The sculpture depicts a warrior in his final battle with death, striving even now to endure and to fight on. His legs have failed him, and only one arm keeps his torso upright. His face is turned from us, absorbed in this last fatal struggle. The composition is self-contained, and even in the torque of the posture, the stillness and authority of the figure is maintained. This is suffering borne with dignity.
1 Peter tells us of peoples like the Gauls: the underside of empire, whose suffering is remembered only fleetingly, in tributes intended to honour the victors, or in letters to a persecuted minority which boldly address slaves and wives directly. The suffering of the subaltern remains hidden among the elites, as Antonio Gramsci noted in his daring essays on the marginalized in the new Soviet Union (Gramsci 2021). Yet the strength and endurance of such sufferers can still speak.
1 Peter addresses them as those who follow Christ’s example, hallowed and dignified by their likeness to their suffering Lord. This is not a romantic vision of the subaltern: 1 Peter recognizes that slaves and, later in the letter, wives do not exist in Adamic purity. Their actions, too, partake of the ambiguity and sin of the world east of Eden. But when they suffer for the right, their lives shimmer with the holiness of the true Subaltern, the Homo Sacer (Agamben 1998), whose life was taken, yet still He gave His life as a ransom for the many.
1 Peter famously evokes the duty to honour the emperor (2:17), and to respect the ‘authority of every human institution’ (v.13). This has been broadly taken as an endorsement of imperial power, and a recommendation for subservience to injustice. But again, a deeper reading serves us well here. The duty and obedience urged on the sufferers by 1 Peter has revolutionary effect: it will silence the oppressors (v.15). Like the Dying Gaul, their dignity even in death has the power to win respect from the victors, for in doing right, they are ‘blessed’.
Always these early believers must be ready to ‘give an account of the hope that is in them’ (3:15), for they do not fear what their oppressors fear, nor are they intimidated. For Christ who has been raised and exalted, sits now at God’s right hand, all authorities, powers, and angels subject to Him (3:22).
Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press)
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)
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.