Liberating Word

The power of the Bible in the global South

Gath­er­ings of the world­wide An­gli­can Com­mu­nion have been con­tentious events in re­cent years. On one oc­ca­sion, two bish­ops were par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Bible study, one from Africa, the other from the U.S. As the hours went by, tem­pers frayed as the African ex­pressed his con­fi­dence in the clear words of scrip­ture, while the Amer­i­can stressed the need to in­ter­pret the Bible in the light of mod­ern schol­ar­ship and con­tem­po­rary mores. Even­tu­ally, the African bishop asked in ex­as­per­a­tion, “If you don’t be­lieve the scrip­ture, why did you bring it to us in the first place?”

Fifty years ago, Amer­i­cans might have dis­missed the con­ser­vatism of Chris­tians in the global South as aris­ing from a lack of the­o­log­i­cal so­phis­ti­ca­tion, and in any case re­garded these views as strictly mar­ginal to the con­cerns of the Chris­t­ian heart­lands of North Amer­ica and West­ern Eu­rope. Put crudely, why would the “Chris­t­ian world” have cared what Africans thought? Yet to­day, as the cen­tre of grav­ity of the Chris­t­ian world moves ever south­ward, the con­ser­v­a­tive tra­di­tions pre­vail­ing in the global South mat­ter ever more. To adapt a phrase from mis­sions scholar Lamin San­neh: Whose read­ing – whose Chris­tian­ity – is nor­mal now? And whose will be in 50 years?

Of course, Chris­t­ian doc­trine has never been de­cided by ma­jor­ity vote, and nei­ther has the pre­vail­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Bible. Num­bers are not every­thing. But over­whelm­ing nu­mer­i­cal ma­jori­ties surely carry some weight. Let us imag­ine a (prob­a­ble) near-fu­ture world in which Chris­t­ian num­bers are strongly con­cen­trated in the global South, where the clergy and schol­ars of the world’s most pop­u­lous churches ac­cept in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the Bible more con­ser­v­a­tive than those nor­mally pre­vail­ing in Amer­i­can main­line de­nom­i­na­tions. In such a world, surely, south­ern tra­di­tions of Bible read­ing must be seen as the Chris­t­ian norm. The cul­ture-spe­cific in­ter­pre­ta­tions of North Amer­i­cans and Eu­ro­peans will no longer be re­garded as “real the­ol­ogy” while the rest of the world pro­duces its cu­ri­ous provin­cial vari­ants – “African the­ol­ogy,” “Asian the­ol­ogy” and so on. We will know that the tran­si­tion is un­der way when pub­lish­ers start of­fer­ing stud­ies of “North Amer­i­can theologies.”

The move of Chris­tian­ity to the global South might sug­gest a de­ci­sive move to­ward lit­eral and even fun­da­men­tal­ist read­ings of the Bible. Tra­di­tion­al­ist themes are im­por­tant for African and Asian Chris­tians. These in­clude a much greater re­spect for the au­thor­ity of scrip­ture, es­pe­cially in mat­ters of moral­ity; a will­ing­ness to ac­cept the Bible as an in­spired text and a ten­dency to lit­er­al­is­tic read­ings; a spe­cial in­ter­est in su­per­nat­ural el­e­ments of scrip­ture, such as mir­a­cles, vi­sions and heal­ings; a be­lief in the con­tin­u­ing power of prophecy; and a ven­er­a­tion for the Old Tes­ta­ment, which is of­ten con­sid­ered as au­thor­i­ta­tive as the New. Bib­li­cal tra­di­tion­al­ism and lit­er­al­ism are even more marked in the in­de­pen­dent churches and in de­nom­i­na­tions rooted in the Pen­te­costal tra­di­tion, and sim­i­lar cur­rents are also found among Ro­man Catholics.

Sev­eral fac­tors con­tribute to a more lit­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion of scrip­ture in the global South. For one thing, the Bible has found a con­ge­nial home among com­mu­ni­ties that iden­tify with the so­cial and eco­nomic re­al­i­ties the Bible por­trays. To quote Kenyan fem­i­nist the­olo­gian Musimbi Kany­oro, “Those cul­tures which are far re­moved from bib­li­cal cul­ture risk read­ing the Bible as fic­tion.” Con­versely, so­ci­eties that iden­tify with the bib­li­cal world feel at home in the text.

