Of doing theology

The question of the relationship between socially engaged biblical scholars and ordinary poor and marginalised readers of the Bible lies at the heart of this chapter. While it may seem strange to begin an essay on 'The Bible and the poor5 with such a statement, liberation theologies in their various forms all emerge from the interface between socially committed theologians and ordinary Christians from poor and marginalised communities- The task of this chapter is to understand the contours of the interface more clearly.

As most of the readers of this volume are probably from the First World, we must begin by making it quite clear that liberation theologies are different from First World theology.1 It is not just that liberation theologies have a different content, they are more profoundly different in that they have a different methodology, 'The established methodology of First World theology - often regarded as a universally valid norm - has recently been challenged. The challenge comes from different quarters in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but it also comes from certain groups within the First World, e.g., from Christians within the feminist and labour movements.91

Elaborating on this statement, Per Frostin defines the challenge posed by theologies of liberation with reference to five interrelated emphases: the choice of the interlocutors of theology, the perception of God, the social analysis of conflicts, the choice of theological tools, and the relationship between theology and praxis.3 Of particular concern in this chapter is the first of these emphases, what Frostin calls 'the interlocutors of theology', because it is this emphasis that shapes each of the others,

Frostin notes that all conferences of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians {EATWOT) have argued persistently for a new method of doing theology. The focus of this stress on methodology is expressed in a concern for epistemology, As early as 1976, the founding members of EATWOT declared that this new methodology was based on a 'radical break in epistemology'*

The theologies from Europe and North America are dominant today in our churches and represent one form of cultural domination. They must be understood to have arisen out of situations related to those countries, and therefore must not be uncritically adopted without our raising the question of their relevance in the context of our countries. Indeed, wc must, in order to be faithful to the gospel and to our peoples, reflect on the realities of our own situations and interpret the word of God in relation to these realities. We rcject as irrelevant an acadcrnic type of theology that is divorced from action. We are prepared for a radical break in epistemology which makes commitment the first act of theology and engages in critical reflection on the praxis of the reality of the Third World,4

This quotation makes two crucial points. First, in this methodology there is a stress on epistemology- When liberation theologians stress the question of epistemological issues, questions related to the origin, structure, methods, and validity of knowledge, (the reason is obviously that they want to explain that their reflection cannot be assessed on the basis of established epistemology. In other words, they do not understand their own contribution as a mere reform within an existing framework but as a challenge to a basic consensus/5

Second, in this new methodology the experience of oppression and of the struggle for liberation are fundamental. The opening phrases of one of the first reflections on liberation theologies, Gustavo Gutierrez's A Theology of Liberation^ emphasises the role of experience as the starting point for theological reflection: 'This book is an attempt at reflection, based on the Gospel and the experiences of men and women committed to the process of liberation in the oppressed and exploited land of Latin America, It is a theological reflection born of the experience of shared efforts to abolish the current unjust situation to build a different society, freer and more human

In their emphasis on epistemology and the experience of oppression in the struggle for liberation and life, liberation theologies ask a question not usually asked in Western theology: who are the interlocutors of theology? Or, who are asking the questions that theologians try to answer? Liberation theologies not only pose this question, they also give a specific answer: the poor and marginalised.

Frostin compares liberation theologies with modern Western theology in two ways. He first compares the option for the oppressed as interlocutors of theology with the influential position of Schleiermacher, who addressed the 'cultured critics' of religion.7 In an important contribution to the first EATWOT conference, Gustavo GutiƩrrez interpreted modern Western theology in the light of Schleiermacher's approach. The chief interlocutor of even 'progressivist* Western theology, he maintains, has been the educated non-believer. Liberation theology, by contrast, has chosen 'nonpersons' as its chief interlocutors, *the poor, the exploited classes, the marginalized races, all the despised cultures*/

In a second comparison, Frostin argues that in Western theology the relation to the poor is usually an ethical question, not an epistemological question. But, he continues, 'such a distinction cannot do justice to the idea of the poor as interlocutors'. According to theologies of liberation, 'solidarity with the poor also has consequences for the perception of the social reality*, and so *an option for the poor* implies 'the epistemological privilege of the poor'. This penetrating expression suggests, argues Frostin, 'that cognizance of the experience of those defined as poor is a necessary condition for theological reflection'.9

In other words, theologies of liberation require that we not only make 'an option for the poor', but that we also accept 'the epistemological privilege of the poor'. This involves an epistemological paradigm shift in which the poor and marginalised are seen as the primary dialogue partners of theology, Theology begins with the reality, experience, needs, interests, questions, and resources of the poor and marginalised.

