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5 min read

The 4th century social justice warrior

He was the first to condemn slavery, over 1,500 years ago. Gregory of Nyssa critically examined society, looking at the relationships and structures everyone takes for granted.

Ryan Gilfeather explores social issues through the lens of philosophy, theology, and history. He is a Research Associate at the Joseph Centre for Dignified Work.

A mosaic shows a saint with a beard holding a bible and his hand held up in a blessing.
Gregory of Nyssa fresco.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In January 2023 the Church of England committed £100m to invest in communities affected by historic slavery. Rightly so. Research since 2019 shows that the wealth it accumulated through historic investment in a slave trading company and receiving gifts from slave traders, may still benefit its finances today. This past is, as the Archbishop of Canterbury says, shameful. So, it is only right that these actions are addressed.  

This story also highlights the complex relationship between Christianity and enslavement. On one hand, inspired by their faith, Christians led the fight for abolition. But on the other, some Christians supported and benefitted from the enslavement of other humans. And, the further back we look in history, the more Christians seem to accept enslavement as part of the fabric of society.   

There is, however, an exception. In the late fourth century AD, Gregory of Nyssa, a bishop and theologian, critically examined this practice of enslavement, which so many others did not even think to question, and explicitly names it as a sin, about a millennium and a half before the abolitionist movements. Gregory is, in this way, a light in the darkness and an inspiration to Christians today.  

He is convinced, on a fundamental level, that the domination of one human being over another in slavery is incompatible with Christian belief. In one of his sermons on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, delivered in Cappadocia (Turkey), he calls slavery a sin. 

It is a ‘gross example of arrogance…  for a human being to think himself the master of his own kind’: When someone…arrogates dominion to his own kind, so as to think himself the owner of men and women, what is he doing but overstepping his own nature through pride, regarding himself as something different from his subordinates?'  

It is wrong to dominate others, because all human beings share the same fundamental nature. That nature is being made in the image of God:  

'God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God , who is his buyer, tell me?' 

Since we are made in the image of God, we share His freedom to choose our own path, be it good or evil. When you enslave another, you take away this fundamental freedom and treat them as if they are animals, lower than the image of God:  

'Why do you go beyond what is subject to you and raise yourself up against the very species which is free, counting your own kind on a level with four-footed things an even footless things?' 

Therefore, Gregory says it is a shameful arrogant pride to enslave another human being, because you treat that which is made in the image of God as less than human, denying them the freedom God has given them.  

We see this conviction about slavery as domination playing out in his biography of his sister Macrina. As wealthy aristocrats, his family owned enslaved people. Yet, at the heart of his narrative about his sister’s life, he explains how she began to treat her family slaves as equals:  

'Weaning her [mother] from all that she had been accustomed to, she led her down to her own standard of humility, showing her how to live in equality with the whole body of virgins (slaves), that is, by sharing with them the one table, the same kind of bed, and all the necessities of life on an equal basis, with every distinction of rank removed from their life.' 

Gregory does not explicitly say she freed these enslaved people, but inviting an enslaved person to share one’s table was a way of freeing them called manumissio inter amicos. In these passages, he particularly praises Macrina for undoing destructive relationships of domination, where one human treats another as less than themselves and lower than the image of God. 

Gregory isn’t perfect. His condemnation of enslavement centres on the enslaver: he encourages his audience to avoid the moral pitfall, rather than expressing concern for the enslaved people. In another text he says it is good to free slaves, but he does not appear to campaign to end slavery. As we saw in the biography of his sister, he is so concerned to undo the relationships of domination of one person over another, that he is less clear if these people are free to leave. Finally, there is no evidence from his contemporary theologians that Gregory persuaded anyone else that slavery was a sin. In these ways, from our perspective today we would want Gregory to go further to dismantle slavery, or shift his perspective.  

But, we don’t need him to be perfect. He offers a light in the darkness, not the rising of the sun. Gregory is an inspirational example of critically examining the fabric of one’s society, looking at the relationships and structures everyone takes for granted, and having the clarity and courage to see and proclaim that they are fundamentally incompatible with what he thinks the Bible says about the worth of human beings.  

Many Christians are inspired by this way of thinking today. Even if they don’t know Gregory of Nyssa’s name, they will be drawn to charitable giving, certain professions, or activism, out of a deep desire for all to be treated with equality, because all are made in the image of God. To name one example of many. In the UK, Christians were heavily involved in the real living wage campaign. Society at large told them it was impossible to pay a wage where one did not need to choose between feeding and seeing one’s children. But, they campaigned alongside other community groups so that workers are being paid enough to live on, because they were convinced, like Gregory, that all human beings are due the same dignity and worth.  

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How to be (un)successful

Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?
A man sits cross legged in a park with a laptop on the grass in front of him. He looks to one side.
Malte Helmhold on Unsplash.

You probably want to be a success. 

That’s OK – it’s a very reasonable thing to desire.  

The questions ‘Am I successful?’ or ‘What is success?’ are deeply significant and to ask such questions is a normal part of the human experience. The yearning for a life of purpose, as elusive as it can seem, is felt acutely by the majority of those who have ever lived – certainly by more than might admit it. (Those feelings of inadequacy you experience may be more common than you think.) And now more than ever it is understandable that you may feel you are not particularly successful, or not successful enough. We are assaulted by a combination of capitalism and consumerism, social media and cancel culture, polarised ideologies and virtue signalling, topped off by the wounds of our parents passed down – all of which can amalgamate into producing some pretty angsty, pressure-driven people. 

