slavery. He advocates an entirely new status for Onesimus. He

I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment (Philemon 10)

Paul calls Onesimus his child. Big deal. We are used to fatherly churchy types calling new Christian “children” and “my son” aren’t we? But Ruden makes a big deal out of Paul’s pronouncement: “On this topic, I can let ’er rip. If you want one word to define social organization, religion, and values in general for the Greeks and Romans, you can’t do better than “fatherhood.” For the Roman world, “Father” was a title of immense significance. Even adopted children were not referred to in this manner. Likewise Paul turns Onesimus into Philemon’s brother as well:

For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 16)

You want revolutionary? How about this, Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus is his brother not only in the Lord but in the flesh. What Roman law wouldn’t even allow, what Greco-Roman culture would never do, Paul asserts has been done by God. Forget protest against a slave culture this is, from the Roman point of view, a protest against nature. Ruden sums up the absurdity of what Paul was saying:

Imagine, in this tradition, a prisoner writing on behalf of a runaway slave and perhaps a thief, who may have no personal merits whatsoever or may just now be starting to show some, and who could not normally find hope in anything but pleas for mercy on his behalf from a man of material power and influence with whom he has taken shelter. “Comic inversion” just doesn’t cover what is going on in this letter. In worldly terms, it is like a janitor throwing a party for his dog and inviting a federal judge. . .

The reason we struggle to understand how shocking Paul’s claims are, is because we don’t sanctify fatherhood and brotherhood anymore. For the Romans, father/son and brother/brother relationships were more sacred than any marriage. After all, the Gods were unfaithful to their spouses but Zeus was always father of the Gods. In fact, Christianity sanctified marriage to the same degree the Romans already thought the father and brother relationships were holy. Here’s Ruden again:

“Brother” could be a metaphor for other close and equal relationships, but Greeks and Romans never used the term to create a sense of closeness and equality out of division. Christians did, which at the start would have seemed bizarre. Imagine the impropriety of calling everybody at an open religious gathering “husbands and wives.” In fact, a rumor that did much damage to the early church was that the meetings of “brothers and sisters” involved incest.

For those who think Paul is soft on slavery, Ruden’s commentary leaves nothing to the imagination. Onesimus was as a runaway slave is worse than outlaw. He could not work, or beg, or live long in his condition. Paul doesn’t want him freed because, as Ruden explains, setting Onesimus free with no skills, no position in society, would be tantamount to abandoning him to the elements. Paul wants something much more, he wants Onesimus elevated not just to the position of a human being but to the position of a brother and son all through the Gospel’s ability to tear down any barriers:

. . . The punch line of the joke that is the letter to Philemon, the climax of this farce, is God. God alone has the power to make a runaway slave a son and brother, and in fact to make any mess work out for the good—not that anyone knows how, but it doesn’t matter. Philemon has only to surrender to the grace, peace, love, and faith the letter urges, and the miracle will happen. Paul seems to insist that it is happening even as he prays for it, and he is goofy with joy:

Again, no wonder Christianity was considered absurd and no wonder it grew so fast. Next time, I’ll tackle the objection that Paul was a misogynist.

 

 


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