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:

Kathy Escobar Sitting at the rickety card table in the family room waiting for Thanksgiving dinner

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

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Showing 26 comments
  • Claire

    It might be interesting to note that a lot of the incarcerated kids I work with are recipients of other’s poor decisions: growing up in a crack house, born to a prostitute, subjected to domestic violence and sexual abuse…the list goes on. Add mental illness and physical disabilities and the arguement “why can’t they take care of themselves?” breaks down. One of my favorite professors said something that has always stuck with me – “I have a lot more in common with the person sitting next to me than I do with Jesus.” Humility is word that gets a bad rap…it means knowing your rightful place. We are all at the ‘hierarchy of dirt’ at the foot of the Cross. 🙂

  • Liz

    Ellen – Beautiful! I can say that I have learned the most about love and grace from people who have been marginalized and oppressed.

  • kathyescobar

    as always, so, so, so good, ellen. very powerful. i haven’t read that book or bob ekblad (? on the spelling) “reading the bible with the damned” although we’ve had some convos about it over the past few years. i think you are hitting on something so powerful & important, how much of the lenses we’ve been looking through are so tainted. i remember how strong the “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality was until i actually had friends who struggled with mental illness & no amount of boot strap pulling was going to do it. thanks for your voice, my friend.

  • Aram

    A few years ago I was a member of a denominational committee which interviews candidates for ordination. A black African pastor (who was studying here) came in to be interviewed. His focus was rural Africa (“where most missionaries aren’t willing to go”), where he had planted over 30 churches and founded and developed several schools. Our committee, while appreciative of his work, rejected his application for ordination because he was “deficient” in some academic courses – theology and languages. It was in that moment I became painfully aware of the self-righteous, myopic lens through which we were seeing this man.

  • Duncan

    The best thing about recoving from yet another surgery is the leisure to stay in bed, slow down a bit and soak in some wonderful thoughts from dears friends. I’m especially enjoying this one and Ellen’s previous posting on a new kind of leader.

    When read together they help form a story that echos from long ago. “God opposes the proud…” His opposition of my elevating ways are the expession of His love, not the contradiction. He’s committed to margenalizing me—the false me, the me lost in me. Only when my self-centered admiration of acheivements and accomplishments are humiliated and die, can I embrace the second half of the ancient story. “God gives grace to the humble (or in my case so often, He gives grace to the humiliated).”

    It appears the leaders I’m most drawn to these days are those who have been chewed up, margenelized and discarded as a has-beens. In other words, those embrace the decenting way of Jesus, who came to His own, but His own rejected Him. What thrills me about Jesus in this light is that, even though rejected by them, He still claims them as His own. Gives me great hope that He may even consider me His own after all my fickle years of loving and rejecting Him.

    • ellenharoutunian

      Wow. I am looking forward to seeing what is next for you on this journey, Duncan. 🙂

  • marta

    Your post made me all misty-eyed. That part of six days of work as a part of the commandment… it is powerful in our climate, and you don’t have to go around the world (or even outside of your own demographic) to see people hurting from that lack.

    I posted a link over at my blog, along with some more in-depth thoughts. Hope you don’t mind:

    • ellenharoutunian

      Honestly Marta, you have been on my heart a TON lately! It’s so good to hear from you! It’s an honor to be linked on your blog. 🙂

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