Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Bible and Slavery

A few initial thoughts putting the question of why the Bible does not offer an outright condemnation of slavery in context. There is a simple answer sometimes given which has more than a kernel of truth ("slavery was such an integral part of societies in antiquity that calling for the abolishment of slavery in the ancient world would have been akin to calling for the abolishment of money in our world")* but it is worth reflecting on this more broadly.

(1) Slavery is not a natural part of creation order but a social-historical institution. It is possible to be born into slavery but the Bible offers no justification for the belief that some people are born to be slaves based on their race** (as, e.g., in much of Western colonialism) or class (as maybe in the Hindu caste system in the East). There is no instruction within the Bible to uphold slavery as if the institution was necessary for an ideal ordering of the world.

(2) The institution of slavery can and should be regulated. Not all slavery is governed by rules. In the ancient world as well as in Islamic and European and American slave trade, slavery was often linked with kidnapping. This is condemned in the Bible (e.g., Exodus 21:16; Amos 1:6, 9). The people of God under the old covenant were given rules to regulate the institution (Exodus 21:1-11; Leviticus 25:39-55; Deuteronomy 15:12-18) and were commanded not to return fugitive slaves to their masters but welcome them within their own community (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

(3) One corollary of the first two points is that slavery was not a monolithic entity within the biblical world. It can take many and various forms and there are fuzzy boundaries. "Given the historical significance of the Atlantic trade it is not surprising that the dominant stereotype of slavery is that of the New World Afro-American plantation system, a stereotype in which 'slavery is monolithic, invariant, servile, chattel-like, focused on compulsory labour, maintained by violence, and suffused with brute sexuality' (Kopytoff 1982:214). Yet examples from different times and places of what is usually taken to be slavery reveal a great variation in both the type of servitude slaves experienced (a common difference often being noted between domestic and chattel slaves), and the political and economic systems in which the institution existed." (P. Thomas, "Slavery," Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, ed. A. Barnard and J. Spencer [Taylor & Francis, 1996], 509-10, p. 509) Many slaves within the Greco-Roman world carried out sensitive and highly responsible tasks, e.g. as doctors and accountants, teachers and bailiffs, sometimes being better educated than their masters, and emancipation was a real possibility for the majority of urban and domestic slaves.

(4) The assumption within the Bible is that people holding ownership rights over other people is not in and of itself immoral. This is the nub of the issue for us today. It is arguably first of all a philosophical clash relating to notions of freedom and self-determination. In practice the biblical world and ours are not quite as far apart as it appears at first because on the one hand ownership was not total and absolute but governed by God's decrees and on the other hand individual liberty in the contemporary world is also sometimes severely restricted and in the same circumstances that led to slavery in the ancient world, namely economic hardship. Again, the experience of New World slavery misleads some into thinking that slavery is defined by treating people as property in a way which denies their personhood but if one were to accept this definition much of ancient slavery within and outside the Bible would have to be called something else. In the ancient world it was possible to consider slaves both property and persons with legal rights, e.g. the right to appear as witnesses, plaintiffs or defendants in court and to own property, including slaves.

(5) Slavery within the ancient world was gendered. In particular, masters seem to have been universally male or nearly so and female slaves were treated differently from male slaves. A woman sold into slavery regularly became a concubine or secondary wife in the process with attendant obligations and rights. In particular, this seems to have been a way to provide for a woman when a father could not provide a dowry. Thus the issue relates to the question of patriarchy and the relationship between the institution of slavery and the functioning of kinship structures. Masters also bought female slaves to give in marriage to their male slaves.

(6) Legally regulated slavery within ancient societies was regularly related to either avoiding or responding to economic hardship. P. Garnsey observes: "This points to a paradox at the heart of the slave system. Slavery is the most degrading and exploitative institution invented by man. Yet many slaves in ancient societies (not all, not even all skilled slaves, a class that included miners) were more secure and economically better off than the mass of the free poor, whose employment was irregular, low-grade, and badly paid...It was not unknown for free men to sell themselves into slavery to escape poverty and debt, or even to take up posts of responsibility in the domestic sphere." (Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine [CUP, 1996], 5)*^

(7) Slavery was often a consequence of war. This is sometimes considered the chief source of slaves in ancient societies but this seems unlikely for Israel and Judah. The regulations are again gendered and varied depending on the course of the battle. A city that accepted terms of peace seems to have become subject to serfhood as a vassal entity rather than slavery, while military confrontation led to slavery as an alternative to death (cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-15; 21:10-14).