Implicit in my discussion of liberation theologies so far is some form of relationship between the theologian and the ordinary Christian from a poor and marginalised community. We must now probe the form of that relationship more carefully- In order to do this I will concentrate on the Bible and the poor.

Biblical scholarship and the contribution of the common people

The Bible is and has been one of the basic sources of liberation theologies. This is certainly the case in South African and African American black theology, Latin American liberation theology, African American womanist theology, and feminist theologies,10 For the poor in particular, the Bible is not merely a strategic tool for liberation; the Bible is the source of 'God's project5, which is a project of liberation. An anecdote and two recent pieces of research from South Africa illustrate this point.

The dilemma that confronts black South Africans in their relationship with the Bible is captured in the following well-known anecdote: 'When the white man came to our country he had the Bible and we had the land. The white man said to us "Let us pray," After the prayer, the white man had the land and we had the Bible.5 This anecdote clearly points to the central position that the Bible occupies in the process of oppression and exploitation. The anecdote also reflects the paradox of the oppressor and the oppressed sharing the same Bible and the same faith. However, what is remarkable about this ancecdote is that Desmond Tutu responded to it after one of its tellings by stating, 'And we got the better deal.1 While Tutu's response would be and has been challenged, it does capture something of the reality of the Bible in South Africa (and elsewhere): it plays a central role in the lives of many, particularly the poor and marginalised. The Bible is a symbol of the presence of the God of life with them.

Two recent studies have clearly demonstrated this. In discussing the construction of an indigenous theology of work in South Africa, James Cochrane makes some penetrating comments on workers reading the Bible.1' He argues that besides being 'the primary source of the Christian mythos', the Bible 'is probably the only source of theology for most members of our churches. It is, as some have said, the people's book par excellcnceV1 Cochrane's argument is supported by the Institute for Contextual Theology's Church and Labour Project Research Group. The report of this group notes that perhaps 'the most interesting question of all, given the response to it, was whether or not the Bible had any significance for workers, and if so, what kind of a meaning it could have1. The answers are astonishing,' the report continues, (at least to anyone who might have thought that the general picture of a relatively high level of alienation from the Church would be echoed in this question/ The research found that an effective 80 per cent of respondents regarded the Bible as significant, which, as the report notes, is ca very high positive evaluation in the light of all the other generally more negative data' concerning, for example, the relevance of the Church, 'Overall,' the report concludes, 'the most important conclusion to be drawn from this question is that the Bible is a rich source of interpretation for the worker's life, certainly of much greater significance than the liturgical and pastoral operations of the Church/13

In his research with the informal peri-urban shack community of Amaoti, Graham Philpott examines 'how members of that community use and re-interpet the symbol of the kingdom of God to make meaning of and communicate their reality of poverty and oppression, of suffering and hope1. He notes that l[t]he re-interpretation of this symbol has emerged from a particular Bible study group which has met regularly over a four-year period to reflect on their involvement in the struggles of their community in the light of the God u/ho is revealed in the Bible and in their community life."4 Philpott goes on to argue that This reflection has equipped them better to dialogue with and engage the oppressive reality of their community, so that they can work against the forces of death and be involved in engendering life.1 The Bible is central to the process.

But, and this is a significant 'but1, having demonstrated the primary place the Bible has among the poor and marginalised and having argued that the experience of the poor is a necessary constituent of doing theology, what role do the biblical interpretations of the poor play in liberation theology?

There arc two lines of response to this question, and at the core of each response is a different understanding of the relationship between the theologian and the ordinary poor Bible reader. In the Latin American context, for example, Jan Luis Segundo has analysed this question with remarkable clarity. In an important article Segundo outlines the shift within Latin American theology between 'two lines' of liberation theology, one foregrounding the categories and contribution of the theologian or biblical scholar and the other foregrounding the categories and contribution of 'the common people'.

