Philemon and Forgiveness (Part 3)

We all know of situations where two family members reach a state of not being on speaking terms with each other. This is not only something we see in French drama movies; it can happen within any extended family system. Due to the escalation of an interpersonal conflict, one or both parties may choose to not speak or communicate to the other. Why is this? It may be a way to avoid further tension and pain; it may also be a way to deny the truth of past tension and pain. Whatever the source, the result is like having an electric force field between two people that prevents them from connecting well with each other. And nobody likes to get an electrical shock.

We don’t fully know the source of tension between Philemon and Onesimus, but we do know that it was significant enough for Paul to pull out all the stops in his short letter in order to jump-start a process of relational reconciliation. We also know that it may have involved monetary loss for Philemon (verse 18 and 19). In my last entry I emphasized how Paul highlighted the positives in both parties as a way to soften Philemon’s heart toward Onesimus. Paul set the stage by writing about the positive strengths in each person and about the positive points of connection between them, both past and future. What I want to write about now is how Paul was actually able to absorb some of the negative charge of the conflict, to use an electrical metaphor, as a way to make it easier for both parties to move forward and to come together.

Paul was able to absorb some of the negative charge of the conflict

Whenever there is a lightning storm with huge cloud banks rubbing against each other, there ends up being a discharge of negative electrons that all gather somewhere in excess. Eventually, this charge has to jump somewhere to balance the ionic differential in the air, and that is why lightning aims for the ground where it gets absorbed. In brief, excess negative charge is ‘grounded’ in the ground. The same applies to a ground wire for appliances. This third-wire system is designed to safely carry an escaped charge to a grounded place. Is it possible that third-party mediators and facilitators can also ground the excess of negative emotional charge and direct it toward safe outlets? I think so.


Paul serves as a great example of one who is helping to ground the excess charge that has built up from the relational ‘rubs’ between Philemon and Onesimus. For one thing, he is fully aware of the ‘connection vs. separation’ dynamics in the strained relationship. Paul places himself into the gap-factor in that strained relationship and serves like a conducting element to help re-establish a positive connection. Speaking to Philemon he writes, “I am sending him — who is my very heart — back to you. I would have kept him with me so that he could take your place in helping me…” (12,13). From all of this we get a sense of how Paul has inserted himself into the equation as if to say, “If you are well connected to me (which you are), then you can become re-connected to each other.” Verse 17 reinforces this: “If you consider me a partner, accept him as you would accept me.”

This is all about building trust. Paul is building up trust where there had been a trust deficit. Most interpersonal conflicts boil down to the loss ost_paul1f trust between people, and with the loss of trust comes the loss of good communication. To reverse this downward spiral, positive communication is needed to regenerate trust. One reason mediators and facilitators meet separately with parties before bringing them together is that they are establishing new lines of trust. In this context mediators are building up a new bank account of trust from which the parties can later draw upon to re-establish their own trust in each other. There is a reason why we use monetary metaphors for trust such as ‘earning trust’ or ‘raising trust’. This is because trust truly operates on a credit/debit basis, and mediators play a key role in restoring lost trust.

One of the most powerful symbols of restored trust that I have witnessed countless times in mediation meetings is the proverbial handshake at the close of the meeting. That gesture communicates a host of things regarding the transition from the old to the new. Specifically, this is a shift from a relationship previously defined by the negatives of the past to a relationship newly defined by the positives of the future. The simplest way to understand the thrust of Paul’s letter is how it facilitates that shift. (It is interesting that ‘facile’ in French means ‘to make easy’.) What we have learned so far is that Paul assists this process by accentuating positive elements and by diffusing negative charges, acting as a ground wire, so that eventually a normal, safe current can operate between the other two parties.

Paul’s role as mediator is in full concert with his broader theological and eschatological orientation. Paul is helping to bring a new future into the present situation in order to redeem the difficulties rooted in the past. And in this light, the terms ‘conflict transformation’ and ‘restorative justice’ are well-named terms in the field of resolving human problems! In our next entry we will consider how Paul helps both parties to re-narrate their conflict as a way to help them to re-unite.


Contacting Ted Lewis

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