Why the Bible?

The Bible is the most widely read, distributed, and translated book in the United States. Always on the top of the bestseller list, it is cited for many moral stances and consulted for the personal and social decisions many make. Gerald West, biblical scholar and Director of the Umajaa Center at the University of KwaZulu Natal, as well as co-convener of the contextual Bible study gathering I attended in Bogota, Colombia from January 25-31, 2015, explains the importance of the Bible in South Africa: “Biblical interpretations have life and death consequences; they shape the type of response the state, the church, and ordinary people make to particular social realities. They have effects.”

Reading the Bible with the Poor
Religious leaders from all over the world gathered in Bogota, Columbia to share experiences with contextual Bible study.

It is both as a trained interpreter of biblical texts and a committed activist in a growing effort to end poverty that I approach the topic of the role of the Bible, contextual Bible study, and how the Bible has been and can be used to advance movements for economic justice. For the past twenty years I have been organizing, educating, and uniting the poor as part of an effort aimed at building a movement to end poverty. I got involved with the National Union of the Homeless and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in the early 1990s, helping to weave a network of poor people’s organizations dedicated to using a human rights framework to confront poverty in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Through this organizing work, I returned to my religious roots. I consulted for the National Council of Churches and other mainline Protestant denominations, who were struggling with new interpretations and questions about the Bible’s message on poverty. On nearly a weekly basis, I heard, “The poor will always be with you,” (Mark 14:7, parallels in Matt 26:11, John 12:8) used to argue that doing anti-poverty work is futile because poverty is inevitable and can never be ended. To take up this question through study and ministry, I enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York as a Master of Divinity student and entered the ordination process with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2001. I wanted to explore the role of faith and organized religion in a global movement to end poverty, including the strengths and obstacles within religion. I entered the M.Div. Program at Union because I saw the need to document poor people’s biblical and theological interpretations, as well as models of organized poor people partnering with religious communities to end poverty. Entering the doctoral program in 2004, I sought to further study the biblical foundation for a growing anti-poverty movement in the United States; I chose the New Testament as my focus because the poor people with whom I work start there.

I view the Bible as a text that gives guidance on how Christians should live their lives and that documents a movement of poor people who gathered around the symbol and person of Jesus to right the wrongs of their society. I consider poor people’s actions and theologies in the twenty-first century, inspired by Jesus, as part of the biblical canon and as in concert with prominent theologians and biblical scholars. I have given much attention to liberative interpretations of Matt 26:1-16 and other Bible stories on poverty. My academic work has been strengthened and challenged by my continued practical engagement with communities in struggle.

The Power of the Word

The issue of poverty appears throughout the Bible: the Old and New Testaments are full of references to how we are to respond to poverty and injustice. If you study the social and economic conditions in Galilee and the larger Roman Empire in relationship to the production and polarization of wealth and poverty in the time of the early Jesus movement, it should come as no surprise that economic rights and justice are key themes in the Gospels and the entire New Testament. Indeed, Jesus’s teachings and actions around poverty, wealth, and power, lend support to a portrait of Jesus as a social movement leader.

But many of these historic connections and the radical implications they have for our biblical interpretations today have been watered down. Rather than developing the faith that ending poverty is possible, we have ignored the controversial, revolutionary nature of a poor, resurrected Jesus as Lord and Savior, who challenges the wealthy, immortalized Caesar. We have forgotten that Jesus’ Kingdom is about economic and social rights in the here and now and that the messiah Jesus came to usher in this reign. The good news of the Bible has been reduced to an individualized acceptance of Jesus Christ as a Lord and Savior, severed from his mission to the world. We deny that the poor are at the center of God’s concern, ignoring that Jesus was a leader of a revolutionary movement of the poor who, rather than mitigating the unfortunate inevitability of poverty, called for a movement to transform heaven and earth.

Because of the significance the Bible holds for many in our society and because of the way the Bible has been used both as a “text of terror” and as an inspiration for social movements, the Poverty Initiative and Kairos Center hold the Bible and contextual Bible study – what we term “Reading the Bible with the Poor” – as central work in building a social movement to end poverty, led by the poor. “Reading the Bible with the Poor” grows out of examples from South Africa, Latin American Liberation Theology, and other experiences of the poor globally reclaiming the biblical mandate for justice, and we have developed it within our U.S. context.

The theological and biblical battles of the anti-slavery movement have been a core area of study and influence on “Reading the Bible with the Poor.” Much like the phrase “the poor will be with you always” is used to claim that poverty is inevitable and willed by God today, slaveholders quoted “Slaves, obey your masters” (Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 6:5, 1 Peter 2:18) and the Book of Philemon about returning runaway slaves to their masters before the American Civil War. They produced a Bible without the Book of Exodus or other teachings about freeing slaves to maintain and legitimate their cause. But Abolitionists used the Bible to argue that God condemned slavery and that all Christians and people of conscience should follow. Indeed, these religious interpretations provided a crucial moral force for the abolitionist movement because the biblical legitimacy of chattel slavery was widely assumed and thus served as a key prop for the institution.

