How Being With The Underprivileged Changes the Way You Read the Bible

Bible StudyI read Brian Zahnd’s “My Problem with The Bible” in 2014, and found it an interesting take on how perspectives and filters can either distort or correct one’s reading of scripture. He pointed out that instead of reading from the perspective of the beneficiary of a powerful empire, we must learn to read the bible from the position of the powerless who are totally dependent on God (which is what Israel as a nation was in biblical times). I found his points interesting, but I never thought I’d be writing my own “version” of this article a year and a half down the line.

I co-lead a very small (less than 20 people) house church in one of the poorer surburbs of Accra, Ghana called The Jesus Community, Agbogba. My church is dominated by mainly semi-literate, unemployed/under-employed men and women who will be classified as poor by any economic standard, with only 3 of us properly employed. Of course you can imagine the multitudes of needs in this community, and the struggle to meet them on a regular basis with the virtually non-existent resources we raise. Those of us better employed are asked on a regular basis why we choose to be in this impoverished church community, when there are nice, shiny, glossy megachurches next door that we could attend and meet some of our “middle-class” (if that is the right term) friends who we meet in our professional lives. The answer? We didn’t choose this life, neither did we choose these friends. God sent them our way just as he sent us their way, and for us then, faithfulness and love is all that matters as he works to shape and mold us into something beyond our wildest dreams.

But living life with these brothers and sisters, engaging scripture and being free to ask the kind of daring questions for which we would most surely have been excommunicated or would have been told to “shut up and take it like that” in Ghanaian Christendom, has totally reworked our hermeneutics – our way of interpreting scripture. And so here I offer my thoughts on how this shared life with people less socioeconomically advantaged than I am has changed my reading of the bible. This is not to say that everyone who is in the same state as we are will experience the bible the same way. I’m just telling part of my story.

A New Appreciation for Jesus and the Gospels

The first thing one notices is that the Gospels does portray Jesus as spending a lot of his time with the disadvantaged. One may choose to ignore this, especially a more privileged reader of the scriptures. But being i) a prophet , ii) the Messiah and iii) the embodiment of Israel’s God Yahweh, it is not surprising that he manifests in his incarnation, the “ways” of Yahweh – of being with the poor, oppressed and outcast. This is not because Jesus hated the privileged, but simply that from the giving of the Torah to the critique of the prophets, the privileged were commanded to meet the needs of the underprivileged and stand by them. And what better way to show this than when Yahweh himself takes on bodily form in the person of Jesus and does exactly that, as we see in the Gospels.

A Greater Affinity With the Prophets of Israel

Having been hooked by the the Gospels has forced me to look again at the life and times of the prophets of the Old Testament (seeing as they are quoted all over the Gospels), and the result I find astonishing. It becomes obvious to me the similarities between the concerns and critique of Jesus Christ and these prophets – the two main concerns being idolatory and injustice. The link between these two is much more evident these days. Someone once said that “You become more like what you worship”, and when the people of Israel departed from their worship of Yahweh, both his character of mercy and his commands of same went flying out the door. And one easily sees the same going on in Christendom today, where many love the notion of “worshiping God” more than the action of “following God” in his ways – ways revealed to us by Yahweh made flesh, Jesus the Christ. For me the poverty and injustice is not far away – I see them many times every week, and I’m reminded of how Amos, Jeremiah and Hosea felt watching the people of Israel abandon the poor and the weak, and still claim “this is the house of the Lord” (Jer 7). I watch contemporary Christendom sing the emotional ooh-aahs of the “I wanna be more like you” and the “Jesus I love you” and “I want more of you” blah blah, and I can only shake my head in sadness. Yes, sadness does fill my heart a lot, re-reading scripture through the eyes of the prophets. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I love Handel’s Messiah and Bob Marley with almost equal ferocity – the vision of the Messiah captured by the prophets and put to music by Handel is very moving to me, and Marley’s critique of the “system” is so apt.

A Greater Interest in the Story and History of Israel

Being born Protestant, my default mode was to read Genesis 1-3, skip over the story of Israel and head straight for Jesus and his cross, and then the Pauline epistles to explore his “grace” teaching as opposed to the “law” requirements of Israel. But those days are gone. With my interest piqued by the prophets, I’ve been much more interested in the historical background of the story of Israel and of the times of Jesus. I’m reading more of Ancient Near Eastern culture and looking to see how Israel fit in or critiqued it. I look to 1st century Judaism to understand the struggles of Jesus himself and early Christianity after Jesus’ resurrection. Of course this is a work in progress, but the insights already gleaned have reshaped me drastically, and make me see much more the big picture of humanity’s struggle to either eclipse one another or feel safe/superior over against another, into which God placed Israel, and into which God entered himself in the person of Jesus.

