Sunday, September 8, 2013

Freeing the Slaves

Slavery goes back before written history. The earliest evidence for it is found in graves in Lower Egypt dating to 8000 BC. It was a near universal institution, especially in agricultural societies. As late as the beginning of the 19th century, 3 quarters of the earth's population were slaves and serfs. You could become a slave to pay off a debt, as punishment for as crime, because you were a prisoner of war, because you were abandoned at birth or because you were born to a slave.

In the famous Hammurabi Code the sentence for helping or harboring an escaped slave was death. But in Deuteronomy 23:15, 16 it says, “Do not return a slave to his master when he has escaped from his master to you. Let him live among you wherever he wants within your gates. Do not mistreat him.”

Slavery obviously predates the writing of the Bible. Its existence is accepted as a fact, yet the Bible does not see slaves as mere chattel but as human beings. Thus in ancient Israel they were able to own property, earn money and even buy themselves out of slavery. Those who sold themselves into slavery to repay a debt were released every 7 years and every Jubilee year. Slaves were treated as members of God's people and joined in the Sabbath rest. Biblical slavery was therefore unlike slavery in the US, because it was not necessarily involuntary, lifelong or based on race. The more humane treatment of slaves comes from the fact that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. God makes that history explicit in the places in which he commands them to treat their slaves fairly.

The Greeks however did not see slaves as anything other than property. To them slaves were part of the natural order; only citizens were considered human beings. By the time of the New Testament, the population of the Roman Empire, due largely to her wars, was made up of 25% slaves. The Romans did make slavery more humane. They realized that the more freedoms they allowed their slaves, the more productive they were. Nevertheless, an escaped slave had to be returned to his master. And the master was allowed to punish a runaway slave by beating, whipping, branding or even crucifying him.

Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor gentile, neither slave or free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” When Paul used the popular form of the Household Codes in his letters, he did, as was typical of the day, tell slaves to obey their masters. But he also reminded masters that that their slaves were their brothers and sisters in Christ and should be treated appropriately. And in 1 Corinthians 7:21, Paul told slaves that they should take advantage of opportunities to gain their freedom. But he meant lawfully. He did not support the anarchy that arose every time there was a slave revolt. The most famous is the Third Servile War, in which Spartacus led 120,000 slaves against the might of Roman. Like the previous slave rebellions this was unsuccessful and the 6000 survivors were crucified along the Appian Way. Violent uprisings did not lead to freedom or the abolition of slavery in the Roman Empire.

So Paul has a real problem on his hands when he found out that one of his most helpful coworkers in the ministry was a runaway slave, Onesimus. We are not sure how this discovery was made. Perhaps the return of Epaphras from Colosse triggered the disclosure. Legally, though, Paul must return him to his master. What made it more difficult was that Paul knew the owner: Philemon, a wealthy Christian who lets the Colossian church meet in his home. Paul wants to keep Onesimus in his ministry but can't, not without Philemon's consent. And it appears that Onesimus has stolen from his master, probably to finance his escape. Philemon would have every right to punish his slave severely and even have him killed. So Paul is faced with a real moral dilemma. The way he deals with it is a beautiful example of how to work for the right in a culture that is wrong.

Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon but with a letter. The contents of that letter, except for the last 3 verses, makes up our New Testament reading.

Paul introduces himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. He is probably writing while imprisoned in Rome. It is ironic that Paul, who has lost his freedom, is writing to secure the freedom of another man. And notice that Paul for once doesn't identify himself as an apostle. This is a personal letter. But by reminding Philemon of his imprisonment, Paul would probably elicit sympathy from him. And that's the right state of mind for his purpose.

Paul greets Philemon as a dear friend. He mentions Apphia, who may have been Philemon's wife. He also mentions Archippus, whom he calls a fellow soldier, and who is a partner in Paul's ministry in nearby Laodiccaea. It's possible that the 2 churches met together. Paul also sends greetings to the church that meets in Philemon's home. But it is obvious that Paul is speaking directly to Philemon throughout most of this letter.

Paul tells Philemon that he prays for him and thanks God for Philemon's love for fellow Christians and for his faith in Jesus. Paul prays that Philemon sees all the good that his sharing of his faith is doing. And his love gives Paul joy and encouragement since he sees how his fellow church members are being refreshed through Philemon.

