Social Location and Biblical Interpretation
June 21, 2011 3 Comments
Recently, I have been reminded about the unique way that God reveals himself to, and is revealed in the life of, the “least of these.” I firmly believe that God is present among and discovered in those places and persons that we discard as “unworthy” of the love and justice owed them because of race, ethnicity, class, disability, or social behavior. I believe that scripture and the best of Christian theology bear witness to this truth, and my personal experience has confirmed it in a very real way. Some of those times where I have most clearly seen God’s face and witnessed God’s activity have been in Indian leper colonies, African slums, and the streets of America’s metropolitan cities. My faith rests in knowing that God has not only not abandoned “the least of these,” but identifies with and and is found within their lives which so evidently bear witness to the reality of human sinfulness.
I come from a working class background. While never experiencing extreme poverty, my childhood included some rather lean times. However, I’ve devoted myself to a life of solidarity with/service to the poor for several years now and have lived among and with poor people on a regular basis. Since my move to Atlanta to work on my doctorate, however, I spend the vast majority of my time among some of the world’s most privileged people. I live in a world my friends from home would quickly label “bourgie.” And they’d be right. I drink white and green tea on a regular basis, make pizza with arugula, enjoy the theater, and spend much of my time discussing theology, philosophy, and ethics. In this context I’ve often found myself missing regular contact with those society ignores, discards, and undervalues. It has been my shame that I have not spent more time learning from them, and less time learning from books, over the last couple of years.
Today, however, I was able to spend some quality time with those on the bottom of American society – women who are recovering drug addicts. Inspired by this wonderful post, sent to me by a good friend, I taught portions of Matthew 13 in that study. We talked about the power of stories in our lives and why Jesus so often chose to teach by telling them, and we looked at a couple of those stories found in Matthew 13:44-46. I told the story of the man who “put his soul in the pawn shop” as well as the classic Christmas story “The Gift of the Magi.” Afterwards, these women shared some of their stories, how they’d sold/lost everything, including children, for drugs, and how they’ve now given up drugs, which for many was their “pearl of great price,” for faith and life anew. There was no theoretical contemplation about whether they’d be willing to give up everything for faith and new life in God’s Kingdom. They continue to do so everyday. Jesus’s parables were no intellectual exercise, they are true reflections of their experience.
During this experience I was reminded of the time I taught Jesus’s parable “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31) to homeless youth in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. When this story is taught in American, suburban churches the clear import of this story is rationalized away in every way possible. However, those who live in one of Africa’s largest slums quickly understood the import of the story: they will one day be in God’s presence and everyone who ignored them every day as they passed them on the street would not. It is those who are poor, and those who are not poor but devote themselves to the cause of the poor, who will enter “Abraham’s bosom.” Those who daily ignore the poor and “least” will not be able to share in the eternal comfort of God’s direct presence. The parable is clear, and its direct meaning fits quite easily in the rest of Luke’s theology, but we who live in comfort in history’s most wealthy nation can come up with a million reasons not to believe its message.
I was reminded on that day and again today that social location means much when it comes to biblical interpretation and theological reflection. And the location through which God is most fully and clearly known is that of “the least of these” because it is there that Christ chooses to dwell. We cannot help the location into which we are born, but we can control the location(s) that we learn from and commit ourselves to. My guess is that most people who will read this post are relatively privileged. My challenge is that they – like me – do not necessarily choose poverty, though I do not count that out as a viable option and call of God, but rather choose solidarity with “the least of these” defined by love for those “least” you know and justice for those “least” you do not.
She who has ears, let her hear.