Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Is food a right or a gift?


A talk originally given at the Oxford Graduate Christian Forum on 3rd June 2019

In my world -  the world of public health - human rights are increasingly invoked as a reason for doing something to improve health.   Here is just one example: a recent report, written by my friend Amandine Garde from Liverpool University and published by UNICEF, entitled, a ‘Child’s rights based approach to food marketing: a guide for policy makers’[i]   This report does what it says in its title: i.e. links recommendations (e.g. from the World Health Organisation) in relation to food marketing with a human rights framework.

Now I am interested in food marketing.   I have spent quite a bit of my life researching into food marketing and its effects on health: chiefly its effects on children’s health.   I would contend that the marketing of unhealthy foods – e.g. through advertising on television, on bill-boards and on the Internet –  often contributes to children’s unhealthy diets and in turn their increased risk of overweight and obesity and diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

I do think it is right that children should not be exposed to unhealthy food marketing but I am not certain that children have a right not to be so exposed.

Here is another example of a rights-based approach to public health from a recent report on obesity from the World Obesity Federation and published by the Lancet entitled ‘The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change’[ii].   This report report makes ex cathedra statements such as this:
“International human rights are a set of universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated freedoms and entitlements created by international treaties and customary international law and enforced through national and international legal systems. The Commission [led by the World Obesity Federation] proposes that five interrelated human rights collectively constitute the right to wellbeing, an integrated framework that reflects the rights recognised by international law, including the right to health, the right to food, cultural rights, the rights of the child, and the implied right to a healthy environment (figure 4) [shown below]”

I say ‘ex cathedra’ because the existence of human rights is not universally agreed.  Jeremy Bentham, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx are examples of philosophers who criticised the notion of human rights. Alasdair MacIntyre is a leading contemporary critic.  From a historical point of the view the ideological ascendancy of human rights in recent times seems to be the result of the collapse of prior universalistic schemes including Marxism and Christianity[iii]. 


Now I am uneasy about invoking human rights as a reason for doing things to improve peoples’ health.   And in this talk I will try and explain why I am uneasy.   I will focus on the right to food.  My unease stems from my reading of the Bible and in particular the stories of creation that you can find therein.   

I also find that human rights including the right to food can hardly be regarded as ‘a set of universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated freedoms and entitlements’ as the World Obesity Federation seems to think.  They are rather a construct of late 20th century western secularist ideologies such as Neoliberalism.  
   
I will propose  - from a Christian point of view - that if we see food and indeed other resources, such as clothes and shelter, as a gift we may find better ways of dealing with problems in the food system than if we a adopt a rights – based approach.    I believe that these problems are very serious and that urgent solutions are needed.

I should say that at this that you could you skip the next few paragraphs justifying my gift-based approach.  To me a gift implies a giver but I also think that it is possible to be grateful for food – and thereby view it as a gift – without necessarily having to believe in a giver.  You may also agree with my criticisms of a rights-based approach, without necessarily agreeing that a gift-based approach is preferable

So In Biblical texts food is implicitly, if not explicitly, recognised as a gift from God.   The stories of the creation to be found in the Bible – mainly in Genesis – should, I think, be fundamental to our thinking about food as gift for survival but also for pleasure.  But these stories also indicate that because of human nature, the production and consumption of food, becomes hugely problematic.  And from the beginning the gift is bound around by rules and laws.

In the first creation story in Genesis we hear that God said to the first humans: ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’ [1: 29].  Note that there is, here, no mention of animals as being food for humans.
 
In the second creation story we learn that the first home of human beings was a garden where: ‘Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food’ [2: 9].   And the Lord God put the human in the garden ‘to till it and keep it‘ [2: 15] presumably so that it would continue to provide food in the form of fruit with seeds to eat.   So here from the start human beings are created to co-operate with God in feeding themselves but the food comes from plants that, at least in the first place, are given to them, and even planted, for them.

After the first humans’ disobedience against God’s instructions not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad – commonly known as ‘the Fall’ - their relationship with food is completely altered.   As is of course their relationship with God, with one another and the rest of creation.   It is perhaps not accidental that our deep – seated rebellion against God – as described in Genesis - is symbolised by our flouting of a rule about food.

After the Fall God says ‘Cursed is the ground because of you, in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’.   Now the first humans are forced into becoming farmers, at the mercy of things like weeds, not just keepers of a garden.  They now must work hard to make the land bring forth enough to eat.

We might, in passing, note the story of Cain and Abel which seems to be a memory of the early skirmishes between farmers (represented by Cain) and herders (represented by Abel) where farming – requiring a settled existence with food production dependent on human ingenuity – wins out against – herding, which requires much greater trust in God. 

We then come to the story of Noah.  And for the purpose of sketching out the history of humans relationship with food it is worth noting that is only with the Noahic Covenant, made between God and Noah and his family after the Great Flood, that humans are first given permission by God to eat animals and then only under duress and with certain conditions.  

The first thing Noah does when the ark reaches dry land after the flood is to kill of some of the animals that God had told him to rescue and to sacrifice them to God as a burnt offering.  There is no suggestion at all that God wanted Noah to do this.  But God now tells Noah ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. [9: 1].   That is ‘You are now allowed to eat animals but only if you do so with respect for their life: a life that, unlike plants, is similar to yours.'

And so here is the origin of food laws. Food laws are with us today.  Food laws are part and parcel of most religions.  Some Christian denominations still prescribe the avoidance of meat, and the consumption of fish, on Fridays.  Some proscribe the eating of lamb – because of Jesus being the called the Lamb of God by John the Baptist.  But nowadays food laws are there, less for, religious reasons than for reasons of ensuring a safe and  healthy and increasingly a sustainable food supply  So the Biblical view of food is, at its most basic, that it is a gift with rules attached,  particularly around meat consumption.


