Intersections of a Growing Poor People’s Movement and New Biblical Scholarship

Over the past twenty-five years, a paradigm shift in biblical studies has taken place at the same time as poor people have been compelled to mobilize, organize and theorize in new ways. The development of empire-critical biblical studies has brought to the forefront a view of early “Christianity” as a transformative and counter-imperial movement. Scholars describe the early Christian movement—called the Jesus Movement, the basileia movement, or Christ Cults by different writers—as a social movement seeking to transform the violent and impoverishing Roman Empire into an egalitarian society.
Although these scholars differ in their approach and findings, together they illuminate early Christianity as a social movement developing out of the subjugated nations and people of the Roman Empire. This scholarship not only proposes new insights about the historical Jesus and Paul, but also offers a new paradigm for reading and interpreting the New Testament, one that intersects with ideas and activism developing out of poor communities responding to growing poverty and homelessness in the United States today.
At the same time as empire-critical scholarship was developing, various movements of the poor in the United States were emerging and coming together. These include the National Union of the Homeless, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union from Philadelphia, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers from Southwest Florida, the Atlanta Labor Pool Workers Union, Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Women’s Economic Agenda Project in Oakland, California, the Human Rights Coalition in Detroit, Michigan, the Big Creek in Action from Welch, West Virginia and many others.

The March of the Americas

In October 1999, this rich movement of the poor and dispossessed in the U.S. intersected with Union Theological Seminary’s more than 160-year legacy of social justice ministries when Union opened its doors to the March of the Americas.1 Union administration, faculty, and staff welcomed hundreds of poor and homeless families from the United States, Latin America, Europe, and Canada who were marching 400 miles from Washington, D.C. to the United Nations in New York City, calling attention to the deepening inequality in the Western hemisphere.
The March of the Americas was organized by the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. Hundreds of leaders from poor people’s organizations and movements from the United States as well as Europe, Canada, Central and South America participated in this 400 mile march. The march started in Washington, D.C. at the headquarters of the Inter-American Commission of the Organization of American States, where marchers filed a petition indicting the U.S. government for human rights violations because of poverty and social service cuts. The march culminated at the Church Center at the United Nations, but before this celebration, we held 2 days of meetings and exchanges at Union Theological Seminary. I served as one of the lead organizers of this march and have vivid memories of being in James Chapel at Union translating a public event where 13 languages including American Sign Language were all being spoken.
[aesop_image img=”” alt=”New Biblical Scholarship” align=”center” lightbox=”off” caption=”From the March of the Americas” captionposition=”left”]
Leaders from that March had been inspired by the theologies and philosophies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Myles Horton, and other Union alums whose pulpits, professorships, and organizations have helped launch and sustain the major U.S. social movements of our time. Following the March of the America’s, Union hosted other major events organized by this growing movement of the poor, including the “Poor People’s World Summit to End Poverty” in 2000, the second “New Freedom Bus Tour” in 2001, and a “Strategy Meeting on Poverty, Welfare, and Marriage Promotion” with leaders from poor people’s organizations, ethicists and denominational leaders in 2002.
In 2003-2004, with the support of students, administration, trustees, faculty, and staff, the Poverty Initiative was instituted at Union to formalize the relationship between the movement of the poor and the historic legacy of prophetic religion. The Poverty Initiative was founded with the mission of raising up generations of religious and community leaders dedicated to building a social movement to end poverty led by the poor.
In 2004, Brigitte Kahl and Hal Taussig launched a series of New Testament and Roman Empire conferences and gatherings held at Union Theological Seminary, with the participation of Richard Horsley, Neil Elliot, Sze-kar Wan, John Dominic Crossan, Michael Hardt, and many others including the founders of the Poverty Initiative. At the first conference in November 2004, entitled “New Paradigms in Biblical Interpretation”, Willie Baptist, Rev. Noelle Damico and I led a workshop on “Responses of the Poor to Empire: Then and Now”. In it, we addressed how poor and homeless people in the twenty first century, inspired by Jesus and the early Christians, were continuing the struggle for economic justice.
These crosscurrents are where the seeds of “Reading the Bible with the Poor” were first planted. The Poverty Initiative collaborated with each of the following convenings of scholars exploring the New Testament and Roman Empire, including a panel discussion with Michael Hardt about the poor “multitude” (Fall 2005), a second national New Testament and Roman Empire conference, with a special working group exploring the counter-imperial and transformative social movement of the poor ignited by the Apostle Paul in (April 2008), a day-long seminar with Neil Elliot on responses of the poor to empire (September 2008), and a two-day workshop with Richard Horsley on rethinking Christmas (November 2008).

