Radical Social Change: A Letter To Philemon
“Injustice: unfairness, unjust act, Unfair: not equitable or honest, not impartial or according to rules, society: organised and interdependent community, system and organisation of this” – The Australian Oxford Dictionary, Third Edition
The issue of social injustice* has always been one that is close to my heart. It’s something that I like to talk to my kids about often, to try to impress upon them just how fortunate they are in many aspects of their life. They live in a modern, western country and are possessors of freedoms and rights still not available to many other peoples of the world. My daughters, particularly, have liberties still not accessible to many other girls and women. And on the delicate subject of race, my children haven’t had to endure the criticism or racial bigotry experienced by those who clearly display the truth of their indigenous ancestry by the colour of their skin (and who have been and are still being treated unjustly because of it).
Historically, social injustice has often been tolerated or, even worse, promoted on the basis of prejudice and erroneously applied religious doctrine. Religious intolerance has fuelled many of this world’s wars and God has been made the “scapegoat” for much of what is the worst of humanity.
One only needs to look, for example, at the founding document of the devoutly Christian American nation, the Declaration of Independence, to see that what people say and what people do are often two quite different things.
The statement in the second paragraph, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” did not prelude American citizens from denying those same rights to thousands of men and women during the infamous period of slavery, based simply on the colour of their skin.
Mistreatment of slaves was further bolstered by their ignorant and prejudicial application of Bible passages. It took nearly 250 years for the official practice of human trafficking and slavery to be abolished in America and yet the affects of slavery are still felt and are at work today in many parts of America, and indeed the world.
Social injustice, however, is not just an American problem, or a historical problem. It’s a world problem, manifested in many different ways, and is still a very relevant conversation for modern times.
“Over and over again, in the history of the world, man has made life into chaos.” – Oswald Chambers
What Does God Have To Say About Social Injustice?
God, the creator of all, made all equal. The only difference commented on in Genesis, at the creation of humanity, was our genders – both uniquely special and individually reflective of God’s glory. We’re told throughout the Bible that God makes no distinction between people based on their social status (Jeremiah 22:3), their ethnicity (Acts 10: 34-35), or their gender (Galatians 3:28).
In fact, we’re told that God is just, fair, and completely impartial (Deuteronomy 10:17, Romans 2:11). He despises mistreatment, discrimination or prejudicial treatment:
“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” | Isaiah 1:17 (ESV)
“This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other” | Zechariah 7:9-10 (NIV)
“Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” | John 7:24 (NIV)
This impartiality is thrown into sharp relief against the story found in the letter to Philemon.
Philemon, squeezed between the epistle to Titus and the letter to the Hebrews, is often overlooked and under-read. But it is a truly astonishing and socially radical exposition of exactly how God views all men and women. It tackles the serious and often difficult shift in thinking that is required and shows that belief in and love of God must affect our relationships with others in positive ways and with complete impartiality.
Sometimes, these effects are profound and far-reaching, as in the case of Philemon.
Who Was Philemon?
Philemon was a wealthy, Christian slave owner, living in Colosse, a city which is now in modern Turkey. The area of Asia Minor was a huge melting pot of ethnicities and also one of the first areas to flourish with converts to the new religion of Christianity. Overlaying this was the fact that this area was part of the hugely expansive Roman Empire, at the height of its glory and, as such, was subject to Roman law and Roman customs.
In many cities in the Roman Empire, up to 30% of the population were slaves. They undertook the bulk of the work required to keep the empire running and were considered to be the legal property of their owners. There were some rules against cruelty, but we would recognise them as the equivalent of ‘animal rights’, certainly not as human rights. Owners, like Philemon, essentially had the right to treat slaves however they wanted.
Who Was Onesimus?
Typically, a slave would take on the religion of his or her master and Onesimus, the subject of the letter to Philemon, was one such slave. Having converted to Christianity, he then, at some point, fled his master’s household and travelled hundreds of miles to where Paul was, the heart of the empire itself, to Rome. Rome differed from Greek city-states in that freed slaves were allowed to become citizens and perhaps this was Onesimus’ objective in seeking out Rome.
The testimony of a slave could not be accepted in a Roman Court and they had no rights at all under the law. A master could punish a slave, however he wanted, and punishments included branding, scourging, torture or death. The punishment for a runaway slave was often branding in the forehead and the deliberate breaking of bones or joints.
This was Onesimus’ expected fate, under Roman law, and Philemon had every right, as a master and Roman citizen, to enforce such punishment.
Jesus Changes Our Culture
Paul’s letter, however, is full of warm entreaty on behalf of Onesimus. He reminds Philemon that God’s rule of love transcends any man-made law and that, in Jesus, both slave and master are equal. They are considered brothers, both children of a Heavenly Father. Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon, not as just a slave, but as family.
Paul tells Philemon to add any debt owed by Onesimus to his own account but, in fact, considers it a favour to be done for Jesus. Paul is more than confident of Philemon’s response and gives much emphasis to “this faith we hold in common…and that people recognise Christ in all of it”.
The remarkable transformative power of the Gospel spills from the words in this letter – showing the dramatic ripple effect a response to God has in our personal lives. It challenges everything we do, our belief systems and possibly even misplaced prejudices about others. It compels us to behave justly to others, with impartiality, even though the world around us might not be just or impartial. It compels us to do better and be better, simply because Jesus is.
The Gospel of Good News often causes radical upheaval in our own lives as it forces our practices and beliefs to fall into line with the ideals of a true, loving, and socially just God.
“He’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what GOD is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple. Do what is fair and just to your neighbour, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.” | Micah 6:8 (The Message)