Sunday, January 12, 2014


                     "They carried the word ‘brotherhood’ always in the mouth, while they founded terror regimes."
                                                                          - Hannah Arendt, Uber die Revolution, pp. 21; 318
“My theme is seduction, resistance, and the cultural consequences of both.”
That provocative opening line (p.1) of Henry Abelove’s monograph on John Wesley, The Evangelist of Desire, has always elicited from me a smile, as well as a healthy respect for its accurate prediction of the flow of his paper.
In a sense, Abelove’s salvo serves just as fittingly for the thematic intent of this current article, and in turn for the topic of the article itself: the biblical book of Philemon.
My working assumption is that Paul’s quietly subversive letter to Philemon--partly because its “theme is seduction, resistance, and the cultural consequences of both” --may well be the interpretive key and even  kerygma-in-microcosm  of the entire Pauline corpus, theology and worldview.
I do not view this claim as hyperbolic  hubris; though I certainly concede that it is quite a supposition for a book that  for most Christians is barely acknowledged and rarely read; and per many scholars is not  sufficiently lengthy, meaty, or  “theological’ (!)  to merit such a distinguished and distinctive role in the canon.
 If churchgoers have heard anything about this shortest letter of the New Testament, it is likely the “radio orthodoxy” (Brian McLaren’s delightful phrase) view that it is “about” Philemon’s runaway slave, and Paul’s encouragement that Philemon forgive said slave.
That party line may be partly right…and in the end, largely wrong. 

If congregants have seriously studied the text beyond downloaded sermons and popular literature, they may have even run into Callahan’s alternative view (Callahan, 1997) that Philemon’s supposed slave Onesimus was not a slave at all, but literal brother to Philemon.
That take may be half-right; perhaps even dead wrong.
Philemon:  Key and Keynote
Though it sounds counterintuitive to proffer that this tiny epistle holds the veritable key to all of Paul (among the more “obvious” candidates are the majestic narrative of Romans or the comprehensive compendium that is Ephesians), I am at least in good company:  F.F. Bruce (1983), Marcus Bath (2000), and N.T. Wright (2013), to varying degrees and from differing angles, unashamedly assert the same.
Philemon : A Tale of Two Brothers
Though it may appear contrarian and contrary to accepted logic to offer that this letter is actually about a call for two brothers-by-blood to reconcile,   there is no more obvious way to read verse 17 with grammatical and contextual integrity.  Some (Callahan et al) are convinced that in Philemon, the slavery is metaphorical (not the brotherhood, as almost universally assumed), and the brotherhood is literal (not the slavery, as usually assumed).  A surprisingly compelling case for this interpretation can be made; but more likely is the scenario that Philemon and Onesimus are both master/slave and brother/brother. Exegetes as astute as F.F .Bruce (not convinced) and Timothy Gombis (convinced) have weighed in here.

Philemon: Call to Manumission
Though it may feel a stretch for the historical milieu for Paul to be advocating release from slavery (manumission) for Onesimus, I make the case that Paul was prescient and prophetic enough to do just that…albeit between the lines… yet in a way clear and clamant for Philemon to decode and decide upon.

Forgiveness, Radford Reuther suggests (in Pinnock, p, 205) “is not simply a transaction between God and the individual soul that has come to recognize its sinfulness. Politically interpreted, forgiveness means concrete acts of repentance expressed through social struggle to overcome oppression and to create a more just world.” 

As for the “seduction, resistance, cultural consequences of both”?
Paul’s cruciform-shaped approach to leadership, status and power issues necessitates that any correspondence by him inevitably both incarnates (especially in a delightfully intentional choice of literary style  and rhetorical genre) and advocates (via a surprisingly subtle-sneaky  narrative arc) a radically Christocentric and stubbornly kenotic refusal to submit to the seduction of seeing a brother or sister in Christ (let alone sister or brother “in the flesh”) as “the other” or  in any way less important than self.    The cultural consequences--not just for ecclesiology, but for sociological issues such as slavery—are thus significant and sweeping.  “History,” as Walter Wink would have it, “belongs to the intercessors.” 
Bottom line, then?  What is Philemon “about”?
 Paul is writing to Philemon, about Philemon’s fugitive slave Onesimus, who is also  Philemon’s half brother;  he is arguing for unconditional restoration of Onesimus , which includes the “even more than I ask”  release from slavery.  This is all embedded with profound implications for subversion of empire and dismantling of ecclesiological hierarchy. 
In this series of articles, we shall eventually weave all these theses into a tapestry and “contexture” with we believe is faithful to an informed hermeneutic.  We begin with the initially confounding issue of Paul’s literary approach.