The av­er­age Chris­t­ian in the world to­day is a poor per­son, very poor in­deed by the stan­dards of the white worlds of North Amer­ica and West­ern Eu­rope. Also dif­fer­ent is the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal sta­tus of African and Asian Chris­tians, who are of­ten mi­nori­ties in coun­tries dom­i­nated by other re­li­gions or sec­u­lar ide­olo­gies. This his­toric so­cial change can­not fail to af­fect at­ti­tudes to­ward the Bible. For many Amer­i­cans and Eu­ro­peans, not only are the so­ci­eties in the Bible – in both tes­ta­ments – dis­tant in terms of time and place, but their every­day as­sump­tions are all but in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Yet ex­actly the is­sues that make the Bible a dis­tant his­tor­i­cal record for many Amer­i­cans and Eu­ro­peans keep it a liv­ing text in the churches of the global South.

For many such read­ers, the Bible is con­ge­nial be­cause the world it de­scribes is marked by such fa­mil­iar press­ing prob­lems as famine and plague, poverty and ex­ile, clien­telism and cor­rup­tion. A largely poor read­er­ship can read­ily iden­tify with the New Tes­ta­ment so­ci­ety of peas­ants and small crafts­peo­ple dom­i­nated by pow­er­ful land­lords and im­pe­r­ial forces, by net­works of debt and credit. In such a con­text, the ex­cru­ci­at­ing poverty of a Lazarus eat­ing the crumbs be­neath the rich man’s table is not just an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal curiosity.

This sense of recog­ni­tion is quite clear for mod­ern dwellers in vil­lages or small towns, but it also ex­tends to ur­ban pop­u­la­tions, who are of­ten close to their rural roots. And this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion ex­tends to the Old Tes­ta­ment no less than the New. Madipoane Masenya, a shrewd fem­i­nist thinker from South Africa, com­ments, “If pre­sent day Africans still find it dif­fi­cult to be at home with the Old Tes­ta­ment, they might need to watch out to see if they have not lost their African­ness in one way or the other.” Could an equiv­a­lent re­mark con­ceiv­ably be made of con­tem­po­rary Eu­ro­peans or North Americans?

While some re­sem­blances be­tween the bib­li­cal world and the world of African Chris­tians might be su­per­fi­cial, their ac­cu­mu­lated weight adds greatly to the cred­i­bil­ity of the text. The Bible pro­vides im­me­di­ate and of­ten ma­te­r­ial an­swers to life’s prob­lems. It teaches ways to cope and sur­vive in a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment, and at the same time holds out the hope of pros­per­ity. For the grow­ing churches of the South, the Bible speaks to every­day is­sues of poverty and debt, famine and ur­ban cri­sis, racial and gen­der op­pres­sion, state bru­tal­ity and per­se­cu­tion. The om­nipres­ence of poverty pro­motes aware­ness of the tran­sience of life, the de­pen­dence of in­di­vid­u­als and na­tions on God, and dis­trust of the sec­u­lar order.

In con­se­quence, the “south­ern” Bible car­ries a fresh­ness and au­then­tic­ity that adds vastly to its cred­i­bil­ity as an au­thor­i­ta­tive source and a guide. In this con­text, it is dif­fi­cult to make the fa­mil­iar Euro-Amer­i­can ar­gu­ment that the Bible was clearly writ­ten for a to­tally alien so­ci­ety with which mod­erns could scarcely iden­tify, and so its de­tailed moral laws can­not be ap­plied in the con­tem­po­rary world. Cul­tures that read­ily iden­tify with bib­li­cal world­views find it eas­ier to read the Bible (in­clud­ing the laws of Leviti­cus) not just as his­tor­i­cal fact but as rel­e­vant in­struc­tion for daily con­duct. This fact helps us un­der­stand the hor­ror of quite mod­er­ate African Chris­tians when Euro-Amer­i­can churches dis­miss bib­li­cal stric­tures against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity as rooted in the Old Tes­ta­ment, and there­fore outmoded.