“Reading the Bible with the Poor” also draws special inspiration from the words and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his launching of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967-1968. The strategic concept introduced by this historic campaign aimed “to lift the load of poverty” through uniting the poor across color lines into “a new and unsettling force” and called on the US government to pass and Economic Bill of Rights. Other U.S. social movements that have influenced us in how they took up the Bible in their push for social justice include Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel Movement as well as the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

Historically and contemporarily, we have found that leaders in social movements find in their religious traditions an inspiration and deep legitimacy for their demands and a source of sustaining strength for the hard fight to realize them. Engaging and organizing the poor shows the need for a new morality. This morality promotes justice over charity and asserts that poverty, rather than the poor person, is immoral. It insists that ending poverty is possible and all people who take up the call to follow Jesus are required to work for social and economic transformation.

Reading the Bible with the Poor

“Reading the Bible with the Poor” takes place in contexts connected to organized religion as well as in poor communities and other movement spaces that are often separate from organized religion. These Bible studies involve pastors and lay leaders from churches, people who are deeply religious or pious but not engaged in organized religion, and human rights activists who see the strategic importance of religion but do not adhere to a particular one. Although not insisting that the Bible is revolutionary as a starting point, participants cannot get too far into “Reading the Bible with the Poor” without exploring the political message in the Bible and the idea that a social and political movement of the poor is necessarily religious. The method, therefore, is aimed at re-interpreting individual texts but also re-interpreting the Bible as a whole to focus on liberation of the poor. Rather than locating biblical interpretation only among biblical scholars, we emphasize the importance of the impact of biblical interpretations on church and larger society.

The following excerpt from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” is a demonstration of the meld of politics, economics, and religion that is a key component of liberative exegesis and “Reading the Bible with the Poor”:

I know a man — and I just want to talk about him a minute, and maybe you will discover who I’m talking about as I go down the way because he was a great one. And he just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was thirty years old. Then for three years, he just got on his feet, and he was an itinerant preacher. And he went about doing some things. He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. And the irony of it all is that his friends turned him over to them. One of his closest friends denied him. Another of his friends turned him over to his enemies. And while he was dying, the people who killed him gambled for his clothing, the only possession that he had in the world. When he was dead he was buried in a borrowed tomb, through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen centuries have come and gone and today he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life. His name may be a familiar one. But today I can hear them talking about him. Every now and then somebody says, “He’s King of Kings.” And again I can hear somebody saying, “He’s Lord of Lords.” Somewhere else I can hear somebody saying, “In Christ there is no East nor West.” And then they go on and talk about, “In Him there’s no North and South, but one great Fellowship of Love throughout the whole wide world.” He didn’t have anything. He just went around serving and doing good.

Poverty Scholars as Biblical Scholars

It should not come as a surprise that practitioners of “Reading the Bible with the Poor” claim that the poor make history—driving needed social, economic, and political transformations in their societies and eras—but that history is often documented on behalf of and from the perspective of the wealthy and powerful. This reality has made it very difficult to do histories of dispossessed peoples who left few records and whose lives were deemed less important than the powerful. Still, we can use dominant sources to tell histories from below—both by understanding the political/class/national interests driving the text and also by studying how the actions and experiences of poor and marginalized peoples nonetheless appear in the text in ways that must be excavated, collected, and analyzed. Because history is written predominantly by elites, revolutionary stories are much harder to find and appear in tangents and fragments; they require reading between the lines, reimagining, and collecting pieces.

Through searching for such hidden transcripts, especially based on the reaction of the elites to Jesus, an analysis of his teachings, and his ultimate crucifixion, a profile of Jesus as the kind of revolutionary social movement leader described above emerges. When applying this perspective from social history to New Testament studies, scholars have claimed there were multiple messiahs and prophets in first century C.E. who proclaimed they had come to bring good news to the poor. Some of these prophets evoked Israelite history and teachings. In his groundbreaking work on this topic, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, New Testament scholar and social historian Richard Horsley describes these revolutionary prophets and rabble-rousers:

Judging from several reports by Josephus, there were a number of prophetic figures that appeared among the people around the time of Jesus. Indeed, Jesus was understood as a prophet (see Mk 6:15-16) . . . The classical oracular prophets and others like them whose memory is preserved in prophetic traditions, can thus be discerned as spokespersons for the peasantry and the covenantal social-economic policy that served to protect their interests. Because of the blatant exploitation of the peasantry, these prophets felt compelled to oppose the ruling class, which was failing to observe the covenantal order. Rather than heed the prophetic warnings, the ruling groups appear to have responded with repression and persecution.

One aspect of this excavation of poor people’s history is the recognition that ruling is a continuous and dynamic process of incorporation, co-optation, and coercion of the un-powerful. Although the Bible may be the product of the powerful trying to acculturate lessons, traditions, practices of the poor, the fact that societies erupt when they read it and that those in power try to control access to it for the oppressed sheds light on the reality that it is also a revolutionary document. “Reading the Bible with the Poor” gathers the pieces of revolutionary history and fills in the historical gaps using contemporary experiences of poverty, oppression, and dispossession. Taking key lessons from social history, the social, political and economic context of the Bible (and the fragments that are contained within) therefore is central to the message.