Poor People’s Struggles in the Roman Empire and Today

What became apparent in these gatherings were the uncanny parallels between the social (religious), political, and economic order of the Roman Empire and the growing economic disparities, proliferating wars, and concentrated power of the American (and global) system today. Richard Horsley’s study of patronage and benefaction in the ancient Mediterranean shows how these practices and institutions bear resemblance to the current role of philanthropy and the social service system. Horsley has also developed a methodology of critiquing the power structure of the Roman Empire and drawing parallels with injustice and exclusion in a twenty-first century U.S. context.((For more on this topic see the following books by Richard Horsley: Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society; Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor; Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine; The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving beyond a Diversionary Debate; Jesus and Spiral of Violence; and, with John Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus.))
The anthropological work that John Dominic Crossan and other biblical scholars have done on the social setting of the ancient Mediterranean, and the inclusion of Jesus in that region’s widespread poverty and misery, is a powerful counter to contemporary society’s ideology of blaming poverty on poor people.((John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography)) This work challenges the notion of “the culture of poverty” and the underclass, where poor people are understood to have no moral agency and where people are assumed to be poor because they are sinners and have no relationship with God.((The “culture of poverty” position that originated with Oscar Lewis (1966, 1975, 1986) and was later championed by the political right asserts that the causes of poverty as not structural but reside in the “autonomous subculture [that] exists among the poor, one that is self-perpetuating and self-defeating” (Eleanor Leacock, The Culture of Poverty: A Critique). For more see: Oscar Lewis, “The Culture of Poverty,” Scientific American 215, No. 4; Oscar Lewis, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty; and Oscar Lewis, La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty.))
Work on the historical Jesus asserts that the poor and excluded have a special relationship with God because of Jesus’ own life situation.((In their book, ‘Say to This Mountain’: Stories of Mark’s Discipleship, Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda and Stuart Taylor write, “Repudiating both the Judean ruling class and the Roman imperial system of his time…Jesus envisioned social reconstruction from the bottom up. His practice of inclusiveness and equality questioned all forms of political and personal domination. This Jesus called for a revolution of means as well as ends, enjoining his followers to embrace nonviolence and to risk its consequences.”)) Crossan therefore has put Jesus and Paul in their historical context, demonstrating the moral agency of those most affected by imperialism and poverty.((Three of the more influential books by John Dominic Crossan include: with Jonathan Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom; Jesus; and The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.)) Additionally, Kahl has recast Paul’s “justification by faith” into a theology of resistance and transformation.((Brigitte Kahl, Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished)) Schüssler Fiorenza has demonstrated that the communities established by the early “Christians” were egalitarian and challenged the dangerous model of the charismatic leader, pervasive in historic and contemporary social movements.((Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins; and Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation.)) Each of these are key components and teachings in “Reading the Bible with the Poor”. This critical scholarship offers useful parallels between these two time periods as well as a framework for analyzing systems of power and dominance that is greatly needed by those engaged in poor people’s movements today.

The Development of “Reading the Bible with the Poor”