Let’s turn now to food as right.  In researching for this talk I have delved a little into the history of human rights, and whether food features as a right in the various declarations of rights.  So the US Declaration of Independence (1776) states:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
There is no mention of food here, just a right to life, but the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right to food as part of the right to an adequate standard of living:
"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control" (Article 25).
So here there is a mention of food.   And also in the mention of ‘everyone’ having this right a signalling that the intention behind the declaration is to promote equity or at least a minimum standard of living for all.

After the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to adequate food was recognized in several instruments in international law but the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), particularly Article 11, dealt more comprehensively than any other instrument with this right. 

And In General Comment 12 on Article 11 of this International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations stated (in 1999): ‘The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement’[iv]

The Committee also considered that the core content of the right to adequate food implies:
“The availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture

The accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.”

This elaboration raises a large number of questions in my view.  The concept of dietary needs is, for a start, hugely complex.   What is optimal for a diet is quite different from what is necessary to meet physiological needs, say for calories.  Do we only have a right to a diet which supplies us with enough calories for our needs but not to a diet where calories are not in excess of our needs and thereby damaging to our health? 

The idea that a culturally acceptable diet is a right, also seems to me, problematic.   Does this mean that meat eaters have a right to eat meat since meat is culturally acceptable in many cultures?
As the basic concept of the right to foods gets elaborated, the elaborators come across problems with the concept.  The most obvious problem is: what is meant by food.  Is caviar a food?   Yes.   Do we have a right to caviar?   Surely not.   By ‘food’ proponents of the right to food clearly do not mean all foods.  Regardless of cultural acceptability the right to calories from meat is surely more dubious than the right to calories from starchy staples.

Elaboration of the concept of the right to food also throws up the issue of competing rights, as acknowledged by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the Economic and Social Council.  This is clearly more nuanced than the World Obesity Federation’s view of rights as ‘indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated freedoms and entitlements’.  

How does this right to food as set out and then elaborated in UN documents match with the Biblical notion of food as a gift?  Well, badly in my view.   They seem quite different ways of regarding food, its production and consumption.


Of course, the notion that humans have rights comes out of a commendable acceptance that there are universal ethical principles that should govern society.  The idea of human rights is predicated on the notion that they apply to everyone (well up-to a point as, for example, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness seen as sell-evident in the US Declaration of Independence did not apply to slaves).   The idea seems to stem from the view that such rights can be awarded without the need to refer to a higher authority.  Accordingly, being a believer in a higher authority than humans or human derived institutions such as the UN, I think there are various problems with a rights-based approach.

First, a rights-based approach tends to focus on entitlements rather than responsibilities.  Secondly a rights-based approach tends to put too much trust in the ability of humans to solve their own problems.   Thirdly, a rights based approach, while theoretically able to embrace the concept of rights of groups, communities and societies in practice seems to fall back on the rights of individuals.   Fourthly, a rights based approach seems to ignore our responsibility to the planet on which we live and the other life forms with which we share it.

I think these problems with a food as a right – based approach are obviated if we, instead, take a food as a gift based approach.  Let us look at each of these problems in turn.


So firstly, the observation that a rights-based approach tends to put too much emphasis on entitlement rather than responsibility.   It is true that an acceptance that humans have rights implies that others have obligations to uphold those rights.   In UN documents these are mostly assumed to be the UN member states that sign up to declarations about rights but this seems to ignore the fact that it is not just governments that have obligations to solve problems including problems related to the food system.  All actors in the food system – including commercial actors - have such obligations and individuals themselves surely have a responsibility for what the food they produce and put in their mouths. 

A gift based approach accepts that humans are not entitled to food but do have responsibilities to treasure the food – all food but particularly animal based products - in gratitude for the gift.   A gift-based approach to food suggests that human should participate in its production.   So that growing crops sustainably and caring for food animals becomes an obligation.  A gift based-approach should orientate our thinking to seeing that what is needed is a fundamental change in human thinking from entitlement to gratitude, and to thinking what we might all do in response to that gratitude.


Secondly a rights based approach tends give too much weight to the ability of humans to solve their own problems.   Now we know human hubris has brought us to a point where civilisation as we know it is almost bound to collapse.   The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us that there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.50C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.  The food system is responsible for about 30% of Green House Gas emissions.   Without a fundamental change to our food system much of the land on our planet that is currently capable of producing food will tip over to being, in effect, desert.   Actually I see no prospect of avoiding that eventuality.

A rights based approach neatly aligns with the view that human ingenuity (in practice this means science and technology) will mean that we will be able to develop a food system which satisfies the ‘rights’ of everyone by supplying them with a diet that is ‘acceptable within a given culture’.  It is surely too late to be arguing in this way.  Adopting a gift-based approach would means a fundamental change in thinking about land and water and their capacity to produce food for us.   More respect for the nature of the gift of creation planet is required and less confidence in our abilities to save ourselves.


Thirdly, a rights-based approach, buys into prevailing notions of individualism: that individuals should be free to choose their own identities and destinies and that they automatically have the right to choose what they eat.  If individuals have rights then groups, communities, societies do as well but declarations of rights seem to give scant recognition to collective rights and how these might conflict with rights of individuals;   Of course, this focus on individual rights is designed to ensure that governments assist the more vulnerable members of their societies. But in public health we know that the health of a population is not just the sum of the sates of health of the individuals of which it is composed.  The ‘health’ of the relationships between members is equally important in ensuring a healthy society.

A food as a right-based approach come perilously close to buying into consumerism: the view humans can and should find their identity in what they consume rather than in what they produce.   A right to consume should surely be balanced with a right to produce, but elaborations of the right to food barely acknowledge the needs of producers except as a constraint.   A food as gift perspective restores the importance of the producer in the food system. 


