February 12, 2016

Christianity, Philemon, and Slavery: Were Black Slaves Brainwashed?


In his book Conversations with God, James Melvin Washington (whose work predates a book of the same title by Neale Donald Walsch) writes a chapter titled "Slavery and the Eclipse of the African Gods."

Washington's description of Black slaves and their conversion to Christianity suggests this conversion was not the result of "brainwashing" by slave owners in pursuit of submissive slaves. Rather, Washington describes this process as the eclipse of the African gods.

I found his discussion interesting and convincing. If slaves had been "brainwashed" by owners, owners would not have banned private gatherings when slaves met to worship. When you have someone totally under your mental control, you don't worry about what they will do when you're not watching. Additionally, the proscriptions against slaves learning to read would not have been so vigorously enforced if slave owners really believed their own propaganda: slaves weren't very smart and were only fit for manual labor. Do you worry about your dog learning to read if you leave a book in his crate?

"Brainwashed" Black Christians, slave or free, would have been satisfied with segregated balcony seating in churches, rather than advocating for equal treatment and then leaving to create their own congregations when equal treatment was denied in majority white churches.

In his discussion, Washington asserts slaves embraced Christianity as an alternative to their original religions when the African gods--Islamic, ancestral, or animist--failed to deliver the followers from the evils and horrors of chattel slavery in the Americas.

Did these newer Christians make a good exchange?

After all, didn't Christianity teach slaves to obey their masters? Didn't this teaching invalidate any usefulness of this faith tradition for the slaves, those living on the wrong end of this equation?


Consider this: a slave born in the United States in 1800 who lived for 66 years saw (within his or her lifetime) the banning of importation of slaves, the growth of an abolitionist movement, the growth and (expansion into Canada) of the Underground Railroad, a Civil War (1861-1865) over slavery (among other things), the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law (1864, which required returning escaped slaves to their owners), and finally the passing and ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned all slavery in the United States.

All of this happened within a single lifetime. Contrast this to other slavery systems throughout the world, many of which stayed intact for several hundred years. This is why I do not doubt prayers from these slaves were answered.

What, then, can be said about the Bible verses telling slaves to obey their masters? These verses are familiar even to those who don't practice or support Christianity.

Less familiar, however, is the small Book of Philemon in the New Testament. In this book, the Apostle Paul writes to a man named Philemon and describes what Paul will do regarding O., a runaway slave who has come to Paul.

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Here is Paul's letter to Philemon:

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[a] 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.
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Please note that in the Books of Colossians and Ephesians, Paul tells slaves to obey their masters. In the Book of Philemon, Paul tells the master of a runaway slave to embrace the runaway as a brother, a family member. Paul also tells Philemon of O. owes anything to Philemon, Paul will pay the debt. 
Please also note all of these books were written within a very short time frame--between 62 and 63 A.D.
It appears there was no single answer to the slavery question according to Paul. It's true he sent O. back to Philemon, but Philemon was directed to treat O. as a brother, as family. Essentially, their relationship was to be changed, according to the Apostle. Not surprisingly, few slave owners quoted the Book of Philemon or heard it preached from pulpits. Have you ever heard a sermon preached from Philemon?
I have no doubt that as enslaved, formerly enslaved, or free people read the New Testament and discovered the Book of Philemon, they were certain American slavery could find no defense in the New Testament. Essentially, Paul tells Philemon to treat O. as a family member, not property.
On the simplest level, Jesus'  command to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Mark 12:30 and 31) meant slavery had no defense in Christianity and those who embraced the faith were required--if they were to be faithful to it--to think and act beyond what the society said, taught, and did. 

Chronological Order of New Testament Books:
James - 50 A.D.
First Thessalonians - 52-53.
Second Thessalonians - 52-53.
Galatians - 55.
First Corinthians - 57.
Second Corinthians - 57.
Romans - 57-58.
Philippians - 62-63.
Colossians - 62-63.
Philemon - 62-63.
Ephesians - 62-63.
Luke - 63.
Acts - 64.
First Timothy - 65.
Titus - 65.
Second Timothy - 66.
Mark - 66.
Matthew - 67.
Hebrews - 67.
First Peter - 67-68.
Second Peter - 68.
Jude - 68.
Apocalypse - 68.
John - c. 85.
Epistles of John - 90-95

List is from  BibleStudyTools.com


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