Archive for the ‘Hierarchy’ Tag

Philemon, A Study in Hierarchy   Leave a comment

Content Note: Authority, Slavery, Passive Aggression


I was reading Slactivist the other day when I came across this post about the Biblical book of Philemon (I’ve reproduced the full text of Philemon at the bottom of this post). I like Slacktivist. He does good work. His deconstruction of the Left Behind series is, for me, the gold standard of internet deconstructions.

But I did not like the post.

Actually, my reaction to what the post was saying was so negative that I realized I didn’t like the book of Philemon, either. The post was revealing because it demonstrated in a more straightforward way the screwed up power dynamics that are present in Philemon. Which is actually kind of sad, since the story of Philemon and Onesimus is mostly a nice story.

Once upon a time, Philemon was a man and a Christian, and Onesimus was his slave and a Christian. Onesimus ran away from his master, and came across a Christian named Paul. Paul and Onesimus took care of each other for a time, and then Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, expecting him to be welcomed not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Presumably, Onesimus was welcomed with open arms.

It’s a nice story, and there’s a lot of goodness in it. Paul even goes into it trying for the right effect. Paul requests that Onesimus be welcomes:

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.

That’s a nice thought, and a good idea.  It would be most beneficial for Philemon if Philemon acceded to Paul’s request because “He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” That result is the one that would allow Onesimus to return “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”

Unfortunately, that result is no longer possible. Why is that result no longer possible? Because hierarchy, that’s why.

Seriously. Paul can croon about how they’re all brothers in Christ, but it isn’t really true. And Paul knows it isn’t true. Let’s look at what else Paul says to Philemon, besides the Brothers in Christ bit.

I could be bold and order you.”

“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.”

Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.”

It should also be noted that the letter wasn’t just addressed to Philemon, but to Philemon, a few other people, and the entire church that meets at Philemon’s house. This was not Paul taking Philemon aside and saying, “This is what I think you should do.” No, this was Paul calling out Philemon in front of Philemon’s entire church. And Paul ends by saying that he’s planning to visit them soon. So Paul’s suggestion is accompanied with a “I’m going to be checking up on you soon, so don’t screw this up.”

Essentially, it is impossible that Philemon could refuse Paul’s request. Which also means, in many ways, it is impossible for Philemon to accept Paul’s request. Philemon can choose how to feel about following Paul’s order, but that’s basically it.

Which, I guess, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I mean, we’re talking about the difference between Onesimus being welcomed as an equal a Brother in Christ and Onesimus being punished for running away before returning to work as a slave. So Paul pulling rank isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least in this situation.

And that’s the thing. Hierarchy can be useful. It can help. It can work for marginalized people as it did when the Civil Rights movement used the federal government to force state governments to clean up their acts. But it can’t ever be the foundation for a really Christian relationship.

“I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love,” Paul writes. It’s a good thought. It’s the right thought. But given the hierarchal relationship between Paul and Philemon, it isn’t a workable thought. And so we find hierarchy, as it so often does, masquerading under the guise of a request that isn’t a request. But that’s what the book of Philemon is. It is a command posing as request. It is a letter based on a falsehood. It is hierarchy hiding itself in a polite lie. And we shouldn’t ever forget that when we read about Philemon and Onesimus.




New International Version (NIV)

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,[b] who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.


Children are People Too   Leave a comment

Trigger Warning: Child Abuse, Domestic Abuse

Tonight I want to talk about this post. It’s from a blog that I subscribed to in a very different time, and I haven’t deleted it yet because sometimes I just enjoy listening or reading things that I know are wrong. It might not be a good idea to indulge this fancy, but I occasionally pick up interesting information in this way, so I’m sticking with it for now.

Anyway, I want to reiterate that I do not recommend this blog. It covers some issues that I find interesting that are difficult to come across in other venues, but the commentary on these issues is trite under good circumstances.

Anyway, a post caught my eye because it was about people who had left the Catholic Church and then sought to reenter. I can’t really imagine that happening. The Catholic Church, for all the change it has undergone, still prides itself on being unchanging. For myself, I can be at least that stubborn. So a reconciliation is unlikely, but I figured I’d give the article a read anyway.

As it turns out, the Catholic Church no longer recognizes any formal way of leaving the Church. In the words of the blogger (who, I suppose, can be helpful about some things):

Now, the Church no longer considers it possible to defect from the faith by formal act.  Therefore, there are no canonical consequences from formal defection.  Were a person to film herself signing a document and then publish the photos and take out ads in the newspaper, according to the Church they would not have formally defected from the Church.

So much for handing in my membership card. Anyway, the article continues for a bit, talking about the censure for heresy and schism, when this bit comes up:

Finally, on a slightly different but related note, the Code says in can. 1366 that parents or those who take the place of parents who have their children baptized or educated in a non-Catholic religion are to be punished with a censure or other just penalty. If we have an obligation to maintain our Catholic identity for ourselves, we also have an obligation to maintain the Catholic identity of children for whom we are responsible.

At first, I don’t notice anything wrong with this. Then I remember, children are people too. Seriously. I wasn’t particularly religious at twelve years of age, but going to Mass and going to confession still meant something to me. So if I had been a non-Catholic, and a Catholic family took responsibility for me, would they be required to take that away from me? Children can have religious identities as well, and it boggles my mind that nobody noticed or cared when this bit of canon was being written.

But then again, it doesn’t boggle my mind. One of the reasons I left the Catholic Church was the hierarchy. Not the particular bishops that are in office now (though they might have been enough) no I became frustrated with the very idea of bishops. I guess I had read one too many articles about the sex abuse scandals. Just recently the first church official in the United States was convicted of knowingly shuffling around abusive priests. I had always realized that individual priests were sinners just like anyone else. But I had never before realized how the structure of the Catholic Church created dynamics of exploitation and corruption that were predictable and avoidable. I had believed the structure of the Catholic Church ordained by God. And while I still believe God able to work through such a flawed instrument, I could no longer believe it is His instrument.

The Catholic Church’s attention to hierarchy allows it to forget that children are people who might not want to adopt the religious identity of adoptive parents. This happened the same way so many priests (though, thank God, not all) told abused wives to be obedient to their husbands a hundred years ago. This happened the same way Catholic priests in the south told black Catholics that slavery was not to be resisted. It happened the same way accused heretics were promised safe passage on their way to trial, and once convicted, some were executed because promises to heretics could not be considered binding.

A hierarchy puts people on top and others on bottom, and the people on bottom usually get stepped on. Or ignored.

It’s not quite like eating with prostitutes and tax collectors, is it?

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. (Mark 9:38-41)

Whoever is not against us is for us. Amen.