Fourthly as I suggested earlier the most important problem with the food system at the moment is its impact on the environment.   We need a huge change in how we produce and consume food – particularly animal-based products - to avoid climate catastrophe.   If humans have a right to food do other animals have a right not be eaten?   What about the rights of life-forms that share our planet?  Do they have right not to be driven to extinction.   I think the notion of planetary rights makes little sense.   If food is a gift, the planet and its living and non-living inhabitants are a gift too, and we have the responsibility to look after it both for itself and for future generations,


In conclusion I am in favour of a regarding food as a gift rather than a right.  I accept that a gift-based approach makes more sense to those who believe in a giver than those who don’t.  However we can feel gratitude for our food/regard our food as a gift without necessarily believing in a giver.  I think that public health – in turning to human rights as justification for promoting the public good - may be doing more harm than good in response to problems faced by humanity today and in particular climate change.   Without an appropriate respect for what we have been given, the environment in which we live will become increasing unpredictable and I hope this might prompt humanity to throw itself on the mercy of God the creator of all we have been given but I am not optimistic.   Hopeful but not optimistic.







Monday, 31 December 2018


My thoughts on the focus for a National Food Strategy. Speech at Sustain AGM, 12th December 2018

Firstly I need to say that I am not speaking today on behalf of Sustain but in my own capacity as a Professor of Population Health at the University of Oxford.   Today Sustain has invited us to think about what a National Food Strategy – as proposed by Michael Gove - should look like. 

My perspective is that of a public health researcher.  Now to my way of thinking there are four major threats to public health in the UK.  In order of importance these are: firstly global warning, secondly increasing obesity and other diet-related ill health, thirdly the rise of anti-microbial resistance and fourthly the growing problem of mental ill-health, particularly in the elderly.   In my view a National Food Strategy needs to address the first three of these threats and may be able to help address the fourth.                                                             Source: Springmann et al

Let us remember that there has been a slow but progressive improvement in health in the UK over the past 100 years or so, but all of a sudden this improvement is stalling.   The reason for this is largely due to a rise in diet-related ill health demonstrated by a rise in obesity since the early 1980s.  Unhealthy diets – diets high in saturated fat, free sugars and salt and low in fruit and vegetables - are now responsible for 10% of all ill-health in the UK.   Unhealthy diets are in turn due, not to wilful ignorance on our part, but to the unhealthy food environment in which we make our food choices.  By an unhealthy food environment I mean the unhealthy way foods are produced, priced, promoted and placed (i.e. made available to us).

If we don’t solve the problem of this unhealthy food environment then diet-related ill-health will continue to rise and in consequence diseases like heart disease (which we thought we had solved) will be on the rise again and there are already signs of that happening.

But the rise of diet–related ill health, worrying as it is, is not the most important threat to public health.  The biggest threat is global warming.  The threat isn’t as imminent as the rise in diet-related ill health but just as threatening for all that.   And I don’t think it is just a threat to the health of the next generation.

My house in Oxford was built on a flood plain.  Every year the floods (which are supposedly controlled floods, according to the Environment Agency) get closer and closer to my back step.  If my house is flooded in the next few years I guess my wife and I would cope.  But I really do not want to be a frail 80 year-old living in a house which is about to be, or has just been, flooded. 

The report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – published on the 8th October – indicates that there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5oC, beyond which even a small increase in temperature will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and consequent suffering for hundreds of millions of people around the globe including some in this country.

As all in this room will know the food system contributes significantly to global warming.  The best estimates indicate that around 30% of Green House Gas emissions are associated with food production and about half of those are associated with the production of foods from animal sources. 

Our paper in Nature published a week after the IPCC report shows that by 2050, as a result of expected changes in population and income levels, the environmental effects of the food system could increase by 50–90% in the absence of technological changes and dedicated mitigation measures including dietary change, reaching levels that are beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity and including that related to climate change.

For that Nature paper we analysed several options for reducing the environmental effects of the food system, including dietary changes towards healthier, more plant-based diets, improvements in technologies and management, and reductions in food loss and waste. We found that no single measure is enough to keep these effects within all planetary boundaries simultaneously, and that a synergistic combination of measures will be needed to mitigate sufficiently the projected increase in environmental pressures.

However one thing we do know is that huge reductions in meat-eating are essential to avoid dangerous climate change and in developed countries such as the UK, red meat consumption needs to fall by around 90% (white meat slightly less) and be replaced by five times more beans and pulses.
A National Food Strategy has to address such findings.   In this strategy the Government needs to state clearly that a reduction in meat and indeed dairy consumption is needed for the good of the planet, and also to state how much this reduction needs to be. 

The Eatwell Guide - the UK's official food-based dietary guidelines published by Public Health England in 2017 – indicates that red and processed meat consumption needs to decrease from an average intake of 70g/day to just15 g/day – just for health reasons.  So I cannot see why the Government in some of its recent pronouncements has been so contradictory in what it recommending that the UK population should be eating.

The third major threat to public health I mentioned in my opening remarks: the rise in anti-microbial resistance, is like the first two threats - global warming and the rise in diet-related ill health – also clearly associated with our food system through over-use of anti-microbials in the production of animals for food.   But there a several in this audience which are much more expert on this issue than I am.

So here, from a public health perspective, are the most important problems with our food supply and consumption that a National Food Strategy needs to address.  I am running out of time but I want to stress, very briefly, what I see as the major solution to these problems and that is tax.   I cannot see how we can achieve the dietary change we need to address diet-related ill health – both human and planetary – without a major reform of our markets and that by necessity means taking control of prices through taxes and subsidies for foods.

The sugary drinks tax introduced earlier this year show that taxes on unhealthy foods are possible.  But we now need to consider taxing foods that are bad for planetary as well as human health, and hence I am hoping that a major plank of a National Food Strategy will be a redesign of existing taxes on food and drinks in this country.  I recommend firstly extending the existing tax on sugary drinks to other foods and drinks and secondly reforming Value Added Tax (currently on many foods) though removing the exemption on meat.   I am not optimistic but I am hopeful here.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Gender.