Following three Bible studies that the Poverty Initiative led in our January Immersion courses in 2004, 2005 and 2006, the methodology of “Reading the Bible with the Poor” was brought into being in a semester-long course entitled “Reading the Bible with the Poor” at Union Theological Seminary, co-taught by Rev. Dr. Brigitte Kahl and myself (Spring 2006), and subsequent courses including “The Gospel of Matthew” (Spring 2009) and “The Gospel of Paul: Poverty and Spirituality” (Spring 2010). In these courses we drew from many liberationist perspectives and used books including Bob Ekblad’s Reading the Bible with the Damned and Ernesto Cardenal’s The Gospel in Solentiname. We also included empire-critical scholars and their sources as way to add historical context into our Bible studies, as well as material from Rev. Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, U.S. abolitionists, and contemporary critiques of charity.
We brought organized poor people into these classes who presented their plight, fight, and insight in the struggle to end poverty in conversation with the Bible, historical context, and theological interpretations. We balanced scholarly tools and approaches to reading the Bible and the lived experience of the poor taking up the Bible in their social movement organizing today. We matched videos of poor people organizing with specific Bible passages. We rewrote Bible stories with settings and characters from our contemporary context of the poor. We drew pictures of Bible stories and stories of the struggle of the dispossessed together.
We decided to focus on organized poor people and connect with poor people’s organizations because we believed that these folks would demonstrate more agency in biblical interpretation. This may have been the biggest methodological move that we made with the course. We were not attempting to invite random poor people off the street and into our class. Instead we were reading the Bible with the organized and socially conscious poor. We were interested in the effect of putting organized poor people and the stories of their organizing struggles into the center of biblical interpretation. From my part, this decision was informed by my work organizing poor people across the United States for the past twenty years. By choosing leaders of these organizations, we were giving priority to the analysis that low-income leaders come up with in order to develop organization and plan campaigns for living wages, health care, housing, dignity, respect, and so on. I believed that these poor leaders had a deeper political and theoretical analysis than our students in the class did, for the most part.
“Reading the Bible with the Poor” was expanded and its applications widened through further activities of the Poverty Initiative as we started incorporating Bible study into all the major organizing and organizational work we were doing. This involved developing biblical studies with themes including: “Poverty and Economic Crisis” (James 5; Isaiah 5; Micah 2), “The Bible’s Anti-Poverty Programs” (the Jubilee; Manna; Paul’s collection; the community of goods), “The ‘Genesis’ of Poverty” (Joseph and the storehouses), “Parables as Pedagogy” (the tenants in the vineyard; the persistent widow), “The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the Welfare Queen” (a study of poor women in the Bible and contemporary society), and “Religious Leaders Committed to End Poverty” (a study of the parallels of Jesus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Archbishop Oscar Romero with plans to integrate Mahatma Gandhi).
The Poverty Initiative has advanced and implemented the methodology of “Reading the Bible with the Poor” as we’ve organized preaching, adult education, Bible study programs (including “Lenten Bible Study” series), mission trips, worship services, youth programs, conferences, and events to bring the issue of poverty to the forefront at congregations throughout New York City and around the country. On the campus of Union Theological Seminary, we have worked closely with Union faculty and seminarians to design curriculum for day- and semester-long courses, a fellows training program for seminarians, and immersion experiences.
Including the class on “Reading the Bible with the Poor” and the other courses mentioned above, the Poverty Initiative and Kairos Center have sponsored over twenty one-day seminars, twelve semester-long courses (e.g. “A Political Reading of the Bible,” “World Religions and Poverty,” “Preaching for Social Transformation,” “Women’s Experience as a Resource for Worship,” “Social Theories and Social Movements”) and twelve immersion courses. Our immersion courses take students, faculty, religious leaders, and community leaders to the epicenters of U.S. poverty to study and meet with local religious and community leaders. Past immersions have traveled to the Mississippi Delta, the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, Appalachia, North Carolina, the Mid-Atlantic States, and our own New York City and State. Internationally, we have journeyed to Haiti and Scotland for global immersions, and Poverty Initiative leaders have participated in immersions in Central America and other parts of the world with strong social movements of the poor. Each immersion includes a contextual Bible study component where we have explored Isaiah and exile, the entire Book of Ruth, the story of Joseph and the storehouses, Paul the apostle and organizer, slavery and abolition in the Bible, and many other texts focused on poverty and justice.

