Making Good Trouble

Jonathan L. Walton at Freshman Sunday

Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service, Knafel Center, Radcliffe Yard

Philemon 1:10-12

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.


Friday night I saw a powerful play — Anna Deveare Smith's Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education. The play is an incredible examination of the public school to prison pipeline. In classic Deveare Smith form, she examines the issue from the perspective of multiple characters —individuals who are affected by and intertwined in the systemic evil of mass incarceration. This is the power and beauty of the show. Deveare Smith embodies and incorporates an array of voices — a Native American judge and ex-convict; experienced activists and incarcerated juveniles; frustrated parents and disillusioned school principals; serial offenders and public school security guards. Each has a unique voice. Each has a compelling position. Each speaks a truth. Yet the one view that they all seem to share in common was this: We have to imagine another way. Allowing a culture of mass incarceration to supplant a culture of investing in education is untenable; it is unsustainable; and, most importantly, it is unethical. All of us must dare to think differently.

Is this not our moral responsibility? Is this not the motto and mission of this university? Veritas. In Roman mythology, Veritas was the goddess of truth. It is said that she would often hide in the bottom of a well, out of plain sight. I guess the moral of the myth is that we must search for her. Truth is not readily apparent. She is often concealed. And no single one of us has a claim on her whereabouts. This is why we must collaborate in our quest for her. The ancients believed that truth is elusive and that we find it only after great expense and sacrifice.

And like Anna Deveare Smith's plays, uncovering truth means uncovering the testimonies and sometimes gruesome experiences of all who walk through life. We must search. We must speak to those who we might otherwise ignore. And we have to acknowledge that Veritas does not just hang out among the polite, privileged, and powerful. Quite often we will find her on the tongues of those deemed intemperate and troubled.

These are the themes that jump out at me when reading Paul's letter to Philemon: thinking differently; imagining a different way; locating truth where it might be concealed or hidden. Why? Because Paul's letter to Philemon is one of the more contested letters of his corpus. Many people have competing views about its message and meaning.

For those of you who are not familiar with the letter to Philemon, let me introduce it. Paul is writing to Philemon, a leader of a house church in the city of Colossae, in the region we now know as Turkey. Paul is writing on behalf of Onesimus, an enslaved man who has fled from Philemon's household.

Like all of Paul's letters save possibly Romans, this is an occasional letter. That means Paul is writing to address a particular occasion or particular issue that has arisen in one of his churches. Quite often he is putting out a fire, as was the case in the letter to the Galatians. Or he is writing to settle internal disputes, as was the case in Corinthians or here in this letter to Philemon. And because these are occasional letters we have to decipher and decode the matter based on only one perspective. We are reading Paul's mail, and thus only Paul’s views. Thus, we have to use clues to recreate the scene.

For instance, from this letter we know two things: Onesimus was enslaved, and Onesimus fled. We do not know why exactly. Some suggest it may have been a result of severe treatment from Philemon. Others suggest that Onesimus was a household manager, which was common among the enslaved in the Greco Roman world. Onesimus may have lost some money or made a bad decision and feared Philemon's wrath. Or maybe Onesimus just woke up one day and said, "you know what: I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. I am a human being, not a piece of property. Onesimus isn't even my name! It’s a description given to me. It means useful."

Onesimus thus packed up his stuff, and went seeking out the Apostle Paul. This makes sense. For it was Paul who came preaching the gospel of Jesus in Colossae. It was through Paul that Philemon and Onesimus accepted Jesus as their Lord. And it was through Paul that Onesimus may have begun to view himself as a man, not a mule. 

One need not be a communication theorist to assume that Onesimus surely heard Paul's message of salvation differently than his slavemaster Philemon. When Paul said there is but one Lord and master, and his name is Jesus, Onesimus heard a message of freedom — not just freedom from sin, but freedom from human bondage. When Onesimus heard Paul say that in Christ there is no Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, I can imagine he looked over at his slaveholder Philemon and asked, "Am I your slave? Or are we now siblings in the spirit of Christ Jesus?"

So Onesimus flees to Paul and he petitions him. “C'mon, Paul. Philemon listens to you. He respects you. If you tell him that I am going to remain and work in ministry with you, he will not fight it. He would not do that to his reputation in the church. Let me remain with you, Paul. I received your words, and with you I want to be only a slave to Christ, no longer a slave to another man."

So what does Paul do? He sends Onesimus back to Philemon. He sends him back with a letter. He sends him back with an appeal, the crux of which serves as today's scripture lesson.

“I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus,” Paul writes. “I am sending him back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.  Take him back.  No longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.”

