Black Readings of the Second Testament: Philemon and living in a Different City

A recent talk I gave at Belmont-Abbey College:

 In his recent book Cross-Shattered Christ white theologian Stanley Hauerwas from Duke Divinity School in Durham offers a series of meditations on the last words of Christ while on the cross.  In the introduction Hauerwas talks about the challenge of doing theology as so-called First World Christians.  Hauerwas offers an appropriate quote from the book Anglican Indentities written by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that insightfully describes our present situation as Christians in our talk about God, Jesus, and the Christian Faith while living in the heart of the empire named the United States. 

         The question for our day in how we do theology, according to Archbishop Williams, is “how a language of faith rooted in experiences and expressions of ‘extremity’ can be rendered in a bourgeois environment without self-serving drama.” Indeed.  How can a way of talking about the Christian faith that was originally born in the margins of first century Palestine be properly ‘rendered’ to Christians living in relative global privilege? 

         By extremity I assume Archbishop Williams is referring to the way the first Christians lived out their faith in the margins of the Romans Empire.  The word ‘extremity’ means: the outermost or farthest region or point.  In other words, how do we talk about God, Jesus, and the Faith in light of an original faith that was born on the outside, not in the center, not in the seats of power, but on the periphery, in the margins of society, in those spaces where post-colonial/post-modern theologians and philosophers call ‘subjugated knowledges’. 

In this space called North America Christians do have a ‘language of extremity’ and a way of talking about God deeply rooted in the margins.  There is God-talk rooted in extremity that can ‘talk’ to us and instruct us in the ways of the crucified insurrectionist named Jesus from Nazareth and the regime of God: the theology of the Black church.  The Black Church offers us an example of a faith born in the margins of the wilderness call North America.  A wilderness marred and twisted by white supremacy and many other forms of domination and idolatry. 

         In this brief talk I will be pointing out one revolutionary/subversive element of African-American ways of envisioning/doing church and its resonance with the story of the slave Onesimus in Paul’s letter titled Philemon.  This revolutionary/subversive element can be found within the ‘language of extremity’ often employed by both the first Christians and the Black church: the ecclesia (public assembly) of God as an alternative society to a society of domination and self-love.         

          The ecclesia/church in the imagination of the first Christians and in the Black church is what 4th century African bishop of Hippo, Augustine, described as the alternitas civitas (latin for: alternative city), an alternative city or community whose beliefs, practices, habits, values, economics, and politics seek to live out the two great commandments of Jesus: love God and love neighbor.   The alternitas civitas presents us with a different option and possibility of how one lives as a community and city.  In short, what we find in the early Christian communities and in the Black church is a summons and a calling to live as the Different City. 

We begin with Philemon.  Let us read it first. 

         A short letter with a meager 350 or so words.  While it is a short letter it is explosive in its implication for the first Christians.  Now, I do not plan to explore the debate surrounding authorship nor some of the debates among specialists within the world of textual criticism.  Also, I will give brief mention to the ways Philemon was used (and some ways still used) by racist North American Christians in maintaining the structures or system of white supremacy.  I simply want to focus on a few verses that echo the main theme of today’s presentation: the church as a Different City as compared to the City of Domination in both the early Christian and Black Christian imagination. 

         In Philemon Paul challenges a slaveholding Christian to see Onesimus as ‘more than a slave’.  Paul exhorts Philemon to see Onesimus as a ‘fellow brother in the Lord’.  For our purposes the key terms are ‘more than a slave’ and ‘brother in the Lord’.  What this points us to is how Paul understood the local ecclesia/churches he helped plant throughout the Roman Empire. 

         What has been a challenged for modern Christians, especial black Christians, is Paul’s ‘failure’ to denounce the institution of slavery deeply embedded in the Roman Empire’s political-economy.  Paul, in various places throughout the Second Testament, seems to affirm slavery by his apparent refusal to denounce the practice.  Such a reading of Paul had major currency in the church of white supremacist Christians during slavery.  The Bible, it seems, justified an inhuman institutional practice.  This is one way to read Paul in Philemon. This reading has been used by both white supremacist and skeptics of Paul.

            I submit that Paul has something else in mind when he wrote this letter.  The questions I usually throw at skeptics of Paul:

         1.  What should have Paul done to seek the abolition of slavery?

         2.  What would Paul appeal to in Roman politics?  There was no such thing as the Bill of Rights, Human Rights, Geneva Convention, nor any other language that suggested that humans should not be slaves. 

         3.  Rome was not a democracy.  Therefore Paul would have looked like a fool standing before the Roman senate requesting slavery’s end.  Especially when Roman senators profited heavily off of slavery.  Paul’s context did not lend itself to political organizing for a Civil Rights movement.  Paul would have experienced the fate of many dissident voices in the Roman Empire: crucifixion. 

