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Philemon is an incredibly short book of the Bible just 25 verses. Paul tends to be long-winded but this one, either he wanted to get to the point or he wanted his point really clear. It is a personal letter between 2 people who know each other and possibly know each other really well
Paul writes this letter to Philemon To discuss the life and future of Onesimus, a slave in Philemon’s house.
Onesimus has been with Paul in prison, it’s not clear how Onesimus got there. Throughout time it’s been suggested that Onesimus was a slave who escaped and found his way to Paul–which will be an important interpretation later. But many suggest that Philemon sent one to assist Paul while he was in prison. It seems prison was different at the time or you could send someone to be a support and during that time together Paul and Juan became very close. Onesimus became like a son to Paul, so we assume Paul had been instrumental in Onesimus’ conversion. Paul tells Philemon that Philemon is a brother in Christ with his former slave, and that fact should ought to complications things
Do you remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books? The top of every page was part of the story and at the bottom, you’d have two choices and page numbers to turn to:
to enter the room turn to page 45 or continue down the hall, turn to page 53
to take the wooded path turn to page 26 or the road, page 32
to fight, page 57
or to flee, page 61.
Each decision led you to another part of the story and new decisions. Of course, often those decisions would lead to the story of your death. Honestly, I don’t think I ever survived one of those stories.
We don’t have an ending to this story in the text, we get to choose our own adventure. We get to be creative, we get to weigh the options, we get to write an ending of the story.
for Onesimus to run like Jonah in the other direction, turn to page 291
I’m sure it was tempting, whether he had been sent there or if he had run away and found Paul, I’m sure it was tempting to force his way to freedom. But would it be true liberation? Would he have a community, a church family like he found with Paul? Would he spend his life looking over his shoulder to see if Philemon’s men were coming after him?
for Onesimus to return to Philemon’s home, turn to page 304
And this is the interesting choice! It depends on Philemon decisions. Will he return Onesimus to life he had known before? Will Onesimus will receive special privileges that aren’t afforded the other slaves in Philemon’s household? Will Onesimus be treated like a brother? Will this letter change how Philemon sees the world, labor, economy, people?
There’s a lot of difference between ancient slavery and In mostly Southern States of the 17th 18th and 19th centuries. Race wasn’t a construct that had been created yet so slavery wasn’t based on race. There were children born into slavery, people captured in war, individuals who were sold or self-sold into slavery and infants abandoned at birth. https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/nero-man-behind-myth/slavery-ancient-rome#:~:text=Under%20Roman%20law%2C%20enslaved%20people,from%20texts%20written%20by%20masters. Some suggest that in the ancient Roman world, 30-40% of the population were slaves, so they were clearly an economic driving force in the Roman economy and lifestyles. There were systems in place that required a growing number of slaves, that kept people enslaved, that made it difficult for them to be given freedom.
Slavery tends to mean that the enslaved person can’t own property, in fact, they are property of the master.
Vital to slavery, to the denial of liberty and freedom of all kinds, is seeing the enslaved person as not human, as less than fully human, as a non-person, a product, a tool, dispensable. It is true now, it was true then. And Paul is asking Philemon to see that Onesimus is a brother, not a slave, not an outsider, as property, as a cog in the economic machine, but a member of the family of Christ and, therefore, a member of Philemon’s family and that was revolutionary.
The Letter to Philemon was used by slaver owners, preachers, and nice church folks to justify slavery in the United States “Do you see what Paul did? He sent that slave back so you ought to do the same! And Paul didn’t condemn slavery! He just thought the slaves should follow Jesus.” And we all take our opinions to the Bible as if it is all your choose your own adventure, and if you are looking for something, you surely will find it there. But they really missed the point.
No, in this letter Paul doesn’t rail against slavery but he does ask one person to look in the face of one he had seen as useless and less than and see the face of Christ,
to see in the face of a slave his own brother and if that isn’t upending systems of slavery and oppression!
By seeing Christ, and yourself, and your family in the face of someone who is seen as less-than, who is seen as useless, who is seen as the other that is how oppressive systems begin to be dismantled.