Sermon at St Matthew’s, 25 February 2018

Genesis 1: 26 – 2: 7 and 2: 18 – 25; Psalm 139: 13-18,

This is the third in a series of sermons on the body and today I am going to talk about gender and how our gender affects our identity.   I want to bring you some good news about gender rather than see it as a problem. 

As I am talking about gender it is inevitable that I will saying a little about sex.  Be warned and feel free to leave at this point or at any point in this sermon if I start knocking into your internal furniture, as it were, or even if I offend you: I will try not to take offence.  And I will try not to offend but I realise gender is a sensitive subject for many of us.

My main text for today is Genesis 1 verse 27 ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’   A second text I will look at is Genesis 2 verse 22 ‘And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.’   I find this second text hugely problematic.  It seems to contradict the previous text and quite frankly I wish it weren’t in the Bible but it is so we need to take it seriously.

Why pick these two texts?  Well they are representative of the way that the authors of the Bible, like we ourselves, struggled with gender issues but also because Jesus uses them when challenged by the Pharisees for his views on marriage and divorce and asked by his disciples for his views on sex[1].  Jesus directly refers to the first verse, Genesis 1: 27.   Admittedly he only indirectly refers to Genesis 2:22 and quotes Genesis 2: 24 – two verse later - instead.   I might have been better off following his example.

But before coming on to these texts first I’d like to recap on what we have learnt so far in this sermon series about a right perspective on the body, at least in connection with gender and secondly to say something generally about Genesis and what the stories in Genesis can teach us about things like gender.

And by gender I do mean gender.  I think we need to note there is a difference between our sex and our gender.   Our sex, whether male, female or in rare cases intersex is essentially determined by our chromosomes.   If we have an X and a Y chromosome we are male and if we have two X chromosomes we are female.   Well sex determination is not quite as simple as that but can we leave it at that for the moment.   Gender is what people say they are.   If a person has two X chromosomes and says they are male[2] then their gender is male despite their two X chromosomes.  

And also I need to say that today my primary focus is gender and not sexuality.  Sexuality and gender, although related, are quite distinct.   Your sexuality, it surely doesn’t need saying, refers to who you are attracted to not what sex or gender you are.  For example a person of the male sex can identify themselves as being of the female gender and be homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual and similarly with a person of the female sex who considers themselves to be male.

Why focus on gender and not sexuality in a sermon series on the body?   Of course gender and sexuality are issues which are connected but actually by not by as much as we might assume.   And also the Bible does not – in my view - have a lot to say about sexuality and what it says is difficult to interpret.   However it does have much more to say about gender and in particular relations between men and women, including sexual relations.  But of course relations between men and women are not just sexual.

But, as I said, first I’d like to recap on what we have learnt about the body so far in this sermon series. Rhiannon, in her introductory sermon, reminded us that many of us – perhaps most of us – are dissatisfied with our bodies for lots of reasons.  Perhaps we think we are too fat or too thin, not beautiful enough or too beautiful, too old or too young.   We might be worried about or body for lots of different reasons: we might be worried about its appearance: to both ourselves (how it appears to us when we look in the mirror) and to others.  But we might also be worried about how it works: whether we can do what we want with it: whether that’s climb mountains or just go to the shops.  We might also be worried about how healthy it is: how long it is likely to last.

Steve, in his sermon pointed out that most of the biblical texts tell us that the body is inseparable from the soul – from who we are.  He reminded us that it was the philosophers like Plato that have made us think that the body is somehow inferior to the mind, and that if there is life-after-death then it is of a disembodied mind. 

However we know that central to Christian belief is the idea that when God became human in the shape of Jesus he adopted a human body. ‘And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory.’ as it says in John’s gospel.   Here then is God’s endorsement that a human body is very much worth having.    

And furthermore central to Christian belief is that this God who became embodied, rose from the grave after his death, and that his resurrection body, if not entirely like his body, prior to death was certainly a body.  It looked the same, if not identical.  Jesus could eat and drink, his disciples could touch him, etc.  

All this points to the fact that we should love our bodies.  It means that we should not be disappointed in them: they are what God has given us, just as he has given us our minds.  This is, of course, easier said than done for many of us.  And of course I am not saying we should not worry about our bodies.  They do get old, bits fall off and other bits stop working: this is inevitable but it in turn means that we should look them as much as we are able.

How does what we have heard so far about bodies effect our attitude to our gender.  Well of course our gender, in as much as it affected by our sex, is an aspect of our body.  Our gender is not just determined by our body.   What gender we see ourselves as being – is also a function of our mind.  Of course having a Y chromosome vastly increases our chances of identifying ourselves as male but does not make it a certainty.  In saying this I am trying not to fall into mind-body dualism - which Steve warned us against last week.   He told us that the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New, views the soul as an enspirited body not an embodied spirit, that our soul or identity is as much our body as our mind.

So we need to love our gender just as we need to love our bodies.  Our gender is an important part of our identity, our soul.

Secondly a bit about Genesis.   Genesis is a set of stories about origins.  Not just the creation of the universe and of life and of human beings – as is famously described in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2- but also about the origins of lots of other things besides.  It explains why things are the way they are and particularly the nature of relationships: not only between human beings and God but also between human beings and other animals, between men and women, between parents and children and between siblings.   It is about both how God created things but because from the outset he gave human beings freedom – including the freedom to mess things up – these stories should not always be read as descriptive of the way things should be but of the way things are, they should be read as normative not prescriptive in other words.

Of course I am not, today, going to go into whether the stories in Genesis are literally true or not, or whether they are compatible with current scientific views of origins or not. That is for another day.   But, of course, I do think that the stories have important things to tell us about things like gender regardless of whether they are literally true or not – and furthermore the debate about literality should not permit us to neglect the truths to be found in Genesis.

