[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 9/4/22, based on the letter of Paul to Philemon. It was not streamed or taped; hence, no video is available.]
They were Presbyterian pastors. Well-educated. Distinguished. Some of their writings were published. Some of those writings are still read in some circles today. James Henry Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney were their names. One was based in South Carolina and one in Virginia. There is one more thing about Thornwell and Dabney that I didn’t mention. They were slave-owners. They didn’t just employ Black workers, they owned them. And they defended owning other people as their right, a right they believed was supported by the Bible.
The New Testament letter to Philemon is all about a runaway slave named Onesimus. Slavery was widespread in the ancient world, and has remained a present reality. Ten of our first 12 presidents owned slaves. Some were on record as seeing slavery as wrong, but had trouble acting on those convictions. Slavery still exists in our world today. There are estimated to be somewhere from 35 to 45 million people today caught up in forms of human slavery, often in the way called human trafficking. Ways in which some people own other people and use them for their own economic advantage.
It’s Labor Day weekend, and we realize that slavery was and is an economic tool. Slavery provided cheap labor. In the American south, slavery was understood as an economic necessity, to plant and pick cotton. James Henry Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney were Presbyterian pastors—and slave-owners and defenders of the institution of slavery. Did Thornell and Dabney ever have twinges of conscience about owning slaves? Did they listen to people like Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman and Abe Lincoln?
We have a triangle here: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. The year is about 60 AD. Paul is in prison in Rome. Philemon is living in Colosse, in western Asia Minor, now Turkey. It is about 1300 miles from Colosse to Rome. Philemon is a leader in the local church, well respected and well to do. Paul knows Philemon and that church. Paul has had a significant role in Philemon’s faith journey. Onesimus is a slave belonging to Philemon, but has run away. When a slave runs away, they usually head for a large city, where they will not be noticed. Like New York City in our time. Like Rome in that time. In Rome, Onesimus gets arrested, probably for thievery and for looking like a runaway slave. He is thrown in a prison cell with Paul. Now it is dangerous to be thrown in a prison cell with this Paul. Paul tells his new cell mate about Jesus. Onesimus becomes a disciple of Jesus. In their new friendship, Onesimus tells Paul that he ran away from a man named Philemon in Colosse.
There is no question for Paul of what to do. He will write Philemon about welcoming back Onesimus and he will send Onesimus back to Philemon in Colosse. Paul will send a letter that will lay out in brief, what is the right thing to do. Paul will back it up with his own integrity and, if needed, with his own money. “On the basis of God’s love, do the right thing.”
Slavery was common in the ancient Roman Empire. About 10-15% of the population were in slavery, about 5,000,000 people. They had no rights. They were property. They were bought and sold in public markets. They were the ultimate cheap labor. And they were human beings. So, like Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass, some would take the risk of running away for freedom. Douglass did that 184 years ago this weekend. Wouldn’t you take the risk of escaping slavery for a shot at freedom? I would. Onesimus does. He escapes. He runs. And he gets caught in Rome.
We are still reading Paul’s letter to Philemon on behalf of a runaway former slave named Onesimus today. At the heart of Paul’s letter is this appeal: “Though I am more than bold enough in Christ to command you to do the right thing, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” On the basis of love. The word for love that Paul uses is agape, which is God’s love. On the basis of love, Paul pleads, do the right thing. On the basis of God’s love, Philemon, do the right thing. Take Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother, your brother in Christ. On the basis of God’s love, do the right thing. When facing any kind of moral dilemma, I can think of no better counsel that this: on the basis of God’s love, do the right thing.
James Henry Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney were not the only people that found ways to support slavery in the Bible. If one searches for a desired outcome, one can likely find some Bible verses supporting it. But if we look at the Bible as the story of God’s love for humankind, sending Jesus to save us, we find the Bible calling for setting free those in bondage. In Luke 4, Jesus begins his public ministry by opening the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and reading these words: “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 set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (vss. 18-19)
Jesus is bringing a new way. Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” These are not isolated verses that I have cherry-picked; they represent the great teachings of the Bible, to love God and love one’s neighbor, to care for the oppressed and those in greater need, to honor the image of God imbedded in every human being.
Working out these teachings is often two-fold: first, we care for those suffering, and, second, we work to remove the cause of the suffering. We need to be doing both. On the basis of God’s love, do the right thing. That leaves us with this question: Did Philemon do the right thing? We do not have a letter from Philemon to Paul, though one may have been written. But we still have the letter Paul wrote to Philemon. If Philemon had rejected it, do we think he would have preserved it? Never. He would have shredded it and thrown it in a fire pit.
We do, however, have a letter written about 50 years later, over 1900 years ago. It was written from an early church leader named Ignatius. He wrote it to the church in Ephesus, which is a little west of Colosse. He writes about their bishop, named Onesimus. He writes: “Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop.” Could the runaway slave have become a respected leader in the church? Yes. On the basis of God’s love, let us be people that do the right thing.
There are no slave owners here this morning. Not in the sense that Philemon once was. Or James Henry Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney. But we are people called to live out the Good News of Jesus in a world in which there is still human bondage. Are we letting that Good News work at the deepest levels in us? Forty-nine years and one week ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke from the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial, one of my favorite places in this country. His sermon/speech ended that day with these stirring words: “From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.’” On the basis of God’s love, let us stand against every form of human bondage, slavery, and oppression. On the basis of God’s love, let us be people that do the right thing.