Segundo looks at the history, aims, methods, and results of at least two theologies of liberation coexisting in Latin America. The first line of response has three characteristics: the solidarity of biblical scholars and theologians with the poor and marginalised; a methodological suspicion that Christian faith at all levels of society is ideologically distorted and thus serves the status quo; and finally, a commitment to provide 'the pastoral activities of the Church with a new and de-ideologized theology capable of speaking about the common themes of Christian faith'/5 Because it is the social sciences that 'provide the theologian who wants to carry out a de-ideologizing task with valuable cognitive tools', and because these are 'tools which . .. are beyond the grasp of the majority of people*/6 the role of the theologian or biblical scholar is emphasised. An option is made for the poor, but the categories and contribution of their experience is subordinated to or translated into the terms of the intellectual trained in the social sciences.

However, the rise of popular movements either outside or inside the Church lhad shown that common people had neither understood nor welcomed anything from the first theology of liberation, and had actually reacted against its criticism of the supposed oppressive elements of popular religion'/7 And so it appeared then that 'if theologians were still to be the "organic intellectuals" of the common people, that is to say useful as intellectuals charged with the understanding of popular faith, they were obliged to learn how oppressed people lived their faithV8 So theologians wanting to be in religious matters the organic intellectuals of poor and marginalised people, 'began then to understand their function as one of unifying and structuring people's understanding of their faith, as well as grounding and defending the practices coming from this faith'/9

Although Segundo, like other liberation theologians, empathises with much in this second position, he does not want *to give up the first critical function which comes out of n suspicion that theology, like other all-pervasive cultural features, can and perhaps should be considered an instrument of oppression and, hence, as a non-Christian theology'/0 He then goes on immediately to claim that '[fjacts point so obviously in that direction that theologians belonging explicitly to the second line cannot but raise the same central question.' But do 'facts point so obviously in that direction'? I do not think so. Let me explain.

The tension between these two positions can be found in every context in which there is a struggle for liberation and life, and at the centre of this difference, as 1 have already suggested, is the relationship between the socially engaged biblical scholar or theologian and the ordinary poor and marginalised believer. The emphasis tends to be either on the critical contribution of the trained reader or on the reading resources of the ordinary reader. Both emphases want the Bible to be a resource for liberation and life- But for this to be a reality one position argues the Bible must be read critically,11 and so the ordinary reader must to some extent be dependent on the work of biblical scholarship, while for the other position the Bible must be read from the perspective of the poor and oppressed, and so the trained reader must to some extent be dependent on the readings of ordinary readers. In other words, for the Bible to be a resource of liberation and life there needs to be an appropriate relationship between the trained reader and the ordinary reader, but there are differing opinions on where to place the emphasis, on the trained reader or the ordinary reader. In order to analyse these differences in emphasis it will be useful to reconsider the dynamics and complexity of oppression and domination and to reconsider the role of the organic intellectual.

For Paulo Freire, among others,11 'the logic of domination represents a combination of historical and contemporary ideological and material practices that are never completely successful, always embody contradictions, and are constantly being fought over within asymmetrical relations of power*/3 In other words, we find in Freire's work a discourse that begins to bridge the relationship between agency and structure, 'a discourse that situates human action in constraints forged in historical and contemporary practices, while also pointing to the spaces, contradictions, and forms of resistance that raise the possibility for social struggle'/4 However, in Freire's analysis of domination, the poor and oppressed are not only oppressed by external structures and forces, they also internalise and thus participate in their own oppression. So Freire argues that oppressed people's accommodation to the logic of domination may mean that they actively resist emancipatory forms of knowledge/5

But in James Scott's study of domination and resistance we find a more nuanced analysis, arguing that theories of hegemony and false consciousness do not take account of what he calls 'the hidden transcript*.16

Every subordinate group creates, out of its ordeal, a 'hidden transcript' that represents a critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant. The powerful, for their part, also develop a hidden transcript representing the practices and claims of their rule that cannot be openly avowed, A comparison of the hidden transcipt of the weak with that of the powerful and of both hidden transcripts to the public transcript of power relations offers a substantially new way of understanding resistance to domination.17

