Love through Oppression (or, the Proliferation of Paradox part II)

Monday, May 10, 2010

In this post I want to briefly address the paradox we find in the Christian life, that of 'slave' and 'free.' But rather than going to the more obvious passages that deal with these (such as Romans 6), I'd like to approach this topic through the letter to Philemon. This is in part because I was reading Philemon in my devotional time and God really blessed me through it and I wanted to share those thoughts, but also because as I considered Philemon, I was swept away by the strangeness of God's ways in comparison to our ways. And that is a sure indication that paradox is present.

Philemon is a short letter Paul wrote from prison to a man named Philemon. The letter commends Onesimus to Philemon: Onesimus who used to be Philemon's slave, who ran away from his service and stole from him, and who God saved through Paul's ministry and has been serving Paul in prison. The language in this letter is remarkable. The heart of it is astounding. Within the Roman context, Onesimus' actions were punishable by death and this shows the actions of Paul and the anticipated actions of Philemon to be astounding. Paul is sending Onesimus back to his employer, knowing that in a normal human context, he would likely be killed. And Philemon is accepting back to himself a man who culture dictates should be killed.

Paul commands Philemon to received Onesimus back, "no longer as a slave, but much more than a slave, a beloved brother" (1:16) and he concludes by saying:

  • "Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say." (1:21)
This is incredible. In this we see the heart of God. From broken lives, fractured relationships and even oppressive social systems, God makes good to come. Let no one ever say He is a god of oppression, that He is evil. He restores us, transforms us into new - holy! - people. He delights in reconciliation and healing.
And it is clear that Paul views this all as God's work, as he says:
  • "For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever..." (1:15).
For this reason indicates that there is purpose behind all of this - that it is not mere happenstance. And we know from the context that it is God who is behind it.
And this is where I suggest that "oppression" comes in. In his cultural context, Philemon would be expected to at least hold a grudge, remain suspicious, treat Onesimus poorly, even if he didn't have him killed. And let's go a step further - from a much more 21st century perspective, Onesimus would have every right to be resentful, not wanting to return to his position as slave/servant and perhaps feeling betrayed by Paul. But this is not what we see here. Instead we see a network of persons, related to each other through human institutions but more significantly, through Christ. And Christ makes all the difference. It is as a prisoner of Christ that Paul writers to Philemon, and Paul himself hints at the fact that Philemon is likewise under Christ's command as well as indebted to Paul who was the instrument of his salvation (8, 19). And Paul refers to Onesimus as "my child..begotten in my imprisonment" (11) and "my very heart" (13). These men are all utterly enslaved to Jesus Christ. But the result speaks for itself: Christ's power works heavily in and through them because they have been bound to Him. Other chains are broken when Christ's chain is placed on them. The chains of revenge, retribution, hate, guilt, and fear are absolutely shattered when allegiance is given over to Christ. The results are instead life and freedom: "refresh my heart" Paul says!
I'm of course being facetious in my title, "Love by Oppression." Poor Philemon, being oppressed by the power of Christ working in Him so that he must receive back Onesimus - must forgive him, must love him, must hold him as dear as a brother! Truly Christianity is an oppressive force - but oh what freedom and glory comes about!

What I hope the title does is draw attention to the prevailing conception of Christianity as an oppressive institution, and then undermine this conception. That is, the title embodies the layers of revelation one will experience if they take a closer look at Christianity. The surface-viewer sees a regime of oppression, but one who has experienced God's salvation realizes that he or she has literally been set free and experiences all kinds of freedom: from guilt, from the power of sin to dictate all areas of our lives and being (such as self-protection, fear of man, lust for money and comfort, desire for fulfillment through fashion...whatever!), from death, and from God's holy wrath. And as we've seen in the case of Paul's letter to Philemon, God's heart is so set for freeing us that He enables us to be free in ways we find totally mind-boggling from a strictly fallen-human perspective. But, as we grow in our experience of God's salvation, we also find that He is also an immensely oppressive force - He presses in upon us, He does not leave us, His Holy Spirit pushes and prods and bears us down. This is not "oppression" as its current meaning dictates - but more as its etymological roots reveal: God presses upon us.

I love that imagery. For one thing, it reminds us of the physicality of our nature as human beings. We have bodies and God is not ambivalent to this fact. But what this "pressing" really is, is God's refusal to leave us. He does not save us by suggesting we have some sort of esoteric sense of salvation. He does not leave us. He demands we bring our whole being into surrender before Him - our bodies, our minds, our emotions, our wills. And He is passionate to sanctify - to save - us now. He works life in us as He wears away the sin nature in us. This is why the book of Philemon is so powerful for me: God's life-transforming Spirit works in our very real, fleshly world and experience to create beauty and holiness in our lives and relationships.

It is a paradox. God presses in on us. He oppresses our sin-nature and fallen-will, and presses us down: and by doing so, He frees us from the oppression of sin and gives us life and joy and freedom. He creates the unthinkable in us: holiness.

One last note. A P.S. if you will. Paul addresses the letter "To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow sister, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." (1:1b-3). Speaking of oppression, I note the reference "to Apphia our sister," who is in this case clearly a woman (the church is referred to later, and thus "Apphia" appears to refer to an actual woman, rather than metaphorically for the church). So may we just close our mouths, when we the ignorant feel the temptation to repeat the mantra: "Christianity is oppressive to women - especially Pauline theology." Here Paul specifically includes her in his address. As Onesimus is coming back to be reintroduced to the Christians in Philemon's house, Paul makes sure to include the many people who will be involved in this relationship: Philemon, Archippus, the church who meets - and Apphia.


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