Rights and Religions

Since the launching of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice in November 2013, now the umbrella organization for the Poverty Initiative, this liberative biblical and theological work has become all the more important and the methodological approach of “Reading the Bible with the Poor” has been further refined. In the fall of 2014, we started our “Rights and Religions” program. The purpose of the program is to explore the role of religion (positive and negative) in advancing social movements.
This work is informed by the prominent and critical role that religion plays in struggles around the world for dignity, freedom and social justice. We see how many of the most significant and positive struggles for social transformation have been led by people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dalai Lama, Oscar Romero, Shirin Ebadi, Bishop Tutu, and Aung San Suu Kyi, whose deep religious beliefs have helped and continue to help shape the vision and the strategy and tactics of their movements. We appreciate that the front lines of these struggles are often largely composed of believers who attribute their inspiration, commitment and willingness to endure suffering to their religion. Even self-professed secular activists often describe their experiences of struggle in what can be characterized as religious terms.
At the same time, sometimes overshadowing positive contributions, we view how religious figures and interpretations have frequently been at the forefront of horrific and massive violations of human rights. Religion, and the Bible in particular, is used to encourage or justify attacks, often violent, on women and on oppressed religious, national, racial, and sexual groups, and, relatedly, to defend unjust economic structures and abusive powers. Those seeking to change oppressive systems are frequently accused of, if not punished for, disrespecting what is “sacred”. In these far from unusual cases many social justice activists find in religion more of an enemy than an ally. Also, movements that need and want to mobilize increasingly diverse communities face the challenge of religion dividing, and aggravating conflicts between, people of different or no faith traditions.
Recognizing this mixed history and reflecting on our own experience, we see “Reading the Bible with the Poor” as an important resource for combating the theologies that divide, alienate, and shame poor people, and for developing the positive potential of religions to inspire and invigorate social movements.

The Methodology of “Reading the Bible with the Poor”

Given this important social, political and ideological role that theology and biblical interpretation play in our society today and recognizing the exciting synergy of empire-critical biblical studies and contextual bible study methods developed out of struggles of the poor today, I want to explore a few of the main methodological approaches employed in “Reading the Bible with the Poor”.
I will highlight five strategies here: critical reading of the text and context (historically and contemporarily); critical engagement with communities in struggle, especially the organized poor; the approach to the Bible as a whole text concerned with poverty; a focus on the two key concepts of human rights and a critique of charity; and a liberative ethics of interpretation. These five aspects help explain how we use the Bible in our work of developing leaders and building towards a larger movement for an end to poverty and economic insecurity. This biblical approach is called contextual Bible study to some, popular reading of the Bible to others. This approach takes the Bible seriously, recognizing the role that the Bible plays in the life of society, especially the poor.

Critical “Reading” of the Text and Context

In the Bible studies themselves (in seminaries, immersions, community groups, etc.), we study both text and context. These texts include canonical and extra-canonical sources (with particular attention to the New Testament Gospels and Letters of Paul) and primary and secondary literature and images from first century Palestine, as well as poetry, prose, videos, photos, and other forms of texts documenting the poor organizing in twenty-first century America. We also use books and articles analyzing the growth and spread of poverty and the movements of the poor forming to counter poverty.
In addition to drawing on participants’ experiences and opinions in the Bible study as individuals and leaders of social organizations of the poor, we integrate scholarly sources that make use of historical-critical, liberationist, and other forms of biblical interpretation. In many cases, the drive to explore the biblical text and context in more depth comes directly from poor people engaged in struggle who are coming up against serious issues and interpretations that impede their social change work. This praxis produces a rigorous engagement with the issues at hand, marrying academic study and scholarship with a sense of urgency and a clarity about the real problems of the day.

Critical Engagement with Communities in Struggle

One of the main purposes of contextual biblical interpretation is to allow poor people the opportunity to make their own interpretations of and draw parallels to biblical texts, thereby affecting popular conceptions of poverty, religiosity, and modes of social transformation. Since biblical interpretation has been in the hands of scholars and preachers predominantly trained in institutions of higher education, offering the space for poor people to interpret biblical stories and apply these interpretations to their life situations constitutes a considerable contribution to the field of New Testament Studies.
When poor people gather to do Bible study, it is typically in the context of a Sunday school class, oftentimes under the direction and leadership of a pastor or other established leader, and often usually only addresses texts that those established leaders deem relevant. “Reading the Bible with the Poor” provides a more far-ranging approach by putting poor people’s agency and analysis at the center of the discussion. This means including a broad range of texts, including difficult biblical texts on poverty, along with insisting that leaders of the Bible study be organized poor people themselves.
Some assert that the theological condoning of poverty in the US today can be traced to the fact that many American churches have lost their connection to the poor.((Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It)) There is some truth to this, but mere awareness of poverty does not automatically change people’s interpretations of “the poor are with you always” or other biblical justifications of poverty. Many poor people themselves believe that it’s their own fault that they are poor, and are ashamed of being poor. This is why we have found it important to base new interpretations of the Biblical text not just among individual poor people, but among the organized poor.
The need to directly confront the dominant ideologies around poverty is also why we return to and reinterpret the very religious texts that have been used the most frequently to justify poverty and to define obedience to God in the individualistic terms of being between a human on earth and God in heaven. Just as not having any connection to the poor at all can justify middle-class ideas on why people are poor, not having a connection to organized poor people can justify a charity-centered approach that says that what the fortunate, especially Christians, need to do is to save the poor. This experience can often be transformative for poor people themselves intellectually and spiritually.
The form of leadership development and consciousness-raising employed in our method of “Reading the Bible with the Poor” combines rigorous study and applied practice. Therefore, churches and classrooms, anti-poverty campaigns and organized protests all become locations of contextual Bible study and general political education.

