How Biblical Studies Helped My Critical Thinking: Part Two (Personal Reflections Pt. XIII)

Kennedy

These last three weeks I’ve been trying to show how critical reading of biblical texts is connected to critical reading of every other text — including that of my own life. In all cases, “ideological suspicion” Is central.

It alerts readers to the fact that vested Interests tend to distort analysis — but mostly in conservative ways Intent on supporting the status quo. That’s the way as well with most extra-biblical texts like the mainstream media, best-sellers and school text books.

By way of contrast, readings issuing from the viewpoints of the socially-conscious dispossessed tend towards subversion of the status quo. That’s significant for Bible reading because (as I was saying last week) the Bible largely represents the memory of poor and oppressed communities. As such, books within the biblical cannon are nearly unique in history whose records normally preserve the memories of the rich and famous.

So with that in mind, here are twelve more conclusions I’ve drawn about the Bible. Notice the connections to politics and the very complex question of violence so pertinent in a world characterized by a permanent war against terrorism. Again, I present this second list of 12 conclusions to expose the way biblical studies have influenced my political leanings and the ideas that seem so strange to my adult children. .

  1. The experience of the socially activist poor and oppressed leads them to discover a liberating God in the Bible. He habitually overturns political, economic and social structures oppressive of people like themselves.
  1. In other words, the God of the Bible is not a neutral God. The biblical God is a class-biased God who has made a “preferential option for the poor.”  Similarly, Jesus is class-biased, not averse to making sweeping statements about “the poor” and “the rich” as groups without specific reference to individuals within those groups.
  1. Neither is the Bible a neutral text.  In fact, there are no neutral texts at all.  Any text, biblical or otherwise, either supports the status quo or it attempts to subvert it.  A text which does not subvert supports.  There is no third position.  By and large (though not universally) the biblical texts predominantly produced in situations of persecution, attempt to subvert the order of the world; they support God’s order often described in terms of “the reign of God.”  Once again, it is an order which as the antithesis of the world’s present order favoring the rich and powerful, favors instead the poor and oppressed.
  1. Similarly, there is no neutral exegesis of the sacred texts. Every reading is done by a person of a particular gender, race, nationality, and creed, with a particular personal history, and located in a given historical era.  Inevitably such readers possess more or less definite political commitments, and have predetermined understandings of the world.  Each of these elements as well as others inevitably bias his or her exegesis of the text. Each interpretation facilitates some insights but excludes others.  With this in mind, it is revealing to note that almost invariably respected mainstream exegesis has been done by rather comfortable white males of European background.  This means that the vast majority of believers, women, people of color, the poor, the illiterate, as well as Christians of the Third World have been left voiceless.  All of these have been forced to accept as normative well-off European, white, male biblical interpretations.  And once again, these interpretations almost universally have supported maintenance of white male euro-centric privilege.
  1. Today our Third World brothers and sisters are asking us to open ourselves to the levels of meaning they are discovering. They do not claim these are the only possible meanings; for clearly there are others.  Neither do they hold that those who make diametrically opposed interpretations are insincere; for such a claim would obviously be false.  They do, however, observe that these latter interpretations are extremely partial, for normally such readings take no note of their contradictory alternatives produced for example by unlearned people in the Third World.  Meanwhile, the exegesis of the poor and oppressed is normally more comprehensive, for it is well aware of the mainstream interpretation and usually spends a good deal of its time contesting such understandings as ideological.
  1. Meanings uncovered in this way lead to judgments about the structures of poverty and oppression experienced in the world, and to action towards changing those structures. Here the emphasis is on judgment of sinful structures rather than on sinful human beings.  For although personal sin is a painful reality, it is not up to Christians to judge how others stand in God’s eyes.  Nevertheless, God’s word can shed light on the human institutions which victimize both oppressed and oppressors by facilitating and often appearing to necessitate injustice.  An example of such an institution is international capitalism particularly as it impacts the Global South.  Institutions of this kind must be eliminated by Christian action in the world.
  1. Unfortunately, those who profit from the world’s sinful structures do not usually allow them to be changed willingly; instead their more frequent response to movements for change is one of extreme violence often directed towards the most vulnerable, children, the elderly, women, the sick.
  1. As a last resort, defense of these “least of the brethren” may demand that Christians take up arms and give their lives on behalf of the otherwise defenseless. Here other Christians, especially those outside the violent and threatening context in question must exercise extreme caution in judging such actions as contrary to the spirit of the Gospel.  This is especially true if those tempted to judgements of this type are among those whose taxes and/or silence enable their own  government to sponsor the violence which prompts assumption of arms in defense of the otherwise helpless.

21. Likewise criticism of Christians who take up arms in defense of “the least of the brethren” must be restrained since the Gospel is by no means clear consistent in its judgment about such action. In fact, historically speaking, most Christians who read the Bible in good faith have found that it does not require non-violent resistance.  A close reading of the biblical texts, and an examination of church history seems to reveal that highly contextualized considerations rather than some unchangeable principle of non-violent resistance have dictated the responses of Christians in situations of persecution.