Another thing to say about Genesis is that the stories are mainly about men.  For example, most of the stories about sibling relations in Genesis are about brothers: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, etc.  There are some stories about sisters: Rachel and Leah, for instance, but not so many as about brothers.   It is true that women figure prominently in many of the stories often playing a vital role but generally men are the protagonists.  In general these men mess things up and much of Genesis is aimed at teaching men about the error of their ways, at educating them in the task of transmitting to their descendants not just life but a worthy way of life devoted to justice and holiness and reverence for God.

Why this emphasis on the deeds of men rather than women in Genesis?   Does it represent a sexist and/or patriarchal mentality on the part of ancient Israel or does it reflect something closer to the reverse, a belief that men are by nature, much more than women, in need of education if they to live responsibly, righteously and well.

But back to our texts for today.  First Genesis 1 verse 27 ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’   This is a reassuring text to those of us who might be inclined to worry that the Bible considers men better than women in some way or other.   Here: at the very beginning or the Bible is a clear statement that both men and women are created equal in status – both, in some way or another bear an equal likeness to, God.  Much ink has been spilled over what ‘image’ precisely means here.   But for today just let us note that this verse means that if both men and women bear God’s image then gender is not part of that image.   God’s image, and by implication God, does not have a gender.

Of course men and women are different, and those differences are important, but surely of less importance to that fact that we are all, men or women or indeed transgender are made in the image of God.

A word about those differences.   It is self-evident that there are bodily differences between men and women: differences related to their different roles in reproduction.   In the next verse – immediately after declaring that both men and women are made in God’s image the writer of Genesis says that God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ .  So human beings’ first task, before subduing the earth, was to have sex and to produce children.   The idea that sex is related to sin – promulgated by St Augustine – is a later invention.

But is the fact that men and women behave differently in all societies, including this, anything to do with their sex?   I know that people in this congregation will have strong views on this question and I am not going to answer it.   I actually don’t think it is an important question.    And it might not be answerable.

I do think it is worth pointing out at this point that it is easy to get confused by apparent differences in behaviour between the genders to your own detriment.  I’ll give you just one example from my own life.   I was brought up to believe that women hug people and men don’t.    And this was partly because my mother hugged me but my father didn’t.  I think we all like being hugged and hugging but I got confused and thought for a long time that hugging was something I shouldn’t do because I thought of myself as a man and men don’t hug.  Perhaps you don’t have this problem with hugging but you may think, wrongly, that a behaviour associated with the opposite gender is something you shouldn’t do, might even be ashamed of. 

Now turning to my second text: Genesis 2 verse 22 ‘And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.’  This is a problem verse because it suggests firstly that God created men first and secondly that women was made for the benefit of men rather than for their own good. 

First the order problem.  This is really only an apparent problem when we remember back to Genesis 1 where God first creates the inanimate – the heavens and the earth, then the living - the plants and the animals – and finally the god-like - human beings.   Arguably to be created last is better than to be created first. 

Note too that in the Genesis 2 account Adam, the prototype human being – prior to the creation of women - was, in fact, gender-less, the potential to be female was within the body of this creature, but only after the separation is there really male and female.

Secondly the problem of women being created for the benefit of men and not for their own good.   Though in the absence of women the first human being may have experienced nothing of his maleness, the first human being does seems to have been male, according to this creation story in Genesis 2 if not in Genesis 1. 

And it is certainly with a sense of his own male priority and prerogative that the man reacts to the woman’s appearance, in a similar fashion to billions of men down to the present day: Genesis 2 verse 2:
And the man said
This one at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh;
This one shall be called Woman (in Hebrew Isha), because from Man (in Hebrew Ish) this one was taken
Note that, as I said earlier, many of the stories in Genesis describe things as they are not as they should be.   Here is a good case in point.   Note that it is Adam not God who is saying this about Woman.   It is not necessarily how God views the matter.   Not everything in the Garden of Eden was lovely, even before Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.   There was remember a snake.  

What Adam says – in, incidentally this first recorded human sentence – expresses his pent up desire:  ‘This one at last is…’  To him the woman is, or will be, his possession: ‘This one is bone of my bone’   And this is also apparent in his explanation of her name.  But his desire is for her body rather that her mind, she is bony and fleshy not brainy: an object of sexual attraction not a conversation partner.  What the woman thought of this speech we are not told.   Presumably not a lot.

But as well as carnal desire there is in the speech the germ of love.   Whatever Adam thinks about his new companion, God’s purpose in creating her was to solve the first human’s problem of aloneness.  Chapter 2 verse 1: Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’  The story of the origins of women in this account are as much about companionship, and the possibility of love, as about sex. 

So perhaps only superficially does Genesis 2: 22 seem to denigrate women – but lets us also acknowledge the damage this text, and others like it, have done down the years.   Wikipedia tell us, and I quote, that ‘the name Spare Rib [for the famous feminist magazine of the 1960s] started as a joke, with its play on words about the Biblical Eve fashioned out of Adam’s rib, implying that a woman had no independence from the beginning of time.’   Now you can say that the founders of ‘Spare Rib’ misunderstood the Biblical text, and the name was a joke, but isn’t their reading of the text also understandable and was the name entirely a joke?

My friend Adrian was, last week, helping members of the LGBTQ community in Kenya write a grant proposal for some research into HIV amongst women there.  He tells me that some members of grant writing panel were uncomfortable about using the term Woman because of its derivation from the word Man – as in the Genesis account.  There is still a lot of angst around about gender and some of that turns into anger at religious, including Christian, perspectives on gender, whether actual or perceived.   

Now I said I wanted to bring you some good news about gender and not just present it as a problem.   I think the good news comes in the words of the writer of Psalm 132:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

The good news is that we all, of whatever gender, have been made by God in God’s image.  We are both mind and body, inextricably connected, and part of who we are is our gender, determined both by our genes at our conception – our inwards parts – but also what has happened to us subsequently – in our mother’s womb, in childhood and beyond.   I don’t personally think our gender is ever fixed but we can all understand that our gender is important to our identity.   Despite some readings of the biblical texts no gender is more important than any other.  We are all fearfully and wonderfully made and equally important to God

With acknowledgements to Leon R Kass (The beginning of wisdom, reading Genesis, Free Press, 2003)



[1] Mathew 1: 1-19
[2] I wonder if this should be masculine.  Should male and female be reserved for sex and masculine and feminine be reserved for gender?  If we describe a person ias a man are we describing his sex or his gender?



