Spartacus: Modelling Rebellion in the Church

The Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford

The film, Spartacus (1960; directed by Stanley Kubrick) needs little introduction.  Starring Kirk Douglas as the rebellious slave, it is based on a historical novel by Howard Fast – and inspired by the real life of a Thracian slave who led the revolt in the Third Servile War of 73-71 BCE.  A small band of former gladiators and slaves, perhaps no more than eighty in number, and led by Spartacus, grew to an army of around 125,000, to challenge the might of the Roman Empire.  Kubrick’s film starred Laurence Olivier as the Roman general-politician, Marcus Licinius Crassus.  Peter Ustinov won an Academy Award for best supporting actor as Batiatus, a slave trader.  Jean Simmonds and Tony Curtis also starred. The film won four Oscars.

Less well-known is the film’s own story of rebellion.  The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, along with several other Hollywood writers, had been blacklisted for his political beliefs, and associations with movements seeking equality for coloured and black people, as well as members of the American Communist Party, some of whom were jailed.  Even though the age of McCarthyism was crumbling, it still took a young aspirational Senator – John F Kennedy – crossing the picket lines to see the film, to help end Trumbo’s blacklisting.  Howard Fast had also been blacklisted, and originally self-published his novel.

Looking back, we can see why Trumbo’s script should perhaps have caused audiences to ponder some potential for subversive political messages.  But there were more obvious, overt challenges to the establishment in the film.  Much of America was still colour-segregated in 1960.  But we are introduced to Draba, a heroic black slave, first overpowering the white Spartacus in gladiatorial combat – and then sacrificing his own life in protest at the oppression of slaves.  Equally unusual, for a Hollywood film of that era, was an ending that was both realistic and tragic – seemingly without hope.

The film also explores different kinds of love between men: rare for the time.  There is the relationship between Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis) – made to fight to the death by their Roman captors.  The final words between them are ‘Forgive me, Antoninus’ (Spartacus), to which the dying Antoninus replies, ‘I love you, Spartacus…’.  Earlier in the film, we find Crassus (Olivier), and his then slave, Antoninus (Curtis) in a bathing scene – with the slave gently sponging and washing his master.  The ‘gay subtext’ is pretty clear, Crassus declaring his passion for both ‘oysters and snails’:

Crassus: Do you eat oysters?

Antoninus: When I have them, master.

 Crassus: Do you eat snails?

Antoninus: No, master.

Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?

Antoninus: No, master.

Crassus: Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?

Antoninus: Yes, master.

 Crassus: And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals.

Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.

Crassus: My robe, Antoninus. My taste includes both snails and oysters.

Here, Trumbo’s screenplay gives us an interesting excursion into moral philosophy.  There is nothing wrong with taste (or orientation) according to Crassus; the ethical issue is the sating, or control, of appetite.  Crassus’ bi-sexuality in this scene – like others – carries subtle, seditious subtexts.  The viewer of the film is being challenged on many levels: issues of race, sexuality, political hierarchy and slavery are all strongly featured in the screenplay.  Yet most cinema-goers at the time would have missed these themes, explicitly.  But they would have perhaps sensed them, implicitly. It was Kierkegaard who opined that ‘life is lived forward, but understood backwards’.  So it is unlikely that cinema-goers in the early 1960’s picked up any subversive sublimation in the sub-plots.  But looking back, we can understand what Trumbo may have wanted to say at the dawn of a new decade, in a repressive social and political climate that was about to become progressively liberal.

So what has Spartacus got to do with the Church of England, perplexed as it currently is (again) by questions of sexuality?  The social changes in the last decade have caught the church off guard, and on the defensive.  It is only just over 25 years ago that Section 28 (of the Local Government Act 1988) stated that a local authority should not intentionally promote homosexuality, or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.  Tony Blair’s Labour Government attempted to repeal this in 2000.  But the House of Lords resisted for three years, until Section 28 was finally defeated in 2003 – by a comfortable two-thirds majority.

Last summer (2013), the Archbishop of Canterbury warned that allowing gay couples to marry would ‘diminish’ Christian marriage, and ‘damage the fabric of society’.  In the ensuing debate, the House of Lords voting was sobering: 390 Peers were in favour of the same-sex marriage bill, with only 148 against.  A substantial majority of people in our country are now in favour of affirming the love, and rights, of same-sex couples seeking publicly-recognized and legal life-long union.

This change has been well-tracked by sociologists such as Professor Linda Woodhead.  (See ‘What People Really Believe about Same-Sex Marriage’, Modern Believing, volume 55, issue 1, 2014, pp. 27ff).  Her recent research project shows that attitudes amongst churchgoers have now shifted significantly towards a more liberal and tolerant mindset.  This contrasts starkly with our current church leadership.

