Philemon and Forgiveness (Part 2)

Over my years in restorative justice I have tracked the way certain words draw much attention as to whether they should be used or not. Take, for example, the word ‘reconciliation’. In the early days of the movement many programs within the Mennonite network in the USA were called Victim Offender Reconciliation Programs. The word ‘reconciliation’ became problematic for many in the field, especially for victim advocates, as it could set up an expectation that was not always realistic or possible. Out of sensitivity, program names adopted more neutral-sounding words about the process, such as ‘mediation’ or ‘dialogue’.

In more recent years ‘forgiveness’ has become something of an ‘f-word’ in certain circles for similar reasons. But this is by no means a disrespect to the meaning of the word. What I have observed is that practitioners still hold a high regard for the dynamics of reconciliation and forgiveness, but they fully recognize how the prescribing of such outcomes can thwart a deep resolution. Conversely (and paradoxically), by not shining explicit light on these relational goals, they more often happen between people who voluntarily open up to each other. The best that third-party helpers can do is to create a safe space in which parties can meet each other face to face, eye to eye, and heart to heart, and thus be in a space where the free gift of forgiveness can be experienced.

Imagine Paul in his Roman prison, talking late into the evening with his new servant Onesimus. Paul learns about the rift in relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, the latter being a household master and church leader back in Colossae. By virtue of sharing his story with Paul, Onesimus has already stepped into the Zone of Openness, a place, by degrees, where parties in conflict must traverse if they are to get unstuck from the past. Whenever a person expresses any amount of openness, perhaps just by being a bit vulnerable to disclose real feelings, a third-party mediator will recognize that an opportunity for relational growth has been created.

But don’t both parties in conflict need to be open if they are to come together? Yes. This is foundational and necessary for all win-win outcomes. Conflict resolution can never be forced on someone. True mediation is antithetical to external or coercive means. It requires internal commitment and internal realizations. For these reasons it has to be internally voluntary on the part of both parties. Considering the social setting of servant-slavery in the Roman-Greco world, it is astonishing to see how Paul elevated the significance of mutuality and free choice over the hierarchical and honor-based values of aristocratic society. And so Paul, 800 miles away from Philemon’s home, maps out a strategy to draw Philemon into the Zone of Openness without any coercion (see vs. 14).

The Zone of Openness

How does Paul invite Philemon into being open about healing a strained relationship? The overall picture is that Paul majors on the positives and not the negatives. The relational conflict is certainly there, running like an electric current under the entire letter. But the focus is on the positive strengths within each party and the positive connections between both parties. These positive human qualities are also framed within the positive spiritual support of God’s involvement. One way to understand this emphasis is that mediators aim to create a surplus of positive mood so parties can draw on this bank account as they choose.

Seasoned mediators do not emphasize the positive side as a technique or gimmick. This is not merely about the power of positive thinking. What is at work here is new bridge-building to offset previous wall-building. Mediators understand that the overcoming of a negative conflict can only be done when the center of gravity shifts into a positive realm. This doesn’t mean that tough issues or feelings don’t come up. They actually need to come up in order to be put to rest. What it does mean is that a good process helps all participants to LEAN into the positives lest they be mentally overcome by the negatives; in this way the positives will overcome the negatives (Romans 12:21).

Paul affirms Philemon’s faith, Philemon’s love, and reinforces Philemon’s good role within the web of his communal relationships. “You, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” This is not flattery; Paul is affirming Philemon’s inherent strengths that can be tapped for mending his relationship with Onesimus. One can also read how Paul is re-establishing his rapport with Philemon as a way to warm up Philemon’s heart toward Onesimus. The letter has the bookends of intimate connection. Philemon is Paul’s “dear friend and fellow worker” and Paul always remembers him in prayer. At the letter’s end Paul writes: “Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.” Talk about optimism! At any rate, Paul, “an old man and a prisoner of Christ,” is expressing a deep personal bond.

What we will see more throughout this letter is how Paul’s own capacity to connect deeply to the humanity of Philemon is tied into the prospect of Philemon connecting deeply to the humanity of Onesimus. In the next posting we will map the emotional energy of conflict between harmed or alienated parties, and see how Paul works with it to shift things from a negative center of gravity to a positive one.


Contacting Ted Lewis

If you would like to make a comment about my entries or ask a question, you are welcome to contact me directly at

Speak Your Mind