I am Spartacus: Martyn Percy's address to LGCM's 40th birthday service, May 2016

I am Spartacus:  Martyn Percy's address to LGCM's 40th birthday service, May 2016

“I am Spartacus”

LGCM 40th Anniversary

The Very Revd. Prof. Martyn Percy, Dean, Christ Church, Oxford

Let me begin by saying ‘Happy Birthday!’. And thanking LGCM, and all who have worked in, for it and with it, for your patience, endurance, resilience and faithfulness.  This has been a long and winding road.  It is not over yet, I know.  But we are, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, within sight of the Promised Land, when people will no longer be judged on their colour, creed, gender or sexuality, but will, instead, be simply treated as a person of equal. Equally created in God’s image. Equally redeemed by Christ. Equally possessed by the Holy Spirit. And equal member in God’s Kingdom, and so yes, and equal person in the church, here and now, on earth.

That’s all we pray for, and all we yearn for. And I thank God for LGCM’s prophetic, pastoral and prescient witness over these past forty years.  May God continue to bless this work. May God bring all our toil to fullness and fruition.

So today I want to travel back through time and to around 70BC, and then to about 70 AD.  And I want to talk about rebellion and dissent as acts of freedom – as acts that radically express our humanity, and God’s purpose for humanity: to be free.

So let me begin in 70BC.  The film, Spartacus (1960; directed by Stanley Kubrick) needs little introduction.  Starring Kirk Douglas as the rebellious slave, it is based on a historical novel by Howard Fast – and inspired by the real life of a Thracian slave who led the revolt in the Third Servile War of 73-71 BC.  A small band of former gladiators and slaves, perhaps no more than eighty in number, and led by Spartacus, grew to an army of around 125,000, to challenge the might of the Roman Empire.  Kubrick’s film starred Laurence Olivier as the Roman general-politician, Marcus Licinius CrassusPeter Ustinov won an Academy Award for best supporting actor as Batiatus, a slave trader.  Jean Simmons and Tony Curtis also starred. The film won four Oscars.

Less well-known is the film’s own story of rebellion.  The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, along with several other Hollywood writers, had been blacklisted for his political beliefs, and associations with movements seeking equality for coloured and black people, as well as members of the American Communist Party, some of whom were jailed.  Even though the age of McCarthyism was crumbling, it still took a young aspirational Senator – John F. Kennedy – crossing the picket lines to see the film, to help end Trumbo’s blacklisting.  Howard Fast had also been blacklisted, and originally self-published his novel.

Looking back, we can see why Trumbo’s script should perhaps have caused audiences to ponder some potential for subversive political messages.  But there were more obvious, overt challenges to the establishment in the film. 

For example, much of America was still colour-segregated in 1960.  But we are introduced to Draba, a heroic black slave, first overpowering the white Spartacus in gladiatorial combat – and then sacrificing his own life in protest at the oppression of slaves.  Equally unusual, for a Hollywood film of that era, was an ending that was both realistic and tragic – seemingly without hope.  

The film also explores different kinds of love between men: rare for the time.  There is the relationship between Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis) – made to fight to the death by their Roman captors.  The final words between them are ‘Forgive me, Antoninus’ (Spartacus), to which the dying Antoninus replies, ‘I love you, Spartacus…’.  Earlier in the film, we find Crassus (Olivier), and his then slave, Antoninus (Curtis) in a bathing scene – with the slave gently sponging and washing his master.  The ‘gay subtext’ is pretty clear, Crassus declaring his passion for both ‘oysters and snails’:

 

Crassus: Do you eat oysters?

Antoninus: When I have them, master.

Crassus: Do you eat snails?

Antoninus: No, master.

Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of

snails to be immoral?

Antoninus: No, master.

Crassus: Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn't it?

Antoninus: Yes, master.

Crassus: …taste is not the same as appetite, [so] not a question of morals?

Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.

Crassus: My robe, Antoninus. My taste includes both snails and oysters.