Saturday, 29 July 2017

Noah and the Ark, Genesis 6-9, talk at St Matthew’s on 23rd July 2017


Here is a picture of a Rabbs' fringe-limbed treefrog, called Toughie.  The last wild Rabbs’ tree frog to be seen, or rather heard, in the forests of Panama where they lived, was in 2007. Toughie was the last known Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog in captivity and sadly he died in September last year in Atlanta Botanical Garden, Georgia in the US.   What has Toughie got to do with today’s story of Noah and the Ark?

I think it is this: that the story of Noah and the Ark shows that God cares for animals as well as humans so we should care about them too.   And note that God’s care extends to all the animals not just the ones useful to humans, and to species not just individual animals.

Of course the story of Noah and the Ark isn’t just about God’s care for the animals of the Earth and how we, in consequence, should look after them too.   But many interpretations of the story seem a bit far-fetched to me.   For example the idea that the Ark is a foreshadowing of the Church: an idea that that you get in a lot of medieval stained glass where the Ark looks much more like a cathedral than a boat – such as here – in a window from Ely Cathedral.  You can see that this ark even seems to have stone columns with Corinthian capitals and a tiled roof.


Some interpretations seem to suggest that the animals are incidental to the story of Noah and the Ark but they are not.  Here is a picture of the story by Jan Breughel the Elder.   The Ark itself is in the background and the pairs of animals are very much the subject of the picture.  The horse in this picture is more important than Noah off to the right.   The horse is the one who is looking out of the frame at us, the viewers.  Perhaps he is looking for his partner who we can imagine behind us. 
  
I like this picture because the animals are, as well as making their way to the ark, doing what they would normally do.  The leopards are playing, the lions are fighting, the porcupines have stopped for a snack, the rabbits are looking rather nervous, presumably because of the proximity of the foxes.  And is that Mrs Noah, dressed in 17th century Flemish costume, who is taking a rest, with her little dog?

Now Christians have not traditionally paid much attention to animal life.   Genesis Chapter 1 verse 26, ‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”’ has been taken by many Christians to indicate that we humans have God’s permission to treat animals as we wish and even to exploit them.

There is a well-known article written by Lynn White for the journal Science, published in 1967, entitled ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ that blames Christianity for the environmental crisis that we now find ourselves in.  And there is a lot of truth in Lynn White’s thesis.   But Genesis 1: 26 needs to be balanced by Genesis 2: 15 ‘The Lord God took Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.’  Keep it, note, and not destroy it.

And when God decides to recreate the Earth in the story we are thinking about today he decides to keep one family of humans and one pair of every living animal that cannot swim.   The story of Noah is really another creation story – like the two that can be found in Genesis Chapter 1 to Chapter 2:4 and Chapter 2: 5 to the end.  In this third creation story– or rather, I suppose, recreation story - Noah and his family replaces Adam and his family and it is Noah and his family that are to look after the animals during the recreation process.  God tells Noah, Chapter 6: 20 – echoing Chapter 2: 15 - ‘Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive.’ God even instructs Noah on how to feed the animals on the Ark.

God’s instruction to Adam about the Garden of Eden is to keep it.  God’s instruction to Noah about the animals is to keep them.  

And what does Noah do as soon as soon as the Flood is over, the waters have retreated, and he has let the animals out: Noah starts killing them and cooking them (sorry, children, cover your ears at this point).  Although God chose Noah because he was ‘a righteous man, blameless in his generation, and walked with God’, Noah turns out not to be quite as ‘righteous’ as all that.  But what happens when God discovers Noah killing and cooking the animals he is supposed to be keeping we must leave until another day.

The story of God’s dealings with Noah, like the story of God’s dealing with Adam are of course primarily about our relationship with God but they also deal with our relationship with creation.  It is clear from the Bible that God delights in all of his creation, not just us humans, and that the rest of creation, is not just for our benefit, but for his as well.   He sees it as good.  We should therefore be looking after it, keeping it for him if you like. 

Christians, quite frankly, don’t have a very good track record when it comes to keeping animals and looking after the creation.  There are of course some exceptions.  St Francis is perhaps the most notable.  Here he is preaching to the birds.  In this picture by Giotto there is an echo of the story of Noah and the Ark in that most of the birds are in pairs and of different species.

A legend about St Francis, says that living near the town of Gubbio, where St Francis was living at that time, there was a wolf, terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals. Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and so he went up into the hills to find the wolf. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and not to hurt him or anyone else. Miraculously the wolf came to him and lay down at his feet.

"Brother Wolf, you have done much evil in this land destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission”, said St Francis. "But brother wolf, I will make peace between you and the people." Then St Francis led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by startled citizens made a pact between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had done evil out of hunger, the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly. In return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks.   Here is St Francis making that pact with the wolf in the town square.

The wolf lived two years at Gubbio; he went familiarly from door to door without harming anyone, and all the people received him courteously, feeding him with great pleasure, and no dog barked at him as he went about. At last he died of old age, and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly; for when they saw him going about so gently amongst them all, he reminded them of the virtue and sanctity of St Francis.

Which brings me back to Toughie.   His story is of course more than just a story about a frog – just as the story of Noah and the Ark is so much more than just a story about a man who builds a boat to save himself from a flood– and the story of St Francis and the wolf is more than a story about the miraculous powers of a saint.   All of these stories tell us something about our relationship with animals: what it is and what it should be. 


