Bowl-Bearing Figure by Unknown Congolese artist

Unknown Congolese artist

Bowl-Bearing Figure, 19th Century, Wood (Ricinodendron rautanenii), Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium; Collected between 1981 and 1912, gift of A.H. Bure, EO.0.0.14358, Photo: J.-M. Vandyck, © RMCA Tervuren (CC BY 4.0)

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A Royal Priesthood

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

This remarkable sculpture expresses in gesture, solemnity, and tensile dignity the royal priesthood the author of 1 Peter recognizes in a persecuted community. The woman depicted kneels with an empty bowl. Her gaze is lowered, eyes turned inward and slightly closed. Apart from her royal headdress, she is unclothed, her torso and limbs slender, agile.

The art of the Luba people frequently depicts women in poses of quiet strength, bearing up thrones or carrying vessels, always self-contained and with great reserve.

Just so we might image the community addressed by the author of 1 Peter. The letter admonishes and encourages a young Church which has tasted suffering and bitter trial, suspicion by its neighbours, and accusations of unnamed evils. Throughout the letter we read of suffering—and the dignity that is uncovered in bearing suffering quietly, patiently, confident that in suffering for what is right, a believer will ‘have God’s approval’ (1 Peter 2:20). These are the rejected ones—‘living stones’ (2:5), 1 Peter calls them—who will become corner stones; ‘no-people’ who will become a royal priesthood, a holy nation, precious to the Lord. That this sculpture emerged from the Congo during the nineteenth-century imperial despoliation of central Africa bears powerful testimony to human dignity, resolve, and agency under persecution: a holiness shining in the midst of a night of wrong.

1 Peter is often thought to teach subservience, or worse, a pious devotion to suffering under unjust abusers. A deeper reading uncovers the royal office that is extended to the voiceless: to slaves who must serve the master who owns them, whether just or unjust; to wives who must obey husbands, whether loving or cruel; to those who are slandered who can rely on no public vindication. These are the ones 1 Peter calls a royal household, a temple built of living stones, a community radiating with holiness, chosen and precious before the Lord.

Under imperial domination, subject-peoples must find a foundation and a strength that cannot come from the culture in which they live; it must come from beyond. 1 Peter calls his persecuted church ‘aliens and exiles’: they live under colonial rule, their neighbours a source of danger or betrayal, yet they find another homeland in which they live ‘as free people’ (2:16). This is the citizenship of heaven that makes survival possible, even rich, in an earthly realm where endurance is the only daily lot.

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