Be­fore north­ern lib­er­als de­spair at the fu­ture, some qual­i­fi­ca­tions are in or­der. I have writ­ten here of re­li­gious and scrip­tural con­ser­vatism, but that term need not carry its cus­tom­ary po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions. Though most African and Asian churches have a high view of bib­li­cal ori­gins and au­thor­ity, this does not pre­vent a cre­ative and even rad­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tion of bib­li­cal texts to con­tem­po­rary de­bates and dilem­mas. Such ap­pli­ca­tions cause real dif­fi­cul­ties for any at­tempt to ap­ply north­ern con­cepts of lib­eral and con­ser­v­a­tive, progressive and re­ac­tionary, fundamentalist and lit­er­al­ist.

Ac­cord­ing to pop­u­lar as­sump­tions, lib­eral ap­proaches to the Bible em­pha­size mes­sages of so­cial ac­tion and down­play su­per­nat­ural in­ter­ven­tion, while con­ser­v­a­tive or tra­di­tion­al­ist views ac­cept the mirac­u­lous and ad­vo­cate qui­etist or re­ac­tionary pol­i­tics. The two mind-sets thus place their main em­phases in dif­fer­ent realms, hu­man or supernatural.

Even in the U.S. that dis­tinc­tion is by no means re­li­able. There are plenty of left-wing evan­gel­i­cals, deeply com­mit­ted to so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice. In churches of the global South, the di­vi­sion makes even less sense. For ex­am­ple, de­liv­er­ance in the charis­matic sense of de­liv­er­ance from demons can eas­ily be linked to po­lit­i­cal or so­cial lib­er­a­tion, and the two words are of course close cog­nates in some lan­guages. The bib­li­cal en­thu­si­asm so of­ten en­coun­tered in the global South is of­ten em­braced by ex­actly those groups or­di­nar­ily por­trayed as the vic­tims of re­ac­tionary re­li­gion, par­tic­u­larly women.

In his mag­nif­i­cent book Trans­fig­ured Night, a study of the Zim­bab­wean night-vigil move­ment, the pungwe, Ti­tus Presler re­ports: “Charis­matic re­newal, con­flict with demons, and the lib­er­a­tion of women are other fruits bear­ing di­rectly on the churches’ mis­sion in Zim­babwe.” How of­ten do Amer­i­can Chris­tians place women’s so­cial eman­ci­pa­tion in the con­text of spir­i­tual war­fare and ex­or­cism? But in African churches both are man­i­fes­ta­tions of “loos­ing,” of lib­er­a­tion, of deliverance.

At one of these vig­ils, a woman preacher drew ex­tra­or­di­nary lessons from an un­promis­ing text, the story of Jesus or­der­ing his dis­ci­ples to un­tie a don­key for his en­try into Jerusalem. She ap­plied the pas­sage di­rectly to the ex­pe­ri­ence of African women: “I have seen that we are that don­key spo­ken of by the Lord. . . . Let us give thanks for this time we were given, the time in which we were blessed. We were ob­jects. . . . We were not hu­man be­ings. . . . Some were even sold. To be mar­ried to a man – to be sold! . . . But with the com­ing of Jesus, we were set free. . . . We were made right­eous by Jesus, mothers.”

Women play a cen­tral role in south­ern churches, whether or not they are for­mally or­dained. They com­monly con­sti­tute the most im­por­tant con­verts and the crit­i­cal forces mak­ing for the con­ver­sion of fam­ily or of sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers. Women’s or­ga­ni­za­tions and fel­low­ships, such as the Moth­ers’ Unions, rep­re­sent crit­i­cal struc­tures for lay par­tic­i­pa­tion within the churches and al­low women’s voices to be heard in the wider so­ci­ety. So do prayer fel­low­ships and cells, which can be so in­de­pen­dent as to un­nerve church hi­er­ar­chies. Fe­male be­liev­ers look to the churches for an af­fir­ma­tion of their roles and their in­ter­ests, and they nat­u­rally seek jus­ti­fi­ca­tion in the scrip­tures, which pro­vide a vo­cab­u­lary for pub­lic debate.