If we read this letter from Paul's perspective, it may appear like Paul is doing a noble deed. He encourages Philemon to take Onesimus back, and if he owes you anything, Paul says, put it on my bill. "Be gentle with him, Philemon. Don't be so cruel this time around.” Maybe Paul thought he was doing the right thing on multiple fronts.  Fugitive laws at the time could punish someone for harboring a runaway. So he sends him back but affirms his teachings on the siblinghood of humanity under the parenthood of God. “Go back, Onesimus. I will encourage Philemon to do right by you. We are all Christians. Can’t we all just get along.”

I cannot help but imagine that if this scene were to be made into an Anna Deveare Smith play, her portrayal of Onesimus would have been quite different. Onesimus would have viewed Paul’s response as less than noble.   Onesimus came to Paul as a potential patron. Onesimus poured his heart out. He repeated Paul's own teachings on freedom, liberation and servitude to nobody but Christ Jesus. And what did he hear back from Paul? “I will tell my friend Philemon to chill out, and be nicer.”

It seems that though Paul taught about freedom, his imagination would not allow him to conceive of a world that was truly free of master and slave. Historians estimate that about twelve million, or up to twenty percent of the Roman Empire was enslaved. So though Paul preached about eradicating social distinctions, when given the chance, Paul conceded to convention. When given the opportunity to help just one, he was seemingly overwhelmed by the enormity of the injustice.

This is why I can imagine Onesimus  looking at Paul and thinking, "So I came to you looking for my freedom; the freedom that you teach and preach about. But you don't want to cause trouble with your church leader. You don't want to break the law.” And with a disappointed and dejected tone, I imagine him saying, "Oh, okay. I see." 

How might Onesimus look at you and me today? What might he say about us when we are confronted with moral dilemmas and confrontational situations? What might he think when we find it easier to go along with social customs and cultural conventions?

You seriously believe that we should take a stand against rape culture and sexual assault. You're sincere in your commitment. But on the night that your suite mate has had way too much to drink with that new friend you all just met tonight at the party. Way too much too drink to allow them to go in that room by themselves. You could intervene. You could jump in and say, "everyone is going home now.  Parties over. Goodnight." But you don't want to cause too much trouble. So you just protect yourself, go in your room, place your headphones on, and read a book.  I hear a disappointed Onesimus saying, "oh, okay...I see?"

Or maybe you seriously believe in equal pay for equal work. You know women are paid less at your job. You have the power to do something about it. You have the power to privilege increased salaries for women, and even provide retroactive pay increases. But you don't want to cause trouble with male employees. You don't want to be accused of reverse gender discrimination.  You don’t want to offend those who benefit from the wages of masculinity each and every day. So you make a statement. You declare that you are committed as an organization to gender justice, while you go on with business as usual. You just assume one day it will happen, as if justice rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. I see Onesimus looking at us through the binoculars of history saying "oh, okay...I see."

There are a host of issues facing our world today. There are moral problems that demand moral imagination.  There are ethical truths that have become buried under the deceptions of our daily practices. Veritas, the goddess of truth, rests at the bottom of the wells of opportunity that we walk by each day, but no longer see. Like Paul, it is easy to become blinded by the way things are. It is easy to come to believe that the way things are, are the way things have always been. And if we believe the way things are, are the ways they have always been, then it is even easier to accept that this is the way things shall always be. Why get in the way? Why make trouble?

Civil rights legend and courageous freedom fighter Congressman John Lewis heard a similar message as a boy. Growing up outside Troy Alabama, at the height of segregation, he heard a repeated refrain from his mother regarding racial bigotry and segregation. "This is the way things are, Son. So just keep your head down and don't get in the way. Don't go causing no trouble."

Yet as he told the graduating class at Bates College just this last Spring, he knew that there had to be another way. He had to imagine a world free of Jim and Jane Crow. With his moral eye he could conceive of a country that was free of white and colored only signs. And with this moral imagination, he knew that he had to find a way to get in the way. He had to find a way to get into necessary trouble. He had to find a way to get into good trouble.

Might this be the request Onesimus is making of us today? Are we willing to find a way to get in the way of what we know to be wrong? We may not agree on what we should do, but we can agree that doing nothing will change nothing. So are we willing to make necessary trouble, good trouble, to free ourselves of the tyranny of apathy and fear. We have a choice. We have power. For as long as you and I have an ideal of justice, our moral imaginations have a North Star that can lead us out of the bondage of the present.

Some of you are not content with climate change scorching the globe. Others of you are not content with economic inequality shredding our social compact. Some of you cry every time this nation experiences another mass shooting. Others of you can’t believe that we have replaced segregation with mass imprisonment. Onesimus comes to us today.  He is asking us to stand up and act out. He wants us to use our educations; use our imaginations; and use our faith to find a way to get in the way.  He wants us to find a way to make trouble; necessary trouble; good trouble.