 

Here, Trumbo’s screenplay gives us an interesting excursion into moral philosophy.  There is nothing wrong with taste (or orientation) according to Crassus; the ethical issue is the sating, or control, of appetite.  Crassus’ bi-sexuality in this scene – like others – carries subtle, seditious subtexts.  The viewer of the film is being challenged on many levels: issues of race, sexuality, political hierarchy and slavery are all strongly featured in the screenplay.  Yet most cinema-goers at the time would have missed these themes, explicitly.  Although when you look at a lot of half-naked men, very fit, tanned and oiled, in gladiatorial combat – you do begin to wonder…!

That said, many in the cinema audience might have perhaps sensed some of these themes implicitly.  It was Kierkegaard who opined that ‘life is lived forward, but understood backwards’.  So it is unlikely that cinema-goers in the early 1960’s picked up any subversive sublimation in the sub-plots.  But looking back, we can understand what Trumbo may have wanted to say at the dawn of a new decade, in a repressive social and political climate that was about to become progressively liberal.

 

Well, so much for 70BC. And you can see why a film about an almost-successful-slave-rebellion did not play well in cinemas in the south of the USA when there was still colour segregation, and to a large extent, slavery.  But what about 70AD?

 

The gospel of Christ is radically inclusive: Jew, Greek, Gentile, slave, free – all shall be welcome in the Kingdom of God. So, what of our reading from Galatians? If you could travel back in time to Paul’s Colossae, you would notice, like any city of the day that they were buzzing with cultural and ethnic diversity – much like our cities today.  But there were some crucial differences too.  It was difficult to keep order in such cities.  Cities, to be well-ordered, were governed by assemblies.  These were sometimes called ekklesia – an ancient commonplace secular word from which we derive the term ‘church’.  And to help keep order in cities, ethnic groups who were non-citizens often lived in neighbourhoods or ghettoes.  Indeed, even in modern times, we find areas of a city – sometimes called ‘quarters’, such as a Latin Quarter, literally meaning places to stay – for the Spaniards, French, Chinese; and sometimes for groups that are marginalised (e.g., Jewish ghetto).  In ancient times, the areas reserved in a city for non-citizens were known as paroikia – from which we get the English word ‘parish’.  This is where the resident aliens lived; those who lived in the city, contributed to its welfare, but had no voting rights as such.

In the churches that Paul knew, the ekklesia was complex.  People gathered – they assembled; in itself, unusual for a religion.  In the first churches, we find Jews, Greeks and Romans; slave and free; male and female.  All one in Christ.  The slaves are marked with tattoos; the children run free; the men and women mix; origin and ethnicity no longer matter, for all are one in Jesus Christ.  In this radical new ‘assembly’ of non-citizens, all are equal.  Class, race, gender and age are all transcended.  The ‘parish church’, then, is the inside place for the outsider.  Or as William Temple once put it, the only club that exists for non-members.  This is what it means to be one in Christ: built together to be the dwelling place of God; the oikos – ‘God’s household’.  The body of Christ, indeed.

Churches rarely think about the origins of their identity in this radical way.  They mostly go about their business assuming their values, and implicitly imbibing these from one generation to the next.  In a way, this is a pity, as valuable practices are often left to chance: inchoate by nature, they simply persist implicitly.  Churches rarely think, for example, about how and why they welcome the strangers and aliens in their midst – mostly very easily, and without fuss or further reflection.  But welcome they do: not only giving to the stranger, but also receiving from them.  This is not merely an observation about how Christians engage with others who are not kith and kin; it is also a remark about the oft-hidden dynamic of reception, gift and charity.  So just how revolutionary is the church?

To some extent, it is a pity that the term ‘inclusive’ today has become so bound up with a slightly tribal and ‘liberal’ identity.  But perhaps this should not surprise us.  For the word ‘include’ began its life with a fairly insular definition.  Drawing from the Latin word includere, it means to ‘to shut in, enclose or imprison’ – just as ‘exclude’ meant to ‘shut out’. 

But Jesus is not for either option.  The defining character of the Kingdom of God Jesus inaugurated draws from a rather richer word: incorporate.  That is to say, to put something into the body or substance of something else; from the Latin incorporare, it means to ‘unite into one body’.  The Kingdom of God, like the church, was to be one of hybridity.  A lesson Jesus learnt in his childhood, and embodied in adulthood.  God brings us all together.  He’s all done with working through a single tribe or race.  The church that begins at Pentecost has been dress-rehearsed in Jesus’ ministry: it will be multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-racial.  It will be multiple.  Yet we, though being many, are one body. 

