Months ago – around the time the Supreme Court unexpectedly dropped to eight members – somebody out there commented that it appears to be the final season of America. Not in the apocalyptic sense, but in the television sense. America in 2016 feels like a TV show in its final days, in which the producers are throwing in all kinds of unlikely and bizarre plot twists, that strain our suspension of disbelief and our capacity to care about what happens to the main characters, and have caused many folks to tune out entirely.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that our current national roller-coaster ride is in fact being created or manipulated by some shadowy interest group. But unlike most of the swirling conspiracy theories, the fatigue, confusion, and frustration many of us feel are very real. This is a tough time. A lot of issues feel polarized and charged right now – not only, but especially, around this year’s presidential election. People on both the left and the right feel conflicted about their own votes, and struggle with the uncomfortable fact that even people who share our convictions and hopes are considering casting their votes differently, in ways that could have huge consequences for our republic and our common good.
What I’m trying to say is that 2016 has been a heck of a year for arguing with strangers on the Internet. Right? Because we’re all anxious, and conflicted, and scared, so we get shouty; but we don’t want to get shouty with people we know, with co-workers or friends or family. The Internet seems like a safe outlet – but then the rage and poisonous hate-speech online becomes its own toxic feedback loop and spills back over into real life.
Into the midst of that, on this Sunday 64 days out from Election Day, comes the Letter to Philemon. Philemon is one of the shortest books in the Bible. It’s a letter, written by the apostle Paul – there’s a broad consensus that this really is Paul’s voice. Paul is writing from prison, during one of his several incarcerations. He’s writing to a man named Philemon, who was a wealthy church leader in the church in Colossae. Philemon hosted a church community in his home. Paul is writing to Philemon about Onesimus. Onesimus used to be Philemon’s slave. Slavery was very common in the ancient world. Onesimus was likely a household slave of some sort. His name is Greek – it means “useful”. That sounds like a name he was given by a master, rather than a parent.
Onesimus might have been born into slavery, or sold into slavery because of poverty or debts. He might have a native of the region, or he or his parents might have come from the edges of the empire as spoils of conquest – Africa, Germany, Britain. You can picture Onesimus with almost any color skin or hair. But picture him as a young man, because of the way he becomes like a son to Paul. And picture him as unhappy or angry in his slavery, unhappy or angry enough to run away, despite the fact that the punishment for runaway slaves could include anything from a severe beating to execution. We don’t know how Onesimus connected with Paul. Maybe he had had met Paul in the past, and sought him out; maybe Onesimus was captured and imprisoned, and met Paul there.
The situation Paul is writing about is unfamiliar to us. But what Paul is doing here is actually quite familiar. He is talking with a friend or acquaintance about an area of disagreement, on which they both feel strongly. Some of us dive into conversations like that on Facebook or email or in person, on a daily basis. Some of us avoid them entirely, but write whole volumes in our heads of what we *would* say if we did speak up. But we’re all familiar with this kind of writing and speaking. And Paul’s careful, wise work here might actually give us some encouragement for having those difficult but important conversations face to face, with people we know, instead of shouting at strangers on the Internet or holding our fearful and angry thoughts within, where they eat away at us until we disconnect or explode. So let’s look at what Paul does, step by step.
Step zero: He probably thought for a good long while about how to address this awkward situation. Consider how difficult and delicate this was for Paul: Onesimus has come to him, learned from him, become a Christian, and a dear friend, like a son to Paul, who never had biological children. BUT by right of law, Onesimus belongs to Philemon, a wealthy and influential church leader, who has every reason to punish Onesimus – and blame Paul. Onesimus probably really didn’t want to go back to Philemon. But for Paul to say to Onesimus, “Go on your way, forget your master, you are free in Christ now,” would burn bridges Paul can’t afford to burn – not only with Philemon but with any wealthy slave-owning person who might otherwise be sympathetic to the Christian faith. According to the ethics of his time and place, but also very much according to his pragmatic desire to build the Christian movement, Paul needs to make things right with Philemon somehow. But he also cares for Onesimus’ welfare and future.
Paul might have taken some counsel from today’s Gospel, in which Jesus says that following him fully may sometimes lead to strained or broken relationships. (As I said a couple of weeks ago: Niceness is a not a Christian virtue.) Jesus goes on to offer a couple of images: a person building a tower, a king going to war. In both cases, he says, it’s wise to go into the endeavor with a realistic idea of what it could actually cost you. Discipleship, living our lives as followers of Jesus, at certain moments can be a costly and demanding project. Paul, facing one such moment, undoubtedly took some time to calculate the risks and plan his approach.