The crucial point of Scott's detailed argument is that *[t]he public transcript, where it is not positively misleading, is unlikely to tell the whole story about power relations, It is frequently in the interest of both parties to tacitly conspire in misrepresentation.5i8 So social analysis which focuses on the public transcript, as most social analysis does, is focusing on the formal relations between the powerful and weak,19 but is not attempting to 'read, interpret, and understand the often fugitive political conduct of subordinate groups'.30 A focus on the hidden transcript, where it is accessible in the rumours, gossip, folktales, songs, gestures, jokes, and theatre of the poor and marginalised, or the more public infrapolitics of popular culture,11 reveals forms of resistance and defiance, Unless one can penetrate the official transcript of both subordinates and elites, a reading of the social evidence will almost always represent a confirmation of the status quo in hegemonic terms/52

But is there still not a case for the Italian social theorist Antonio Gramsci's notion of the dominated consciousness of the working class? For Gramsci hegemony works primarily at the level of thought as distinct from the level of action, Scott turns this around. He considers 'subordinate classes less constrained at the level of thought and ideology, since they can in secluded settings speak with comparative safety, and more constrained at the level of political action and struggle, where the daily exercise of power sharply limits the options available to themV3 So he argues that 'subordinate groups have typically learned, in situations short of those rare all-or-nothing struggles, to clothe their resistance and defiance in ritualisms of subordination that serve both to disguise their purposes and to provide them with a ready route of retreat that may soften the consequences of a possible failure'.34 This is because most protests and challenges - even quite violent ones - 'are made in the realistic expectation that the central features of the form of domination will remain intact'. Consequently, l[m]ost acts of power from below, even when they are protests - implicitly or explicitly - will largely observe the "rules" even if their objective is to undermine them'.35 He believes *the historical evidence clearly shows that subordinate groups have been capable of revolutionary thought that repudiates existing forms of domination'.36 However, because the occasions on which subordinate groups have been able to act openly and fully on that thought are rare, the conflict will usually take 'a dialogic form in which the language of the dialogue will invariably borrow heavily from the terms of the dominant ideology prevailing in the public transcipt\ So we must 'consider the dominant discourse as a plastic idiom or dialect that is capable of carrying an enormous variety of meanings, including those that are subversive of their use as intended by the dominant5.37

The picture that emerges from this brief overview of Freire's and Scott's analyses of domination and resistance is clearly complex. If we are to understand the meaning of liberation we must first understand the form that domination takes, the nature of its location, and the problems it poses for those who experience it as both a subjective and an objective force/8 Because there is no 'average' ordinary reader and no Average5 context of poverty and oppression, trained readers committed to working with the poor and marginalised will have differing emphases depending on their analysis of the nature of domination and oppression within specific contexts. So, for example, in Albert Nolan's work with politicised and critically conscious workers in South Africa, he emphasises the possibilities and resources for self-emancipation.39 In Mosala's work with members of an African Independent Church, a Zion Apostolic Church, who he believes have in certain respects internalised their own oppression, he emphasises the need for critical resources.40 Although analyses may differ, as in the case of Mosala and Nolan, the starting point remains the same: the social and historical particularities, the problems, sufferings, visions, and acts of resistance of the poor and oppressed constitute the starting point for the committed intellectual.41

The contours of an appropriate relationship between socially committed biblical scholars and ordinary poor readers of the Bible are still complex, but some clarity is emerging. Whether biblical scholars are organic intellectuals, those fused organically with the culture and practical activities of the oppressed,41 or intellectuals like myself, a white, middle-class male, who are not and cannot be organic intellectuals and yet who are committed to the struggles of the poor and marginalised, we can only inhabit the ingoing tension between avoiding the indignity of speaking for the oppressed and attempting to respond to their voices by engaging in social and political critique'43 by moving beyond 'speaking for', and beyond listening to1 the poor and oppressed, towards 'speaking to/[with]' the poor and oppressed.44 'Listening to1 presupposes the speaking voice of a wholly self-knowing subjcct free from ideology, while 'speaking for' denies the subject status of the poor and oppressed altogether. In other words, the danger of 'listening to* is that we romanticise and idealise the contribution of the poor, while the danger of 'speaking for* is that we minimise and rationalise the contribution of the poor. Jill Arnott argues that Gayatri Spivak uses the phrase 'speaking to/[with]' to point to 'the need to occupy the dialectical space between two subject-positions, without ever allowing either to become transparent'. 'By remaining constantly alert to, and interrogative of, her own positionality and that of her subject, and ensuring that the mediating process of representation remains visible', the feminist intellectual 'may succeed in enabling a dialogue in which the "testimony of the [subaltern] woman's voice-consciousness" can be heard'.45

