13 March 2014

Slavery, Grace, and Usefulness

Onesimus was a slave who, after robbing his master Philemon at Colosse, fled to Rome, where he met the apostle Paul.  Under his teaching, Onesimus converted to Christianity.  After some time - and probably after some very difficult one-on-one discussions of what Onesimus needed to do - Paul sent him back to his master.  That's right.  He didn't petition Philemon to release his former slave and pardon him.  Instead, he beseeched Philemon to receive his slave back, but to consider him as a “faithful and beloved brother” - as a fellow brother and worshipper of Jesus Christ.  "Onesimus" literally means "useful" or "beneficial," and Paul's advocation on the runaway slave's behalf was that - although he had previously been useless - he would now live up to his namesake by fully offering his services to Philemon's house.  Additionally, Paul also offered to pay Philemon the amount of what had been stolen and to personally bear any other wrong Onesimus had done.

This passage of Scripture doesn't get a lot of attention unless it's from high-minded humanists who point to Paul's apparent support of the slave trade as proof that the Bible is an immoral and socially inapplicable document.  However, to the contrary, this issue of slavery is beautifully tied up in the statement the book of Philemon makes on God's grace.

There is a very real danger that lurks in interpreting Scripture through a cultural lens.  Because of our nation's history, we have a cultural understanding of slavery as an evil and cruel establishment by which the rich prosper and the enslaved suffer unspeakable wrongs, and we would be correct to remember it such.  However, we need to understand biblical slavery through their culture - not ours.  By that, I mean we can't take a cursory read of this passage and immediately judge Paul's actions as unjust because he apparently supported the institution of slavery and we understand it as evil.

There are a number of reasons why.

First of all, the biblical type of bondservant-hood to which Onesimus was committed was a gracious institution.  Slavery was designed to provide employment and protection for the poor - so that an individual owing an insurmountable debt could pay it off by working for his debtor (without pay) for an allotted period of time.  The grim alternatives included going to jail (possibly for life), having to sell members of his own family to fulfill the debt, and begging on the streets, where the individual could contract disease, be physically and emotionally abused, or even robbed of what meager possessions he still called his own.  Obviously, the options weren't good either way, but although the slaving lifestyle wasn't necessarily desirable it did provide a way for debt-forgiveness.

Before you say, "But doesn't the Bible teach an overall message of forgiveness?" remember that it also teaches personal responsibility: owning of our mistakes, confessing our wrongs, righting broken relationships, and repaying our debts.  There is as much responsibility on the part of a debtor to repay what he owed as there is on the slave master to be kind to his servants.  That is was why a better word for "slave" in the Bible is "bondservant," literally a committed slave.  Of course it would be convenient for everyone who was owed a debt to forgive it without being paid.  But realistically, not everyone is in the financial position to simply say, "You don't owe me anymore" - then or now.  There were no government bailouts in the biblical era, and therefore slavery was a means by which unpayable debts were handled.

Additionally, Mosaic law contained all sorts of provisions for protecting Jewish slaves from unfair treatment.  For example, a slave permanently maimed by his or her master was to be freed (Ex 21.26–27).  A fugitive slave was not to be extradited (Deut 23.15–16).  Foreigners could be enslaved permanently (e.g. through war, debt, etc), but they had the right to circumcision (Ex 12.44–48), Sabbath rest (Ex 20.10), and holidays (Deut 16.11, 14).  A slave owner who beat his slave to death was to be punished (Ex 21.20–21).  Furthermore, the law included the Year of Jubilee, in which "every Israelite who had sold himself because of poverty and remained unredeemed was to be freed along with his children (Lev 25.39–46).  The Year of Jubilee prevented the Israelites from oppression of one another (Lev 25.17) and gave everyone a chance for a new start.

Was the system harsh?  The answer is undoubtedly yes.  However, it exists for the same reason God allowed the Israelites the right to divorce, even though He hates it: they were going to do it anyway, and so there had to be rules to protect the individuals involved.  Of course, each system was still abused, and that was why many of the New Testament epistles include admonitions to slave owners to treat their slaves with kindness, but the fact of the matter is that man has always lived by the adage "rules are made to be broken."  Good things become bad things very quickly when we have no regard for the laws governing them.

Furthermore, slavery is very much a precursor of the modern-day employee/employer relationship.  We are all slaves to one thing or another.  You are a slave to your mortgage or your job in the same way one Israelite was slave to another for owing a debt.  Perhaps we have the choice in the modern era to quit these types of responsibilities, but even if that seems liberating it is only to our own personal detriment.  Bankruptcy, going upside-down on a home, failing to pay our taxes - these are harmful to our credit and our finances, and can result in mountains of fines and even jail time.  There's really not that much of a difference between our modern institutions and those of Mosaic slavery, save in the terminology.  Not unlike slave masters were often cruel to those in their ownership, we too are demeaned by unfair bosses, often have no say over deadlines and projects, are tasked with jobs we dislike, and can't choose to quit without risking financial instability or irreparably damaging our career.  In the most basic terms, we have a financial need that we cannot meet, so we sell ourselves to unfavorable conditions in order to obtain means that will satisfy that need.  In sum, slavery.

All that being said, here's the picture of grace which Onesimus' story - and slavery in general for that matter - provides.

We were dead in our trespasses before Christ gave us new life and purpose.  We owed him everything - a debt we could never repay.  Yet instead of laboring faithfully, we ran away, choosing to live as enemies with no interest in correcting the animosity between us and God.  We thought we were running to freedom, but really we were enslaving ourselves to a cruel taskmaster: our own sinful desires.  But then Christ came, offering himself as the full payment which we owed, bringing us Jubilee and setting us free of our bondage if we will only return to Him and give Him ourselves in wholehearted service - not because a debt still needs paying, but because we owe Him our lives anew.  In the same manner, Paul returned Onesimus to Philemon as a brother, redeemed, paying the slave's debt on his own account.  Just as the runaway slave was restored to his master, so are we restored to being part of God's kingdom.  Onesimus returned to his master's house, this time voluntarily, choosing to serve Philemon as before - except now for entirely different reasons.

"I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment," Paul wrote to Philemon, who - by the way - was the a leader in a church body that met in his own house - the very congregation to which Onesimus was returning.  "Formerly, he was useless to you," Paul continued, "but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.  I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart."

We can get lost in arguments about social morality and why Paul would allow slavery to remain in Christian homes.  But that's not the point.  The point is that, despite our injustice, God remains faithful to us.  He meets us in our weakness and forgives us for robbing Him of our very hearts.  Now that we who believe have been redeemed - literally, "bought back" - we give our lives to Him in service.  Like Onesimus, we have become useful to Him through the stripes on the back of our Savior.