Starting with the assertion that Jesus was poor and living under Roman imperial rule, Poverty Scholars and other practitioners of “Reading the Bible with the Poor” make a series of connections and important interpretational moves. Poverty Scholars suggest that what happens to Jesus throughout the Bible and in specific Bible stories where Jesus holds up the theme of poverty (like the anointing scene in Matthew 26:6-13 where he states “the poor are with you always”) share similar characteristics with other poor people’s experiences including: being surrounded by and finding shelter among other poor people; being concerned about debt and resources; valuing (at times) dignity over money; and critiquing charity. Poverty Scholars’ readings also place Jesus’ actions in line with the experiences of other social movement leaders – including holding these leaders to high standards; emphasizing the importance of political education among movement leaders and participants; evoking movement teachings and sacred traditions; suggesting non-participation in dominant economic systems; and assuming that controversy will arise when the status quo is being challenged. Similarities between early Christian communities and contemporary poor people therefore are not surprising either. Such connections suggest that a depiction of Jesus as a movement leader, popular messiah, and pedagogue of the oppressed is historically possible and interpretations of biblical texts that presume this are valid.

The Biblical Text and the Text of Our Lives

“Reading the Bible with the Poor” connects stories and passages throughout the Bible to each other, particularly ones that come before and after. This resistance to proof-texting and taking a text out of its literary biblical context is motivated by a desire to show how each specific text on the poor and poverty relates to an overall biblical framework of justice for the poor. Poverty Scholars connect Old Testament and New Testament passages, finding “intertextuality” between them. Also, during discussions of the meaning of poor and poverty in any particular passage, Poverty Scholars often note multiple other references to the poor from the New Testament including the Beatitudes in Matthew and the whole Sermon on the Mount, and some of Jesus’s teachings on rich and poor. Familiar with the famous texts about poverty, we have our own liberative interpretations of many of these texts that Poverty Scholars bring to Bible study.

As I have stated earlier, connecting biblical stories with stories of contemporary poor social movement leaders lives and actions, is an important hermeneutic principle in “Reading the Bible with the Poor”. Participants connect the stories of their lives with biblical stories and draw parallels. The tagline of the Media Mobilizing Project, a leading organization in the growing movement to end poverty, is: “Movements begin with the telling of untold stories.” This principle is a starting point and common thread in our Bible study method, both in how we read the Bible stories and how we approach the stories of the plight, fight, and insight of the poor organizing today.

Important and potentially unique in a U.S. context for “Reading the Bible with the Poor” is the mixing and melding of personal spirituality and piety with social consciousness. Our experiences with these Bible studies show that diverse people can interpret together across their differences of experience, racial and gender identity, formal education levels, and theological persuasions. Some of our Poverty Scholars are evangelical Christians who have a deep personal relationship with Jesus and believe that poverty and social change are central themes of the Bible. Rather than a divide between some people who think that Jesus is a personal savior and others who see Jesus as a community organizer and revolutionary working to bring another political and economic reign to the world, Poverty Scholars meld these two perspectives. People appreciate both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith and do not see a conflict between the two. In a society where people are assumed to be either politically conservative and personally pious or politically progressive and socially-minded, the fact that the Poverty Scholars do not fall into this dichotomy is significant.

The Bible and Social Transformation

Perhaps the most important and unique aspect of the methodology is the relationship of the group to each other and to larger social issues. While many settings of Bible studies are churches or religious groups, where the participants are interested in learning about the text itself, many situations of “Reading the Bible with the Poor” add another layer of meaning. Participants commit to the work of ending poverty as a united group and are interested in Bible interpretations that are about ending poverty as well. This is a shift from many Bible studies where people have no shared dedication to frame their collective exploration of the Bible together. In these cases, often the differences in each interpretation are emphasized and the urgency and relevancy of the Bible and biblical interpretations are deemphasized. In the case of the Poverty Scholars, because of the common endeavor to reclaim and reinterpret “the poor are with you always” or other difficult texts, people build off each other’s interpretations, rather than putting out competitive interpretations or allowing the dominant and traditional interpretations to take precedence.

Even when people’s ideas and interpretations differ, everyone emphasizes their commitment to each other, to their common approach to exploring the Bible, and to building social movement organizations. Most often, they do not get diverted from this socially responsible agenda just to prove their personal interpretation is “right.” This model of working across differing theological perspectives could be potentially significant in our society today. Employing biblical study in an effort to empower the poor and transform society provides important learning and embodies core ideas of base community/liberationist Bible study: the preferential option for the poor and social practice.

“Reading the Bible with the Poor” is not a biblical hermeneutic for the poor. Rather it is a summary of a biblical hermeneutic developed out of struggle, living politics, and a deep spirituality that represents the program of the poor and dispossessed. The methodology itself is interested in uniting people across difference (in race, geography, religion, gender, ability, and so on) rather than having those differences used by those in power to divide and isolate. It argues that the poor are the epistemological, political, and moral agents of change in our society and when the organized poor appropriate the Bible, a biblical program of political, economic, and social justice is brought into clear view.