Chris Howson is the Chaplain to the University of Sunderland and Associate Priest at Sunderland Minster. Prior to his move to the North East, he lived and worked in Bradford. He is the author of ‘A Just Church: 21st Century Liberation theology in Action’ and helps run the Victor Jara Liberation Theology Library and the Annual National Liberation Theology Gathering.
The starting point to a liberation reading of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is simply this: Will our interpretation liberate? Put another way; does our reading and understanding of these texts contribute to human emancipation and to the general wellbeing of the planet? If it doesn’t liberate, then that interpretation is called into question. Does it come from a position of privilege? If, on the other hand, a reading of scripture breaks down walls of injustice then, for liberationists, it speaks of the living God.
The first part of any such exegesis must begin by a critical analysis of the text and the use of the text by individuals and those with power in society. Has the interpretation added to existing oppressions, or even been the root cause of them? We have seen throughout history that sacred texts have been used to promote wars, perpetuate gender inequalities, exacerbate homophobia, excuse slavery and many other atrocities throughout history. A liberation approach seeks to challenge any use of scripture that supports unjust structures, instead siding with the teachings of Jesus that look towards ‘the kingdom of God’, a rule of fairness, justice and peace.
1. Scripture as a place of struggle
For most liberationists, the Bible is not to be taken as a literal text. The context of its history, geography and transmission is crucial. Who is doing the writing? Who is being excluded? How are the marginalised heard in this text? Who is doing the translating and to what ends? The Bible is taken as the word of God in the sense that it reveals the very struggles over power that exist throughout the world which God created. The Bible exposes us to the real world of violence, abuses of power and resistance to such cruelties. In the Hebrew Scriptures you can clearly see struggle between traditions that saw monarchy as the way that God wants to order the world, and those who see such authority as a folly that merely perpetuates a material society that has lost touch with God’s ways. In the Letters of Paul and those who used his name as the authors of their letters, you can see the struggles of the early Christian community regarding the position of women, or the strains of the relationship with Rome and the political and religious leaders of the day. In the book of revelation, we see how an oppressed community finds a secret language to challenge their subjugation. The Bible becomes a place of political struggle, in which we see the world as it really is. Liberationist do not dismiss scripture because it can be oppressive, but embrace that God reveals oppression and resistance though scripture, giving us tools to overturn those unjust structures.
2. Scripture need to be at the service of the poor
Key truths are made clear by Jesus that challenge and upset any ‘comfortable readings’ of scripture. A crucial truth is that God, through Jesus, acts on the side of the poor, an idea that used to be commonly known as ‘the option for the poor’. Many Liberationists would argue that being on the side of the poor is not an option, it is an imperative. There is no ambivalence in the words Luke attributes to Jesus in his ‘first sermon’ in the synagogue:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4. 18-19)
Scripture is only fulfilled when these teaching are lived out. If our interpretation of scripture is not ‘good news to the poor’ then a Liberation reading challenges whether it is really of Jesus or it simply perpetuates existing unjust systems.
3. Interpretation of scripture must be understood through the lens of the oppressed
Jesus’ ministry is all about putting a marginalised people at the centre of the story. Whether it is a long dialogue with a Samaritan Woman at the well or putting a diseased and ostracised person (Leper/Deaf/Blind etc) centre stage of God’s story. More often – the plight of the oppressed is centred on challenging teachings aimed at those with privilege and power – reminding us all that the poor are poor, not because they have caused their own lowly status, but because they have been made poor by the actions or the inactions of the wealthy and powerful (e.g. Parable of Dives and Lazarus; Luke 16:19-31: Story of the Sheep and the Goats; Matthew 25:31-46). Therefore, reading scriptures through the eyes of marginalised communities becomes a priority for Liberationists. Black, Feminist, Womanist, Queer, Disabled readings all become essential. The theory of an intersectional approach becomes important, learning how multiple oppressions are revealed by scripture, and how they can be addressed by listening to those who face intersecting oppressions. This also means challenging any interpretations that don’t recognise its position of privilege (Class; Gender; Race etc)
4. The Bible needs to be interpreted by a liberating community
It becomes necessary with a liberationist understanding of scripture that interpretation cannot be done from an individualist or purely academic perspective. Understanding of scripture can only be done through a community (ecclesia) gathering to attempt to live out the message of the Gospels. Regular Bible study must be done by a church or community that are genuinely trying to put these scriptures in to practice. When scriptures are understood in community, the first change that becomes apparent is that listening becomes the crucial analytical tool to interpretation. Participants must learn to listen to one another, and in doing so, learn to listen to how the Holy Spirit may be at work in the people of God. Voices must be heard, perhaps voices that have never been heard before. Crucially, authority of interpretation comes not from societal status (the Minister or political leader) but becomes entwined with the lived out experiences of the people of God.
