One of the readings set for Holy Communion today was part of Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is a short private letter, written from one individual to another some two-thousand years ago, but along with Paul’s other letters forms the most influential correspondence the world has ever known.
Philemon was a free born male, citizen of Colossae in Asia Minor. As such, he owned slaves. Slaves were the property of their masters. It was common practice in Philemon’s world for masters to rape both female slaves, and male slaves up to the age of puberty, as what was seen as an entirely natural expression of the order of things. Not simply a social order, but the order of the cosmos. The suppression of slaves was seen as a suppression of the chaos that threatened to overrun the world if left unchecked. Within the same understanding, it was common practice to publicly put runaway slaves to death, at times by nailing them to a cross and leaving them for the vultures to eat, alive. For free born, such practice was indeed a duty, for the benefit of all.
Paul writes to Philemon—who has, at some point, come to share Paul’s astonishing belief that the crucified Jesus was raised by God and proclaimed Son of God, and Saviour and Lord of all—concerning one of his slaves, who has run away. The young man does not even have a given name, only a generic slave name Onesimus, or Useful. He is used to being seen as utility, and has risked everything to gain some self-determination, even as a fugitive. Getting as far as the nearest bright lights, Ephesus, he comes into contact with Paul, who is under house arrest for his crazy beliefs. Now Paul asks him to return to his master, carrying two letters. One is a letter to the community of holy ones who assemble in Philemon’s home. The other is privately to Philemon himself.
Paul writes about what both he and Philemon know. That Philemon has not only the right but indeed the duty to have Onesimus put to death. To ensure that the cosmos continues. But Paul asks him, instead, not only to welcome Onesimus back into the household but to confer upon him the status of brother, of kin.
What Paul is asking, indeed commanding, is explosive. He is asking Philemon to put himself at odds with all the other free men of Colossae, for, if one breaks ranks and pardons a runaway slave, what is to stop any of their slaves running away? What is to prevent the collapse of the cosmos into chaos? The very end of the world as we know it?
That (it survives at all, and) we can read this letter and not see it as utterly revolutionary is testimony to its impact. That we do not assume it is acceptable to own people, to rape them, to publicly execute them—that, when the Church fails to live up to its own profession, as when priests abuse children, we see this as not only hypocrisy but as moral wickedness—is not because we are more civilised—the Greeks and Romans were civilised, were classical civilisation—but because we, in the Western world, are all profoundly Christian, even if we personally are not confessing Christians.