I don’t often make any observations in this column about the second reading, but this Sunday’s excerpt from the letter to Philemon is a pretty exceptional passage. It might not seem so at first, but consider its content carefully.
Slavery was common in the time of Paul, and people were regularly bought and sold for service. At the time, slavery was an integral part of the economy of the Roman Empire. Beyond the empire, it was part of the social structure of many different societies.
Onesimus, a baptized Christian, was a slave who ran away from his master. When he ran away, he sought out Paul, and placed himself in Paul’s service. At this time, Paul is imprisoned and as he writes to Philemon, he begins by reminding his fellow Christian that he himself is not living the life of a free person. It’s a subtle reminder to Philemon and his household, and it’s a reminder on which Paul builds to remind everyone that true freedom is in Christ. In a very real sense, as Paul writes this letter, he does so as a prisoner making an appeal, rather than as an apostle commanding fellow believers. The tone of the letter is one of supplication rather than the theological treatise or moral correction that often mark Paul’s letters.
Paul is confronting a very delicate matter in a very delicate way. He understands that slavery is part of the societal structure, but he also appreciates that Christians are called in the baptism to live differently. The relationships between Master and Slave are redefined by baptism, by our relationship with Christ. If Christ is our brother, then we are also brothers and sisters to one another. The old ways of relating, such as master with slave, are all challenged by this truth.
Paul also recognizes the complexity of the request he is making of Philemon to accept his slave, Onesimus, as his brother in Christ. Ostensibly, we can presume that as a slave, Onesimus contributed to the overall wealth of the household of Philemon. As a brother, however, that balance is completely re-written.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church observes that “The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason - selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian - lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit…” (2414) The Catechism then goes on to reference the letter to Philemon.
The teaching of the church wasn't always so clear. The first formal papal denunciation of forms of slavery was in the thirteenth century, but many popes between then and today found themselves re-stating and re-condemning the practice of slavery through the centuries, Even Pope St. John Paul II addressed it in his papacy.
In our times, we might well think that human slavery is a thing of the past, and yet still today the fight against slavery continues. Today we speak of the evil of human trafficking and of the gravely immoral practice of the sex-trafficking of individuals, mostly women and children in our age. The International Labor Organization estimates more than 40million people are trafficked globally. 75% are women and young girls, and the other 25% are children. The US Department of Labor annually identifies goods made overseas using forced or child labor. Here in the United States, there are no official statistics for victims of human trafficking. Ths US Department of States estimates between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the country every year! Voluntary organizations estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of trafficking victims. The largest form of trafficking in the US is sex-trafficking, followed by labor-trafficking.
To learn more about this modern form of slavery, go online to www.sistersagainsttrafficking.org. Ending slavery is everyone’s work, and there are a variety of ways suggested by which we can individually work to make a positive difference.