Onwards, to the past! Especially when slavery is involved…


Steve Fouch has, on the Christian Medical Fellowship’s blog, offered advice on how to vote in the BMA ballot on industrial action.  Now, Fouch isn’t the same as the CMF, and I don’t suppose what he writes indicates the CMF’s position any more than what I write here represents the BMJ’s.  Even so, what he suggests is pretty remarkable; and, in keeping with a lot of stuff from the CMF, the general advice is that the solutions to all modern problems can be found in a set of writings edited and selected – highly selected – around 1900 years ago by men with beards.


I would lay out the following biblical framework for thinking through the way we approach this dispute:

Firstly, industrial relations:

Col 3:22 ‘Slaves obey your earthly masters in everything’

1 Peter 2:18 ‘Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.’

1 Timothy 6:1 ‘Let all who are under a yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honour, so that the name of God and the teachings may not be reviled’.

Philippians 2:14-16 also encourages us to not be grumblers and moaners in the workplace, but to be a positive influence.

It is clear that Paul and Peter, in writing these messages were urging slaves not just to do their jobs, but to be exemplary, going over and above the call of duty, and to have a positive attitude and spirit in so doing. While this is referring to the institution of slavery, the principles apply equally to modern employment.

Do they apply equally to modern employment?  There’s no obvious reason to suppose that they do – not least because modern employment practices don’t generally rely on slavery.  And the implication that people should just grin and do what they’re told seems to be, at least, open to question, irrespective of the prevailing management culture.  (The Philippians verses give the instruction to “Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless”; the implication is that not complaining is a criterion of goodness, and it’s the same sentiment as the “Christian children all must be/ mild, obedient, good” line in Once in Royal – and one that I’ve always struggled to accept; but until today, I thought it was just Victorians being… well… Victorian.  I hadn’t realised that there was an apostolic precedent.)

More importantly, if the institution of slavery is morally insupportable (a claim that I don’t intend to dispute here), it’s not wholly clear why we should take our guidance about industrial relations from someone who clearly had no problems with it.  If there’s any moral criticism here, it’s not of slavery, but of slaves that get a bit uppity.  That’s like taking lessons in community relations from Jan Smuts while insisting that his views on race don’t really matter.  Oh, but they do.

There’s more.

In Romans 13, Paul urges the early church to see the governing authorities as instituted by God for the sake of all people, and therefore to act in obedience to them. Clearly Paul is not saying that we go against what is right in being subject to the government of the land – there are examples throughout scripture and the history of the church of God’s people challenging the authorities when they went against God’s way, and standing up for justice and righteousness in an unjust society, but we must be clear that we should not be challenging the Government unless it is failing to act in the interests of justice and peace.

It might be that Paul is a kind of Kantian avant la lettre, (“Only a ruler who is himself enlightened… may say what no republic would dare to say: Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!” (What is Enlightenment?, Ak 8:41)) but I doubt it.  Besides: isn’t the essence of the dispute a claim that the government’s offer isn’t just?

And isn’t it a bit strange to state so boldly that we should not be even challenging the government – we’re really not talking about bloody revolution – unless certain conditions are met?  If the proposals are just, then isn’t it still the case that the onus is on the government to show that?

If medics reading this are undecided about how to vote, I’m sceptical that any Biblical readings will be much help; but I’m pretty certain that these ones in particular won’t.

  • OMX, I thought you were joking, so I clicked on the link… this is ONION quality. Absolutely hilarious!

  • OMX, this is absolutely hilarious. I clicked the link to the offending blogpost… and he really used reference to slavery to give us advice on how we ought to vote in current day labour relations. Love it, the ONION has some serious competition to contend with here!

  • You ask, can solutions
    to modern problems be found in the writings of men with beards from
    1900 years ago?

    When Peter Singer went
    in search of the origins of ethics, 11 of his 12 sources were men
    with beards, three of whom died 2300 years ago and only one of whom
    was alive in the last 100 years1. If living in a time
    when slavery was considered morally supportable makes their opinions
    irrelevant, then seven of his sources are ruled out. I wondered why
    he mentioned them?

    If learning from
    ancient men with beards is like taking lessons in community relations
    from Jan Smuts, perhaps that’s no bad thing. Smuts led a nation who,
    in 1902, considered Britain to be a vicious, immoral enemy and turned
    the majority of them into supporters of the British cause in WWII.
    If you’re talking about his attitude to race, you could have picked
    on Winston Churchill, but we don’t reject his wisdom because he was a
    child of his age.

