A Sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
On Disobedience and Freedom, Holocaust Memorial Day 2019
Numbers 9 v15-end; 1 Corinthians 7 v 17-24
The passage from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians that was our second reading tonight is notoriously difficult. It’s difficult because, although it sets out to commend the virtue of obedience, its critics have understood it as ultimately commending the passivity of resignation. And this on Holocaust Memorial Day. This in the face of injustice and cruelty.
“Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned” writes Paul. The potentially devastating implications of this injunction are as sharp as razor wire, and they appear to be realized when with his next breath Paul addresses the subject of slavery. “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it . . . obeying the commandments of God is everything”. Preach that to the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto; preach that to the inmates of the Nazi death camps; preach that to the Rohingya people displaced to Bangladesh. “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called”. Paul appears to call for the bending of the human will to the divine will – to a divine will made manifest in the murderous realities of human living. He appears to be calling for inertia insofar as those realities are concerned.
It was this imperative to mute compliance which was to enrage the intelligentsia of the nineteenth century. In his Hymn to Proserpine Swinburne rails against the colourless faith of Christ which has displaced what he imagines as the red-blooded worship of pagan Rome. He contrasts the devotion offered to the Blessed Virgin Mary with that offered to Venus. The former “. . . came weeping, a slave among slaves, and rejected” while the latter “came flushed from the full-flushed wave, and imperial, her foot on the sea”. Venus is real, the reader senses. Venus is painted in primary colours, she is haughty and powerful. Mary, on the other hand, is meek, and silent, and inoffensive. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath”. Swinburne wants none of the life-denying obedience that Paul seems to enjoin upon his hearers.
But in his translation of the New Testament, published in 2017, the scholar David Bentley Hart takes a very different approach to the passage. He interprets Paul as meaning not that one should remain in the situation one occupied before God’s call, but that one should live according to God’s call. In verse 22 Paul makes it clear that the slave called by the Lord is the Lord’s freeman. So, argues Bentley Hart, the preceding verse should read not “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever” but “If a slave when called, do not accustom yourself to it; rather, if you can indeed become free, make the most of it”.
Time does not allow me to rehearse Bentley Hart’s argument in detail, but a comparison of his translation of our second lesson with what we heard as our first lesson is instructive. In it, the Israelites are sojourning in the wilderness. The presence of God is constantly made manifest to them, in cloud by day and in fire by night. Whenever the cloud lifts the people set out on the next stage of their journey. Their progress is entirely contingent upon their obedience. “At the command of the Lord they would camp, and at the command of the Lord they would set out”. And their progress is progress away from captivity and towards freedom. Obedience to God means freedom from slavery.
Isn’t the same Lord discernible in Paul’s writing, steadily calling his people to an obedience which liberates? He does not call them to quiescence in the face of evil, to the grey collusion with death that Swinburne loathes. He never has. In the face of tyranny which enslaves and destroys men and women he calls his people to resist – he perhaps calls his people to be disobedient. Swinburne’s contemporary, Oscar Wilde, writes “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and rebellion”.
In this and every generation God calls his people to life and to liberty. Remembering that and acting upon it - being disobedient to the powers of sin and death - is the best possible memorial we can make to the victims of the Holocaust.