It takes an open-ness, a creativity, a vision of the world as God intended to vision and see and create the world where everyone is seen as a beloved Child of God, to see the world as it could be and to fight to bring that world into existence, to tell a new story of restoring of humanity, dignity, and justice.
Where there is oppression, there are abolitionists. There are modern slaves, people who are trafficked for sex or labor, often children, for cheap products we don’t think twice about most days. Tomorrow is Juneteenth-the celebration of the end of slavery in the US, the day the last of the enslaved folks in the south were liberated from their bonds.
But, at the end of US slavery, there began a new way, a new system of oppression and slavery. While slavery was ended in the US with the 13th amendment, involuntary servitude as punishment for a convicted crime… totally legal, and thus the prison industrial complex was born. In Wisconsin, there are whole industries that are supported by prison labor.
BCE agriculture operations includes two farms and one dairy processing plant. All agriculture operations are located in/near Waupun and Oregon. Our primary crops are alfalfa, corn, soybeans and wheat. Our dairy produces milk, ice cream and sherbet.
BCE industries include the following:
- Wood Fabrication
- Metal Fabrication
- Metal Stamping
- Custom Signs
- Sign Hydro-stripping
- Road & Trail Signs
- Textiles / Embroidery
- Durable Medical Equipment (DME)
- Product Development Center and Design (PDC)
- Laundry & Linen Rental Services
and those prisoners are paid 5cents- 45cents an hour. The cost of deodorant in the prisons is $1.48 so it would be 4 to 30 hours of work to buy just that basic, living with other people necessity. https://wisconsinprisonvoices.org/prison-price-calculator/
And, our prison systems has been populated with persons of color who have seen a decline in urban industry, decline in public education, limited access to recourses. And lest we forget, there are increasing numbers of private prisons making the human beings inside them the product.
The prison abolition movement is a movement of dignity and community. Prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has spent 30 years advocating for the end of the prison industrial complex. When talking to a group of young people, they had questions: what happens to the people who hurt others, she responded “I get where you’re coming from,” she said. “But how about this: Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don’t we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?” She was asking them to consider why, as a society, we would choose to model cruelty and vengeance.
As she spoke, she felt the kids icing her out, as if she were a new teacher who had come to proffer some bogus argument and tell them it was for their own good. But Gilmore pressed on, determined. She told them that in Spain, where it’s really quite rare for one person to kill another, the average time you might serve for murdering someone is seven years.
“What? Seven years!” The kids were in such disbelief about a seven-year sentence for murder that they relaxed a little bit. They could be outraged about that, instead of about Gilmore’s ideas.
Gilmore told them that in the unusual event that someone in Spain thinks he is going to solve a problem by killing another person, the response is that the person loses seven years of his life to think about what he has done, and to figure out how to live when released. “What this policy tells me,” she said, “is that where life is precious, life is precious.” Which is to say, she went on, in Spain people have decided that life has enough value that they are not going to behave in a punitive and violent and life-annihilating way toward people who hurt people. “And what this demonstrates is that for people trying to solve their everyday problems, behaving in a violent and life-annihilating way is not a solution.”
Legal scholar and author James Forman Jr.“What I love about abolition is the idea that you imagine a world without prisons, and then you work to try to build that world.” “I feel like a movement to end mass incarceration and replace it with a system that actually restores and protects communities will never succeed without abolitionists. Because people will make compromises and sacrifices, and they’ll lose the vision. They’ll start to think things are huge victories, when they’re tiny. And so, to me, abolition is essential.”
Telling a new story of the world, of communities, of abundant and whole living. While the scripture doesn’t tell us what happened with Philemon and Onesimus, Christian tradition holds that Onesimus was appointed Bishop, the leader of the leaders of the church in Ephesus, one of the cities Paul had previously visited and established a church.
Something happened when Onesimus return there was a re-storying of who he was, of his full humanity, of his child of God-ness, of his sibling in Christ-ness that established a life for Onesimus to flourish, and to care for the lives of others, committing to the full humanity, child of God, sibling in Christ-ness of all others.
That is the work we are called to: to see the full humanity in each others’ lives, to see the Christ in each others’ faces, to vision a just world of liberation, community, support, where we do the work of restoration, to re-story our world, to tell a new story of who we are and who we want to be. to set the world right.