  1. In addition, it must be admitted that not all violence is the same. There is a real difference between (a) the violence of the unprovoked attacker (This is clearly against Gospel teaching); (b) the violence of one defending himself or herself against unprovoked attack (This is less evidently against Christian belief); and (c) the violence employed in similar circumstances by one risking his or her own life in defense of the lives of the otherwise defenseless such as children or the elderly (Arguably this may represent a positive response to the Gospel).  To neglect such distinctions is to obscure questions of violence and non-violence.
  1. For these reasons, advocates of non-violence for others must humbly examine their consciences to see if their advocacy is not unwittingly supporting the interests of those oppressing the defenseless. Here it must be noted that most robbers and perpetrators of other forms of violence are quite enthusiastic supporters of “peace” which takes the form of non-violent response on the parts of their victims.  It should also be observed that in this case those upon whom the strategy of non-violence is so enthusiastically urged are the least able to defend themselves.  In fact, historically speaking, the poor and working classes of the world who for the most part are the victims of oppression, stand virtually without means of self-protection, having no armies of their own.  They are the only ones to whom both state and church authority have forbidden violence  as a legitimate means of defending their loved ones from their oppressors of the propertied classes who have huge armies and defense budgets at their disposal.
  1. Perhaps in view of all this, the most that some North American Christians can say is that they themselves are hearing a vocation to non-violent resistance, and that Christians in other very different situations  are being called to determine how best to defend the “least of the brethren.” in their own contexts.  No doubt some Christians there will choose to arm themselves on behalf of their families, friends and fellow citizens.  Others will choose non-violent resistance. Still others will choose a combination of the two approaches.   A great deal will depend on the context in question. Christians living in the U.S.A. must overcome the affliction of tolerating violence in service to U.S. corporate interests while condemning the violence of those who resist such oppression.  “I would assert that people who have not actively opposed the violence of the powerful against the poor, at some cost to themselves,” writes Philip Berryman, “have no moral authority to question the violence used by the poor.”  (Jack Nelson PallmeyerThe Politics of Compassion.”  Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books 1986, 87.)

Realizations like the ones I’ve noted here — all of them faith-based have inclined me to:

  • Understand world events in ways that privilege the viewpoints of the  world’s poor.
  • Side with them in their conflicts with the rich and powerful.
  • Acquaint myself with the reasons for what the privileged habitually describe as the unprovoked “violence” of those they habitually oppress.
  • See that the violence of the rich and powerful dwarfs that of the poor they exploit.
  • Perceive that since World War II all of the U.S. wars have actually been fought against the world’s poor and oppressed to keep them in that condition.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “How Biblical Studies Helped My Critical Thinking: Part Two (Personal Reflections Pt. XIII)”

  1. Hi Mike,

    Hypothetically, if this life is our preparation for immortality, and if real success in this life is to graduate prepared asap (unless we can help others be prepared first: Phil 1:23) – where would that leave the materialist anxieties of Liberation theology??

    Ironically, although my view seems antithetical to yours at a metaphysical level, it leads me to grow more and more committed to challenging the use of lethal violence by self-identified Christians, including the support given by national(istic) Churches for State-sponsored violence, which maintains local and international injustice and oppression, including the sham of so-called “free trade”. However, I am not interested in trying to persuade Nationalists (Marxist or Capitalist) to disavow violence: they are materialists who reject Jesus central teaching of a personal relationship with the transcendent-but-immanent Creator; non-violence only makes complete sense to those who prefer to die rather than to kill. But, Mike, you justify violence in your explicitly Christian blog.

    So, whilst I agree with most of what you have written in this post, I cannot agree with your justification for lethal violence to achieve your aims. At best, violence contains violence promoting, for example, power-sharing in the face of mutual destruction. Containment of human violence is certainly worthwhile but, I think, well-meaning unbelievers (and those of ‘little faith’) can manage containment as well as anyone. Mature & genuine disciples of Christ are those who share (and are seeking to further share) Jesus’ faith, who are thereby transformed individually into radical lovers of friends, neighbours and enemies.

    You, though, don’t promote individual transformation through faith in Christ but want to channel the energies of Christians from faith in the T-b-I Creator (seeking His kingdom and His righteousness) into the Tower of Babel that is social reformation – a task both modest (too little a thing) and impossible for the untransformed of heart (we can will what is right but we cannot do it!). It is though you have, with no disrespect intended, the heart of a Christian but the brain of a Marxist.

    In this vein, I note that, of your second “12 conclusions about the Bible”, only the first three are about the Bible. The remaining nine are your beliefs and justifications for political activism. Your claim that these conclusions were achieved from “critical thinking” (in some logical positivist fashion?) has, by your own profession, some inescapable inherent bias. In particular, it is based, I suggest, on a psychological need to reject the traditional view of the central teaching of Jesus – the transcendent–but-immanent Creator, which is implicit in Jesus’ proclamation that “the Kingdom of God is at hand!”

    If I am right about this, I think it would be very helpful for you to explore this further – as part of your project of explaining why you think as you do. If I am not right, why else do you think as you do? If you say, critical thinking about the Bible and the World makes belief in a Transcendent-but-Immanent Creator unreasonable, then I think you should attempt to justify (if not also examine more deeply) that conclusion. Because, after all, do not many of those you are wanting to reach with your blog accept, at least in theory, this T-b-I Creator? I suggest most of them, like me, will understand/assume that you are still unconsciously caught in blind conformity to worldly presuppositions. In my case, I wonder if your teachers suffered from both a certain smallness of imagination, as well as (like theologians and church people of all persuasions…) an unwillingness to follow Jesus to the cross.

    Finally, thanks again for the opportunity to discuss these things with you on your website! Yours online,

    John Wallace

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    1. Thanks, John. Your comments are always so thoughtful and challenging. You raise at least three questions here — about Christian faith and non-violence, about the essential nature of Christian faith, and about bias. On the first, it is asking a lot of victims of wholesale violence at the hands of huge imperialist powers (like the United States) not to defend themselves at the retail level. On the second, I get (and accept) the transcendent/immanent nature of the divine. However, I’m not clear about how the immanent fits into your framework. On the third, I do not personally believe that it is possible or desirable to escape bias, which I would rather term commitment. I think it is impossible to be neutral, though fairness is accessible. Your comment (as you note) gives me more to think about and explain. Thanks again, John.

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