Some texts – like the story of the don­key – have to be tor­tured in or­der to yield the de­sired mean­ing, though given the per­va­sive in­ter­est in de­liv­er­ance, any pas­sage that can be linked, how­ever ten­u­ously, to “loos­ing” is too good to be ig­nored. With other texts, how­ever, lib­er­at­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions are read­ily found. Through­out this process, lit­er­al­ist read­ings that may ap­pear con­ser­v­a­tive in terms of their ap­proach to scrip­tural au­thor­ity have prac­ti­cal con­se­quences that are so­cially pro­gres­sive, if not rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Read­ing the Bible teaches in­di­vid­ual worth and hu­man rights, and it en­cour­ages mu­tual oblig­a­tion within mar­riage, pro­mot­ing the Chris­t­ian “re­for­ma­tion of machismo” de­scribed by scholar Eliz­a­beth Br­usco. Leav­ing women to pur­sue do­mes­tic piety through Bible read­ing is like for­bid­ding a restive pop­u­la­tion to carry weapons while giv­ing them un­re­stricted ac­cess to gaso­line and matches.

Think of the im­pli­ca­tions of Bible read­ing for wid­ows, who in many tra­di­tional com­mu­ni­ties are ex­cluded and de­spised, and who are tied to their hus­bands’ clans even af­ter the hus­bands die. The New Tes­ta­ment no­tion of “till death do us part” is burn­ingly rel­e­vant. So is this claim by Paul in Ro­mans: “If the hus­band be dead, she is loosed from the law of her hus­band.” In the West, Ro­mans 7:2 is scarcely a well-known scrip­tural text, cer­tainly not a ref­er­ence that en­thu­si­as­tic evan­ge­lists wave on plac­ards at sports sta­di­ums. Yet in a global con­text, this verse may be a truly rev­o­lu­tion­ary war­rant for change.

Read­ing as such also car­ries great weight. In a ne­o­lit­er­ate com­mu­nity, ac­cess to the Bible be­to­kens power and sta­tus, and there is no rea­son why this gift should be con­fined to tra­di­tional elites. Women – and young peo­ple of both sexes – have most to gain by achiev­ing lit­er­acy. The more con­spic­u­ous one’s knowl­edge of the scrip­tures, the greater one’s claim to spir­i­tual status.

But be­yond any sin­gle text, the Bible as a whole of­fers am­ple am­mu­ni­tion for the cause of out­siders, to the dis­may of the es­tab­lished and com­fort­able. Peo­ple read of the ex­cluded who be­come cen­tral to the story, of the tram­pled and op­pressed who be­come di­vine ve­hi­cles—and of how God spurns tra­di­tional so­ci­eties, hi­er­ar­chies and rit­ual rules. As David Mar­tin fa­mously wrote in his ac­count of global South churches, Pen­te­costal­ism gives the right and duty to speak to those al­ways pre­vi­ously deemed un­wor­thy on grounds of class, race and gen­der. In the new dis­pen­sa­tion, out­siders re­ceive tongues of fire. The same ob­ser­va­tion can be ap­plied across de­nom­i­na­tional frontiers.

Only when we see global South Chris­tian­ity on its own terms – as op­posed to ask­ing how it can con­tribute to our own de­bates – can we see how the emerg­ing churches are for­mu­lat­ing their own re­sponses to so­cial and re­li­gious ques­tions, and how these is­sues are of­ten viewed through a bib­li­cal lens. And of­ten these re­sponses do not fit well into our con­ven­tional ide­o­log­i­cal packages.