Because of the greatness of Philemon's Christian love, Paul refrains from commanding him to do what what Paul thinks is his duty. Instead Paul will make his appeal on the basis of that same Christian love. Calling attention to his age and his status as a prisoner, Paul gets to the heart of the matter.

Paul is making an appeal for Onesimus, who has just delivered the letter and was probably waiting, rather nervously, as his master read it. Paul calls the slave his child. He obviously means that spiritually. Somehow Onesimus encountered Paul—perhaps he heard one of the apostle's associates preaching and because of his fervent faith was brought to Paul, who was under house arrest. Onesimus makes himself invaluable to Paul. He is growing in the faith. And then Onesimus' secret comes out. Either Epaphras recognized him or upon seeing Epaphras, Onesimus confesses. Either way, a man who has become like a son to Paul is now revealed as a fugitive who must be returned.

Paul tries to lighten the moment by making a play on words. Onesimus is a slave name. It means “useful.” So Paul says, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now indeed he is useful to you and to me.” A slave that runs away has relieved his master of his usefulness in a sense. But now, as a Christian worker, he is useful, certainly to Paul. But how is he useful to Philemon? Based on Paul later calling Philemon his partner, a business term but obviously in this context meant in the spiritual endeavor to spread the gospel, I think he is saying that Onesimus is useful as a fellow Christian who is doing God's work.

Paul says that sending Onesimus back is sending a piece of his heart. Again, he is indicating how important Onesimus is to Paul, reinforced by the mention of how he serves Paul during his imprisonment. And notice that Paul says that he regards the slave as serving “on your behalf.” In other words, Paul is saying “I give you credit for what Onesimus does for me.” He is his slave. But, of course, it makes it harder to punish a slave who is a credit to you.

Paul would like to keep Onesimus with him, working with him, but doesn't want to do so without Philemon's permission. Again Paul is not ordering Philemon to assign Onesimus to Paul's mission but giving him the opportunity to do so on his own.

Now the next verse makes it sound like Paul is giving Onesimus back for good, which would seem to contradict the idea that he wants Philemon to send the man back to Paul. But Paul says, literally “Perhaps for this reason he was separated [from you] for an hour, that you could [have] him eternally.” Notice the passive voice: “he was separated.” Didn't Onesimus do the separating? Or is Paul implying that God had a hand in this? Did he have a purpose in permitting Onesimus to escape, to find Paul, to become a Christian, to work in ministry under Paul? Perhaps.

The "for an hour" is obviously an idiom for “a short time.” But how could Philemon have the slave for eternity?

Paul says, “ 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.” Onesimus is now a brother in Christ to Philemon and he will be so for eternity. He is also Paul's brother in Christ. But how is he much more so to Philemon?

Paul writes, “If you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Paul first made Onesimus a stand-in for Philemon; now he is making Onesimus a stand-in for Paul! How can Philemon punish the slave if he is to treat him as he would Paul?

Of course, there is the matter of what Onesimus took when he escaped. Philemon has a right to restitution. Paul says if any thing was damaged or owed, Paul will repay it. He signs this IOU with his own hand. Paul is on the hook for whatever Onesimus took.

Then Paul writes, “I say nothing about your owing me you very self.” How can that be? Paul brought the gospel and through him Philemon learned about Jesus and God's grace and was saved. So Paul was instrumental in Philemon becoming a new creation, a new person in Christ. Onesimus owes a debt to Philemon but Philemon owes a bigger debt to Paul.

That is why Paul says, “Yes, brother, let me have some benefit from you in the Lord!” In other words, “How about I forgive the debt you owe me for your life in exchange for you forgiving Onesimus and giving him a new life?” Christianity is all about forgiveness. It is about second chances and new life. Paul is saying that Philemon can give Onesimus something that will be analogous to what Paul gave Philemon. He can show his fugitive slave the mercy and grace that Christ showed to Philemon when he was introduced to him by Paul. That love and faith found in Philemon for which Paul thanks God has a perfect opportunity for expression here. That is why Paul says, “Refresh my heart in Christ.” In other words, show me that Christian generosity I've heard so much about.