When we’re facing conversation across differences, taking time to think and pray and plan, and reflect on the concerns and experiences we bring to the table, can be really helpful.
Step one: Paul engages with a friend – or at least an acquaintance whom he addresses as a friend. He undertakes this difficult conversation about the intersection of faith and life with someone to whom he’s already connected – not some stranger from the Internet, but a person who has some reason to listen and care what Paul thinks. And he begins – and ends – by affirming the relationship, alluding both to his friendship with Philemon and to the wider web of relationships that bind them together. Verses 1 through 3: “From Paul, who is a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy, to Philemon our dearly loved coworker, Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house. May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” And at the very end, verses 23 to 25: “Epaphras, who is in prison with me for the cause of Christ Jesus, greets you, as well as my coworkers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
When we’re facing conversation across differences, reminding ourselves that we’re connected by the bonds of friendship and community, and care about each other, can be really important.
Step two. Paul addresses Philemon on the basis of what they share, as followers of Jesus. In what Martin Luther once called “holy flattery,” Paul affirms their common framework, their shared hopes and commitments, and reminds Philemon of what a good Christian he is, before, during, and after talking about their awkward area of difference: Paul sees Onesimus as a beloved son, Philemon sees him as a runaway slave. Listen to Paul’s words as he reminds a wealthy man with a grievance of their shared faith in Jesus (verses 4 – 7): “Philemon, I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers because I’ve heard of your love and faithfulness, which you have both for the Lord Jesus and for all God’s people. I pray that your partnership in the faith might become effective by an understanding of all that is good among us in Christ. I have great joy and encouragement because of your love, since the hearts of God’s people are refreshed by your actions, my brother…”
And then a few verses later, when Paul comes to the big ask – that Philemon welcome, forgive, and free Onesimus – he again talks about the kinship in Christ that he, Philemon, and Onesimus share: “Onesimus is a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord.”
When we’re facing conversation across differences, grounding our conversation in the values and hopes we hold in common can help us stay connected even when we’re disagreeing, and keep our eyes on the bigger picture.
Step three. Paul is dealing here with a specific, concrete issue. I think it’s really important that we have some clarity on the ethics of the Kingdom of God, in which we are called to citizenship – big complicated holy demanding words like liberation, justice, mercy. But conversations across differences tend to be most fruitful when we can talk about something real and immediate. Elsewhere in his letters to the young churches, Paul gestures towards a position that slavery has no place among Christians – since we become a new community in Christ in which there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female (Gal 3:28). One imagines that that passage might really get Philemon’s hackles up.
Paul knows this isn’t the context for that kind of language. He doesn’t write to Philemon to say, “Listen, now that you’re a Christian, I think you should consider freeing all your slaves. It’s what Jesus would want.” Instead he writes to Philemon with a very specific request: Receive Onesimus back into your household as a brother in Christ. Listen to Paul’s appeal to Philemon. Notice how he plays up the fact that he’s old, and in prison; how he calls Onesimus “child,” “brother,” and “my own heart” – and the puns on Onesimus’ name (verses 11 – 16): “I, Paul—an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus— appeal to you for my child Onesimus. I became his father in the faith during my time in prison. He was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, which is like sending you my own heart…. Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother.”
Do I wish Paul had handled this differently? Sure! His tactful and deferential approach to the issue of slavery here helped Christians justify slavery for centuries. Both opponents and supporters of slavery appealed to this letter to support their positions during 18th and 19th century debates over slavery. I wish Paul had said more plainly what I believe he believed: that slavery was wrong, was a violation of the humanity of a child of God, a person for whom Christ died. Paul is compromising here, and it’s a compromise that we may, rightly, find unsatisfactory.
But Paul was trying to spread Christianity in a hostile world. He needed wealthy people to support the movement, for it to have chance to grow and spread. I’m sure he was anxious about alienating the wealthy, many of whom would have owned slaves. Having the elite classes decide that Christianity wasn’t for them, and was, in fact, rather troublesome, could have been terrible for the young churches.
You can look at Paul’s appeal to Philemon as letting temporal concerns constrain the truth of the Gospel. I think that’s a fair assessment. You can look at Paul’s appeal to Philemon as a strategic foot-in-the-door approach, based on a calculation that if Paul can get Philemon to follow the implications of his faith in this one instance, other ripple effects may follow. I think that’s a fair assessment too.