A Valuing of Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy

One of the benefits of conversation and friendship with both people who are and people who aren’t like me, but who love Jesus with the same passion has been that I’m becoming more interested in ways in which we are both being faithful to Jesus, and less worried about battles over the bible or how exactly my theology lines up with a tradition or the other’s way of reading scripture. Jesus’s own way of interpreting AND living out scripture was not always palatable to the theological gatekeepers of his time, but in so far as it was leading him to display a love of God and a love of neighbour, he was game. And when you live the bible with people who aren’t so theologically (or even educationally) savvy but whom you desire to still be in community with, you learn to focus on what is really important, and be less of a watchman. This feeling of mine is best captured by Scott McKnight’s book “The Blue Parakeet”, which I quote below.

St Augustine once said in his “On Christian Tradition” that if the bible leads the reader to be more loving, then the Bible has accomplished its mission … he offered a graphic image [to explain his point]. Getting the right result of becoming more loving, even if we aren’t as accurate in our interpretation as he’d prefer, is like a person on a journey who gets lost but somehow finds the way to the right destination … its not as if Augustine thought every interpretation was as good as any other … but Augustine knew the Bible’s main mission: so that we become people who love God and love others” (Scott McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, pp 104).

Many (including luminous Christian leaders of the past) have killed in the name of “orthodoxy” – a rightness of belief. I prefer to lose my life in defense of orthopraxy – a rightness of action. That’s not to say I don’t care about good theology (those who know me know that I do), but I’m more worried about what kind of Christianity is being produced by a theological position taken. Some people are miffed when I say I judge a theology by this standard, and I simply like to remind them of Jesus’ own ways of judging what was “standard teaching” around him.

Community Is the Life Blood of the Bible (and of it’s God)

As I read, think and try to practice the bible with other people like and not like me, I’m amazed at the insight that they are able to bring to scripture and life, and yet some of these people do not read the big fat theological books that I read often. It brings home the reality of the tradition upheld by early Christianity that scripture is best interpreted in community.

It becomes more obvious that the grand goal of Paul’s efforts and letters was to create a unique people who learnt to live together in unity and love despite all the sociocultural reasons why they shouldn’t be together. This community was meant to be a sign of the new age launched by Jesus which he called “the kingdom of God”. Thinking back further on the trinitarian nature of God, I’m not surprised that the ability to express the oneness of mind of 3 persons in the Godhead becomes the driving force for creating human communities that also are able to live in the same way. With this in mind then, one is saddened to watch the impact of individualistic readings of scripture that has ravaged the Christendom landscape for centuries.

The Bible is A Call To Action and Participation

Seeing Jesus’ vision of kingdom now, a kingdom filled with people of different social, economic and cultural backgrounds learning to live as one and supporting one another in this journey, we are galvanized into making choices to overcome the challenges of injustice, poverty, unemployment, deprivation and segregation that exists amongst us. As we read scripture, we see God on a mission to bring blessing to the world through the actions of the church, and are encouraged to seek out ways in which we can be a source of blessing to the underprivileged amongst and beyond us as well. As action reinforces knowledge, sitting and talking again about these same issues and steps we’ve already taken, alongside wrestling with scripture, we can truly see how the “the ways of Yahweh” are indeed ways of mercy, love and reconciliation. We are indeed reminded of Micah

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)

A Greater Appreciation for the Plaintive Psalms in the Bible

Sometimes despite all our prayer and all our efforts, things still do go wrong, and we are forced to ask God why. Thankfully we have developed the habit of reading many Psalms everytime we meet, and we noticed the huge number of complaining Psalms that many in Christendom prefer to ignore in preference for only the upbeat ones (or as some Ghanaian churches do, read the Psalms about enemies and use them to heap curses on their personal enemies). Some of these psalms express a hope that God will in the end, come to their aid, but one particular Psalm (Ps 88) simply ends without hope, filled only with accusations against God. Given that God chose to preserve such Psalms in the bible for us, its taught me the foolishness of pretending that life will always be rosy for “those who have faith”, and also the foolishness of not sharing my disappointment with those in community with me when things don’t go well. After all, I live with others who are a lot worse than me, and I believe sharing my own struggles with others reminds us all that we are in this together, and that suffering is not the preserve of the underprivileged. It reminds us that we are not in control, the Spirit of God is, and ours is to take up our cross and follow, even if we seem lost and feel frustrated along the way.

Conclusion

A lot has changed about my reading of scripture, and it’s becoming more obvious how we all can be a people who love reading it, theologizing it, apologizing for it and yet be miles removed from the reality of what scripture is and is meant to be. And in this respect, I offer a reminder

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful … SO THAT the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17)

Scripture is for the purpose of making us fit for good works. When Peter spoke about what these “good works” were, he had no other place to point to but to Jesus himself.

You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good … “ (Ac 10:36-38)

My hope is that scripture leads us indeed to be a people who are schooled in Yahweh’s righteous ways – ways he embodied in Jesus of Nazareth who lived, loved and died to show us these ways – ways that indeed lead to good works.

 

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