Much more could be said, especially about the way in which Christ elevates slaves in such a way that the abolishment of slavery arguably becomes at one and the same time less urgent and inevitable in the long run but for now it is worth noting by way of summary that the Bible does not condone slavery in all its various forms. It specifically condemns theft and allows for slavery only within a certain framework. The biblical instructions assume (a) that slavery is not in and of itself immoral but can become so, and (b) that there was not always a ready, less de-humanizing alternative to slavery. Today we have found other ways of dealing with people who cannot pay their debts (prison) and children who are an economic burden on their parents (abortion, adoption).

* Cf. "The institution of slavery was taken for granted not only by the free persons but also by the slaves themselves, who never demanded its abolition. Therefore ideology of the [Ancient Near East] contains no condemnation of slavery or any protest against it." (M. A. Dandamayev, "Slavery (ANE)," ABD 6:58-62, p. 61) -- S. S. Bartchy observes that "ancient Greece and Rome are two of only five societies in world history which seem to have been based on slavery." He also notes: "It must also be stressed that, despite the neat legal separation between owners and slaves, in none of the relevant cultures did persons in slavery constitute a social or economic class...Slaves' individual honor, social status, and economic opportunities were entirely dependent on the status of their respective owners, and they developed no recognizable consciousness of being a group or of suffering a common plight...For this reason, any such call as 'slaves of the world unite!' would have fallen on completely deaf ears." ("Slavery (Greco-Roman)," ABD 6:65-73, p. 66)

** "Slavery, which both long preceded and continued after the emergence of race, assumed a new dimension with global racialization. Before the 1400s, slavery was widespread in state societies, but its victims, either recruited internally or from neighbouring groups, were largely physically indistinguishable from slave-holders; slavery was a status that, as fortunes changed, might be held by anyone." (R. Sanjek, "Race," Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, ed. A. Barnard and J. Spencer [Taylor & Francis, 1996], 464-64, p. 463)

*^ See also the various references to debt slavery in R. Westbrook and G. M. Beckman, A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, 2 vols (Brill, 2003) and S. S. Bartchy's comment: "Furthermore, by no means were those in slavery regularly to be found at the bottom of the social-economic pyramid...Rather, in that place were those free and impoverished persons who had to look for work each day without any certainty of finding it (day laborers), some of whom eventually sold thesemlevs into slavery to gain some job security." ("Slavery (Greco-Roman)," p. 66)

Monday, 5 February 2018

Preaching from Colossians 1

I don't usually write my sermons out in full but having written a summary of last week’s sermon for a friend who was hospitalised, I have written a version of my sermon for 4 February 2018, based on Colossians 1:15-20.

Proverbs 8.1,22-31
Psalm 104.26-37
Colossians 1.15-20
John 1.1-14

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”
“What’s it all about?”
“How should we live?”
Today’s readings invite us to think about the big questions. Do we find ourselves acting on impulse, taking one decision at the time without letting those decisions flow from our understanding of what life is about? Thus we might act as if “looking after number 1” is the most important thing in life even though few of us really believe that it is, as becomes clear when we do take a step back and look at a life as a whole.
I have never heard anyone say at a funeral or thanksgiving service, “That guy really knew what life is about; he always looked after his own best interests. Of course, he helped others as well, that’s part and parcel of getting on in life, but at the end of the day he always knew that the most important thing is to do what you like and to pay as little as possible for it. What a man!”

What I have heard more than once is admiration for people for whom nothing was to much. “He would do anything for anybody, without complaining.” Or: “Our mum lived for us; she worked tirelessly to give us a good life.” Do we hear an echo of the self-giving love of God here? Of course a life lived for others is not unproblematic. Sometimes “living for number 1” has merely shifted from an individual to one’s close family and so lacks openness to the wider world. Sometimes those who are known to be there for everyone and anyone end up so much reacting to others that the self (identity) that is doing the giving is little discernible. Does then what many of us recognise as life at its best, namely the love that finds expression in self-giving, by way of balance need a bit of “looking after number 1” as an act of self-preservation?

In the Scriptures we read that true wisdom is found not in such a balancing act but somewhere else. Not “looking after number 1” but looking for/towards number 1 and the number 1 is identified in Paul’s letter to the Colossians as Christ. It is he who is “to have first place in everything” (v18b).

Why should Christ be the number 1 in everything? For starters (literally), he is “the firstborn of all creation” –  this doesn’t just refer to temporal priority: Christ got every thing going: “in him all things...were created” (v16). He is “the firstborn” in the way Jacob’s firstborn Reuben was the beginning of a people, outstanding in dignity, outstanding in power (Genesis 49:3). More than that, “all things have been created through him and for him” – material things and spiritual powers (v16). Christ is not only the agent of creation but also its purpose, not only the one who got it going but also the end of everything. He is firstborn in the sense also of being the legitimate heir of creation.