Clearly 'such a testimony would not be ideology-transcendent or "fully" subjective',46 'but it would not be misrecognised as such, and it would, at least, be heard5.47 In other words, Arnott and Spivak are arguing that 'speaking to/with* takes seriously the subjectivity of both the intellectual and the subaltern, and all that this entails for their respective resources, categories, and contributions. However, the power relations in the interface between the subaltern (or what I call the 'ordinary reader') and the intellectual (or what I call the 'trained reader') cannot be obliterated, and they must not be ignored. They must be foregrounded.

Postmodern feminists like Arnott and Spivak emphasise the creative and constructive potential of 'a genuinely dialectical interaction between two vigilantly foregrounded subject-positions1,4* Provided the unequal power relations between ordinary and trained readers are acknowledged and foregrounded, provided the trained reader is willing to serve and to learn *from below', and provided the poor and marginalised continue to empower and be empowered, there is hope for something truly transformative emerging from the interface between trained and ordinary readers of the Bible,

Models of contextual Bible study

Within contexts like Brazil and South Africa such an interface between an engaged biblical study with its socially committed trained readers of the Bible and ordinary poor readers of the Bible is developing. The contextual Bible study interface functions within four commitments, which have emerged from the reading practice of the interface: first, a commitment to begin with reality as perceived by the organised base; second, a commitment to read the Bible in community; third, a commitment to read the Bible critically; and fourth, a commitment to socio-political transformation through Bible reading.49 Two examples of what we call "contextual Bible study' will illustrate many of the points I have made, and will also serve to offer examples of the contextual Bible study process and product as it took place in an actual series of Bible studies in South Africa.

In a research project with a range of Anglican Bible study groups in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, a colleague and I noted that almost all the readers, irrespective of their different contexts, understood Mark 10.1722 as a story about individual sin.50 In this story the sin was putting wealth/possessions before following Jesus. This was the sin of the man in the story (in the time of Jesus), and this was a potential sin for present-day readers. The challenge to the wealthy man (then) and to the participants (now) was to make sure that wealth was not an idol, that possessions did not come between them and Jesus.

In one or two groups, significantly groups from poor and oppressed communities, there was some discussion of 'structural sin*. In other words, participants in some groups argued that the problem was not only one of individual sin but also one of structural or systemic sin. However, only one group pursued this reading with any persistence,51 But it was this possible reading which provoked a series of Bible studies, particularly as 'structural sin* was a key concept at that time in the struggle against apartheid.51 A series of workshops which I was invited to facilitate provided a useful opportunity to develop a contextual Bible study on Mark 10,17-22,

The Bible studies were conducted during seven workshops with people from a number of different contexts, the majority of whom were from poor and marginalised communities, A common feature of all workshops was that most of the participants were politically conscientised. For each of the groups the Bible was a significant text and Bible study a serious religious experience.

My commitment to a process of 'speaking to/with* required that I acknowledge and foreground my own contribution to the process of 'reading with*. As I will describe in more detail below, my contribution to the reading process was limited to constantly encouraging and facilitating a critical reading of the text. The substantive contribution came from the resources, categories, concepts and experiences of ordinary readers.

There was considerable continuity between workshops in that my own contribution had been shaped extensively by the previous workshop(s). In addition, I would also share the comments and questions of previous workshops with subsequent workshops. This enabled a form of dialogue to develop between successive workshops- In a sense, therefore, there was a 'speaking with' through me with the participants who had shaped my speaking.