It’s not just you; I’m pretty sure we all have a bit of a problem with success (the word itself is so subjective), and our idea of it can often be fuelled by wounds rather than vision, romanticised projections rather than reality. Because we are all somewhat flawed, any worldly contribution we try to make can get precariously entangled with a me-fixated narcissism on a fairly regular basis.  

Most of us know that being successful is not simply about money, looks, large numbers or power. That’s just a caricature to which very few reasonable people actually subscribe, right?  

Well, sure – at least on the surface. 

My social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. 

The thing is, despite seeing through it and being repelled by it in others (we see it’s all vanity, inch-deep), something in us longs for success on these terms. But much more interesting than skimming along the surface of ‘success’ is excavating deeper into some of the core motivating beliefs we humans have about ourselves, such as mistaken pride in thinking we each control our destiny, or paranoia that tells us there’s an inherent scarcity of everything in the world. These are the swell that carry along the undercurrent of comparison – where we see the lives of others and long for a different reality for ourselves. And comparison – so often eliciting either pride or despondency – rarely ends well.  

A cursory glance through the wisdom of online articles on the matter tells us millennials typically understand that material wealth isn’t the marker of success – there are enough old, sad, rich people to show that. Instead, success has now become synonymous with living a life that others want. Chase an experience. Go adventure. Wanderlust. #yolo. To succeed in life is to publicly consume as many unique experiences as you can during your short time on earth.  

I don’t know about you, but my social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. Success for today’s generation would seem to look a lot less like the overweight suit-clad city trader selling their soul to the system, making shedloads of cash to buy a slice of suburban real estate with a Porsche in the drive, and more like the lithe and mindful global citizen doing ‘life on my terms’. Think coastal living, yoga on a stand-up paddleboard in the morning, slaying the emails in your industrial co-working space, eating a superfood lunch, nailing a couple of zoom calls early evening before smashing some gua bao and margaritas with ‘your peeps’ at the latest pop-up restaurant before taking an Uber home. #squadgoals  

There’s no escaping the fact that technology has shrunk the world and as James Mumford notes, ‘global capitalism has brought so many different ways of life closer to us than ever before. We can see vividly a greater number of people who we want to be.’ This can bring up hidden feelings we thought we’d buried long ago.  

I often feel unfulfilled. Sometimes completely lost. For years I haven’t been able to admit that. Until fairly recently I would find myself looking at others and thinking: ‘Don’t they ever struggle with life’s big questions? Don’t they ever want to give up? Surely, I can’t be the only one sinking under the weight of comparison?’ Far from freeing me from my broken sense of self, the version of faith I was trying to live by was exacerbating the core wound I recognised in myself. That wound was a sense of feeling a failure, unsuccessful. And like an unwelcome parasite, it fed on comparison to others.  

Read any random couple of articles on ‘successful’ people talking about how ‘successful’ they are, and a lot of what’s conveyed is a profoundly angsty relationship with time: ‘You only have one shot at life’; ‘I don’t want to waste my time on earth’; ‘You can never get it back.’  

It’s as though we have an inherent recognition – and for some, dread – of the physical limits placed on us by virtue of being mortal and human. But what if unencumbered productivity, unceasing activity and unrelenting progress – however that is defined – are signs less of success than of self-centred insecurity? Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?  

It’s as if we have, left unchecked, an insatiable appetite for accomplishment. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. Paul Kingsnorth comments that: “Modern economies thrive by encouraging ever-increasing consumption of harmful junk, and our hyper-liberal culture encourages us to satiate any and all of our appetites in our pursuit of happiness. If that pursuit turns out to make us unhappy instead – well, that’s probably just because some limits remain un-busted.” He goes on to suggest that this is a fundamentally spiritual problem, because ‘a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit.’ 

So far so depressing? 

It needn’t be. 

Fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. 

Despite my continued struggle with all of the above, (neatly summarised by the inner critic’s voice asking me ‘what have you got to show for your life?’), I am beginning to learn that ‘life in its fullness’ (as Jesus once described what he came to offer) is found elsewhere. So, what does this look like and how do we successfully access this fullness of life? This quote can come across – and I’ve heard it used as such – like a marketing slogan, dangling a golden carrot in front of sad or vulnerable people to recruit them into church. Presumably that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.  

Now there’s no denying the fact that Jesus was one of the most influential people who ever lived. Arguably THE most influential. Generally, even those who don’t follow him recognize that what he taught was pretty timeless. (Also evidenced by the 2.6 billion people today who are happy to be called Christian.) All of this suggests he had some fairly wise takes on how to live life well, and that his perspectives have stood the test of time. So, when he is recorded as teaching about how to discover what he described as ‘life in its fullness’, the chances are there is something valuable and insightful for those of us searching for success.  

The thing is, in this particular speech, Jesus conceptualized ‘life in its fullness’ as a shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. Sure, he was talking about himself, but he was also talking more broadly about the human experience. Jesus’ point is that fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. This flies in the face of much conventional ‘self-help’ wisdom, but it would seem you cannot find true abundance any other way.  

We might well think: ‘Well hang on a minute, Jesus claimed to die for the sins of humanity – we can’t all do that!’ Absolutely right, and please don’t try. But in dying and raising to life again, Jesus foreshadowed the journey of surrender and rebirth that each person who chooses true success must go through. As C. S. Lewis said: ‘Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.’ This new life of serving others above ourselves – where we seek to align our desires, loves and motivations, our use of time and energy, words and actions with those of Jesus – comes to resemble the promise of life in its fullness. Discovering that would seem fairly successful wouldn’t it? 

 

How to be (UnSuccessful) is published by SPCK.