Social Equality – seeing it through Paul’s letter to a friend

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Like many, I watched the recent anti-racial protests with consternation. My empathy mingles with dubiety. Although America (indeed, the world) is mired in a history of social injustice, freedom and equality have always been our bragging rights. And yet freedom and equality constrict the other. Aristotle says that our nature makes us unequal. Our individuality relinquishes our differences. Some are introverts, others extraverts. Some think, others feel. Some have good hands, others good minds. There are countless differences between us. Because we are unequal, we are unequally free in the pursuits of life. We are inherently unequal, therefore unequally free.

Our nation has gone to war over freedom and equality. During the civil war, President Lincoln’s Emancipation legally freed 4-million slaves. But their freedom and equality didn’t come. It took another hundred years, when the Civil Rights Act tried again to make all Americans free and equal. That sentiment didn’t happen either. There are still Americans today who are the abject objects of prejudices, discrimination, and injustice and who don’t share similar prerogatives, opportunities and advantages. Malcolm X says you can’t legislate good will. Legislating against segregation will not make a more perfect union; criminalizing hate crimes will not prevent racial violence; ruling out chokeholds will not stop police brutality. Rules of law can’t make us equal or free. It is self-evidence that to seek social equality for all, we must first want to limit our sense of personal freedom.

Philosophers speak of two kinds of equality. There is structural equality. We are equal when we are equally free to have our basic needs met – such as housing, food, and health care, to be productive with given opportunities, and to enjoy society’s amenities – like museums, concert halls, parks, and schools. And we feel equal when we can enjoy Roosevelt’s four freedoms – of speech, to worship, from want, and from fear. Structural equality is what the Civil Rights Act seeks to guarantee. Our sense of jurisprudence demands it. But even when society’s structures guarantee equal rights, equal benefits, and equal opportunities, existentially we don’t feel empowered when others perpetrate ethnical bias against us. Structural equality doesn’t necessarily make us feel socially equal.  

There’s another equality. Relational equality. In all our differences, we can choose to relate to others without disparagement in our differences. A CEO and the janitor of a company are different academically, economically, professionally, and socially. Now the janitor may get a fair wage and excellent benefits, yet the CEO and the janitor are not equal. What if the CEO treats the janitor with equal respect, recognizing their differences but without prejudices (from Latin, prior judgments) What if both treat the other with personal concern, genuine interest, and mutual appreciation. With these social graces, as different as they are, both are practicing relational equality and may just feel validated by the other.   

Towards the end of his life, the Apostle Paul, under house arrest, is awaiting trial. People of different backgrounds with different needs would sit with the great apostle. On one such occasion, Onesimus, a runaway slave, comes to Paul. We don’t know the circumstances, but we know that Paul practices relational equality with Onesimus. In time they cultivate a close relationship. As irony would have it, Onesimus’s master is a friend of Paul. Philemon is a wealthy businessman, a slave owner, and hosts the Colossian church in his house.

Paul has several options for the runaway slave. One, in the name of Christian charity, he could treat Onesimus as a free man and hide him from the law. Two, using Onesimus as the face of social injustice, he could rail against slavery. Three, as a good citizen, he could have Onesimus arrested. Under Roman law, a runaway slave would be executed. Paul doesn’t opt the above options. Instead, he turns the notion of freedom and equality on its head by redefining what it is to be free and equal. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon. This reckless decision is tempered by his unapologetic confidence in the power of the gospel to make us truly free and equal. Paul dictates a letter to Philemon (That letter of the same name is in the Bible). This personal letter between two friends is brief, warm, poignant, and gracious. There are no theological discourses or ecclesiastical teachings – only a personal plea for relational equality. 

Paul asks Philemon an incredulous thing. “I am sending a fugitive slave back to you. But don’t receive him as a slave. Instead, treat him as you would receive me, as a brother in Christ,” paraphrasing Paul. I named my son after Haddon Robinson, a seminary president and homiletics professor, and sent a photo of my son for his autograph. He sent back the signed photo with an invitation to have lunch whenever I was in town. Since, we met several times for a bite to eat. Each time, he made me feel comfortable even when our worlds were worlds apart. He treated me with grace-full, grace-filled equality. For the most part, he was genuinely interested in who I was. He empowered me to feel good about myself, about him, about God, about being alive. He treated me with relational equality. Others are truly free to be themselves when we treat them as if we have no social, economic or professional disparities. They are truly free to be themselves when we affirm them emotionally, psychologically, and ontologically. We are truly free to be ourselves, when we show concerns for another’s interests as equals to our own self-interests.

In his accompanied letter to the Colossian church, Paul infers that Onesimus is a church member in good standing, calling him a faithful and beloved brother. Whatever his social status, Onesimus freely participates in the life of his church, enjoying the graces of God through others, and the fellowship of others in life together. We move ahead a few decades. Ignatius, an early martyr, in a letter expresses gratitude to a certain Bishop Onesimus. Many agree that this is the same Onesimus, the once runaway slave. Think of it! Structural equality enables Onesimus to become an ecclesiastical bishop. It has come about when Paul and Philemon treat Onesimus as an equal, as a brother. That relational equality, the truer form of equality, leads to structural equality. Onesimus, once a slave, becomes a great bishop of the church.

Although ancient slavery is dissimilar to Western slavery, (and we can’t compare them) yet it is profoundly troubling that Paul doesn’t ask Philemon to free Onesimus. That would speak to the gospel’s power of social reconciliation. I don’t know why Paul doesn’t use this occasion or in anywhere else to rail against the evil of slavery. Theologians and historians have wrestled with this egregious omission. We don’t know what to make of it. But I do know this. President Lincoln may legally free all slaves in America, but that emancipation couldn’t guarantee actual equality. The Civil Rights Act may have made discrimination illegal, but it hasn’t grant actual freedom to all citizens. Paul proposes relational equality as the existential remedy to social injustice. That is, in the most rudiment of human relationship, two people treat each other without prejudices in their recognized differences. Of course, social equality is not simple, nor easy. Racial biases are deep and nuanced; social injustices are complexed and confected. Nothing of being human with others is ever simple. But we know this – a community can’t portrait an enduring structural equality without its citizens committing to relational equality.