Wycliffe Hall is committed to responding honestly, self-critically and constructively to the issues recently given new prominence by the Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter movements. Being a theological college, we consider it appropriate to offer, in the first instance, a brief theological reflection how these issues map onto our underlying theological commitments.
In our response to the death of George Floyd, posted on the Wycliffe Hall website on 10th June, we wrote this:
Every doctrine of the Church’s belief system – creation, fall, providence, incarnation, cross, resurrection, judgment, new creation – contains an assumption and a proclamation of our equality and a protest against all forms of inequality.
This article constitutes an attempt to justify that statement, and a commitment to strive to live it out. Wycliffe Hall is a confessional community, which sees a passionate commitment to equality to be of the essence of the faith we confess.
The first creation account in Genesis 1 refers to human beings as created ‘in the image of God’. The concept of the imago dei was not new to the emerging Jewish people: it was common in the Ancient Near Eastern world. However, it was normally believed only of the king. The name of Tutankhamun, for instance, can be translated as ‘the living image of Amun’, who became the patron deity of Thebes. And a Babylonian text sees the king as the image of the Babylonian god, Bel: ‘The father of the king, my lord, was the very image of Bel, and the king, my lord, is likewise the very image of Bel.’
Gordon Wenham sums it up thus:
Whereas Egyptian writers often spoke of kings as being in God’s image, they never referred to other people in this way. It appears that the Old Testament has democratised this old idea. It affirms that not just a king, but every man and woman, bears God’s image and is his representative on earth.
The Judaeo-Christian creational understanding of human beings thus refuses to see any human being, however powerful, as any more valuable than any other. Because the Judaeo-Christian world-view grounds human value theologically (rather than anthropologically), it is able (and indeed compelled) to see that value as equally inherent in every human being.
Tragically, many theologians in the church’s history failed to grasp the implications of our common image-bearing. One who did is the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa. He saw very clearly the incompatibility of slavery with the belief that human beings are made in the image of God:
‘I got me slave-girls and slaves.’ For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? … How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling that being shaped by God? God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image and likeness.’ If he is in the likeness of God and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller?
The equal (because infinite) value of every human being is thus integral to a Judaeo-Christian understanding of creation.
The failure we have just noted of Christian theologians – and of the Church and of humanity at large – to grasp and live out the equal value of every human being is seen within Christian theology as an instance of, and testimony to, the gap between the people we were intended and created to be and the people we have become. The doctrine of the Fall is an attempt to give an account of why that gap pertains. The moral gap between human beings as they were intended to be and human beings as they are is seen to be consequent upon the relational gap between human beings and their Creator.
And that gap is believed in Christian theology to be universal (with the one claimed exception of Jesus of Nazareth). St Paul launches an assault on any sense of pride, priority, piety or privilege based on racial or (to use an anachronistic term) religious belonging: ‘we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin’ (Romans 3:9). No claim of superiority for any human grouping can establish itself in the face of our common debasement.
The gods of the Ancient Near East – and of Greece and Rome – favoured particular individuals and nations. And in some ways, the God of the Old Testament appears similarly partisan. However, as full-blown monotheism develops, so does protest at such a limitation of God’s territorial sway and of God’s providential concern. The eighth century prophet, Amos, certainly has God in special covenantal relationship with Israel – but does not allow that to be the extent of God’s redemptive involvement with humanity: “’Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?’ declares the LORD. ‘Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?’” (Amos 9:7). Even long-term enemies such as the Philistines are the objects and beneficiaries of God’s providential action.
And if there is no racial, geo-political or ‘religious’ debarment from God’s providential concern in the Old Testament, then there is no divinely sanctioned moral debarment, in the New Testament, either: ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45).
The New Testament is intended by its writers to be the story of the progressive reintegration and inclusion of humanity. This is first hinted at in the narratives of Jesus’ birth, which unite people across the divides of age (Mary and Simeon), gender (Anna and Simeon), class (the despised and religiously unobservant shepherds and the socially and religiously respected Simeon) and race (Jews and Magi).
It continues with the inclusion of the morally, medically and politically compromised and ostracised being drawn into the new movement, and enemies (both Syro-Phoenician and Samaritan) being welcomed. Matthew’s Gospel ends with the disciples being sent into all the world (not just the land) to make disciples of all nations – the final triumph of the concept of a monotheistic God over that of a national deity.