So, I am not for an exclusive church. I am not for membership of inclusive church.  I am for Christ.  And when we look at Colossians 4, what do we find? A long list of names – foreign and local, Jew and Greek, slave and free, who are not part of a new tribe, but, rather, part of an international ekklesia. The church, you see, is the outworking of Jesus’ ministry. That’s all the church is.  That’s all ecclesiology is, actually: our social and embodied response to what our theology is. Who we think Christ is tends to determine what kind of church we attempt to shape.  That’s why Paul exhorts us to ‘be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone…’.  Our evangelism, in other words, comes not just from our words, but also our goodness, and our character.  We are called to be a good, open and welcoming body: the church.

 

So what has Spartacus got to do with the Church of England, perplexed as it currently is (again) by questions of sexuality?  The social changes in the last decade have caught the church off guard, and on the defensive.  It is only just over 25 years ago that Section 28 (of the Local Government Act, 1988) stated that a local authority should not intentionally promote homosexuality, or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.  Tony Blair’s Labour Government attempted to repeal this in 2000.  But the House of Lords resisted for three years, until Section 28 was finally defeated in 2003 – by a comfortable two-thirds majority. 

 

In the summer of 2013, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned that allowing gay couples to marry would ‘diminish’ Christian marriage, and ‘damage the fabric of society’.  In the ensuing debate, the House of Lords voting was sobering: 390 Peers were in favour of the same-sex marriage bill, with only 148 against.  A substantial majority of people in our country are now in favour of affirming the love, and rights, of same-sex couples seeking publicly-recognized and legal life-long union.  This change has been well-tracked by sociologists such as Professor Linda Woodhead.  (See ‘What People Really Believe About Same-Sex Marriage’, Modern Believing, volume 55, issue 1, 2014, pp. 27ff).  Her recent research project shows that attitudes amongst churchgoers have now shifted significantly towards a more liberal and tolerant mindset.  This contrasts starkly with our current church leadership. 

 

Woodhead’s research shows that the country is becoming progressively more tolerant and liberal.  Statistical surveys repeatedly show growing toleration for same-sex unions in congregations and amongst clergy, across the theological spectra.  Recent studies carried out by Gallup (USA) confirm the cultural shifts.  (Clive Field and Ben Clements in ‘Public Opinion Towards Homosexuality and Gay Rights in Great Britain’, in Public Opinion Quarterly, July 2014, also confirm these trends).  In 1977, 56% of Americans thought that homosexual people should have equal rights in the workplace; the figure now exceeds 90%.  One can begin to see why the church, in withholding a licence to officiate from a clergyman who has recently married his same-sex partner, merely looks like petty discrimination to the wider world.

 

But whilst the nation has turned its face towards justice, integrity and equality, our senior church leaders have turned the other way.  The confident national church of the 1960’s and 1970’s – often producing senior clergy at the forefront of progressive social change on decriminalising homosexuality or divorce laws, for example – gave way to a more circumspect church in the closing years of the 20th century. 

As our culture quickly changed, the Church of England busied itself with Issues in Human Sexuality (1991), or keeping elements of the Communion onside with Resolution 1.10 at the 1998 Lambeth Conference.  Meanwhile, our nation offered sanctuary to people, persecuted for their sexuality, seeking asylum from overseas.  We are now witnessing what I term the ‘Soaking-Ceiling-Syndrome’.  Everyone can see the sagging bulge; some puddles are forming on the floor below.   No-one dares to prod.  Some hope it will all dry out, and the problem go away.  It won’t.  Change is here to stay.  Many evangelicals now also understand this, and are quietly adapting.