In each workshop I was acutely aware of the power dynamics implicit in my presence. My training gave me power in the context of Bible study. There were, of course, other locations of power in each Bible study group. Like Michel Foucault, I recognise that there are multifarious points of power,53 The ordinary readers in the Bible study groups also had power, particularly those who came from communities of the poor and oppressed. They had power because they are the privileged voice of the poor and oppressed in the contextual Bible study process and in the process of 'reading with'.

Recognising these particular locations of power, I was especially concerned that ordinary readers did not simply defer to my reading/interpretation, that they did not offer the 'expected', 'orthodox', reading, and that they did not opt for 'a fundamentalism of the Left'. So I was determined to foreground my own contribution to the reading process, and also to assist ordinary readers in reading the text, For a variety of reasons/4 the critical mode of reading 1 chose enabled a close and careful reading of the text. I therefore concentrated my contribution on certain aspects of the text, specifically the link between the commandments (v. 19) and the link between these commandments and the command to the man to sell all that he possesses and to give to the poor (v. 21), Because ordinary readers tend not to read the text carefully,55 one of my roles as a facilitator was to constantly return their reading to the text.

When ordinary readers in these workshops read verse 19 carefully, prompted by questions on the commandments,there was general agreement that these commandments were concerned with social relationships (in contrast to the omitted commandments which referred to the human-to-God relationship). Once ordinary readers realised this, they then began to explore why Jesus chose these commandments, and concluded that there was obviously something wrong in the area of the man's social relationships. This realisation in turn led to considerable discussion and debate as the readers probed for a more precise understanding of the problems in the man's social relationships.

As ordinary readers began to explore and probe these questions, they were constantly driven to reread the text. For example, many readers went back to the questions concerning the challenge of Jesus,57 and then back to the text to reread it more closely and carefully- Verse 2.2., with its reference to *much property',58 became a key verse in their attempt to understand this man's wealth.

The more critical reading process did not prevent readers from drawing on their own experience and resources. Their rereading of the text generated at first a certain amount of frustration, because the text did not seem to give many clues concerning the man's social relationships. However, by drawing on their own South African experience some readers argued that the man probably obtained his 'much property1 through exploiting others. There were other ordinary readers who argued that this was not the only possible reading, and that this man could have worked hard for or inherited his 'much property5, Through most of this discussion and debate I attempted to facilitate discussion on as broad a basis as possible, encouraging all participants to share their views. But as I have already stated, my contribution was to pose specific questions which would return readers to the text So when some readers themselves recognised the social and structural dimensions of 'owning much property', I focused their reading on the relationship between the commandments (v. 19), the command to the man to sell all he possessed and to give to the poor (v. 21}, and the statement that he owned much property (v. iz), encouraging them to explore the internal relationships within the text.

Once again my contribution led to a return to the text. Those ordinary readers who had argued that the man had probably obtained his 'much property' by exploiting others, based on their own South African experience, now found textual evidence to support this argument. Gradually others began to see this argument, and so a reading of Mark 10.17-Z2 which included a concern for social and structural sin began to emerge.

In exploring the relationship between the commandments (v. 19), the command to the man to sell all he possessed and to give to the poor (v. 2,1), and the statement that he owned much property (v. 2.2}, we understood that the text (and Jesus)5* made a connection between the socially orientated commandments, the wealth of the man, and the poor. We argued that Jesus chose these commandments because he knew that the man had gained his 'much property5 by exploiting the poor, whether or not the man himself had done so consciously or personally. In other words, we argued that there might have been social structures which produced wealth for the man and exploited the people, in the same way that the social system of apartheid empowered white South Africans to become wealthy and pushed black South Africans into poverty. So even if the man had worked hard for his property or had inherited his wealth, he was still part of sinful social structures.

Given this reading, the challenge of Jesus to the man (v. 2,1) to sell all he possessed and to give to the poor made sense. The man could not follow Jesus until he had repented of, and made restitution for, his social and

Secrets to a Millionaire Mind

Secrets to a Millionaire Mind

Having a Millionaire Mindset Will Enable You to Make More Money on the Web. One of the Greatest Differences Between Business Success and Failure on the Internet is Whether or Not You Think and Function With a Millionaire Mind.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment