Canceled or Converted? Philemon and the New Evangelization

Canceled or Converted? Philemon and the New Evangelization
Scene of Mary Magdalene from “The Passion of the Christ” (2004)

The little New Testament letter to Philemon is an oft-overlooked book of the Bible. Tucked away at the very end of the Pauline letters, it boasts a single chapter of contents, comprising 25 verses—the whole letter being a mere 335 words (in the original Greek). It would take no more than a handful of minutes to breeze through it in its entirety, which on one hand can feel like an accomplishment, but due to its brevity, can also cause its message to be easily misunderstood, or simply forgotten. But should we forget?

We currently find ourselves in the midst of what has commonly been dubbed “cancel culture.” Bishop Barron, reflecting on the words of Cardinal Francis George, describes it as a culture in which “everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven.”1 Both wrongdoing and wrong thinking can quickly garner eternal isolation from the public sphere. It’s a cycle we have too often witnessed: someone’s misconduct surfaces for one reason or another, and is put on a digital pedestal for the world to see. The result is the “canceling” of that individual with little-to-no chance of public restoration, rendering repentance an event to be held in perpetual suspicion.

A similar case took place in the first century for a companion of Paul named Philemon, concerning the way he should regard his runaway servant Onesimus. It was the critical event of Onesimus’ sudden absence that elicited Paul’s appeal itself. The result would be a message received not only for their benefit,  but also for the benefit of the Church, as its contents would eventually be received as divinely inspired Scripture. Thus does the Lord continue to speak to us and to build His Church through this little Letter, and I propose that its contents are aptly suited to our current times.

What Happened, Anyway?

In lieu of a full analysis, let me offer a brief summary. Philemon is a letter written by Paul and Timothy (v. 1) which contains its own back story about a Christian master by the name of Philemon and his fugitive slave, Onesimus. We’re not told how these two became estranged, only that at some point this runaway slave came into contact with Paul and ended up becoming a follower of Jesus, which raises a question: How should Philemon now treat Onesimus, who returns not only as his former slave but as his Christian brother?

The irony of the story lies in the meaning of Onesimus’ name: “useful.” Consider how Paul writes in vv 10-11: “I appeal to you [Philemon] for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)” (emphasis added)

If we can identify this letter’s central issue, it would be Onesimus’ identity. Who is Onesimus? And will his reputation remain imprisoned in the past; always to be regarded as the sinner and runaway slave? Or has his identity been fundamentally transformed now by virtue of his conversion?  Is Onesimus not “Onesimus” (“useful”) because of who he once was, or is Onesimus now truly Onesimus for the first time because of his identity in Christ Jesus?

It is here that this tiny letter speaks with vibrance and intensity into our modern era. In Philemon, the themes of sin, identity, relationship, and conversion conjoin to form a timely question for an apostolic Church: are we ready to embrace others in Christ, even at the cost of messy conversions?

What Charity Demands: Pastoral Pathways Forward

I recently came across a Michael Knowles story about a woman named Nala Ray and her shocking conversion to Christianity. Nala was a “content creator” on OnlyFans, a lamentably popular pornography platform. She spent most of her adult career sexualizing and selling her body. In doing so, she quickly found herself in the top 1% of this platform’s earning profiles, making over $9 million dollars in the process. Then she encountered Christ.

In a recent interview, which can be viewed here, Nala reflected on her pursuit of worldly fame, asking, “What’s the point of all this money, when I don’t have feelings?” At her rock bottom, in search of God and answers, she opened her Bible and encountered the tender, healing mercy of Christ Jesus and His gospel. 

While the rest of this piece could be dedicated to singing the praises of God at work in the heart of Nala, my attention was also drawn to responses of a different variety upon the announcement of her conversion—“cancel culture” was lurking like a hungry virus, ready to attack its host. Instead of praising her newfound identity or renewed dignity, I instead read comments like “[People like her] will never be respectable no matter how much they cry to God,” and, “It’s best that we shun women like this from society forever.”

Like our friend Onesimus, at the white-hot center of the battle for Nala’s reputation is the issue of her identity. Will the sins of her past have the final say about who she is and what she can be? Or is her core identity now established by a different voice, from one who gives her a new name and restores her to himself (cf. Isa 56:5)? St. Paul teaches us that love demands the latter—that the Onesimuses and Nalas of our lives be seen and received in the light of their dignity in Christ Jesus, not in the light of their former ways.

Our Catholic heritage has notoriously chosen conversion over canceling, and now is no time to change course. Some of the greatest saints had the most tainted pasts. Would you have guessed that a zealous soldier killing Christians in the name of religion would become one of the holiest missionaries and clergymen? Or that a man who once lived a life of fornication and cohabitation would become one of the most prolific and influential Bishops in the Church? While that may seem impossible to envision in the present day, Sts. Paul and Augustine call from the past to remind us it is not. Were Mary Magdalene alive today, her story would likely not have been too different from Miss Ray’s. Yet she was the one privileged to be present at the foot of the Cross.

In this digital age, it is becoming increasingly harder to look beyond the sins of someone’s past. If Augustine and Magdalene had social media profiles, meticulously documenting their former ways, would their conversions be of any less value? Certainly not. Instead, the burden falls on you and me to allow the transforming grace of Jesus Christ to have its full effect, in the life of its recipient and in the eyes of each beholder.

St. Paul appeals to Philemon, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required—yet, for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus” (Phlm 9-10). Paul’s authority as an apostle could have demanded Philemon’s positive reception of Onesimus, but he chose instead to appeal to what charity already demanded of Philemon. I am reminded of the words of Pope St. John Paul II from a World Youth Day address when he explained, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son, Jesus” (Toronto, 2002). It is the grace of God in our hearts—Who is Love—that stirs us, moves us, and enables us to view our neighbors with the eyes of Christ.

We return, then, to the question we asked at the outset: How should Philemon treat Onesimus, his now-Christian brother, upon his return? By the accepted customs and laws of slavery, or by the Cross-shaped love and mercy of Christ? The little Letter to Philemon provides for us an answer in a down-to-earth portrait of the power of the gospel to transform lives and to heal fractured relationships, with a compelling and convicting message for us all: Those who are truly reconciled to God and are friends of Jesus cannot remain unreconciled and unfriendly toward their Christian brothers and sisters by whom they have been wronged.


Endnotes

  1. Bishop Robert Barron, “Many Things Are Not Permitted; Everything Can Be Forgiven,” Word on Fire, April 11, 2023, https://www.wordonfire.org/articles/barron/many-things-are-not-permitted-everything-can-be-forgiven/.