I first learned about the Grimke Sisters in Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel, The Invention of Wings. She tells a fictionalized version of Angelina and Sarah Grimke, sisters who grew up in the South and who, because of their faith, began to work against the institution of slavery. As a teenager Angelina taught Sunday School and thought it was appalling that the slaves had to hear the Gospel from others rather than reading it for themselves, so she began to teach her Sunday School kids how to read which was against the law. Later, after leaving the South and moving to Philadelphia, she and her sister began to speak out against slavery, going on a speaking tour that included 61 different cities and got the anti-slavery movement all riled up about whether women should be speaking in public! There were many other abolitionists, of course. What made the Grimke sisters so controversial, is that they were white Christian southern women appealing to white Christian southern women to stop going along with the institution of slavery. They even published a pamphlet specifically addressing people like their friends and neighbors back home, which was banned and burned in their own hometown.
And why was it banned? Because it was powerful. Because it appealed to people to see the people they had enslaved as people. They began with a simple question— would you want your children enslaved? And then went on to appeal to these slave owners to look upon their slaves as people— to see that what they had been brought up in was not the will of God. Their well thought out faith in Jesus made it impossible for them not to speak out against a way of living that they saw was so against God’s love and hope for all people.
This letter we have from Paul to Philemon, doesn’t go far enough in the minds of many people. Paul does not directly demand that Philemon free Onesimus. In fact, this letter was used, as were other parts of the BIble, to actually defend slavery, on the basis that Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. And yet, what Paul is doing, in this letter, is something radical. Paul is not condoning slavery— although truth be told, around 40% of the Roman world at that time was enslaved— Paul is encouraging Philemon, in all of the ways he knows how, to welcome Onesimus back— not as a slave, but as a brother. Like the Grimke Sisters, Paul is a Christian leader appealing to Philemon, another Christian leader, to reframe his life and see all of the relationships around him differently because of his faith in Christ. Paul calls Philemon brother at the beginning of the letter, reminding Philemon of the close relationship that the two of them have, and then as he makes his appeal to him, Paul also calls Onesimus brother; and then notes that he is like a father to Onesimus; and then calls him his own heart. This is not an offhand appeal. Paul states that Onesimus has changed— that once he was not useful but now he is useful (a fun play on words since his name means “useful,”) — and encourages Philemon to use his freedom to forgive Onesimus and call him brother. As one scholar put it, “The real problem is not Onesimus’ slavery, but Philemon’s freedom.”
Philemon is free to treat Onesimus however he wants to— he is the one in the seat of privilege. He is the one with the power. He is the one we would call free. And yet Paul sees all too clearly how easy it will be for Philemon to be enslaved to what is expected of him as a slave owner, rather than using the freedom he has been given in Christ to reorder his relationships.
Patricia had been seeing her therapist for six months when her therapist suggested she give up being afraid for four days. Patricia was stunned; then she was angry. “You clearly haven’t heard me!” she replied, “I can’t just give up being afraid!”
“I’ve noticed that you respond in fear to almost everything.” Her therapist told her. “Whenever someone has the same emotion to every circumstance, the feeling should be suspect. I think that perhaps you aren’t as afraid as you think you are. Try noticing when you are afraid, and see if it’s truly an authentic response.”
At first Patricia was astonished at just how many times she felt afraid in a day. 4-5 times during each day she noticed a feeling of fear and it began to depress her. But then she began to not just notice it, but reflect upon it. And what she found, is that she often wasn’t actually afraid. As she practiced this more and more she found that she actually could do many of the things that she thought she had been afraid of before— she could turn in work to her superiors and not be afraid that it was inferior. She could stand up to someone who was angry with her and respond in kindness rather than fear. She could respond to all kinds of situations and choose to not actually be afraid. As she reflected on this, she noted that it was her Mother who was the one who feared all of these things. Growing up, she had learned to respond in fear because her Mother’s number one priority was to be safe at all times. But that wasn’t her priority, and she hadn’t realized it until now. Later Patricia said, “When you live someone else’s fears; when you live someone else’s values; you may just end up living someone else’s life.” (This story is from My Grandfather’s Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Renen.)
Paul is appealing to Philemon to live the life he has gained in Christ— not to live out the values of his old life; or the fears of other slave holders; or the expectations of his culture; or the responses of a hurt pride. Paul is encouraging him to live out his own values now that he has Christ as the center of who he is— to be the leader he wants to be— to reorder his relationships now that he worships the Risen Lord.
Christ frees us from the ties that bind us— Christ frees us to see ourselves as we are— made in the image of God and wholly reliant on God’s grace. The power of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to be freed from unhealthy family system; from cultural systems that define for us who is important and who isn’t; Christ frees us from having to think in the same old ways— in modes of scarcity and helplessness and despair. But Jesus doesn’t free us from these things in order that we can pretend all is right with the world! We are freed up instead to join in the resistance; to join in this life of reordering our priorities, our lives, and our relationships so that everyone has a better chance of living a life of love and wholeness.
Last week at Annual Conference we had what are called Open Source Technology. Anyone could suggest a topic and then those topics were each given a table and people could go to the one they wanted to talk about. I ended up at a table about how we can provide space for healing in a fractured world and inevitably the elections came up. People wondered what we can do as Christians to create space for people to not have to polarize themselves or people around them— to instead be able to come together and talk about what’s happening in our world. And there were several people at the table who thought we couldn’t talk about it at all— that our faith and politics could not intersect. But I will tell you right here and now— if your faith is not informing how you are processing and responding to this election, than we as a church have failed you. I’m not going to stand up here and tell you who to vote for. But I will tell you this— we, as Methodists, have a LONG history— going back to our very founder of the faith, John Wesley, of being leaders in changing policies and laws and influencing government to care for the poor, to welcome the stranger, to be hospitable to refugees. When Jesus began his ministry in his own hometown, he proclaimed to the people, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then at the end of his ministry he said to his disciples, “Go and make disciples in all nations.”— in other words, teach people how to follow me to continue the ministry I have started.
As followers of Jesus, it is our job to bring good news to the poor.
As followers of Jesus, it is our job to proclaim release to the captives.
As followers of Jesus, it is our job to let the oppressed go free.
And so we have to work through the systems we have; and we have to work through systems that aren’t even created yet; and we have to work with the people right in front of our noses— our family, our friends, our neighbors that we do not know or like, the people that are oppressed and enslaved by the policies of our city and state.
We don’t know what happened to Onesimus. We never get to hear the letter back. But I’m hopeful that since we still have the letter, we do so either because the church preserved it in honor of a new relationship that was formed between Philemon and Onesimus; or we have it because Philemon was not able to make that change in his own heart and the church wanted to preserve Paul’s challenge to all of us to change as we need to change in order to live out the Gospel. To reorder our relationships— especially those in which we can use our privilege, our power, to extend Christ’s grace upon others as Christ always extends grace upon us.