The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 4:26:46

Missing the master/slave dynamic

Katie van Schaijik, May 01, 2019

Yesterday's second reading, from Acts, was about the early Christian church. The disciples were one in heart and mind. No one kept anything for himself; they all held everything in common. People would sell their property and put the proceeds at the disposal of the Apostles, who would then distribute the money according to need. There was perfect harmony among them.

The homily was about the importance of unity in our Christian witness. Since we are human, the priest said, conflicts are inevitable. But we must never let the sun go down on our anger. He quoted a line he'd heard somewhere, "Ninety percent of conflict is tone of voice, ten percent is disagreement." Therefore, he proposed, the way to live in peace is to moderate our tone of voice and put up with differences.

All well and good, as far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far, in my opinion. It even risks being counter-productive in many cases, because it doesn't account for the master/slave dynamic, which is where the real threat to unity lies. Notice that the term disagreement practically assumes peerage. We have an impasse exactly because neither is over the other. The "power" in the relation is evenly distributed. I see it one way; you see it another. Now what do we do? In such cases, the solution lies in discussion or negotiation. We hear each other out; we tolerate our differences; we put up with weaknesses and imperfections in each other. It's how families are meant to operate—as communities where each member is loved and respected and given his due.

But what about abuse? Should we tolerate abuse? 

The kind of conflict that really destroys social harmony is the kind that involves abuse, aggression and boundary violations, big and small. They involve one person or group asserting in practice a right or prerogative not held in justice. Picture a bully grabbing a smaller kid's lunch money. Would that scenario be rightly characterized as a disagreement? Would we do well in such a case to instruct the child to watch his tone of voice and refrain from getting angry? I'm sure the bully would approve if we did.

Picture a white man in the Jim Crow south telling a black woman to go to the back of the bus. What's the moral theme of that moment? What's her Christian responsibility? To be patient and uncomplaining? No doubt the whites on the bus would like her to think so. I've read that antebellum era preachers loved the verses, "Slaves obey your masters" and "spare the rod, spoil the child."

Picture a husband telling his wife to shut up when she voices her opinion. Recall that scene from the old movie Giant, where the Rock Hudson character orders his wife to leave the room while the men discuss politics. Think of a mother wheedling and nagging and guilting her adult son into spending his day off with her instead of with his own family. Suppose I find a friend lying to me? Or spreading gossip about me? Suppose my boss suggests I undo the top button on my blouse if I want that promotion? What if my priest or bishop responds to a question or an objection of mine by saying, "How dare you challenge my authority?" Picture any occurrence of seduction or slander or bribery or false witness. Picture neglect. Picture intimidation, arm-twisting and belligerence. Picturing moralizing.

These are all instances of interpersonal conflict that have nothing to do with "disagreement." They have everything to do with the master/slave dynamic, with a disorder in the mode of relating, conscious and deliberate or not. In such cases, instructing the "slave" to be tolerant and not to let the sun go down on her anger makes matters worse, not better. What she needs is encouragement to be firm, strong, and fearless. She needs others to recognize and defend her right not to be abused, not to be treated as less-than. The master in the conflict should be rebuked and set back, plus instructed to make amends.

Once we have the master/slave dynamic in mind, the whole Bible reads differently. We see Jesus being merciful with the poor and the oppressed. We notice him "emptying himself" to become one with us. We see him breaching social barriers to spend time with sinners, with gentiles, with the poor, with women. And we see him being harsh, even angry-sounding, toward the Pharisees, those in power.

We read Acts differently too. The economic equity held up as the ideal, and which came through the rich members freely selling their property and putting it at the disposal of the Apostles, reflects a spiritual ideal too. Those in positions of power, of whatever kind, are challenged to freely "cash in" their excesses with the aim of empowering those in subordinate positions, according to need. Social harmony, true unity, comes about when equality and reciprocity are established between and among persons.

The gospel impels an end to (or at least a relativizing of) all power-driven social hierarchies, which are at odds with the dignity of persons as persons, and the dignity of Christians as baptized, redeemed, and called to full and intimate communion with the Most High God.

"In Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, man nor woman, for all are one."