Woodhead’s research shows that the country is becoming progressively more tolerant and liberal.  Statistical surveys repeatedly show growing toleration for same-sex unions in congregations and amongst clergy, across the theological spectra.  Recent studies carried out by Gallup (USA) confirm the cultural shifts.  (Clive Field and Ben Clements in ‘Public Opinion Toward Homosexuality and Gay Rights in Great Britain’, in Public Opinion Quarterly, July 2014, also confirm these trends).  In 1977, 56% of Americans thought that homosexual people should have equal rights in the workplace; the figure now exceeds 90%.  One can begin to see why the church, in withholding a licence to officiate from a clergyman who has recently married his same-sex partner, merely looks like petty discrimination to the wider world.

But whilst the nation has turned its face towards justice, integrity and equality, our senior church leaders have turned the other way.  The confident national church of the 1960’s and 1970’s – often producing senior clergy at the forefront of progressive social change on decriminalising homosexuality or divorce laws, for example – gave way to a more circumspect church in the closing years of the 20th century.  As our culture quickly changed, the Church of England busied itself with Issues in Human Sexuality (1991), or keeping elements of the Communion onside with Resolution 1.10 at the 1998 Lambeth Conference.  Meanwhile, our nation offered sanctuary to people, persecuted for their sexuality, seeking asylum from overseas.

We are now witnessing what I term the ‘Soaking-Ceiling-Syndrome’.  Everyone can see the sagging bulge; some puddles are forming on the floor below.   No-one dares to prod.  Some hope it will all dry out, and the problem go away.  It won’t.  Change is here to stay.  Many evangelicals now also understand this, and are quietly adapting.

Yet despite this, the early years of the 21st century have seen our senior church leaders arguing (in the House of Lords) for more exemptions on equality legislation, and taking a continued hard line against homosexual practice and gay marriage.  In the 21st century our senior leaders have slowly kettled the church into behaving like a wary sect on the subject of sexuality.

It’s ironic that this ‘leadership’ largely consists of nervous silence.  Underlying this has been enormous confusion in the church concerning the relationship between secularism and liberalism.  But they are quite different.  Secularism marginalises religion.  Liberalism, however, has deep and profound roots in progressive, orthodox Christianity, which are found in the teachings of Jesus and his disciples – equality, justice and liberation being just some of the values that the early church embodied, and sought to extend to wider society.

The capacity of our church leaders to grasp the opportunities in society today – one for renewed mission and ministry in the context of complex changes within our culture – have been egregiously spurned.  Our crusading conservatism has left the church looking self-righteous, sour, mean-spirited and isolated.

In his prescient Refounding the Church (1993), Gerry Arbuckle argues that dissenters in society not only have rights, but also duties.  He notes with care how Jesus, as a principled dissenter, challenged the status quo with patience, tolerance and love.  He also argues that dissent is an essential component in mission – a mission that witnesses to the world, and also converts the church.

So, is this a kairos moment, or a crisis time for our church?  It’s hard to say, but this may be a good Spartacus-inspired opportunity for some of our gay bishops to become more courageous – to stand publicly, with others, alongside those clergy currently bearing the brunt for having married their same-sex partner.  No point in cowering in the closet, hoping not to be ‘outed’ by a Tatchell or a tabloid.  Anyway, the populace almost certainly regard an openly-declared marriage between two people of the same sex as better and healthier than any secretive praxis.  Morally, the public are ahead of the church on this; marriage is an estate to be honoured.

Returning to Spartacus, as the film closes, Crassus tries to identify his nemesis amidst the slaughtered remains and remnant of the crushed slave rebellion, the surviving comrades of Spartacus stand as one to proclaim, ‘I am Spartacus’.  We all are now.  The human spirit will not be crushed.  Tyranny will not triumph.  There is beautiful, loving solidarity abiding in our shared, deepest dissent.  Surely it is better to die free than live enslaved?  Yet some will point to how the film finishes.  The hero is cruelly forced to take the life of his dearest companion in a hastily-organised duel-to-the-death.  For the ‘victor’, only crucifixion awaits – with thousands of others along the Appian Way.  And there the rebellion ends; as might the story.

But Kubrick’s epic has one more scene.  The slave-woman Varinia (played by Jean Simmonds), the lover of Spartacus, and with whom she has now borne a son, escapes from the clutches of Crassus through the intervention of Batiatus, the former slave trader.  Leaving Rome in disguise, they pass Spartacus, dying on his cross.  Varinia holds up their son to his face, and simply proclaims, ‘he is free, Spartacus; he is free’.  The rebellion, it would seem, is vindicated.  As the film hints, you only truly live by looking forward.  As a church, we’ll only understand how far we have travelled when we look back.  But live forward, we must.

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