 

Yet despite this, the early years of the 21st century have seen our senior church leaders arguing (in the House of Lords) for more exemptions on equality legislation, and taking a continued hard line against homosexual practice and gay marriage.  In the 21st century our senior leaders have slowly kettled the church into behaving like a wary sect on the subject of sexuality.  It’s ironic that this ‘leadership’ largely consists of nervous silence.  Underlying this has been enormous confusion in the church concerning the relationship between secularism and liberalism.  But they are quite different.  Secularism marginalises religion.  Liberalism, however, has deep and profound roots in progressive, orthodox Christianity, which are found in the teachings of Jesus and his disciples – equality, justice and liberation being just some of the values that the early church embodied, and sought to extend to wider society.

 

The capacity of our church leaders to grasp the opportunities in society today – one for renewed mission and ministry in the context of complex changes within our culture – have been egregiously spurned.  Our crusading conservatism has left the church looking self-righteous, sour, mean-spirited and isolated.  In his prescient Refounding the Church (1993), Gerry Arbuckle argues that dissenters in society not only have rights, but also duties.  He notes with care how Jesus, as a principled dissenter, challenged the status quo with patience, tolerance and love.  He also argues that dissent is an essential component in mission – a mission that witnesses to the world, and also converts the church. 

 

But Jesus is more than a dissenter.  Because Jesus takes on the suffering and affliction of the individuals he cures, such that it becomes part of him.  This view would not have been strange to the early Church Fathers, whose progressive move towards a richly incarnational theology required them to conclude that what was not assumed could not be redeemed.  So, Jesus risks social ostracization when he dines with Zacchaeus, consorts with sinners, and receives women of dubious repute into his company, precisely in order to take on their brokenness, as well as take on the taboos of society that maintain structures that divorce the secular and sacred. 

As Janet Soskice has pointed out, it is no different in the healing miracles themselves.  Noting the story of the haemorrhaging woman in Luke 8:40-56 (c.f. Mk. 5:21-43 & Mt.9: 18-34), she points out that what is striking about it is Jesus’ willingness to touch or be touched by an ‘impure’ woman.  Although modern readers of the text may find this aspect of the narrative difficult, the significance of Jesus’ action should not be underestimated; ‘[she] defiled the teacher which, according to Levitical law, she would have done for she was in a state of permanent uncleaness, polluting everyone and everything with whom  she came into contact’. Her poverty – ‘she had spent all she had’ – is a direct result of her affliction. 

Yet Jesus, apart from healing her, also seems to challenge the social and religious forces that have rendered this woman ‘contagious’.  Jesus calls her ‘daughter’ in all three accounts, and all three Evangelists stress the woman’s faith.  Interestingly, the Synoptic accounts of the haemorrhaging woman are all paired with the raising of Jairus’ daughter.  Again, the issues of impurity (touching a corpse) and of menstruation occur: the girl is twelve, and her untimely death clearly prevents her from entering womanhood.  Jesus declares her ‘not dead, but sleeping’, and his touch, resulting in his defilement, raises the girl.

Frank Kermode’s work has important resonances with the observations made by Soskice. Kermode’s discussion of the purity issues in Mark 5 picks up on the fact that the stories of the haemorrhaging woman and Jairus’ daughter have been paired and conflated. Kermode cites as evidence for this the undue prominence Mark gives to the narrative by the sharing of the number ‘twelve’ (the girl is 12, and the woman has also been ill for 12 years): ‘this coincidence signifies a narrative relation of some kind between the woman and the girl...an older woman is cured of a menstrual disorder of twelve years’ standing, and is sent back into society.  A girl who has not yet reached puberty is reborn...’.

Kermode presses his claim that the narrative is centred on gender-related taint with some force: ‘they take their complementary ways out of sickness into society, out of the unclean into the clean.’  Jesus does not negate either of the women, nor does he ‘demonise’ their afflictions, or imply that they are unclean – the healing comes from their being accepted by him as they are: their ‘defilement’ is done away with.

Modern readers might well struggle with these texts, and wonder what all the fuss is about in relation to normal issues in ‘feminine hygiene’.  But contemporary society may not be quite as progressive as it imagines.  The story of how the Samaritans began – the organisation founded in 1953 by the Reverend Chad Varah – has some resonance with the story of Jairus’ daughter. 