“He himself is before all things [in time and status] and in him all things hold together.” (v17) Just as all that is physical is, in a sense, held together by the four fundamental forces (gravity; electromagnetism; weak and strong nuclear forces), so the whole universe, visible and invisible, material and immaterial, is held together by the force and person that is Christ. But many of those powers are in rebellion against the one who is their Lord by right and therefore have become oppressive, enslaving and tyrannising – which brings us to the next point.

Reading about Christ as “the head of the body, the church” (v18) after all that was said about his central role for the universe may at first seem a bit of an anti-climax. But it is not. Christ is also “the head of the body, the church” as the founder of a new people, a resurrection people. He is the head because all life in the new creation depends on him.  Being “the firstborn from the dead” (v18) is just as important as being “the firstborn of all creation” (v15). It tells us that Christ is the first not only of the old creation but also of the new.
It is hard to imagine an event of greater significance for the universe than the Big Bang, the very first event. There have been other important events but without this first event there would be no universe. Maybe there is only one event in the history of the universe that is fully equal in significance to the Big Bang: the death of Christ on a cross and his resurrection. It is shocking to think that what was, sadly, a fairly ordinary event at a particular time in a half-forgotten corner of the Roman empire, not noticed by contemporary chroniclers, should be seen of such great significance. But the blood shed on the cross was the Big Bang of the new creation.

The church is not just a motley crew in pews, it is the new humanity that belongs to the new creation. It consists of people who have been reconciled to God, liberated from the rebellious forces that had enslaved us (cf. 2:13-15). Humanity was designed to play a key role in ordering God’s world. The reconciliation of humanity to God is therefore critical for the restoration of all creation, for the establishment of complete harmony. We have come under the spell of deadly powers and it is in Christ that all persons and powers will make their peace with God, one way or another, either being joyfully reconciled to their Creator or being disarmed and rendered harmless. In Christ the rebellion will be overcome and the church is the place where the reconciliation starts to work its way through every nook and cranny of the universe.

How could Christ do it? Let us finally observe that Jesus is not just made in the image of God like Adam; he is the image. We sometimes speak of a divine spark in human lives; in Christ it’s not just a spark, in him the fullness of God dwells – and God is delighted for that to be the case. Christ reflects perfectly the character of God. The invisible God is revealed to us in the person we know as Jesus of Nazareth. This is why he is the one who must be first in old and new creation.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Because  God wanted to express himself in a created world. So what’s it all about? Reflecting God’s glorious goodness in God’s world. How should we live then? With wisdom, centred on Christ, the perfect image of God.

If Christ is the hub of the wheel of life, for both the old and the renewed creation, as Scripture testifies, he deserves our full allegiance – and not just ours but the allegiance of everyone. And he does not only deserve it, allegiance to him is what will make us more truly human, one decision at a time.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Preaching from Deuteronomy 18

I don't usually have sermon notes that are sufficiently self-explanatory to go on a blog but I am writing up a summary of two sermons to email the summaries to someone who was missing today's and last Sunday's services.So here is a brief summary of the morning sermon for Sunday, 28 January 2018, on Deuteronomy 18:15-20.

I was reflecting last week on how we think about "religion" - what it is and what it is there for. I suggested that most religions offer coherence to a community with a set of beliefs about the cause, nature and purpose of the universe, a set of moral precepts to guide conduct, and a set of devotional and ritual performances. Ideally, I supposed, a creed is meant to give a higher meaning to our lives, a code of conduct is meant to put our lives into a broader context of values, and a cult to give us a deeper experience. Today we have individualism with some turning away altogether from any concept of a higher meaning or broader context to our individual lives and others picking and mixing their own "religion" maybe with a secular creed, a behavioural code inherited from one's kin, and sports or music as a means to get deeper experiences. Alas, with that comes the disintegration of coherence, often even in individual lives but certainly for communities. Today we also have pluralism, a global marketplace wherein one's own religion and traditions can no longer be taken for granted and societies which struggle to host different religious groups (which is only possible, if one "religion" plays the host and within the UK the two main contenders, Christianity and classical liberalism, are maybe no longer widely enough respected).

