Philemon 1:21

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 1

Luke 14: 25-33

Steve Hammer

Last month, there was an observance of a most dubious event: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship to the colony of Virginia. To be perfectly accurate, 1619 was not the first appearance of African slaves in the colonies that became the United States and it might be missing the point to make too much of a specific date. What we do know is that the country became deeply divided about slavery leading to a war of unmatched cost and carnage. The issue of slavery was particularly challenging to people of faith.

The constitution of the Confederate States invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God,” and Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaimed that slavery was “established by decree of almighty God” and sanctioned by the bible. Some cited keeping families together and changing laws that forbade slaves from learning to read so that they could read the bible as a way of establishing “Christian slavery.”

Eliza Fain of Tennessee, whose husband and three sons enlisted in the Confederate army, wrote in her diary that the war was between those who were faithful to God and those who had abandoned God. As her own slaves fled for the north, she lamented the loss of the “sacred relationship” between master and slave. When the war ended, she could not understand how God would permit the end of slavery when the bible so clearly justified it.

In his personal letter to Philemon, a leader of a Christian community in Colossae, Paul reported that Philemon’s slave Onesimus had come to him while he and Timothy were being held in a prison either in Caesarea or Rome. Because Paul sent Onesimus back to his master, Philemon was often cited along with other texts as biblical and divine approval of slavery.

There is no doubt that slavery was an integral part of the fabric of Paul’s time. It is estimated that as many as one third of the population of the Empire were slaves. And while Paul did not explicitly call for abolition in his letter, he does encourage Philemon no longer see Onesimus as a slave but as “a beloved brother.” There was something about becoming a follower of Jesus that removed the social, cultural, economic and religious boundaries that so easily divided the world into us and them. God’s people cannot possibly become the Body of Christ if one part has ownership of another.

No, Eliza Fain, Paul did not explicitly condemn slavery, nor did he demand that Philemon free Onesimus. Instead, he asked Philemon to take up his cross and follow alongside his beloved brother.

The late James H. Come was Professor of Systematic Theology at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. Here is a quote from his book, “God of the Oppressed.”

“The scandal is that the gospel means liberation, that this liberation comes to the poor, and that it gives them the strength and the courage to break the conditions of servitude.”