How does one live under empire? Of course we know the answer to this question if we belong among the elite. Just this is the privilege of those on the sunny side of power—to barely see its outlines, to succeed at all its thresholds, and to enjoy its fruits.
The reckoning with racism that many white people faced in the United States in 2020 in the form of protests at the murder of George Floyd afforded a glimpse to the governing class of life far from these sun-lit corridors. Those on the underside of empire—the ones Antonio Gramsci called the 'subalterns'—of course knew these hard facts long ago. They knew the 'double consciousness' that W.E. Dubois diagnosed as the psychic agility and burden of being Black in a white, racialized society.
Dubois himself lived such a double life, the life of the subaltern. He moved within elite circles of white society, and found a place, though always a secondary one, within the white intellectual elites. Like any subaltern within a colonizing society, Dubois learned the language, customs, anxieties, and aims of the hegemonic classes. But he also learned how to move within a segregated society, crossing the colour line back and forth, belonging yet alienated within his own culture. Subalterns knew that life demanded of them a profile acceptable to white culture and an inner and collective resistance to the contempt it showered on them. An accurate analysis of those who rule, and a confident preservation of a reserve that retains the tang of the human—this is the life-long task of the subaltern.
The author of 1 Peter also knew this double world. It is a letter filled with the frank acknowledgement of forms of imperial and household power in the Roman world. And it knows that disciples in this young Church face slander, abuse, and danger from the gentiles who know the old religion and suspect these new dissenters in their midst. Martyrdom is never far off. This new religion is populated by wives, widows, and slaves; a miserable lot. Every day these disciples must navigate the deep: where to speak and where to keep silent? When to suffer abuse, when to resist or leave or plead for one’s life? 1 Peter speaks to those persecuted ones directly, not in a kind of ventriloquism through the master or paterfamilias. To these oppressed, the letter writer says: You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, the Lord’s own possession! In truth, your own courage under suffering will serve as testimony to your slanderers, for it speaks with special power of the One who was judged a criminal, and hanged like a slave outside the city wall.
The artists in this series know this double reality of suffering and of dignity. They all speak of an inner reserve of strength called upon in the midst of exploitation, warfare, and state violence. These are not victims! The Buli Master shows a woman of special dignity and solemnity, a figure carved during the European despoliation of Central Africa. The celebrated sculpture of the anonymous figure known only as the ‘Dying Gaul’ manifests a vitality as life ebbs away—a victor in his own death. The Ecce Homo by living artist Margaret Adams Parker depicts the One who heals and delivers through His own victorious suffering, a Homo Sacer who can be thrown away by a simple wash of the hands. Yet His compassion and triumph remain unmistakeable in the midst of His night of interrogation, beating, and ridicule.
This is how to live under empire; Scripture teaches us how and these artists depict its contours.
Gramsci, Antonio. 2021. Subaltern Social Groups: A Critical Edition of Prison Notebook 25, ed. and trans. by Joseph A. Buttigieg and Marcus E. Green (New York: Columbia University Press)
Milbank, John. 2003. Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge Press, 2003), esp. chps 5 & 6
11 Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. 12Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. 17Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing. 19For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. 20For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. 23When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.