I pointed out that the strong desire to declare all religions equal (equally good or bad for us) is misguided as any concern with higher meaning must face the question of truth and falsehood, any code of conduct raises the question "who decides what is right and wrong?", and the different devotional practices are not really meant to gives us deeper experiences only but raise the question of the relationship between our realm and the divine. It would therefore be reductionist to evaluate religions simply on the basis whether they succeed in giving people a sense of being part of something bigger and help them to lead decent and fulfilled lives in the community. We must also ask about the relationship between the natural and the supernatural in any religion and how the two realms interact.

I then talked about how therefore in Deuteronomy 18:9-14 a culture is condemned and the people of God are called to be different. What is in view here is a religion that uses mechanical, a-moral means as it tries to get answers to the riddles of life and the future and to manipulate the divine realm. This is all swept aside in Israel in favour of prophecy as the means by which God, on his own initiative, makes himself and his will known to his people, Deuteronomy 18:15ff. Somewhat unusually within the ancient world, professional prophets within Israel often operated independent of other institutions, especially the palace and the temple, and so underline that the final authority lies with God. (Note also how prophecy is discussed last in this section of Deuteronomy, following instructions for king and sanctuary.) This of course makes it critical to distinguish between true and false prophecy and I talked a little about that before turning to Christ whose teaching is as instrumental in founding a new community and kingdom as was that of Moses for founding the old community and kingdom. Here I made a link to the Gospel reading (Mark 1:27), suggesting that the teaching of Jesus was new because it did not defer to previous authority but belongs to the new creation, leading to an enlarged creed, a deepened moral code and a changed cult.

So how do we think about our religion? We have been infected by a virus that will seriously harm our spiritual health, rendering us unable to function properly, if our religion is for us
  • a merely personal set of beliefs not necessarily valid for others, plus 
  • a code of conduct we want to follow but others may not, plus 
  • a set of rituals that works for us but may not work for others. 
Instead we should think of the Christian religion as
  • a set of beliefs that claim to be universally true, 
  • a challenge to live a life pleasing to God, 
  • devotion that can taken many forms but must be "in spirit and in truth" and 
  • above all: Christ himself - he is the one to whom we are bound. 
If Christ is who he claims to be, he deserves our full allegiance - and not just ours but the allegiance of everyone.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Denys Turner in The Atheism Tapes

Notes from some of the things Denys Turner said in the clip Jonathan Miller in conversation with Denys Turner
Being a card-carrying atheist is no longer intellectually interesting in the way it still was in the 19th century. Indifference is more troubling, as it ceases to be astonished and rules out certain questions, especially “Why is there any thing at all?”
“There is all the difference in the world between a question concerning HOW things are and the question concerning THAT things are.”
Classically: creatio ex nihilo. This is an odd expression. Aquinas pointed that there isn’t a kind of thing that the name “nothing” names.
“God is not any kind of thing...We’re not talking about something that’s on the map of creation. We’re talking about something that’s off the map of creation.”
Hence the need for negative theology, “knowing that you don’t know what you’re talking about”. Theology is “the sense that on the other side of our language is something which sustains it but which can’t be contained within it.” Cf. Ludwig Wittgenstein at the end of his Tractatus logico-philosophicus “What underlies how we say things cannot itself be said.” [strongly interpretative rendering of “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”]
Bertrand Russell: “the world is simply given” – better: “the world is gifted, it has been given to us by a good and loving God”
The language of gift presumes intentionality but beware the language of purpose. Gifts can be gratuitous; a thing can exist simply because this sort of thing is beautiful.

Either everything, in some way or another, including failure, reveals God, or the atheist position is correct.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Schistocerca Gregaria

While there is enough food the desert locusts live individually on their own, meeting only for mating. They are greenish light brown in this (solitaria) phase.

But in arid times foraging grounds become smaller and the locusts meet each other more often. Rubbing against each other, especially at their hind legs, effects a profound change of phase in the animals which leads to a different behaviour within hours. At this (gregaria) phase the animals meet in swarms, after a generation their body grows bigger, the jaw stronger and they now look a reddish brown.

Right into the 20th c. these were thought to be two different species.

Nesina Grütter, Das Buch Nahum. Eine vergleichende Untersuchung des masoretischen Texts und der Septuagintaübersetzung (WMANT 148; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Theologie, 2016), 204.