THE LITERARY APPROACH OF PAUL:  Humor, Holy Fool, Prosopeion, and ‘Paradigmatic I”
“I could command you, but I appeal to you ought of love”? 
“Any decision you make will be spontaneous and not forced”? 
“Oh, by the way, you owe me your would” 
Paul’s language and literary approach have been much maligned, yet little understood.  He has been read as being (at best) disingenuous and passive-aggressive, or (at worst) sycophantic and manipulative to a degree that borders on messianic complex.   I believe a third way unpacks the dilemma and makes salient sense of the intuitive embarrassment and discomfort we feel overhearing Paul’s appeal.   In a word: humor.   In several words: a mosaic (and not at all prosaic) humor based loosely (?) on the “holy fool”  tradition and rhetorical device of prosopeion; a holy humor laced liberally with a playful but profound twist of (almost) irony and mimetic self-reference.   All of this is of course at great risk, and presupposes a deep, abiding and adamantine trust between sender and recipient.
Is Paul being authoritarian to a fault, all the while claiming the opposite?   No, St. Paul is smarter…and not smarmier… than that.  He is more humble than he has been given credit for; and decidedly not proud of his own humility.  Per McLuhan, his medium masterfully matches—even equals and incarnates—his message.
On humor in Philemon, consider Marcus Barth:
In contrast to the doctrinal style of Romans;  the irony and sarcasm found in Galatians; to the apologetic, wailing, and aggressive passages of Second Corinthians; and to other idiosyncrasies of other letters, in Philemon the use of contrasts is a sign and means of underlying good humor. Humor is, according to Wilhelm Busch, where one laughs, “in spite of it," even in the face of grave situations.
 The mighty apostle of the omnipotent Lord Christ is a prisoner in Roman hands (w. 1, 9-10) and chooses the role of a beggar before Philemon (vv. 8-9). The child Onesimus was created by a father in chains (v. 10), who was, according to some versions of verse 9, an old man! A pun is made on the name Onesimus ("Useful") in verse 11. God's purpose in permitting separation was to establish eternal union (v. 15). Paul and Philemon are business partners, and Onesimus can substitute for Paul by being the third man in the association (v.17) Philemon is much deeper in debt to Paul than the apostle eventually is to the slave  owner (vv 18-19). Paul hopes confidentially that he will benefit from Philemon — not only materially but by finding rest for his troubled heart (v 20)..... Overflowing obedience is the sum of complete voluntariness (v. 21.) A man whose chances for quick release from prison were less than certain invites himself to a private home for the near future (v. 22).  All or at least a part of these elements can be considered, or are, humorous.
It is not certain whether Paul intended this impression, and whether Philemon was capable and willing to appreciate jokes pertaining to his relationship to Onesimus and to Paul. But together with other earliest hearers and readers of PHM, modern readers are by no means prevented from responding with a smile or a chuckle. The dreadfully serious issue of the slave Onesimus's future is treated  lightly — a fact that reminds of the role of slaves in Greek and Latin comedies. Obviously bitterness is neither the only nor the best way of reacting to grave issues. Indeed, Philemon has a hard choice to make, but the decision-making process is sweetened as much as possible — by humor. (Barth and Blanke, 2000, pp. 118-19)

Paul is acting (literally) oddly, but not obsequiously.  He is flirting with a not-quite full-blown  prosopeion, a technique which is definitely in his repertoire and arsenal (see especially Romans 7); it is deployed here even more covertly than the infamous “I know a man..” of 2 Corinthians 13.
His persuasive approach seems   inspired in part by the prophetic tradition’s use of “holy fool, “which Paul directly affirms in   1 Corinthians 4:10.  Later Christian history finds Eastern Orthodoxy creatively adopting this approach, in  yurodivy , "which is caused neither by mistake nor by feeble-mindedness, but is deliberate, irritating, even provocative.” (Ivanov, 2006, p. 211)  St. Francis was clearly another practitioner, as are Malamattiya Sufis.    I make the case that in postmodern pop culture, persons (and personas) such a Stephen Colbert (“Is he a conservative playing a liberal playing a conservative?)” and U2’s Bono (as Screwtape/MacPhisto) have taken up this torch in ways that are in fact helpful in confirming Paul’s modus in Philemon.  These may be all too easily be discounted as leitmotif-lite, but the remarkable theological sentience and skill of both Colbert and Bono betray a wise and profoundly Christian (hence Pauline) mechanism of adapting “holy foolishness.” 