The so­cially lib­er­at­ing ef­fects of evan­gel­i­cal re­li­gion should come as no sur­prise to any­one who has traced the enor­mous in­flu­ence of bib­li­cally based re­li­gion through­out African-Amer­i­can his­tory. Black Amer­i­can pol­i­tics is still largely in­spired by re­li­gion and of­ten led by clergy, usu­ally of charis­matic and evan­gel­i­cal bent; black po­lit­i­cal rhetoric can­not be un­der­stood ex­cept in the con­text of bib­li­cal thought and im­agery. African-Amer­i­can re­li­gious lead­ers are gen­er­ally well to the left on eco­nomic is­sues, as are many evan­gel­i­cals in Latin Amer­ica, and also in­de­pen­dent and Protes­tant de­nom­i­na­tions across Africa. All find scrip­tural war­rant for pro­gres­sive views, most com­monly in prophetic and apoc­a­lyp­tic texts.

When viewed on a global scale, African-Amer­i­can re­li­gious styles, long re­garded as mar­ginal to main­stream Amer­i­can Chris­tian­ity, seem ab­solutely stan­dard. Con­versely, the wor­ship of main­line white Amer­i­can de­nom­i­na­tions looks in­creas­ingly ex­cep­tional, as do these groups’ cus­tom­ary ap­proaches to bib­li­cal au­thor­ity. Look­ing at this re­ver­sal, we are re­minded of a fa­mil­iar text: the stone that was re­jected has be­come the cornerstone.

For a North Amer­i­can Chris­t­ian, it can be a sur­pris­ing and hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence to try to un­der­stand how parts of the Bible might be read else­where in the world. To do so, we need to think com­mu­nally rather than in­di­vid­u­ally. We must also aban­don fa­mil­iar dis­tinc­tions be­tween sec­u­lar and su­per­nat­ural di­men­sions. And of­ten we must ad­just our at­ti­tudes to the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Old and New Testaments.

Any num­ber of texts of­fer sur­prises. Read Ruth, for in­stance, and imag­ine what it has to say in a hun­gry so­ci­ety threat­ened by war and so­cial dis­rup­tion. Un­der­stand the ex­ul­tant re­lease that awaits a reader in a so­ci­ety weighed down by ideas of an­ces­tral curses or hered­i­tary taint, a reader who dis­cov­ers the lib­er­at­ing texts about in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity in Ezekiel 18. Or read Psalm 23 as a po­lit­i­cal tract, a re­jec­tion of un­just sec­u­lar au­thor­ity. For Africans and Asians, the psalm of­fers a stark re­but­tal to claims by un­just states that they care lov­ingly for their sub­jects – while they ex­alt them­selves to the heav­ens. Chris­tians re­ply sim­ply, “The Lord is my shep­herd – you aren’t!” Adding to the power of the psalm, the evils that it con­demns are at once po­lit­i­cal and spir­i­tual, forces of tyranny and of the devil. Be­sides its po­lit­i­cal role, Psalm 23 is much used in ser­vices of heal­ing, ex­or­cism and deliverance.

Imag­ine a so­ci­ety ter­ror­ized by a dic­ta­to­r­ial regime ded­i­cated to sup­press­ing the church, and read Rev­e­la­tion – and un­der­stand the core mes­sage that what­ever evils the world may pro­duce, God will tri­umph. Or read Rev­e­la­tion with the eyes of rural be­liev­ers in a rapidly mod­ern­iz­ing so­ci­ety, try­ing to com­pre­hend the in­choate bru­tal­ity of the mega­lopo­lis. Read He­brews and think of its doc­trines of priest­hood and atone­ment as they might be un­der­stood in a coun­try with a liv­ing tra­di­tion of an­i­mal sac­ri­fice. On these grounds, a Ghana­ian the­olo­gian has de­scribed He­brews as our epis­tle – that is, Africa’s. Ap­ply the Bible’s many pas­sages about the suf­fer­ing of chil­dren to the real-world hor­rors fac­ing the youth of the Congo, Uganda, Brazil or other coun­tries that be­fore too long will be among the world’s largest Chris­t­ian countries.

Read in this way, the let­ter of James is par­tic­u­larly eye-open­ing. James is one of the most pop­u­lar ser­mon texts in Africa. Imag­ine read­ing this let­ter in a world in which your life is so short and per­ilous that it truly seems like a pass­ing mist. What im­pli­ca­tions does that tran­sience hold for every­day be­hav­iour? The let­ter is a man­ual for a so­ci­ety in which Chris­tian­ity is new and peo­ple are seek­ing prac­ti­cal rules for Chris­t­ian liv­ing. The ref­er­ences to wid­ows ap­pear not as the his­tory of an an­cient so­cial wel­fare sys­tem but as a rad­i­cal re­sponse to pre­sent-day prob­lems af­fect­ing mil­lions of women.

