Reading The Bible From The Margins [October 2010 Synchroblog]
This post is part of a larger Synchroblog. This month’s topic is “seeing through the eyes of the marginalized.” I will post links to the other blogs as they come in.
I once had a conversation with a fellow Christian about what Jesus might be asking us to do about the poor. She insisted that she scrimped and saved and made good decisions all her life in order to have what she has now and those who are poor could do the same. Any discussions about laws or systems that discriminate against the poor (and thus help keep them in the cycle) were moot to her. She sincerely felt that this was the teaching of the scriptures. I recently wrote a blog post (here) about another friend who ministers in the legal system with young women in detention. Those woman are invariably low income folks, and of course, they have made really bad choices in their lives. But this friend understands that the ways in which the poor have been taught to think and understand life and finances are very different from those of us with more privileged lives, and that they need much intervention and mentoring before the things that seem like common sense to us can be understood, much less embraced. She has learned to see through their eyes.
It comes down to seeing. My first friend was unable and angrily unwilling to see through the eyes of those who had had different lives and opportunities than she. I can understand her frustration. It would be easier to “help” the poor if they were like us, that is, if it didn’t require that we enter into their worlds to see as they do. It is common for us to assume that others see and experience the world in the same way we do. We also assume that others experience God the same way and read the Bible the same way as well. Miguel A. De La Torre, author of Reading The Bible From The Margins (See what I did there? I stole his title!) says that it’s all too easy to assume that the Bible text has one clear meaning that existed in the mind of God and was revealed to the original hearer and we may ascertain what that was and apply it for all time and all people. However, interpretations of the “one meaning” often reflect the dominant culture – an androcentric, white, middle to upper middle class westernized reading. Then, if these interpretations are questioned, we become unsettled and even defensive as if we are messing with the biblical text itself. But just like my first friend, we can remain blind if this one perspective is the only set of interpreting eyes that we have upon the text.
Justo Gonzalez (quoted by Miguel A. De La Torre) shares a story of a sermon preached through the eyes of the marginalized. They were studying the part of the fourth commandment that says, “six days you shall labor”. The pastor asked the congregation how many had worked six days that week, then five, then four, etc. Very few hands went up. Then he asked how many would like to work for six days but were unable to find employment. All of the hands went up. The minister responded, “How then, are we to obey the law of God which commands that we shall work six days, when we cannot find work even for a single day?” Honestly, I had always just skimmed over that part of the commandment. I didn’t see.
De La Torre points out that the “eyes” of class privilege blind us to that first part of the commandment. We assume the privilege of being employed. We are oblivious then to the reality of those segments of our society that lack opportunity for gainful employment because of external prejudices towards race, ethnicity or class, or internal things such as brain-addling traumatic stress due to chronic poverty, neglect and abuse. Without being willing to hear and see the text through the eyes of the marginalized we miss this and probably much more. Our blindness keeps us from loving our neighbors as ourselves.
A few years ago I was invited to teach to a group of Christian pastors and leaders in Mozambique. I remember speaking about Sabbath and what it meant to keep that commandment. There with the poor was the struggle of finding the six days of work. I wondered what it would be like to move into discussion of the Sabbath Day, when their six days had not brought them the fruits of labor. However, the Africans seem to grasp a better sense of the need for Sabbath and the Shalom, human flourishing, wellbeing, connectedness, enjoyment and rest that the day was meant to bring, because their culture is much more communally oriented and not as production and success driven as ours. Even so, it became evident to me that they took everything I said as absolute truth and it was hard for them to believe that I truly desired their discussion and input. I became painfully aware that here I was, a white person of privilege standing “over” black Africans in authority as a teacher, just as plenty of white, western, well-meaning missionaries had done so many times before.
What would it be like to see the text through their eyes? It was one of the “help me God” moments. I sensed God say (no honest, I did), “Speak to them about their story.” So, with some trepidation, I did so. Mozambique was formerly Portuguese East Africa and at least a million people from that region had been kidnapped and sold into slavery a century and a half before. The Portuguese colonists had since ruled their land and made them into second class citizens. That rule did not end until the latter part of the 20th century. As we reflected on their story aloud, their eyes dropped to their laps. Shoulders sagged.
But, I said, the ten commandments were being given to a people who had just been led out from a life of enslavement to Egypt. What could this Sabbath commandment mean for them? The class began to see their story in the text. The Sabbath was a command for all. In this commandment they saw a decree of justice because the Sabbath rest and shalom was for all people, not just the privileged class, as had been their experience. They saw that no one was to be viewed or measured as their position or privilege that day. All were human beings and the playing field was flat. The party was for all. They believed this showed God’s true heart for them. Honestly, have you ever read the fourth commandment this way?
They began to bounce out of their seats. “Africa is blessed”, cried one man, “Because see? God loves it.” They showed me verses from which they had been taught by the colonists that they were black because they had sinned and needed the white man to rule them. They had believed that their “sin” was why they didn’t have work. But through their eyes on the text, the joy and delight of God in the African peoples sprang from the pages. We could have spent the class focusing on the theological and eschatological meaning of the “rest” of God as outlined in my notes, blah de snort. But instead we saw the scriptures come alive and bring freedom and restoration to these people. Their eyes on the text made all the difference.
Seeing through the eyes of the marginalized is not merely a means of administering social justice, though that is important. It is not merely an act of love, though that can hardly be a small thing. The eyes of the marginalized bring to everyone a fullness of understanding in the reading of the biblical text and therefore, to the reading of life. Yes, I learned the tools and rules of hermeneutics in seminary – all about the grammar, rhetoric, genre, historical and cultural contexts, and so forth. But even with such careful study, the biblical text has been used too often to justify horrific events such as slavery, apartheid, oppression of the Native Americans, subjugation of women, and the maltreatment of gays. Seeing through the eyes of the other is crucial to help us to truly hear the Word of God. It is a crucial work in bringing forth the in-breaking of the Kingdom. It is a crucial piece in becoming whom we are meant to be- like Him in this world. We cannot say that we know Truth without the gift of many kinds of eyes to bear witness to the fullness of meaning. We cannot say we know “neighbor” until her eyes become our own.
Check out these amazing voices:
George at the Love Revolution – The Hierarchy of Dirt
Arthur Stewart – The Bank
Sonnie Swenston – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized
Wendy McCaig – An Empty Chair at the Debate
Christine Sine – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized
Alan Knox – Naming the Marginalized
Margaret Boehlman – Just Out of Sight
Steve Hayes – Ministry to Refugees: Synchroblog on Marginalized People
Liz Dyer – Step Away from the Keyhole
John O’Keefe – Viewing the World in Different Ways
Andries Louw – The South African Squatter Problem
Drew Tatusko – Invisible Margins of a White Male Body
KW Leslie “Who’s the Man? We Christians are.”
Jacob Boelman – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized
Peter Walker – Through the Eyes of the Marginalized
Cobus van Wyngaard – Addressing the Normalized Position
Tom Smith – Seeing Through the Eyes of the Marginalized
Christen Hansel – Foreigners and Feasts
Annie Bullock – Empty Empathy
Sonja Andrews – On Being Free