Monday, April 20, 2015

Silences: survival, suppression and slavery

In 2010, I wrote that I'd found Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years my favorite new reading discovery of the past year. It's early yet, but MacCulloch's Silence: A Christian History might be in the running for a similar label this year. This professor of Church history from Oxford is graceful, massively erudite, and gently funny; that's a lot in an historian willing to dance over vast geographical stretches as well highlight moments occurring in three millennia of time.

His "report on silence within Christian history" grew out of a set of Gifford lectures, an annual endowed series on "natural theology" presented at Scottish universities. He's not the sort to be overawed by this academic honor; here's a smidgen of his introduction to Silence.

No doubt many of those at my lectures savored the incongruity of their lecturer talking for six hours about silence, but I thought that the Principal and University might feel that their money had been ill-spent if I simply stood there mute for the allotted time and collected my fee and travel-expenses.

And so he has given us a great deal more. I'll just be highlighting a few of his topics that I found fascinating.

In a section he calls "Silences for Survival," he discusses the repeated reality that religion forced some people to make themselves invisible to preserve their lives. The Reformer John Calvin called such people

'Nicodemites', in allusion to Jesus's timorous disciple Nicodemus, who, according to John's Gospel (John 3.1-2), would only visit his Lord by night.

MacCullogh's catalog of such people includes Jews and Muslims forcibly converted by inquisitorial Spain, reformation radicals who found themselves in principalities with hostile rulers with different religious allegiances, and, interestingly, many of the leaders in constructing what became the established Church of England.

Elizabeth's religious Settlement of 1559 [was] something unprecedented among the official Reformations of sixteenth century Europe. It was planned and executed entirely by former Nicodemites, Protestants who had nevertheless conformed outwardly to the Roman Church from the moment [Elizabeth's Catholic predecessor Queen] Mary had secured her throne. Foremost in this group was the Queen herself ...

Continuously from the 1570s, Elizabethan England was clandestinely or openly at war with Catholic Europe. As a result, it judicially murdered more Roman Catholics than any other country in the continent -- over forty-five years, nearly two hundred, all on charges of treason... Yet Elizabeth's government behaved very differently towards those Catholics who did not seek to defy her as 'recusants' (those who refused to attend Protestant services). Catholic Nicodemites went to their parish churches and kept their counsel ...

What is fascinating about Catholic Nicodemism is that both sides of the new religious divide had an interest in loudly condemning it in public. The middle way, church papistry, threatened all those who were seeking to build and define religious identities in a time of struggle. Mainstream Western European religious commentators, saddled with the assumption of a religious monopoly in society, portrayed religious division in terms of binary opposition, and they were happiest when this opposition was most effectively demonstrated. ... There was an amusing concurrence between Puritans and Jesuits that recusancy was the right thing to do for Catholics; at least, thought Puritans, a firm upholding of the Mass showed principle, even if it was a principle 'verye badlye applied', as the Puritan Perceval Wiburn sourly remarked.

The history of Christianity is full of "things casually or deliberately forgotten, or left unsaid..." MacCulloch reminded his listeners that churches used to routinely deny participation in communion to women who were menstruating -- in sacramental Lutheranism and Anglo-Catholicism as late as the 1950s. Yet somehow this purity practice has simply disappeared from history. In general women's roles in the Churches have been the occasion of many silences.

...the great distorting factor in Christian history, which transcends denominational and many other ecclesiastical divisions, is that most of it has been written by men. The role of women in the earliest stages of building Christianity has faded, as the Church assimilated itself to the customarily male-dominated societies of the last two thousand years.

... [there has been] a consistent pattern in Christian history [from the time of St. Paul through today.] In times of trial and conflict, or of rapid innovation in theology, men fall away from their accustomed leadership roles, partly because they are more likely than women to be victims of male punitive violence. Female leadership thus re-emerges as a survival strategy for the Church: [The violent upheavals of Reformation Europe pushed women forward in all factions] ... Men took over again when life returned to more tranquil patterns, and the Church conformed once more to the expectations of society around it. The historical record was then adjusted to match those expectations.

Protestantism's greatest subtraction of the feminine from Christianity was perpetrated on the person of Mary, whose cult had been such a major part of pre-Reformation devotion that it was immediately the subject of a great deal of destructive Protestant hatred in the sixteenth century Reformation. Even those Reformers like Martin Luther who tried to establish Mary in a new devotional role failed to take their Churches with them, and the studied hostility of Reformed Protestants went much further, much encouraged by John Calvin. ... a sullen Protestant silence fell on the subject. ...

There were other good reasons for a rewriting of history in relation to women. Too close an association with females sometimes caused problems for men of the cloth. [John Wesley, for example] ...

MacCulloch grapples with what we moderns might consider one of the Churches' greatest sins and he goes to the heart of why change here proved so intractable.

Our last example of historical amnesia once more raises questions about traditional Christian ways of looking at the Bible: it is the issue of the morality of slavery. Modern Evangelical Christians are particularly pleased with themselves in having been associated with the movement to abolish slavery. There is a mantra of late eighteenth century English names to recite: John Newton, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce head the pantheon.... It was a narrative much encouraged and commemorated by British liberal imperialists during the 19th century, providing a fine moral justification for the "altruistic presence' of empire.

... The distressing fact for modern Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians is that slavery is taken for granted in the Bible, even if it is not always considered to be a good thing, at least for oneself. One would have had to have been exceptionally independent-minded and intellectually awkward to face up to the consensus of every philosopher in the ancient world, and the first Christians did not rise to the challenge. ... In fact it can be argued that early Christians were rather better at inventing theological reasons for accepting slavery than the non-Christians around them.

Slaveowners in the Deep South in nineteenth-century America were perfectly entitled to look to the Bible to justify their slave-owning, and they were right to be surprised that other Christians disagreed with them.

It is only in less than three out of twenty Christian centuries that Churches have come round to saying that slavery is bad in all circumstances, full stop. Nowadays, Christians take this for granted. They have forgotten the huge moral revolution that has taken place to get to where hey are now on this subject, and how much effort it took some maverick souls, over more than a century, to persuade fellow-Christians that this was the only way to think about slavery.

... the task of remembering the Christian record on slavery is still incomplete ...

Because varieties of Christianity that arose out of the European Reformation represented a backlash against the entitled and uninspiring culture of medieval Catholic monasticism, their offspring which include mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and even modern Catholicism, strike MacCullogh as "Word-centred" but also simply "noisy." Many Christians in other places and times, including our own European ancestors, found silence a valid and valued approach to the divine. Perhaps silence might be part of what the contemporary "spiritual but not religious" are looking for?
I'll be doing another post in a few days on what MacCullogh has to say in this delightful book about the particular -- very gay -- silence for survival that shaped the culture of Anglo-Catholicism, a subject dear to his heart and mine.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

For so long we read histories that emphasized governments and wars, civil society and big personalities did not concern themselves that much with religion. But I'm reading a lot of reviews now of mainstream history books that discuss religion in detail.