    Reproducing the bible
    verses from Fouch’s blog without mentioning his comments, are an
    exercise in what I call the “Ricky Gervais school of exegesis.”
    In this profound technique, one puts out a bible verse without
    context or comment, and hopes that an audience who know little
    history and less theology will look at it through 21st
    century lenses and dismiss it as ridiculous. The low number of
    responses to your post suggests that your audience are indeed better
    educated than that!

    As we’re only dealing
    here with what people see as self evident, I’ll just offer this: the
    writings of these men with beards from 1900 years ago, have been the
    greatest source of solutions to ethical problems ever since. While
    some think their opinions are no longer valid, no-one has so far come
    up with a better system.

    1 Peter Singer, Ethics,

  • Hmmm.  It won’t surprise you to learn that I’m not convinced.  First up: if there are any valuable moral lessons to be derived from the Christian tradition, it doesn’t follow that they’re unique to that tradition, or that they’d be unavailable outside of it.  (It’s a tradition that stole quite liberally from others, after all – as it should have.  If an idea’s good, take it.)  It could be that some ideas are just good ideas, and others are just bad, irrespective of who happens to have them.

    When you talk about the Church Fathers and early editors of the Bible as being the greatest sources of ethical solutions ever since: well, most influential, perhaps.  (But how much blood was spilled for that influence?)  If you mean the most intellectually satisfying… naaaaah.
    As for Singer’s list: so what?  nullius in verba, and all that.But let’s get to the more substantive point.  Noone sane would claim that being a product of your time makes your claims irrelevant.  We do – as you hint – still take (say) Aristotle seriously as a political thinker, despite his beliefs about slavery.  (I’ll use Aristotle to stand for other comparable thinkers for the moment.)  But there’s an important further point.  Noone quotes lines from Aristotle and thinks that that’s sufficient: even avowed Aristotelians prod and poke and reconstruct the texts, and quite often disavow particular bits.  What’s valuable about him, and others, whether or not they’re fuzzy of face, is a methodology, rather than the exact words.  Ditto Kant, Mill, Hobbes, Hart, Arendt… anyone else you care to mention – up to and including saints and prophets.  A quotation might be the start of an inquiry, or it might be scaffolding in support of a claim – but it’s never a substitute for argument.  And if the argument is good, then it’s good without the backing of authorities.  It doesn’t matter that Aristotle took slavery for granted; we don’t have to, and there’s enough left over for The Politics still to be worth reading, and still to lead us down interesting intellectual routes.

    Further, suppose someone wondered what an Aristotelian approach to politics might teach us about industrial relations.  (Odd, but you never know.)  Wouldn’t it be strange to go to the bits about slavery and decide that they’d fit the bill?  Wouldn’t that show a bit of a moral tin ear?  I think so.  In fact, it’d be perfectly coherent for a person to quote those bits in order to show where Aristotle went wrong.  But it’d be more likely that they’d just decide that Aristotle himself said nothing useful on the matter, just as he said nothing useful about the best way to treat psoriasis, and said nothing useful about how to rewire a house.  Sometimes, canonical texts are just useless.  Or maybe anything useful he did have to say is to be found in other parts.

    And yet what Fouchs did was deliberately pick out those verses – out of 31000-odd in the Bible – that are mainly concerned about managing slaves.  That could mean one – or both – of two things.  The first is that those’re the best the Bible has to offer on the matter – which is as much as to say it has nothing to offer.  The second is that Fouchs genuinely thinks that they apply.  Noone – I assume – forced him to write the post he did; noone forced him to write on those verses in particular.  Yet he did.  And that’s quite perplexing.

    Two other things.  One: the lack of comments doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means.  Most posts here get few or no comments, and it’s marking season anyway, so people might well have other things to do.  And generally, people are more likely to comment if they disagree – so it’s possible that a lack of comments means that people have just nodded in agreement and wandered off.  I have no direct evidence for the truth of these claims, but neither do you have for yours, so we call call it quits there.

    Two: Using Churchill’s name would have diluted the rhetorical point because he does have a bit of a personality cult.  I could have chosen Enoch Powell, or any number of others, but Smuts was the first person to pop into my foetid lefty little head.  Infer about me from that what you will.

    Crikey.  That went on for longer than I thought it would…

  • I’m not defending Fouch’s choice of Bible verses, but given that perhaps 50 percent of the population in Rome, including some medical doctors, were slaves, it seems a reasonable group to talk about with regards to ‘industrial relations’. And the verses Fouch quotes are not about managing slaves, but about how slaves should manage themselves in their situation.