Prior to these reflections, I knew Philemon could be read as meaning that Paul sent an errant Onesimus back to face his master and the consequences of his actions. But, the more you understand this letter, the less such readings make sense. And, while I was also aware that the letter to Philemon has historically been coopted as a justification for slavery, I wasn’t prepared for just how contemporary such views are.
Philemon and his church were good believers. And they were kind. But they had a blindspot when it came to class and/or race. They didn’t know who Onesimus really was. They didn’t know a) how intrinsically valuable he is just because he was made in the image of God or b) who He had become in Christ. Now Paul begins to show them:
Having begun by re-reading Philemon in light of its protagonist Onesimus, the reflections continue using the three sons typology of Luke 15 as an interpretative tool.
These reflections on Onesimus and the letter to Philemon came about after I was asked to speak on the subject as part of a discipleship and outreach series. After an initial reading, I had a sense of what God wanted to say through the text. But in order to be prepared, I read the short letter to Philemon in German, Greek and eight different English translations. Several things struck me while reading and re-reading the text – not least that Paul and Philemon get most of the attention when actually Onesimus should be at the centre.
I don’t consider myself pedantic, but I want to take issue with overly simplistic readings of a very simple phrase. Many White Christians have taken a particularly keen interest in the statement “black lives matter”. More often than not this is to distinguish themselves from the Black Lives Matter organisations and its alleged Marxists beliefs. Regularly such wariness is accompanied by statements like “all lives matter” and “white lives matter”. Other accompanying statements include the refusal to “bow the knee to anyone but Christ”, a misguided notion which deserves its own post.
Contrary to the belief of some, taking a knee is not idolatry and is not in contradiction to any teaching of Christ. Indeed, taking a knee is a more Christian statement than refusing to. For all my misguided White and/or Christian brothers and sisters, here’s why:
In the first post, I introduced the reasons why British people in general (which includes me in particular) cannot be passive in the face of racism and the systemic effects of racism. For me, the fact that a distant relative was directly involved in the slave trade and went as far as claiming compensation for the slaves he “lost” when liberation was forced upon him by a change in the law, means confrontation is unavoidable. Because this compensation scheme was paid for by all our taxes until 2015 means none of us can avoid this.
The above image is a 19th-century map of Jamaica superimposed onto google maps. The dots are slave-holding estates. One was owned by Abraham Anthony who kept between four and 16 slaves on his unnamed estate in St Catherines, Jamaica. Someone who shared my surname, and is therefore a very distant relative, profited from racism. Any latent hopes that I could separate myself from the wrongs of our colonial past evaporated with that fact. But to what extent can any British people avoid responsibility for such crimes?
With hindsight, I can see the subtle ways in which Vashti has been downtrodden in common readings of scripture. However, I have also read some shockingly ill-considered views from both men and women. What both the subtle and the blatant have in common is that they seek to pitch Vashti against Esther as if the point of the book is to correct all the women inside and outside the text. This kind of approach is hugely problematic (and sexist), but arguably its worst fruit is when it is repeated in the pulpit and propagated by preachers, continuing the diffusion of these errors into the wider consciousness. That’s why I have become less and less tolerant of such views.
Vashti’s refusal of the king’s command is arguably the climax of the opening of the book of Esther. Indeed, it was so revolutionary in the context that the king didn’t know how to respond. So, he did something that he does throughout the book of Esther. He relied on the wisdom of others.