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.