As a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult test for north­ern-world Chris­tians, try read­ing two al­most ad­ja­cent pas­sages in chap­ter five of James – one con­demn­ing the rich, the other pre­scrib­ing anoint­ing and prayer for heal­ing. Both texts, “rad­i­cal” and “charis­matic,” are in­te­gral por­tions of a com­mon lib­er­at­ing message.

Think of the nu­mer­ous forms of cap­tiv­ity en­trap­ping a poor in­hab­i­tant of a Third World na­tion – eco­nomic, so­cial, en­vi­ron­men­tal, spir­i­tual – and ap­pre­ci­ate the promise of lib­er­a­tion and loos­ing pre­sented in Jesus’ in­au­gural ser­mon in the Nazareth syn­a­gogue. Un­der­stand the ap­peal of this mes­sage in a so­ci­ety in which – to quote a re­cent jour­nal­is­tic study of poverty in La­gos – “the frus­tra­tion of be­ing alive . . . is excruciating.”

When read­ing al­most any part of the Gospels, think how Jesus’ ac­tions might strike a com­mu­nity that cares deeply about caste and rit­ual pu­rity, and where vi­o­lat­ing such laws might cost you your life – as in In­dia. Read the ac­counts of Jesus in­ter­act­ing so warmly with the mul­ti­ply re­jected. In many so­ci­eties world­wide, the story of the Samar­i­tan woman at the well can still star­tle. He talked to her? And debated?

Or use the eighth chap­ter of Luke as a tem­plate for Chris­t­ian heal­ing and a reaf­fir­ma­tion of the power of good over evil. Or take one verse, John 10:10, in which Jesus promises abun­dant life, and think of its be­wil­der­ing im­pli­ca­tions in a des­per­ately poor so­ci­ety ob­vi­ously lack­ing in any prospect of abun­dance, or in­deed, of any cer­tainty of life. This one verse may be the most quoted text in African Chris­tian­ity, the “life verse” of an en­tire continent.

Now rec­og­nize that these kinds of read­ings, adapted to lo­cal cir­cum­stances, are quite char­ac­ter­is­tic for mil­lions of Chris­tians around the world. Ar­guably, in terms of raw num­bers, such read­ings rep­re­sent the nor­mal way for Chris­tians to read the Bible in the early 21st century.

Af­ter I wrote The Next Christendom in 2002, I had a bizarre en­counter with an el­derly and rather aris­to­cratic Epis­co­pal woman, who praised me for how ef­fec­tively I had de­lin­eated the growth of new kinds of Chris­tian­ity in the global South, with its pas­sion and en­thu­si­asm, its prim­i­tive or apos­tolic qual­ity, its open­ness to the su­per­nat­ural. She then asked my opin­ion: As Amer­i­cans, as Chris­tians, as Epis­co­palians – what can we do to stop this?

I un­der­stand her fear, and see why some north­ern-world Chris­tians might have con­cerns about the emerg­ing pat­terns of global South Chris­tian­ity, with its charis­matic and tra­di­tional qual­ity. But the prog­no­sis is nowhere near as bad as she imag­ined. As so of­ten in the past, Chris­tian­ity must be seen as a force for rad­i­cal change rather than ob­scu­ran­tism, for un­set­tling hi­er­ar­chies rather than pre­serv­ing them. On sec­ond thought, per­haps she was ex­actly right to be alarmed.

Ar­ti­cle Copy­right (2006) CHRIS­T­IAN CEN­TURY. Re­pro­duced by per­mis­sion from the July 11 2006 is­sue of the CHRIS­T­IAN CEN­TURY. Sub­scrip­tions: $49/year from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Mor­ris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097 Link to CHRIS­T­IAN CENTURY

Philip Jenk­ins is Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of His­tory, Bay­lor University.

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