When we’re facing conversation across differences, it’s often helpful to focus on something specific and concrete, instead of hypotheticals or big abstract principals. Turns out the big abstract principals are embedded in the specific and the concrete, anyway. Focusing on the particular – a situation, a policy – gives us the best chance to have our facts straight – and not only our facts but also our thoughts and feelings. And the best chance to be able to understand the other’s perspective and perhaps come to a common understanding, even if we still ultimately draw different conclusions.
Step four. Paul trusts Philemon with the outcome of this conversation. This is a hard one for me: if I’m going to try to change someone’s mind, I want to succeed. But Paul leaves this decision in Philemon’s hands.
Paul is pushy in this letter, no question. He is quite clear about what he thinks Philemon should do. But he doesn’t threaten him or order him – in fact, he makes a point of asking instead of commanding (vs. 8-9): “Though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, I would rather appeal to you through love….” A few verses later he says that he considered just keeping Onesimus with him, but that he didn’t want to take the opportunity to make a righteous choice away from Philemon: “I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure.”
Now, “not under pressure” is a bit rich – Paul does pressure Philemon. He tells him how much he could gain by having Onesimus as a brother in Christ instead of a slave; he promises to pay back any money Onesimus owes to Philemon, whether from theft or the price of a slave’s freedom (verses 18-19) – and offers this little gem: “Of course, I won’t mention that you owe me your life.” And he hints that Philemon should expect Paul to visit soon, and see with his own eyes whether Philemon has received Onesimus in accordance with Paul’s hopes: “Also, one more thing—prepare a guest room for me.”
Paul is unabashed in asking Philemon to change his heart, to forgive and forget his grievance against Onesimus – in verses 20 – 21 he writes, “Yes, brother, I want this favor from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. I’m writing to you, confident of your obedience and knowing that you will do more than what I ask.”
Paul is pushy, here. But he puts the outcome in Philemon’s hands in a very real way: He sends this letter with Onesimus. Or rather – he sends Onesimus with this letter. Consider the alternative: he could have corresponded with Philemon first, keeping Onesimus with him until he knew how this would go. Until he had a promise of safe return for this young man he has come to love so dearly.
But he doesn’t do that. He says his piece, and he puts the whole matter in Philemon’s hands, entrusts it to Philemon’s conscience. Again, we might question Paul’s choice here – if the gambit had failed, Onesimus would have borne the greatest cost. But sending Onesimus with the letter, instead of writing first, seems like a strategic demonstration of confidence in Philemon. Paul is saying with his actions, I know you’re going to do the right thing.
And it worked. We know it worked, because we have the letter. This was private correspondence, unlike Paul’s other letters, written to be read aloud in a community setting. If Philemon hadn’t responded to Paul’s appeal, surely this letter would have just been burned or thrown away. Instead it was preserved by Philemon’s family and church, passed down until it became part of the canon of Scripture. I believe that could only have happened if Philemon did was Paul asked: welcomed Onesimus as a brother in Christ. Philemon must have shared the letter. And if he shared the letter, surely he shared it as part of explaining why he was going to free Onesimus, rather than punishing him.
While the letter gives us a glimpse of the story, with no clear ending, I believe grace triumphed here. I believe liberation, justice, and mercy were lived out, in this particular situation.
When we’re facing conversation across differences, it helps a lot to respect the intellect and conscience of the other person. It’s so easy to forget this – especially on the Internet, but in person too – but very few of us are actually monsters. Very few of the people who live and vote and think differently from you actually wake up in the morning with the intention to hurt people and ruin the world. Coming to those difficult conversations with curiosity about how that person came to see things the way they do, will get us a lot farther than assuming they’re simply wrongheaded and evil.
Trusting the other person’s intellect and conscience also means these conversations take time. It means letting your conversation partner think about it, giving them time and space to change. Trusting the other person’s intellect and conscience also means being open the possibility that I might have some thinking to do, and maybe even some changing to do, as well.
It’s not really the final season of America. I have too much faith in God, and in us, to believe that. But it’s a complicated, charged season in the life of our country, to be sure. Hard conversations across differences are always possible, and right now they feel probable, or even inevitable. And not just around the election and the candidates, but around all kinds of things. On my Facebook wall, they’re usually public schools and/or systemic racism. In church, we sometimes run into moments when people’s hopes and priorities differ, and have to be reconciled. On this Labor Day weekend I note our lively national conversation about a just and livable economy for working people. There’s lots to disagree about. We are passionate people!
I’m grateful for Paul’s voice in Philemon, in this season. For the reminder to think before I speak. To have real conversations with real people. To affirm what we share, even in disagreement. To stay focused, and to respect my conversation partner. And – but – above all, to have those necessary hard conversations, with faithfulness, humility, and courage.