The story of Toughie moves us perhaps because he had a name and we can therefore identify with him more easily than with an unnamed frog, but also, and more-importantly - because there was just one of him – so there was no possibility of a latter day Noah saving his species.   And of but of course Toughie’s story is symbolic of the way we are treating God’s creation: about 200 species of plants and animal go extinct in any one year due to us humans.  Why should we care?   For no better reason than God tell us to through the story of Noah and the Ark.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

A heart for the helpless

Readings: Jeremiah 24: 1- 10, Luke 24: 13-35.

This is the third in our series of sermons where we are reflecting on what it means to see ourselves as a community in exile.   As Steve said, in his sermon introducing the series, two weeks ago, the idea for the series came from a reflection that Andy – Andy Jefferson – wrote a few months ago now – om which he suggested that we the church might fruitfully compare ourselves with the people of Israel when they were in exile in Babylon.  Today I would like us to revisit that idea before moving on to reflect on how, thinking of ourselves as exiles, might affect our thinking about helping the helpless in today’s society.

So first a short recap on the biblical background.  You’ll remember that around 600 BC Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was sacked by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar.  Their temple was destroyed and a large proportion of the population was deported to Babylon.  There are several books of the Bible which are concerned with this exile: what led to it, how the exiles fared in Babylon and how some of them returned to Judah in around 540 BC.  These include the Second Book of Kings, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezra, etc.  

Now the Old Testament gives us, amongst other things, a history of the people of Israel.  It describes the various phases of their history.  Perhaps their most glorious phase was when they were ruled by the kings David and his son Solomon.  The Israelites looked back to this time as a golden era.  The period of the Exile in Babylon was, on the face of it, their most inglorious phase.

Andy, drawing on the work of various other theologians, pointed out to us that we, as Christians living in England in the early 21st century, might share more in common with the Israelites living in exile than with the Israelites living under David and Solomon.   

For much of the past 2000 years Christians have often had a fair amount of power in countries where Christianity is practiced.  For example in England, since the time of Henry VIII, the head of state – the king or, as now, the queen - has also been head of the Church.  And over the last say 1500 years the church, in England, has accumulated much property and land.  It has become so wealthy that it has been able to pay its staff, if not well, at least enough to live on.  These times can be thought of as being similar to the time of David and Solomon.

But now things are different: the power and influence of the church is in decline.  It is running out of money, closing it church buildings, laying off staff, etc.  Not everywhere of course and also gradually.  When the church had more influence it seemed that the values of society as a whole were more closely aligned with Christian values.  Last Sunday Philp talked, amongst other things, about Sunday trading laws. 

When shops had to be closed on Sundays, it felt as if the State was enacting the fourth of the Ten Commandments which is to keep the Sabbath holy.  When those Sunday trading laws were relaxed it felt, perhaps, as if something had been lost.  We who are members of the Church may feel we are increasingly alienated from the rest of society, as Philip also explored with us last week.  We may feel ourselves in exile – like the Israelites living in exile in Babylon

There are various possible responses here: to deny what is happening, to moan about it, to resist it and to adjust to it.  What did the Israelites do when they were in exile?

In the Israelites’ case it wasn’t possible to deny what was happening to them.  In our case the exile hasn’t been so dramatic.  We, unlike the Israelites, haven’t physically been repatriated.  Though at this point it is worth remembering that about 20 million people in this world do physically live in exile as refugees. 
 
Our exile has been slower and more gradual.  Denial is possible.  But the statistics are difficult to ignore entirely.   Here’s just one example.  This shows some data from the Government-funded and well-respected British Social Attitudes Survey.  It shows that the number of those that claim allegiance to the Church of England is falling whereas the number of those that claim no allegiance to any religion is rising.  Whether this is a symptom or effect of other changes in society I am not sure.  I don’t think we should just regard it as a failure of the church: as if we had all only tried a bit harder this wouldn’t have happened.  God is working his purpose out – even here though these trends – as our reading from Jeremiah this morning reminds us.

Nevertheless many of us, I count myself, here, don’t feel ourselves to be in exile.  I do not live in a refugee camp.  Last week Philip challenged us to see ourselves as living in exile.  I can just about accept that challenge but to tell the truth I do not want to feel like a refugee.

Do we moan about being in exile?  Of course the Israelites grieved over the loss of Jerusalem, in particular their temple there, and their deportation.  Several of the psalms express this grief.  The most famous being Psalm 137 which begins: 
By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?

Are we to weep about our situation as Christians today?  This seems a bit of an over-reaction.  I guess people will grieve when their local church closes down, when laws are changed, but surely we must, at some point, get over it, move on.

The next possible response is resistance.  Of course the Israelites initially resisted invasion by Nebuchadnezzar.  This is recorded at the end of the Second Book of Kings and of the Second Book of Chronicles.  But having been deported, what resistance was possible?  And the final possible response is adjustment.  Did the Israelites adjust to their new situation?

The Old Testament Book of Daniel contains stories of some of the exiles in Babylon mainly through the eyes of its main character: a wise man, a prophet called Daniel and an exile himself.

The book starts by telling us how Daniel and some his friends end up working for King Nebuchadnezzar.  The king, seeing that the some of the Judeans were ‘without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight’ (as it says in Chapter 1 verse 4) co-opts these Judeans to work for him.  Daniel and his friends are assimilated as it were, and not just assimilated, they – albeit with a few trials along the way such as being thrown into a fiery furnace - do well in the Babylonian civil service and are promoted.

But Daniel and his friends never lose sight of their fundamental identity as citizens of another country.   They keep t to their customs and forms of worship.  Surprisingly this rubs off on the Babylonians.  Finally Nebuchadnezzar declares:
‘Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven,
for all his works are truth,
    and his ways are justice;
and he is able to bring low
    those who walk in pride.’
So despite being forced to live far from home, Daniel and his friends do not give in to despair but continue to believe that they are still the people of God and are still to mark themselves out as distinct.  As a result of the wisdom that God gives them, they are recognised as useful by the Babylonian king and rise to become his wisest and most trusted servants. Still in exile but with influence.