The book of Acts traces the inclusion of the hated Samaritans into the Christian Community (Acts 8), followed by the inclusion of the impure Gentiles (Acts 10).
Under this pressure, early Christian theology came to see Christ as more than simply an individual – a corporate figure in whom all may be incorporated, across the dividing lines of race (‘neither Jew nor Greek’), class (‘neither slave nor free’) and gender (‘neither male nor female’).
And this reintegration of humanity has been celebrated in Christian hymnody: ‘In Christ all races meet, their ancient feuds forgetting’. The Church has never lived up to that, but that is its essential calling.
While much Christian theology has majored on the vertical reconciliation of God and humanity at the Cross, the New Testament is equally insistent upon the horizontal reconciliation of human beings with each other. John’s Gospel has Jesus say, as he approaches his crucifixion, ‘I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself’. It is left to the early Christian theologians to draw out the corollary that this will, by the same movement, draw all people to one another: ‘For he is our peace: in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. … thus making peace.’ That is why St Paul was so insistent on Jews and Gentiles belonging together within the church on equal terms, implying that any drawing of any Christian community along racial lines is a return to the concept of a tribal deity rather than the Creator God, and an attempt to ignore or undo the Cross.
Many New Testament scholars have commented on the fact that it is women who are the first witnesses of the resurrection – and their testimony would not have been accepted within a contemporary Jewish court. Acceptance of the transformative news of the divine undoing of mortality, decay and entropy is made (implicitly but insistently) dependent upon the acceptance of the full legal validity of those who carried no legal weight within the society of the day. To benefit from that news is to accept the full humanity of the news-bearer.
In what must be the most profound and formative reflection on the resurrection within the Christian tradition (1 Corinthians 15), St Paul defines the new movement in opposition to the (largely) Platonic assumptions of the Greco-Roman world. Not only does the new movement teach (and rest upon) the resurrection of the body, which would have been inimical to Platonic assumptions about physicality; it also sees diversity, not as a falling away from the ideal state of uniformity, but as God-given in creation and God-restored in resurrection. Other New Testament authors, as we shall see, explicitly include racial and cultural diversity as part of that divinely intended and recreated richness.
Judgment is gospel in that it affirms both the ultimate significance of human choices and the ultimate triumph of justice over injustice. In Jesus’ parable of judgment, he has ‘all the nations’ gathered before the throne. And the criterion is how each human being has treated the most vulnerable of their fellow-humans (and, within that, therefore, how they have treated the incorporative figure of the Son of Man). There is no national privilege or partiality.
St Paul underlines this point when he asserts that judgement is for Jew and Greek alike, ‘for God shows no partiality’. The possession of Torah, the ‘badges of national righteousness’ (circumcision, Sabbath and food law observance, in the Jewish context) count for nothing.
Human beings are, in New Testament eyes, equal in created value, equal in redemptive access, and equal in significant accountability.
Part of Jesus’ critique of some elements of the Judaism of his day is that they have taken their God-given role to be a light to the Gentiles as priority over the Gentiles. His example and his teaching challenge that assumption.
It is of the essence of the world recreated by the Christ event that its inhabitants are ‘from every tribe and language and people and nation’. All that is currently used to delineate, to divide, to denigrate and to dominate is left behind in the dust.
And it is the calling of the Church to pre-figure that new creation as much as possible – in its equality, its diversity, and its defiance of that which tears apart the human family and fabric.
We at Wycliffe set that vision before us as our template, inspiration and charge sheet. We seek to acknowledge, repent of and rectify the myriad ways in which we fail to anticipate the diversity-in-harmony of the new creation. We seek to heed more of the voices that have not been given the hearing they merit. We seek better to reflect the diversity of the world community in our reading lists, our admissions and our appointments. We seek to be more aware of our own biases and preferences, both conscious and unconscious. And we commit ourselves to working for a world that more truly values the rights and rich cultural contributions of different racial and national groups, and more clearly preflects the coming peaceable kingdom.
In particular, we shall…
- Initiate a formal review of curricula and reading lists
- Appoint a senior member of staff to take a lead on these issues
- Dedicate time at meetings of the academic team to discussion of how we might do better in these areas, academically, pastorally and liturgically
- Ensuring that the voices of BAME scholars are directly heard as we think through issues of slavery - biblically, historically and contemporarily