Eric Ekstrand brings us a poem in response to Philemon 1:22-25.
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22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.
23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus; 24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers. 25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
“One thing more—prepare a guest room for me” (Phlm. 1:22a)
Philemon makes for excellent rhetorical study in the genre of the Guilt Trip. One imagines this business letter read to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus; but also publicly in front of the whole church at Colossae. The line, “but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced” in that setting winks deliciously with passive-aggression. Also, the final reference to Paul and Mark as “workers” (a common title Paul takes), and the economic language “charge that to my account” are biting in the context of an appeal on behalf of Onesimus, a slave.
But, while a contemporary reader may be satisfied too quickly and for beat too long by Paul and Timothy’s between-the-lines, if not subtle, shaming of Philemon, eventually that reader will be unwantedly visited by the specter of this letter’s use as scriptural courage for advocates of the southern US slave economy. Paul never questions the moral ground of owning another person, only stressing the importance of treating owned people well; and who would know how that 15-year-old boy was treated after this letter was received, or whether or not he was returned to Paul, troublingly, as a human gift. (Ignatius of Antioch, some fifty years later, reports that the Bishop of Ephesus is a man named “Onesimus”—a common name for slaves, but the heart broadens at the possibility.)
When we read the letter to Philemon, we will also hear the overtone of Paul’s admonition to the church at Galatia, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” and consider whether Paul, here, is staying his hand to practical effect. And we would also want to know whether 1Timothy and Titus are authentic letters; because, in both, the command is for slaves to obey their masters.
All this got me thinking about conflict: internal, external. Conflict is the mark of the Holy Spirit and therefore the early church as well as the fractious Body of Christ today. Conflict within the body and Body–the conscious body, a conflicted singularity– is where I started the poem. I remembered an account of split-brain patients that I read about first in David Eagleman’s Incognito for a writing class I teach on Evil. I am not an expert, by a long stretch, but here is what I learned: The two hemispheres of the brain have different and equally important roles in information processing, but left brain usually “wins” when it comes to decision-making (as its primary functions involve language and logic), and the right snivels in its subordination, conducting object recognition, empathy, humor etc. When the corpus callosum is sectioned–the band of white matter that coordinates between the two halves–we discover a battle between the left and right brain that is always rumbling, although most of us will never be able to be conscious of it.
Split-brain patients can often learn to compensate quite successfully for their parallel processing and are often indistinguishable from adults whose corpus callosum still coordinates the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. Initially, though, these patients experience a nightmarish dissolving of the hierarchy of decision-making, where both hemispheric actors have equal “say,” resulting in confused, contradictory, and sometimes terrifying double-actions. I am hesitant to put what is a difficult reality for these patients and their loved ones to abstract philosophizing; but I do it anyway when I think, through the poem, “We do not know ourselves and we do not know each other: we should be most careful when we start to imagine that we do.” This is how Philemon might still prepare a guest room for Paul, and how Paul could request it, first.
Eric Ekstrand lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with his husband, Danny, and his father, Ken. He teaches writing at Wake Forest University. He is the recipient of a 2009 Ruth Lilly Fellowship awarded by The Poetry Foundation and graduated from the University of Houston with an MFA in Creative Writing in 2010. He is a former poetry editor of Gulf Coast:A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Poetry, jubilat, Indiana Review, Black Warrior Review, Bat City Review, and elsewhere. His first collection, Laodicea, was selected by Donald Revell for the Omnidawn 1st/2nd book prize and will be published this spring.