Varah’s inspiration came from an experience he had had as a young curate in the city (and diocese) of Lincoln. Varah had taken a funeral for a girl of fourteen who had killed herself because she had begun menstruating, and was mortified that the girl had to be buried in un-consecrated ground, with parts of the burial liturgy redacted as it was a suicide.  Varah became concerned about the state of sex education for teenagers in the city, and started to work with young people, especially listening to those who were contemplating suicide.  Varah’s Samaritan movement grew rapidly when he subsequently moved to London.  Within ten years, the Samaritans were a sizeable charity, offering a supportive and empathetic listening service which is not political or religious.

So, the story of Jairus’ daughter and that of the older woman (both women, note, are unnamed) are remarkable.  The pairing of these two stories seems to turn everything around.  A woman becomes a daughter, and a daughter becomes a woman.  Moreover, we might also allow ourselves a little speculation.  What precisely is the relationship between Jairus and the bleeding woman?  Remember, Jairus is the Synagogue Ruler, and would therefore have an instrumental role in policing its precincts, keeping the impure and undesirable out.  So now we have a story about immediacy and patience.  The woman has waited for twelve years – and probably been excluded from worship for the same period of time.  One of the subtle yet blunt exercises of power is to make people wait, or be kept waiting. 

If you are in power, people wait to see you – or you keep them waiting; it is the powerless who must wait.  For that appointment, the letter, the news, the interview – waiting is a form of powerlessness.  Jairus kept this woman waiting for years; but he wants Jesus, to heal his daughter, now.  What does Jesus do?  He gets distracted by an apparently pointless brush with a member of the crowd, and keeps Jairus waiting – and too long too. 

Where is the lesson in this?  This is a miracle with a moral.  So, we are now in a position to understand the significance of Jesus’ encounter with the two women, and their ‘healing’, or indeed, why Jesus bothered with lepers.  When, in the midst of the dynamics of this particular understanding of the relationship between an ‘impure’ body and the social body, Jesus reaches out and touches the unclean and declares them healed, he acts as an alternative boundary keeper in a way that is religiously and ritually subversive to the customs of society.  Jesus disrupts and undermines the social order that declares such people outcasts.  So, Jesus makes possible a new community that now refuses to be founded upon the exclusion of the other. 

And so to return to Spartacus.  As the film closes, Crassus tries to identify his nemesis amidst the slaughtered remains and remnant of the crushed slave rebellion, the surviving comrades of Spartacus stand as one to proclaim, ‘I am Spartacus’.  We all are now.  I am Spartacus. I am Spartacus.  Because I will not stand by and see you crushed.  and like Spartacus’ slave army, there are millions more like me, who simply say ‘not in my name’ will the church oppress you.  Oppress my gay brother and lesbian sister in Christ, and you oppress me. I would rather die free than live under oppression.  I am Spartacus.

The human spirit will not be crushed.  Tyranny will not triumph.  There is beautiful, loving solidarity abiding in our shared, deepest dissent.  Surely it is better to die free than live enslaved?  Yet some will point to how the film finishes.  The hero is cruelly forced to take the life of his dearest companion in a hastily-organised duel-to-the-death.  For the ‘victor’, only crucifixion awaits – with thousands of others along the Appian Way.  And there the rebellion ends; as might the story. 

But Kubrick’s epic has one more scene.  The slave-woman Varinia (played by Jean Simmonds), the lover of Spartacus, and with whom she has now borne a son, escapes from the clutches of Crassus through the intervention of Batiatus, the former slave trader.  Leaving Rome in disguise, they pass Spartacus, dying on his cross.  Varinia holds up their son to his face, and simply proclaims, ‘he is free, Spartacus; he is free’.  The rebellion, it would seem, is vindicated.  As the film hints, you only truly live by looking forward.  As a church, we only understand how far we have travelled when we look back.  But live forward, we must.

So, Happy Birthday, LGCM. The Lord Be With You.  The Lord was, is, and always will be – until we see His Kingdom Come, His Will Be Done – On Earth as it is in Heaven. Until then, I am Spartacus. So are you. And whether we live or die, the result was never in any doubt. We shall ultimately live as God intends – as full, free and equal citizens in this community we know as the Church. Amen.