Every story is told from a vantage point; it has a bias. I’m trying to read the stories of the Bible for all they’re worth, but I’ve got a problem.
My vantage point is not as a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt or a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m certainly not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.
I’m a citizen of a G8 nation, born among the conquerors, and living in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me.
This is a problem.
One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that in it we find the narrative told from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, and the defeated. This is what makes it prophetic. We know that the winners write history. This is true – except in the case of the Bible – it’s the opposite.
This is the subversive genius of the Hebrew prophets.
Imagine a history of pre-Confederation Canada written by Cree Indians and Metis. That’s a different way of telling Canada’s story. And that’s what the Bible does. It’s the story of Egypt told by the slaves. The story of Babylon told by the exiles. The story of Rome told by the occupied.
The Bias of the Bible
What about those brief moments when Israel appeared to be on top? In those cases the prophets told Israel’s story from the perspective of the peasant poor as a critique of the royal elite. Like when Amos denounced the wives of the Israelite aristocracy as “the fat cows of Bashan.”
The bias of the Bible is from the vantage point of the underclass.
But what happens if we lose sight of the prophetically subversive vantage point of the Bible? What happens if those on top read themselves into the story, not as imperial Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans, but as the Israelites? That’s when you get the bizarre phenomenon of the elite and entitled using the Bible to endorse their dominance as God’s will.
This is Roman Christianity after Constantine or Christendom on crusade. This is the French and English seeing Canada as their promised land and the native inhabitants as Canaanites to be conquered. The whole history of European colonialism and justification of the slave trade is here.
This is the domestication of Scripture.
Now think about Jesus announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom with the proclamation of his counter-intuitive “Beatitudes.” When Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” how was that received? Well, it depends on who is hearing it. The poor Galilean peasant would hear it as good news, while the Roman in his villa would hear it with deep suspicion.
And that’s the challenge I face in reading the Bible. I’m not the Galilean peasant. I’m the Roman in his villa and I need to be honest about it. I too can hear the gospel of the kingdom as good news but first I need to admit its radical nature and not try to tame it to endorse my inherited entitlement.
I am a suburban, white Canadian male. Which is fine, but it means I have to work hard at reading the Bible right.
I have to see myself basically as aligned with Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and Caesar. In that case, what does the Bible ask of me? Voluntary poverty? Not necessarily. But certainly the Bible calls me to deep humility — humility demonstrated in hospitality, vulnerability, and generosity. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being a relatively well-off, white Canadian male, but I better be humble, hospitable, and generous.
If I read the Bible with the appropriate perspective and humility I don’t use Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus as a proof-text to condemn others to hell. I use it as a reminder that I’m a rich man and Lazarus lies at my door.
Reading the Bible from this perspective prohibits me from using the conquest narratives of Joshua to justify Manifest Destiny. Instead, I see myself as a Rahab who needs to welcome newcomers.
I don’t imagine myself as Elijah calling down fire from heaven. I’m more like Nebuchadnezzar who needs to humble himself lest he go insane.
My problem with the Bible is me. And you?
There is hope. What if you read the Bible standing on your head?
(with gratitude to Brian Zahnd)
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