         What is Paul up to?  Basically, the option for Paul was not to directly engage Rome.  Paul’s strategy was more revolutionary and subversive than that.  Paul’s strategy was to create small enclaves of Christians throughout the Roman Empire.  They would be local churches that lived a counter-cultural way of life.  A life that would be counter to the way of Empire or what Paul describes as the ‘course of this world’.  Paul would instruct his fellow Christians that they had died and rose with Christ in heavenly places.  That God had indeed transferred them from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God’s dear Son, Jesus Christ.  Paul’s role as an apostle was to plant alternative communities that would be microcosms of the kingdom of God throughout the Roman Empire.   

         For Paul, slavery was not an issue ‘out there’ in the world of Empire.  Slavery, for Paul would be a problem ‘in here’ among God’s people.  Hence, the reason why Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus is a slave according to the ‘world’ but in the Lord Onesimus is more than a slave.   Local churches were signposts of the kingdom of God.  They were microcosms of a living community of Christ followers that literally saw themselves building an alternative society in the midst of an already existing society, the Roman Empire.  In the Lord Onesimus is not a slave but according to the ‘world’ of the Roman political-economy he was. 

         This same dynamic existed at the beginning of the black church.  The black church became a microcosm of the kingdom of God.  A space where black folks could both resist white supremacy in myriad ways and also affirm their humanity or as the Bible calls it, the imago dei or image of God.  


10 thoughts on “Black Readings of the Second Testament: Philemon and living in a Different City

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  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts today. I wondered as I read about Paul’s missions to plant Different Cities within the pagan Roman Culture, if perhaps… today’s Christians shouldn’t strive to do the same thing. Christianity has always been about spiritual fruit, investing more of our time, talents and treasures into making disciples rather than changing our political or legal culture.

    My other thought was around the issue of culture. I have been discussing the writings of the early church father’s with a Messianic Christian, an Orthodox Christian and a Roman Catholic. I myself am Protestant and attend an Evangelical Free Church. I have thought about culture a lot in the context of this discussion. It seems that the “Christian culture” means more than just customs, liturgical calendars and diets. It seems that the culture of these Different Cities was more wrapped in what the people thought about Jesus, mankind…

    Anyway, thanks for stimulating my thinking. I have subscribed to your blog on bloglines.

  2. Alright. Anthony is back in the blogging saddle. Really enjoyed the post. I would love to hear how you envision this ecclesial identity being developed in the local congregation. Rock on

  3. maybe you should blog less and work more. Then, you could get your family out of the hood and away from ghetto birds.

  4. I really like your conception of the church as an alternative community, but I wonder if a truly intercultural would not be a better expression of this alternative than a black church. Of course, I know that a lot of supposedly “intercultural” churches have only white folks as leaders…But I still think, like Yoder, that a church that demonstrates the reconciliation of peoples would be a clear alternative to the world.
    Thank you for your very interesting blog,
    Steve Robitaille, Montreal, QC, Canada

  5. Steve,

    I agree that the ekklesia should give display ‘inter-culturally’ of Gods redemptive work in the world. In this case it would be along ethnic-racial lines. However, in North America black Christians had to create spaces both in response to white supremacy and as an affirmation of their own humanity or imago dei-ness. We both agree that intercultural is a part of the ‘telos’ or goal but before we have that conversation we have to discuss how white supremacy and other sinful realities continue to cause exclusion, segregation, and marginalization in the church and world. White supremacy, for the most part, was a major impetus for the social reality called the black church. North American Christianity has White supremacy as a part of its ecclesial DNA. Until we begin to recognize this beyond a surface reading then the hope of having a glimpse of true ‘intercultural’ worship will remain a distant hope.


  6. I enjoyed what you had to say Anthony! Thanks for being so hospitable to me at the Cohort meeting this month! See you in April.


  7. To God the Father, by all glory. It is good to see someone who is of great intellect and influence to make the genuine effort to preach a ‘pure’ Gospel.

    Whether or not you may ‘submit’ to the Messiah (Jesus the Christ) as your personal Lord and Savior, I don’t yet know; but what I do now know, is you, as did C.S.Lewis, make a great argument for Christ.

    Even as a child, I did not settle with the ideal that the Apostle Paul, was and advocate of slavery or hater of women. This commentary if you will on the Book of Philemon is powerful. It challenges the individual to see beyond class, culture, and personal rights as determined by the society in which that one would live. Your disclosure about Philemon leaves nothing covered. Those who hate, those who are bigots, those who are racists will do so knowing that they so it outside (extremeties) the love of Christ, who has set every man who enters into His body (the ecclesia) free, and free indeed.
    Paul understood that Onesimus was his brother and not his “junior brother.” The Gospel of Christ according to Paul, did not and does not promote kidnapping and forced enslavement, certainly not. This Gospel is compelling to bring us to be as Paul, a bond-servant, one who make the personal choice to submit and serve as an act of love and respect for the one being served.

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