September 24, 2020

I invite you to join us for Bible Study on Tuesday nights at 6:00, or Wednesday mornings at 10:30 in the coming weeks as we embark on 66 weeks of study of one passage from every book of the Bible. Beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation, we will move through the 66 books of our Protestant Bible consecutively, focusing each week on a passage from the book of the week.

For example, when we come to book of Philemon, a book of only twenty-five verses, our study might look something like this.

The Common English Bible Study Bible informs us that “Philemon is Paul’s shortest letter containing only 335 words in the Greek text, and it was probably his last. Paul wrote it to prominent members—Philemon, Apphia, Archipus and others—of a house church in Asia Minor in the mid-1st century CE. He addressed Philemon in particular because Paul’s concern was really about Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus, whom Philemon had enslaved. Paul wanted a safe welcome for Onesimus when Onesimus returned home.”

Scholars warn us against reading Philemon through the lens of chattel slavery as practiced in the United States. However, since white Christianity has so studiously avoided reading our history, let alone the Bible, through that lens maybe we are well-advised to over-correct in regard to our interpretation and understanding of the perplexing book. Let our proclamation be that while Paul wants the ethic of family (regard Onesimus as a brother as well as a slave) to govern the systems of slavery in his time, it is our commitment to examine the way systems of slavery, even while officially ended, continue to govern our ethic of Christian family.

In his book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, Robert P. Jones summarizes some extensive sociological study of the topic this way. “White Christians think of themselves as people who hold warm feelings toward African Americans while simultaneously embracing a host of racist and racially resentful attitudes consistent with these warm feelings.” In other words, studies show that while white Christians like to include BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) in the language of family, we consistently refuse to take systemic actions in realms like economic mobility, inequality in the criminal justice system, and the removal of Confederate symbols from public places that would give substance to our expressions of family.

Witness this Facebook response to a post I made expressing the above beliefs – “Our country fought a bitter war to end slavery and it has been over for 150 years. Past time to move on and celebrate our country and the great strides accomplished toward inclusion and empowerment of all – instead of perpetuating a culture of victimization. As Condoleezza Rice said in an interview, the US committed the original sin of slavery, but things continue to get better and we need to acknowledge that. She spoke of the marked difference between how she grew up in Jim Crow America to now. I think that perhaps your suggestion to ‘over-correct’ may only reinforce victimhood and the destructive paternal attitude of enabling the designated victim.”

It seems that we prefer to put our energy into denying that a problem exists rather than addressing the problem. White Christians love to talk about the multi-colored family of God and our brotherhood and sisterhood with those of other races. The word from those who we profess to be our family is consistently, “There is a gap between what you practice and what you proclaim. What you practice makes it difficult to feel like we are the family members you say we are.”

We have work to do if we can honestly say we are taking Paul’s 335 words to Philemon seriously.

As of this writing we are very early in this course of study, Exodus is the book of the week on October 6th and 7th, so if you join us soon, you will get a sense of the sweep, the vast diversity, of the book so central to our Christian walk, so essential to our Baptist identity.

Peace,
Jim H.

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