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

Wow.

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.

Notably,

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.