See further M. Rothschild, B. Gardiner, R. Mummery, and G. Valadon, "Carotenoids in the solitaria and gregaria phases of the locust: Schistocerca gregaria fed on artificial and natural diets," Journal of Zoology 181 (1977): 475–494.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Numbering Pascal's Thoughts

Blaise Pascal did not number his thoughts. The various editors combined different bits and pieces of the textual tradition here and there with their own numbering. This can make it hard to locate a thought. A precise concordance is impossible in the nature of things but, thankfully, Prof. em. Dr. Dr. Thomas Bonhoeffer has created an excel sheet which points to broadly equivalent passages in  several French editions. See the link to his "flexible concordance" here.
Maybe Pascal's most famous aphorism comes from this thought:
Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point; on le sait en mille choses. Je dis que le coeur aime l’être universel naturellement, et soi-même naturellement selon qu’il s’y adonne; et il se durcit contre l’un ou l’autre à son choix. Vous avez rejeté l’un et conservé l’autre: est-ce par raison que vous vous aimez?

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its will. You have rejected the one, and kept the other. Is it by reason that you love yourself?

This is Brunschvicg 277 = Strowski 89 = Chevalier 477 = Lafuma 423 = Kaplan 85. In the editions by Brunschvicg, Strowski, and Lafuma this is followed by this thought (which is Chevalier 481 and Kaplan 83):
C’est le coeur qui sent Dieu et non la raison. Voilà ce que c’est que la foi: Dieu sensible au coeur, non à la raison.
It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.
 English translation from Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, translated by W. F. Trotter, The Harvard Classics XLVIII, Part 1 (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14); [2001; accessed 26 Dec 2017].

Monday, 25 December 2017

Am heiligen Christfest

Herr Gott himmlischer Vater, wir danken Dir, daß Du schon vor Grundlegung der Welt den Ratschluß unserer Erlößung gefaßt; daß Du, als die Erstgeschaffenen der Versuchung der Schlange erlegen waren, den Trost der Verheißung in der Menschheit aufgerichtet und als nun die Zeit erfüllet war den gnadenreichen Plan Deiner erfinderischen Liebe ins Werk gesetzt hast. Was Du den Vätern des alten Bundes in Weissagungsworten und Vorbildern in Aussicht gestellt hast, das hast Du treulich und herrlich über Bitten und Verstehen erfüllet; denn also hast Du die Welt geliebt, daß Du Deinen eingeborenen Sohn gabst.
Und Dir, Sohn Gottes, Jesu Christe, danken wir, daß Du von Ewigkeit her Dich in unaussprechlicher Liebe entschlossen hast, für uns, die Kinder des Zorns, ins Mittel zu treten; daß Du, als die Zeit erfüllet war, die Herrlichkeit, die Du bei dem Vater hattest, ehe der Welt Grund gelegt war, verlassen hast, um Dich in unser Fleisch und Blut zu versenken und Deine Gottesherrlichkeit mit der Knechtsgestalt zu vertauschen, und daß Du unseres Gleichen geworden, unsere Sünden gebüßt und unsre Schuld mit Deiner Unschuld gedeckt und uns Gott wieder angenehm gemacht hast in Dir, dem ewig und unendlich Geliebten. Als die Erde gegründet wurde, da jubelten zusamt die Morgensterne und jauchzten alle Kinder Gottesö als aber die Erde durch Deine Menschwerdung der allerhöchsten Ehre gewürdigt und das ewige Liebesgeheimnis offenbar ward, da staunten die Himmel und die Menge der himmlischen Heerscharen feierete diesen Anbruch des Lichts in der Mitternacht und sang: Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe und Frieden auf Erden und den Menschen ein Wohlgefallen.
Und Du Gott heiliger Geist, der Du einst die Wasser des Schöpfungsanfangs überschwebtest, daß die Erde daraus emportauchte, Du warst es auch, der die Gebenedeite unter den Weibern überschattete, damit der Sündlose empfangen und geboren würde, der die sündige Erde erlösen sollte. Von Dir in den Schoß der Jungfrau hineingewirkt, ward uns die unaussprechliche Gabe des Christfestes zu teil, das Himmelskind, welches Himmel und Erde versöhnt hat, Christus Jesus, welcher uns gemacht ist von Gott zur Weisheit und zur Gerechtigkeit und zur Heiligung und zur Erlösung. Wir danken Dir, daß Du durch die heilige Taufe uns in seine Gemeinschaft gepflanzt, und bitten Dich: mache auch, so oft wir sein Abendmahl feiern, sein Fleisch und Blut zum Pfande unserer Entsündigung, zur Triebkraft unserer Heiligung, zur Macht unserer Verklärung, auf daß wir, die wir jetzt an der Krippe anbeten, einst um seinen Thron versammelt seien und ihn sehen von Angesicht. Amen.

Franz Delitzsch, Das Sakrament des wahren Leibes und Blutes Jesu Christi: Beicht- und Kommunionbuch, siebte Auflage (Leipzig: Justus Naumann, 1886), 214-216.