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Steve Jobs, with later additions by unknown person by Banksy
Frozen Assets by Diego Rivera
Slave pen, Alexandria, Virgina by Unknown artist

Banksy

Steve Jobs, with later additions by unknown person, 15 Feburary, 2016, Mural, 'The Jungle' refugee camp near the ferry port in Calais, France, PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

Diego Rivera

Frozen Assets, 1931–32, Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework, 239 x 188.5 cm, Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico, Credit: © 2019 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico City / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Schalkwijk / Art Resource, NY

Unknown artist

Slave pen, Alexandria, Virgina, Taken 1861–65; printed 1880–89, Photograph, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC, Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., LC-DIG-ppmsca-34798

Human Worth and Dignity

Comparative Commentary by

1 Timothy 6:1–21 is a work of exhortation. At the close of the letter, the author is offering up wisdom for living—some of it practical, some of it spiritual, and some of it both. The conceit of the letter and therefore this chapter is that it is advice to young Timothy, the protégé and the fellow worker of Paul. But the wisdom offered here is not only to Timothy, but to the reader also, who stands in for the faithful at large, whom the author also imagines as an audience for the letter. This is personal exhortation, but it is also a general one.

It is striking then that the author lingers so long on advice about the economic life of human beings. There are other pieces here too—a standard Pauline virtue list makes its appearance (see v.11), as in Galatians 5:16–26, Ephesians 5:1–10, 1 Thessalonians 5:12–22, and Romans 12:9–21; 13:8–14, among others—but the centre of this discourse is the value of human life as reflected and refracted through economy and social constructions. The Pastoral Epistles are known as reservoirs of conservative theology and ecclesiology, working to push the Pauline tradition toward acceptability and sustainability as the movement spread into the broader Roman world. But here at the end of 1 Timothy we find these conservative, stabilizing sentiments alongside ones that would be at home in much more revolutionary settings.

Scholars debate the demographics of earliest Christianity. Was it a movement of the lowest classes, slaves, and women, or did it comprise a much broader cross-section of the Roman world? Did its adherents practice a form of socialized life, or was the church an extension of normative Roman patronage systems, with wealthier and higher-class members underwriting the life of the community in an expression of the honour/shame system? There is enough in this chapter of 1 Timothy to support several different possibilities. Admonitions to social order (slaves should regard their masters with honour) and a rejection of wealth co-exist here, and it seems that the author of 1 Timothy expected to have readers and hearers from multiple locations on the social landscape.

In this regard, 1 Timothy is like Diego Rivera’s Frozen Assets, which sees the city in multiple ways at once. Rivera’s mural takes account of the soaring skyscrapers and the titans of finance that they imply, but it also focuses on the experience of the homeless poor, who are packed into a shelter like sardines into a can. The author of 1 Timothy understood that the audience of the letter would be reading or hearing it from a number of different perspectives.

Perspective also matters in the photograph of the ‘slave pen’ from Alexandria. While it is a sympathetic image that provokes solidarity with and compassion for the persons enslaved and confined there, the view is from the outside—from freedom—looking inward. This might be something like the view of the community from the perspective of ‘those who in the present age are rich’ in 1 Timothy 6:17–19. If it is true that they are patrons of the gathered Jesus-followers, then the author of the letter might be urging them toward more solidarity with the poor and dispossessed among them.

The overwritten, annotated, and reworked work of Banksy in Calais might be our best analogue for what we find in 1 Timothy 6. It is a commentary on status, wealth, inclusion, and difference, but it is a multidirectional one, with indistinct authorship and overlapping messages. It gestures at the inherent worth of persons even as it links that worth to economic value, and appeals to the possibility of wealth as an argument for human dignity. Like 1 Timothy 6, the Banksy in Calais speaks across class and status toward multiple locations, and like 1 Timothy, the image leaves us with as many questions as answers.

 

References

Dickerman, Leah, Diego Rivera, and Anna Indych-López. 2011. Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art)

Ibrahim, Yasmin, and Anita Howarth. 2018. Calais and its Border Politics: From Control to Demolition (Abingdon and New York: Routledge)

Longenecker, Bruce W. 2010. Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)