Sun, Sep 08, 2019

Slaves to our stereotypes?


I have a confession to make––

I feel uncomfortable wearing a clerical collar.

Don’t get me wrong, it has it’s uses.

A clerical collar gets me onto hospital wards outside of normal visiting hours…

without any questions or quibbles.

And, sometimes, it’s important to wear one in order to make a statement…

like when I’m doing a media interview in support of voluntary assisted dying…

or in support of LGBTIQ issues.

And I don’t mind wearing one on Sunday mornings.

However, as soon as I leave here on a Sunday, I take it out.

I’m not about to walk around my local shopping centre wearing a clerical collar.

I have done it one or twice…

by accident…

and it didn’t take me long to realise…

because people would look at me in a funny way.

And I don’t mean ‘funny’ in the sense of startled or surprised…

as if they had just seen a unicorn or a celebrity.

Rather, the funny looks that I have encountered reflect a sense of discomfort, distrust, or even disgust.

You can almost see their mental connections:

clerical collar…

Catholic priest…



None of us likes to be stereotyped––

especially when it’s unjustified or untrue.

What I think, or feel, or value, or do is not the product of my belonging to some particular group.

And there’s nothing like being on the receiving end of stereotyping to get your hackles up.

And yet, that doesn’t stop us doing it to others.

We all do it, don’t we?

The unemployed are lazy good-for-nothings.

People from the Middle East are untrustworthy, religious dogmatics, and potential terrorists.

Asylum seekers are illegal and only motivated by money.

People who live at Elizabeth are bogans.

Gay people are promiscuous.

We still perpetuate stereotypes.

And it doesn’t matter how much we’re told that we shouldn’t…

or how much we know that we shouldn’t…

in reality it doesn’t change.

We don’t break down those stereotypes…

while such people remain ‘other’…

out there…


The stereotypes only break down when we actually get to know people who belong to those groups…


when they no longer remain an undefined ‘them’;

when we can put faces and names over the labels;

when we see them and treat them as real human beings.

After all, stereotyping is a form of dehumanising.

And one of its outcomes is that it turns people into issues… 

or into problems to be solved.

That’s why our politicians, as a whole, can be so cruel and heartless towards asylum seekers…

and why we let them get away with it.

For most of us, they’re an issue or a problem rather than people.

We don’t see their faces.

We don’t know their names.

We don’t hear their stories.

And we don’t want to.

Because then we would feel guilty;

because then we would be forced to do things differently.


In the ancient world, people saw and thought in terms of stereotypes…

and they didn’t see anything wrong with that.

Far from it!

Thatwas how they made sense of their world.

Form determined function.

A person’s character was determined by how they looked…

by their family of origin…

their ethnicity…

their occupation…

and their gender.

There was, in fact, a whole body of literature… 

which set out specific rules for determining character based on appearance and other externals.

Such a worldview is, of course, inherently dangerous––

at least observed from outside.

Anyone who didn’t look ‘normal’…

anyone who didn’t behave as expected––

that is, contrary to their stereotype––

was treated badly.

And nowhere do we see the danger more blatantly than in the case of slaves.

In the first century, slavery was rife.

And those who were slaves were treated as commodities;

they were treated like livestock.

And there was a stock, standard slave stereotype.

Slaves were, by definition, lazy, negligent, insolent, cowardly, and criminal.

They were always scheming behind their masters’ backs…

and they couldn’t be trusted.

So they were treated accordingly:

subjected to fierce beatings or even execution––

possibly at a whim––

liable to be sold at any time…

used and abused, physically, emotionally, and sexually…

in an effort to break their spirits…

in order to domesticate them…

and render them safe and submissive.

Only then could they be set free.

But freedom didn’t really change the way that they were seen…

or the way that they were treated––

once a slave, always a slave.


In our reading this morning, Paul writes to Philemon––

a man of some wealth and standing, who hosts a church in his house.

It’s a brief letter, unlike any of Paul’s others.

It contains nothing overtly theological.

It appears to be entirely practical, concerning Onesimus––

one of Philemon’s slaves.

Clearly, Onesimus has displeased his master, although we don’t know why.

It seems that Philemon didn’t hold Onesimus in high regard––

that he considered him “useless”––

and there’s at least a hint of an accusation of theft or something underhanded.

Onesimus had sought out Paul to ask him to intercede on his behalf––

as slaves sometimes did with a friend of their master’s.

And, in this letter, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon…

encouraging him to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother”.

Scholars have long debated as to whether or not Paul was suggesting here…

that Philemon should set Onesimus free.

But, given the ancient stereotyping worldview…

and given the ancient perception of slaves…

that wouldn’t really have changed anything.


Paul argues for a fundamental change in Philemon’s attitude to––

and his relationship with––


Rather than see him and treat him as a slave… 

Paul wants Philemon to treat him as a brother.

Paul wants Philemon to treat this commodity…

this non-person…

as family…

as his peer.

Now, practically, that would mean allowing Onesimus to address him as an equal…

and even rebuke him when Onesimus thought it appropriate;

that would mean no longer subjecting Onesimus to physical punishment—

let alone using or abusing him whenever he wanted.

Indeed, it would mean treating him even better than Philemon treated his own children––

because that was what people in the ancient world expected of brothers.

But Paul didn’t just stop there!

In the next verse he expects Philemon to receive Onesimus as if he were Paul himself

and to treat him accordingly, as an honoured guest.

Within the protocols of ancient hospitality, that’s simply mind-blowing!

A host was expected to be attentive to his guest’s needs…

to offer the very best that he had at his disposal…

to treat the guest better than his own children or even his brother.

In so asking, Paul shatters one of the most fundamental stereotypes of the ancient world…

and exhorts such a change in attitude and behaviour that Philemon’s head would almost have exploded.

For Paul, it’s not just that Philemon should stop seeing his slave as ‘other’…

nor that he should simply start to see and treat him as a human being…

but that he should treat the demeaned and the dehumanised with the highest possible honour and favour.

For Paul, faith in Jesus Christ demands nothing less.


Where, then, does that leave us with our stereotypes?

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