Slavery in ancient times was based on a primitive form of justice

Father John A. Kiley

The second reading this coming Sunday is a portion of the brief, personal letter that St. Paul wrote to a Corinthian gentleman named Philemon regarding the man’s runaway slave named Onesimus.

When Onesimus fled, he probably took with him money and goods that belonged to his master. This was not unusual and probably understandable, even if not commendable. As a runaway, Onesimus made his way to Rome and somehow came in contact with St. Paul. Through St. Paul’s instruction he became a Christian. A close friendship developed between St. Paul and Onesimus who probably ran errands for the apostle.

At the time, St. Paul was under house arrest so Onesimus' services apparently aided the apostle’s restricted ministry.

In the short letter, St. Paul does not command the owner Philemon to free his slave Onesimus as modern Christians might expect. St. Paul first commends Philemon for the kindness and charity he has shown to his fellow Christians in Corinth and then exhorts Philemon to show this same compassion to Onesimus. St. Paul knew well that runaway slaves who were brought back to their masters were often treated harshly and under Roman law could even be killed. St. Paul expressly and cleverly observes that Onesimus is returning to Philemon not just as a former slave but now as a converted Christian, a brother in Christ and fellow believer. St. Paul asks that Philemon receive Onesimus as he would receive the saint himself.

St. Paul reminds Philemon that it was only because of the saint’s preaching and ministry that Philemon himself had become a believer in Christ. Receiving Onesimus in a kindly fashion would be one way Philemon could repay this debt of gratitude to St. Paul.

In view of the current attitude toward slavery and especially recalling the servitude that Black Africans experienced in the New World, many readers of the Bible question why St. Paul honored slavery at all. Surely Onesimus’ innate dignity as a human person and as a Christian would be more evident as a free man than as a slave. St. Paul seems to be condoning or at least ignoring the blatant evil of slavery, which the modern Western world has happily repudiated. Undeniably, St. Paul honored the social tie that bound a slave to his master and recognized the duty that the slave Onesimus owed to his master Philemon. Furthermore St. Paul had apparently convinced Onesimus to return willingly as a penitent Christian seeking his master's forgiveness and resuming his place in Philemon's household. St. Paul seems to be a bit too comfortable with an institution that nowadays is viewed as intrinsically evil.

There is a radical difference between the slavery known in New Testament times and the slavery experienced in the European colonies in the New World and specifically in the southern United States. Slavery in the ancient world was based on a primitive form of justice. If one nation battled another population and won, the victors were entitled to all the spoils including the services of the inhabitants. This was a risk of war. And of course had the other side won, they could demand the use of the losers as well.

They viewed it as a matter of justice. A similar situation prevailed regarding debts. If a debtor could not satisfy his obligations, he might be enslaved to his creditor until satisfaction was made. Sometimes whole families would be born into this situation. This ancient form of slavery, rightly repugnant to modern man, was at least based on a primitive form of justice. Slavery in the New World was not at all based on justice. Slavery in the New World was based entirely on race. Africans were brought to the Americas not because they had lost a war with a powerful nation or because they had incurred debts with a wealthy entrepreneur. African men and women were transported to the Americas simply because they were black. Slavery in St. Paul’s day was a crude manifestation of justice – to the victor belong the spoils. Modern slavery was manifestly racist – based only on the color of a man’s skin.

The Letter to Philemon cannot be compared to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “Huckleberry Finn” or “Gone with the Wind.” St. Paul sensed that there was some justifiable debt that Onesimus owed to Philemon. Such slavery was a matter of honor between two Greeks. Modern slavery was never a matter of honor. Skin color is not a military defeat nor does it incur any debts.