Many years ago, I was assigned to read James Tunstead Burtchaell’s book, Philemon’s Problem: The Daily Dilemma of the Christian, for my high school senior religion class. Recently, I found my copy of the slim volume with my name and phone number on the front cover buried at the back of a shelf. Sadly, that name and number were the only marks in the text. I never read the book most likely, or if I did, I found little to take note of or highlight. This does not surprise me; in those days, the way to make sure I did not read a particular book was to make it a class assignment. I wanted to read what I wanted to read, not what some teacher demanded of me to read. And like many of my assigned readings from that time in my life, I usually discovered their importance when I had to teach them to a new crop of students in my own classroom years later. Since I am writing a paper about Paul’s letter to Philemon, one of the shortest letters from that section of the New Testament and one that most biblical scholars refer to as a postcard from Paul rather than a full blown letter, I decided it was time to complete my homework thirty-three years after it was assigned.
Out of curiosity, I looked up the author to see what had transpired in his life since he published the book. In a copyrighted article from the National Catholic Reporter datelined December 6, 1991, Burtchaell, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross (C.S.C.) and a tenured faculty member at the University of Notre Dame, was said to be facing disciplinary action after “he had engaged in sexual misconduct while counseling male students.” A second article from BishopAccountability.org from 2003 stated that “Burtchaell has lived for the past several years in a Holy Cross priests' residence in Phoenix. Burtchaell does not have priestly faculties to celebrate Mass or otherwise perform priestly duties in the Diocese of Phoenix, according to a spokesman for that diocese.” He has also had his priestly duties revoked in the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana as well.
This cast a shadow, most definitely, over his scholarship, but I decided to examine the book for its theological importance rather than considering the author who remains a priest today at 81 and who, in 2010, celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination. It is tragic that he chose to engage in conduct so disgraceful that it ended his academic career, but he is definitely not the first such case to come to light in recent years.
The other important piece of news regarding the book is that Burtchaell updated and expanded his study in an edition published in 1998 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan entitled Philemon’s Problem: A Theology of Grace. This time, I read the new edition in its 334-page entirety. Burtchaell makes a number of key points that seem relevant today, especially in light of the racial tension in this country over police shootings of people of color and the need for human rights for all people since at its heart, the story of Philemon and his slave, Onesimus, is about how we treat people and how we address the issue of slavery’s corrupt assault on the sanctity of the human being.
First, some background: Paul writes the letter from prison in Rome sometime around 63 CE. Onesimus, whose name means “useful” or “beneficial,” has run away from his master, Philemon, after possibly committing a theft and has sought out Paul to assist him with his ministry while he is in prison. Paul had converted the former slave to Christianity, and now he wishes to send Onesimus back to Philemon not to be a slave but as a Christian brother and equal to the former master. Paul calls him “a brother, beloved especially to me.” If indeed Onesimus is guilty of the theft, Paul asks that the debt be charged to Paul, himself, and that the slate be wiped clean for the former slave within the Christian community. This is a bold and unusual request for the time.
Burtchaell’s book examines the case as presented in the letter and develops the lessons learned there into his theology of grace. His theme “to which this book speaks is our ability—our calling—to be as outright in love of Lord and neighbor as Jesus has shown himself outright in becoming our Neighbor. This means we must be able to sustain the language of endless obligation, an imaginative idiom in which we are only awkwardly fluent.” What this means without the muddy language is that the change necessary to set Onesimus free is not a change in the slave, himself. Burtchaell argues that the one who must change is Philemon, not Onesimus. It is he who must see his slave as a Christian brother created in the image and likeness of God, the Imago Dei. To change the mind of the oppressor, the slave owner, is far more challenging and necessary if the slave is ever to gain true freedom from his captivity. It is a potent and logical argument. One can issue words in a proclamation, but changing hearts and minds is much more difficult, especially when attitudes and behaviors have been entrenched in the culture for decades or even centuries. Added to this challenge is the fact that Onesimus is charged with theft. Truly, Philemon must not only reconsider how he views him, but he also must forgive him his transgression.
Burtchaell begins the book with a statement of Philemon’s problem. He gives a brief biography of the parties involved and sketches out the cultural context. He also details what Paul hoped to accomplish with his missive. The basic premise is that if we are to follow Paul’s advice as Philemon must, it means changing the way we view the Other, the one who is not like us in appearance and is certainly not part of our class in society. It is here that the book has much to offer. Ours is a world of classes clashing violently at great human cost. The violent actors dehumanize those they lash out against, and they refuse to see them as human beings, brothers and sisters not just from a religious standpoint but as human beings worthy of dignity and respect.
The main text of the book is divided into three sections: A Distinctive Doctrine, A Distinctive Morality, and A Distinctive Worship. Each section continues to develop this theme of a complete change in the slave owner, or person in power, that he or she may act in the name of God to see those perceived as less to be equals in the eyes of the Lord. This message, although seemingly religious in nature, can be applied equally without bringing God into the situation. If we believe in the sanctity of human life, Paul’s plea in the letter to treat people with respect and dignity, even when they wrong us or are not equal to us in class or economy, means changing the way we see all human beings. We start from a base position of the person as a human being, valuable and sacred because of his or her humanity. It is a powerful position and important in this age of often violent discrimination and human misery.
Like most theology books, I find Burtchaell’s writing style to be needlessly complicated and obtuse at times. In examination of his sentences and syntax, I wonder if there is not a clearer, more concise way to make the case in support of his thesis. The book is not for a general audience, and one of the surprises to me is that it was assigned in a high school religion class, even one occurring three decades ago. Having taught senior students for many years, and now college students, I think Burtchaell’s writing would be difficult to understand and internalize for most of them.
However, the message is important and must be considered in light of the violence and oppression that occurs in our supposedly enlightened world. One cannot legislate against oppression with words on a page stating the rights and freedoms of the oppressed. One must change the minds of the oppressors to truly free the oppressed. It is a logical thesis that must be accepted, even if the author has ended his career in disgrace. In this case, the message is more important than the messenger.