19 February 2014

The Bible's vantage point

Brian Zahnd confesses to having had a problem with the Bible. He hasn't been reading it from the correct vantage point.

Every story is told from a vantage point; it has a bias. The bias of the Bible is from the vantage point of the underclass. But what happens if we lose sight of the prophetically subversive vantage point of the Bible? What happens if those on top read themselves into the story, not as imperial Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans, but as the Israelites? That’s when you get the bizarre phenomenon of the elite and entitled using the Bible to endorse their dominance as God’s will. This is Roman Christianity after Constantine. This is Christendom on crusade. This is colonists seeing America as their promised land and the native inhabitants as Canaanites to be conquered. This is the whole history of European colonialism. This is Jim Crow. This is the American prosperity gospel. This is the domestication of Scripture. This is making the Bible dance a jig for our own amusement.

There can be no doubt that the Bible addresses issues of oppression and injustice. My own growing awareness of this in my youth had a huge influence on me and served to move me to the study of political science. However, I am not altogether certain that Zahnd correctly understands the principal vantage point of the biblical narrative.

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I saw the animated film, Prince of Egypt, at a church function. At the end of the film, (spoiler alert!) as the Israelites were standing on the opposite bank of the Red Sea, having miraculously crossed on dry ground, Moses' wife Tzipporah says: "Look at your people, Moses. They are free!" I didn't wish to ruin the film for the other people watching it, but I couldn't help but think that, yes, they were free from the Egyptians, but most of them would, of course, die in the wilderness over the next forty years because they disobeyed God's commands. Although cinematic versions of the Exodus story tend to place the emphasis on liberation from oppression, they miss the point of the biblical book of Exodus, which is that God has graciously chosen a peculiar people whom he has brought into a covenant relationship with himself. God's calling them out of Egyptian slavery was due, not to a general concern for human rights, but to his long term plan to bring redemption to humanity through the Israelites and ultimately through the person of Jesus Christ.

If the Bible has a vantage point then, it is not simply that of the oppressed, as if this were a readily identifiable class of persons. As Lesslie Newbigin points out, "the shocking thing [about Jesus] was not that he sided with the poor against the rich but that he met everyone equally with the same unlimited mercy and the same unconditional demand for total loyalty." Sin is not just that which oppresses me from without; it is something that wells up in each of our hearts, making it impossible finally to separate the human race into discrete categories of oppressor and oppressed. Each of us is simultaneously oppressor and oppressed. It is precisely when I am most persuaded that I am one of the oppressed that I am most likely to oppress others. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among many others, is a tragic example of this phenomenon at work.

The Bible takes the perspective of oppressed and oppressor, of sinner and sinned-against, recognizing that the covenant community is made up of people who are both – and often at the same time!

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