So what are we to learn from this?  I think it is that both resistance and adjustment to exile are necessary.  If we see ourselves as entirely alienated from modern day culture we will be tempted to stand apart, to keep ourselves uncontaminated by what is going on around us, to have absolutely no influence.  We have to adjust: to developments in new technology, for example.

On the other hand if we entirely adopt the ways of the world then we are not able to embody Christ, to represent him and to bring anything distinctive by way of good news, to the people we live amongst.  We have to resist some of the secular trends: widening gaps between rich and poor for example.

What does this all mean for our mission to the people of South Oxford and beyond?  Andy wrote his reflection in the context of our thinking, here at St Matthew’s, about growth as a church.  Here is one of the things he says in his reflection:
‘My suggestion is that running a Start course or launching other new programmes, whilst not necessarily a bad thing, doesn’t address or recognise this shift: we, as a church in this nation, are in Exile. Our community no longer looks to us for a framework of meaning for their lives. We are simply one voice among many. And we have the disadvantage of being a voice that people think they have already heard, so they are less inclined to seek us out for a second hearing.’
And I have heard many times over the past few months that, if we are to grow as church, we need to be smarter in our thinking about how we are to do this and in particular work out, more clearly, what growth means, in particular for St Matthew’s as opposed to church growth in general.  And in this we need to work out what we, as a church, have that is distinctive to offer to those around us, as opposed to clamouring for their attention and expecting to be heard.  Listening to what those around us want and need might be a start.

One aspect of our mission is to have a heart for the helpless.  Seeing ourselves as exiles has, I think, a big effect on our thinking here.  Exiles themselves need help. They are a marginalised section of society.  But God has a heart for exiles.

In today’s passage we heard Jeremiah’s prophecy for the exiles in Babylon.  I’ll read the relevant bit again:
‘Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians.  I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up.  I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.'

Seeing ourselves in need of help ourselves changes our relationship with those around us who, perhaps more obviously, need help.  We should no longer regard ourselves as the dispensers of largesse, as perhaps we have been tempted to in the past.  In this country, the church used to be the main provider of hospitals, schools, relief for the poor and other aspects of welfare provision.

Of course the church now has hardly any role in health care provision in this country – although in other parts of the world – particularly Africa – it still does.  I spent a bit of time last week talking to a student from Cameroon on the course I was helping to run.   He told me that around 60% of health care provision in his country is funded by the church.  And we ourselves still have a small role in health care provision in Africa though our involvement with initiatives such as those of the Semiliki Trust in the Congo.

The church also has a diminishing role in education in this country.   Although about one third - 7,000 of the 20,000 - state funded schools in England are still, to varying degrees, faith based, and of these 68% are Church of England schools, 30% are Roman Catholic schools and 2% are of other faiths, the extent to which education directly reflects our perspectives on say Sunday trading is clearly in decline.  We, St Matthew; of course, have quite close links with St Ebbe’s School situated in this parish. 

And finally it’s a long time since the church in this country had a major role in poverty relief but we still have a bit of a part to play though organisations such as Christians Against Poverty. 

We can hardly deny our declining role in our capacity to help the helpless with respect to health, education and poverty.  Moaning about it seems quite frankly pointless given that the decline started decades, if not centuries, ago.  

So is this all too depressing for words?  Resisting the trends also doesn’t seem likely to be effective but this isn’t to say we should lose hope and/or give up.   No, we need to rethink what our role should be in the light of changing circumstances and to adjust our actions accordingly following the example of Daniel and his friends.

Perhaps we should stop trying to go it alone, to develop and run, specifically Christian organisations to the problems faced by the people around but, instead, to work in partnership with others who share a similar perspective.  Perhaps we could even work in partnership with others of different faiths.  Perhaps we could be more humble about our likely contribution.  Perhaps we could move from provision of direct help to advocating for justice in the provision of help.

Finally two pictures by Caravaggio – an Italian painter working at the turn of the 16th century - that symbolise the change in thinking about the helpless required when we see ourselves as exiles.  Caravaggio was hardly a saint, in the conventional meaning of that word, but he was a painter who tried to make his faith real.

Both are pictures of the Supper at Emmaus – the culmination of the story we heard in our gospel reading today and comparing them suggests a flip in the way Caravaggio saw this event similar to the flip in our thinking we might get if we start to see ourselves as exiles rather than as in charge.


The first picture was painted in 1601 when Caravaggio was feeling confident in his abilities and included by the church.  It portrays the moment when the two male disciples, seated at the table, recognise who their companion, on the journey to Emmaus, is.  On the table is a delicious meal of bread, chicken, fruit and wine. 

The second painting is also a of the Supper at Emmaus – painted by Caravaggio five years later in 1606, at a particular turbulent time in his life when he was clearly feeling less confident about his place in society.   In this painting the gestures and expressions are less dramatic.  On this table is just bread, a bowl, a tin plate and a jug.  There is still an innkeeper looking on.   But in this picture there is a new, fifth, character, an elderly female serving maid, her worried face downcast, seemingly engrossed in her own thoughts. 



The 1601 version is perfectly balanced but the presence of the maid seems to unbalance the version of 1606.   The inclusion of the female maid servant would have offended the wealthy male church leaders for whom Caravaggio worked and who saw themselves as the successors of the disciples.  Michael Frost, in his book Exiles, suggests the maid represents the poor and marginalised: and all those who yearn for a place at Christ’s table, thought they might not yet recognise their desire to share Christ’s food.  If we see ourselves as exiles we might begin to identify with the servant at the table rather than the disciples who are already seated, and if so we will see the world differently.


By recognising that we are citizens of a different kingdom, a kingdom in exile, one in which the king himself has voluntarily exiled himself, we might begin to have a true heart for the helpless.