Discover more from Contents and Containers
Transformation is what the Bible does; don't use it to oppress people.
The Bible was written for the poor and oppressed by the poor and oppressed. Jesus himself condescended to become like us, lower stature beings, for the sake of world redemption. Jesus met us right where we were and meets us right where we are today. The radical nonviolence, enemy-love, and mutual submission that many of the New Testament writers offer to their audiences can easily be weaponized and used against oppressed groups of people to further oppress them. But remember this, when the ruling class uses the Bible to reprimand and control they commit a grave sin. The Bible must be applied to the reader, which includes mimicking Jesus in his humility and poverty.
"Christ and the Rich Young Ruler" by Heinrich Hofmann (1888)
The time and place of the Bible and its writers is so important to reading it. 400 years after Jesus, Christians were already using the Bible to start a new empire. It is so easy to corrupt the influence of the Bible for the sake of our selfish gains. Trump calls the Bible his favorite book. And yesterday, he was ready to escalate us into nuclear war. So, reading the Bible doesn’t always translate to following Jesus.
The way the Bible has been misused to oppress people over the centuries and millennia is a good reason for some traumatized people to keep a distance. I am sympathetic. But when you’re ready to re-enter, keep the above paragraph in mind.
The dominators can use the Bible to their ends, but it is a misuse.
When a slavemaster is using 1 Peter, for example, to ensure that his slave stays submissive, that’s a violation of the intent of Peter, who was writing to slaves (and women), and not their oppressors. That’s just one example. James Cone, a black liberationist, talks about the problem with the ruling elite using the Bible to further oppress their victims in a book called Black Theology of Liberation.
Another one from 2 Corinthians is about sharing out of love and not out of obligation. I argued on my Facebook wall the other day that it was better to share out of the former, and not the latter. This line of thinking has long been used by the rich in the United States to encourage philantrophy and personal responsibility, as opposed to answer government-sponsored safety net or health care. Our generosity should be voluntary, they say. It’s the job of the church, not the state, to care for the poor, they might argue. So one could use 2 Corinthians to justify Paul Ryan’s new tax plan that bails out the rich and hurts the poor. Of course, Paul’s charge is to give freely, give generously, and give justly (as in to the poor). To get uppity about collecting more money for the rich to give them more opportunity to share with the poor is transparently evil, if you ask me. (By the way, average income does go up during tax cuts like this, but never the poor’s. Sir Charles said it the best.)
My friend brought that up to my wall, and I responded that the tax plan, in this case, obligates the poor to the rich! And that more tax cuts for the wealthy may actually be theft from the poor and from the workers. So yes, Paul’s principal in 2 Corinthians can be used to oppress the poor, but it is a misuse.
One more example. The enemy-love in the Sermon on the Mount, it’s where Jesus says to turn the other cheek. In this moment of awakening to the rampant sexual assault in Hollywood, Washington, and otherwise, you can imagine heinous people using this passage to coerce women to submit. It is a reprehensible thought. Sonia Johnson makes this argument in 1987. She’s right. Jesus’ teaching can easily be used to quiet down the oppressed.
Death is oppressive. Violence is oppressive. They aren’t neutral tools for the pacifist, and for the Christian. It is an evil tool that curses those who use it. The oppressed become the oppressor when they use it to dominate and control.
However, that line can easily be used to dominate and control the oppressed, so we have to be careful with who we are preaching it to and how we are.
The Sermon on the Mount was delivered to the poor and oppressed and delivered to them by Jesus, God incarnate who condescended to relate to us. He literally diminished himself to relate. So when He offers this message, it's NOT a tool for oppression.
But, the problem is the powerful that co-opt and subvert these messages to maintain their own power and status. If for once the ruling class applied the Gospel to themselves, we would have many less problems. They don't and instead impose it on us. And that is a false Gospel.
Christianity must transform you or it is useless.
That’s why incarnation and transformation are so important to the work we do. Christianity cannot just augment your life. You must lose your life in order to save it. It is not just a set of beliefs or principals. It is not just an understanding of theological concepts. It’s not just Bible study. If Christianity and the Gospel of Jesus Christ don’t transform you, they are pointless. Jesus himself incarnates as God’s begotten son to save us. He shows us that transformation is possible by becoming like us. He relates to us right where we are, and moves us to repent to be a part of his kingdom. I pray that every reader of the Bible and follower of Jesus transforms in the same way.