Our reading concludes “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” And what could be more than sending Onesimus back to Paul, on loan from Philemon? Freeing him. If he sends Onesimus back as a free man then Paul never has to worry about him being pulled back, such as when Philemon dies and his heir inherits his property which otherwise would include Onesimus. It would also validate what Paul wrote over and over in his letters to the churches: that there is no difference in Christ between slave or free. Philemon would be an example of a man going beyond human law and living by the law of love proclaimed by Christ.

Did Philemon actually free Onesimus? I am as confident that he did as Paul was confident that he would. This is a private letter. If Philemon refused, he could have destroyed the letter and no one would know. But he released it to the public. When Paul died and Paul's letters were treasured and churches were exchanging copies, the letter to Philemon was as well. Would Philemon let this happen if he had denied Paul's plea?

There is other evidence. Ignatius, a bishop and martyr of the early 2nd century, wrote to churches as he went to Rome and his death. He praises the Bishop of Ephesus, who succeeded Paul's protege, Timothy. And that bishop was named Onesimus. And when the letters of Paul were collected, it would be natural for Bishop Onesimus to make available the letter in which his spiritual father, the apostle Paul, pleaded for his freedom.

It became common for Christians in the Roman empire to free their slaves. It was Christians, like William Wilberforce in Britain and John Rankin in the US, who fought to repeal the slave trade and slavery itself. As of 1981, slavery was officially illegal in every country of the world. 

Yet it still exists. Poor parents sell their children to people who work them in factories in Asia or who have them harvest cocoa beans in Africa. Warlords kidnap children and make them into child soldiers. Girls in poor countries are enticed with offers of good jobs in the first world only to find themselves slaves in the sex trade. 800,000 human beings are trafficked across international borders every year. The crime of human trafficking generates $31.6 billion worldwide, coming in just after drug trafficking and tied with arms sales. 80% of the estimated 27 million modern slaves in the world are female and half are minors. 38% are commercially exploited for sex. And unlike drugs or guns, you can resell a human being for sex over and over again.

Last year I was invited to a presentation on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of children. I learned that Florida is the 3rd highest state for human trafficking. The average age a child enters the sex industry is 12 to 13 years old. 1/3 of the children who run away from home each year are recruited into prostitution and/or pornography within 48 hours. Child pornography is the fastest growing crime in the US, up by 2500% over the last 10 years. Meanwhile, a pimp with an average of 4 to 6 girls can make from $150,000 to $200,000 a year. Each girl has a quota of $500 to $1000 a day and must have sex with 10 to 15 men a day. That's thousands of men a year! 8 out of 12 child prostitutes have had an abortion. 78% acquire a sexually transmitted disease. 100,000 to 300,000 children in the US are at risk for Commercial Sexual Exploitation. Yet there are only 200 beds available for such victims in the entire nation! I came out of that presentation thinking, if there is a just God, there is a hell for those who participate in and perpetuate such things.

We however have tools that Paul did not. In our era, government and law enforcement agencies are dedicated to fighting such things. In addition, we have the power to vote and to petition our government and to publicize injustices and to fight them globally. We don't have to pussyfoot around the subject of slavery. We didn't inherit a society that was dependent on it. We can reject industries and businesses that are built on it, like companies that offer low priced clothes we know are made by children overseas. Or online classified ad sites such as that owned by the Village Voice which makes $17 million a year and whose personal ads serve as a major way for pimps to market underage prostitutes. We can donate to and join activist and support groups like or We can look for the signs of modern slaves, such as someone who is not free to come and go as he or she pleases, who is not allowed to speak for his or herself, who is unpaid, paid very little or only paid through tips, who has no control over his or her money, who owes his or her employer a huge debt, who works excessively long or unusual hours, who isn't allowed breaks, who shows signs of malnutrition, or mental, physical or sexual abuse, and who works or lives in a place with oddly high security measures.

Paul went against the culture by pushing for Onesimus' freedom. We too must go against a culture that sees pornography as consequence-free, prostitution as a victimless crime, and the exploitation of the defenseless as standard operating practice, and even good business. He sought to bring freedom, one person at a time. We have more resources and government-guaranteed free speech that he didn't. But like him we serve a God who liberates people, who hates oppression and exploitation, and whose son kicked off his ministry by quoting Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” And I have seen nothing that says we don't have the same mission today.

No comments:

Post a Comment