Approach to the Bible as a Whole Text Concerned with Poverty

Rather than isolating a particular biblical text especially focused on poverty, which can lead to proof-texting, we use an arc of biblical texts woven from Genesis to Revelation that is representative of a biblical theology that focuses on poverty and liberation. We are interested in larger biblical themes of justice and connections/incongruities between texts. In many cases, biblical interpretation focuses on individual and isolated texts rather than bringing disparate texts together and seeing the connections and intertextualities. This does not mean that we find liberation in every text or biblical book. Instead we acknowledge the various and competing strands in the Bible and offer reflection on how they are influenced by power, inequality, and domination.((For more information on biblical theology see: Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out My People!”: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond; and Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction))
Overall, we use a poverty lens to look at the Bible. With any biblical text, beginning with the creation story, we ask the question: “Are the texts relevant to situations of low-wage work, hunger, homelessness, and the work of social and economic transformation?” We begin with the hypothesis that many of our biblical texts record stories of poor people coming together with God’s support to make meaning of their lives and improve their living conditions. From this starting point, we can find numerous parallels in the biblical stories to poor people organizing today.

Two Key Concepts: Human Rights and a Critique of Charity

There are two key content areas that both complement and serve as a focus for the biblical text in “Reading the Bible with the Poor”: a critique of charity and the role it plays in helping to maintain poverty, and the strategic use of a human rights and justice framework. A nuanced, clear critique of charity/philanthropy/patronage runs throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament. Parallel to these Bible studies is the life experience of poor people who have been at the receiving end of charity, in many cases not receiving adequate resources to meet their needs, experiencing how charity assuages the compassion of those with more resources into complacency and seeing how some institutions benefit from the poverty of others. “Reading the Bible with the Poor” puts these experiences and a critique of charity at the center of biblical interpretation.
“Reading the Bible with the Poor” also puts priority on the social transformation agenda of the Jesus movement. Many biblical scholars and preachers tend to spiritualize the socio-economic context of Jesus’s actions and sayings which in turn make the Kingdom of God ethereal and exclusive rather than a social movement to achieve equality and dignity for all on earth in the present. In A Time to Break the Silence, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenges the separation of the spiritual and the material, of heaven and earth:

It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

As liberationist biblical scholar Brigitte Kahl explains, “non-idealist” forms of liberationist contextual Bible study privilege the living experiences of people who are struggling and insist that the Bible and interpretations of it are to affect the material present.((“Nonidealist interpretations of the Bible thus challenged the established historical-critical methods of exegesis to become more critical: first with regard to analysis of the social contexts of biblical texts; second with regard to the social position and economic-political interests of the original author/addressees as well as those of the present reader/interpreter of the text; third with regard to the necessity of turning away from the practice and perspective of the privileged, inasmuch as their position is irreconcilable with the cross” (Brigitte Kahl, “Toward a Materialist-Feminist Reading”, in Searching the Scriptures, Vol 1 : A Feminist Introduction) ))
Feminist New Testament scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza elaborates that the Jesus or basileia movement proposed an alternative structure, a non-hierarchal one that blamed the Roman hierarchy and subjugation for the problems in society, not the subjugated themselves. This historical movement was not simply anti-imperial, but stood for a transformative mutual community that was a viable alternative to empire. The egalitarian society modeled by the early Christians serves to inspire the poor who are organizing in the U.S. today and thus is an important content piece for contextual Bible studies.
Schüssler Fiorenza challenges her readers to move beyond looking at simply the socio-economic context in Galilee two thousand years ago and look at the political context and power dynamics as well. She asks people to move past traditional understandings of the pre-Christian Jesus movement and see the roots of Christianity in the basileia movement that included the poor, women, the marginalized, and others in its leadership alongside Jesus. And she proposes that God’s realm, kingdom, or empire is in opposition and conflict with the hierarchal system of the Roman Empire. She also asks her readers to look at our modern and postmodern interpretations of the historical Jesus in light of our own socio-political context (including a growing social movement to end poverty and an ever-expanding global empire) and to see common beliefs and understandings being influenced by “[w]ell-financed, right-wing think tanks . . . supported by reactionary political and financial institutions that seem to defend patriarchal capitalism.”((Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation))
A second key theoretical framework of “Reading the Bible with the Poor” is the concept of rights, especially human rights. Although human rights is often understood as a secular concept, we believe there are deep religious values undergirding it. The simplest way this is understood is through the notion of God-given rights or the idea that there are basic political, economic, social, and civil rights inherent to all human beings, because of the sacredness of human life. In underscoring two of the most important historical influences on the thinking of the American people, the poor white abolitionist John Brown once stated, “The two most sacred documents in the world are the Bible and the Declaration of the Independence.” Brown insisted that American society adhere to especially the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount as well as the Declaration of Independence. In fact, The Declaration of Independence is one of the clearest statements on the profound relationship between the concept of rights and religious faith: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
The paradigm of human rights has a long history in U.S social movements. In 1945, W.E.B DuBois brought the violations of the human rights of African-Americans to the United Nations, raising the injustice of violence, inequality, and poverty to the international community. In July 1964, Malcolm X attempted to get African leaders through the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to bring the situation of African-Americans before the UN again. From Montgomery to Chicago to Riverside Church in New York City, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King took up the call for human rights as a call “to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.” In the 1980s and 1990s, poor people took up the mantle of human rights, donning slogans including “housing is a human right” and petitioning international bodies, including the Inter-American Commission of the Organization of American States, to indict the United States for economic human rights violations caused by welfare reform and NAFTA. Human Rights offers a framework to read the Bible together and to unite poor and working people across color lines into a common struggle.
In contemporary U.S. contextual Bible study today, therefore, we use lessons from social movements’ appeal to human rights in American history as well as from the Bible.

Ethics of Interpretation: Liberative Exegesis

“Reading the Bible with the Poor” has an emancipatory agenda and therefore posits that liberation and the agency of the poor and dispossessed are the focus of biblical texts. This framework is stated explicitly in each Bible study. Putting liberation and the agency of the poor at the center of biblical interpretation produces a cohesive, directed way of doing biblical interpretation. This is not to say that Bible study participants are being coerced, but having a liberationist agenda on the biblical end and an organizing agenda on the interpreter’s end leads to a coherent program of Bible study of the poor. It also reflects the framework of the poor people’s groups who participate in the studies.
In such Bible studies, we raise questions of freedom and empowerment around each Bible passage; we urge the participants to make connections to the liberation theme and to the other biblical passages; we discuss the historical context around each biblical passage in order to understand the manifestations of poverty and wealth in each story; we try to keep our biblical interpretation closely linked to the biblical texts. Thus these contextual Bible studies do not forsake biblical exegesis just to make a liberation point.
We often open with contemporary struggles for justice, thus asserting that the genesis for biblical interpretation is our contemporary context. Starting with the contemporary context and asserting that our current day struggles have parallels in our biblical stories also interrupts traditional and doctrinal interpretations. The Bible is replete with references to releasing slaves, proclaiming good news to the poor, resisting imperial rule, covenant economics, and God’s commandments to love and care for your neighbor. Indeed, over the course of leading such bible studies, the canon is reimagined and the value of the contemporary stories rises.
In exploring the role that religion can play in a growing movement to end poverty, led by the poor, the role of the Bible and contextual biblical study comes to the forefront. These strategies of “Reading the Bible with the Poor” grow out of struggles of the poor to unite and organize in the US and around the world and are fueled and deepened by an important movement in biblical studies. Liberatory and Contextual Bible study is still developing in our context, aided by empire-critical biblical studies. We look forward to moving this work forward together.