Case Study Matthew 25. 14-30 (Luke 19. 11-28)
Known as the Parable of the Talents in Matthew, (Parable of the Pounds in Luke). Read through both versions and note your reaction to it. Jesus tells it as he is about to stand up to the political leaders in Jerusalem, and to help the disciples reflect on whether the Kingdom of God is about to appear.
Without a liberation perspective, the story can lead to a lot of confusion as to the nature of God. In school assemblies and more traditional sermons, preachers often turn ‘Talents’ (a unit of money) into actual talents or gifts, with the implication that God has given you gifts, and your discipleship journey is to make the most of them. This is to distract from the more unpalatable idea that making money is a way of pleasing God. It was said to be one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite parables and she saw it as a justification that God rewards entrepreneurs. These interpretations ignore vital elements in the story that would have been more evident to Jesus’ audience in a pre-capitalist, Roman-occupied agrarian society.
The story begins with a member of the wealthy elite leaving his property, or in the Lukan version, heading off in an attempt to gain more power by being made king. Absentee landlordism was a regular experience for people in Palestine at the time, and they would have been used to the expectation that the indentured servants/slaves would be held accountable for the land and money upon their master’s return.
Matthew shows how the most trusted indentured servant/slave is easily able to make more money with the resources he has, 5 talents made from the 5 talents he received. The second slave, gaining 2 more talents for his initial 2 talent investment. In our capitalist worldview, this seems like the right thing to do. The nobleman has given money to those he trusted to make him more money, and they have done so. They are trusted servants who know where the power lies.
However, in Jesus’s time, capital ibs extremely limited. To gain more would mean that someone else had the little they had taken away from them. This was seen as a social evil. The servant who morally refuses to take part in this exploitation, would have been seen as the hero of this story. This bravery is made clearer to the listeners of the parable as the servant then says:
“I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed”
The slave points out the exploitation by the elite landowner, and whilst frightened of the repercussions, is prepared challenge authority. The king labels him as ‘lazy’ and ‘wicked’ and declares that ‘You should have at least put the money in the bank and I would have at least gained interest’. Again, this would have been a clear sign as to who is the hero of the story, as interest (usury) was seen as a sin by the Jewish community.
The king then takes everything from the servant and gives it to the already wealthy, declaring the ultimate doctrine of the cruelty of wealthy elites: ‘For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’.
From the peasant perspective, the hero in this scenario is clearly not the king, but the one who refuses to take part in the system, who speaks truth to power, even if it means that the powerful elite may destroy them, perhaps even taking away the little they have.
If you take the liberation approaches to scripture outlined earlier, it is clear to see how they apply. Firstly, scripture as struggle; It is obvious the interpretation of this scripture has gone through several stages of transmission. Perhaps the radical nature of the story was widely understood by the initial listeners. The Lukan version clearly echoes the story of Herod Archelaus, a nobleman who travelled to Rome in order to be made king, and also had a delegation from Judea sent to oppose his transition to power. Over time, interpreters began seeing the nobleman as being a representative of God. God therefore rewards the ‘productive servants’ both financially and materially. It was a popular parable during the growth of colonialism and capitalism. Liberal interpretations found the financial ethics of the story more unpalatable and Talents began to be seen as representing ‘gifts’ and the story was heavily ‘spiritualised’. The ‘struggle’ over the meaning of this scripture becomes apparent.
In terms of the other three points, putting scripture in the ‘service of the poor’, seeing it ‘through the lens of the poor’ and ‘understanding it through community’, it is helpful to look at interpretations that came out of the liberation struggles of Latin America. It was peasants in Nicaragua in the 70’s who noted that the nobleman looked more like the dictator Somoza. They put the scripture at the service of the revolution – siding with the servant who chooses to stand up against the king/Somoza, even at the risk of death. (Read ‘The Gospel of Solentiname’ Fr Ernesto Cardenal; 1977)
Clearly the text can either serve the interests of ‘the haves’ or ‘the have nots’. The liberation perspective simple asks – does this scripture liberate or oppress? In siding with liberation, it is hoped that we side with the one named Jesus, whose very name can be translated as ‘God Liberates’!
Cardenal, E. ‘The Gospel in Solentiname’
Felder, C H. ‘Troubling Biblical Waters: Race Class and Family’
Howson, C ‘A Just Church: 21st Century Liberation Theology in Action’
Lopez Vigil J & M. ‘Just Jesus’ Vol 1-3
Malina, B & Rohrbaugh, R ‘Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels’
Mesters, C. ‘God Where Are You? Rediscovering the Bible’
Trible, P et al. ‘Feminist Approaches To The Bible’