Brian J. Dodd, at length:
Paul uses large blocks of material containing self-portrayal to ground or add weight to his argument (e.g. 1 Corinthians 9; Gal. 1-2; Phil 3)…Occasionally, Paul’s self-portrayal verges on self-praise, creating a social need to employ accepted literary techniques to mitigate the odium and offence of his self-discussion…While Paul often portrays himself as a technique of argumentation, it is striking that he nowhere transgresses the stigma against self-praise except where he also offsets its offence…
 Against the backdrop of Philemon’s watching community, Paul develops a distinction between commanding and appealing, a feature that is not distinctive to Philemon.  He exploits his right ‘in Christ’ to command (8) only in order to contrast it with his loving appeal (9-10), while crediting Philemon with the sense to  do what is good and right  (14) .

How then do we understand the ambivalence of Paul’s request, since he repeatedly appeals to Philemon’s volition so he may freely choose the right thing (8-9, 14, 17, 20), all the while allowing the undercurrent of his authority to flow freely (21-22)?  The answer may lie in his implied paradigmatic strategy in the letter.  That is, Paul’s ambivalence itself may exemplify the attitude he wants Philemon to adopt in his reshaped relationship with his slave: as Paul refuses to assert the authority he clearly possesses, Philemon is coached in the responsibilities of his newly reformed relationship with Onesimus.  Paul wants to gain Philemon’s consent so that he will freely do what is good, not by compulsion (v.14). By this example, the seed is sown for a new phase of the master’s relationship with his slave. Paul does not compel Philemon to act, thus patterning for him a new style of interaction with his slave-become-brother Onesimus…

...In Philemon, Paul exhibits self-restraint of his authority by explicitly refusing to command as he appeals to Philemon to forgo freely his grievance with Onesimus.  This display of Paul’s self-limitation of his authority is combined with an example of love and generosity to demonstrate paradigmatically the manner in which Philemon is to treat his slave-who-has-become-a-brother.  Though Philemon has the legal right to be harsh with Onesimus, Paul asks Philemon to grant Onesimus the same loving and generous treatment that he would extend to this elder missionary….Paul’s status as an elder and as Christ’s metaphorical prisoner affirms Paul’s authority in the community in the strongest terms, and his repeated emphasis on his imprisonment creates an emotional receptivity to his appeal as a captatio benevolentiae.  Whether or not Philemon would have or should have taken the letter as a suggestion he manumit Onesimus cannot be ascertained, but it may be implies by v. 21: ‘I am confident of your obedience to the things I write, knowing that you will do more than the things I  have asked.’

Thus, by the time of Philemon Paul’s rhetorical use of self-portrayal has blossomed into a full and intricate flower, and the paradigmatic aspects are difficult to extract from their intrinsic relationship with the other aspects of his nuanced epistolary persuasion.  Philemon is the apex of a literary style that is already evident on Paul’s earliest letter.  (Dodd,

Partial Bibliography
Abelove, Henry.   The Evangelist of Desire: John Wesley and the Methodists.  Palo Alto: Stanford, 1992.
Barth, Markus and Blanke, Helmut.  The Letter to Philemon (Eerdmans Critical Commentary).  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
Bruce, F.F. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (New International Commentary on the New Testament).  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.

Callahan, Allen Dwight. Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon (Nt in Context Commentaries) .  Bloomsbury: T and T Clark, 1997

Dodd , Brian J.  Paul's Paradigmatic "I": Personal Example as Literary Strategy (Library of New Testament Studies)   Sheffield: Sheffield Acadmic Press, 1999.

Pinnock, Sarah K., ed. The Theology of Dorothee Soelle.  Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 2003.

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