Symposium Introduction

Ending poverty is possible. We have more than enough resources. The poverty of 140 million in the United States and of billions worldwide is not an accident or the result of individual failure. It is the historical victory of specific economic and political structures that benefit from creating and sustaining poverty. Like most, if not all, sacred texts, the Christian Bible is full of resources and lessons to support both a vision and plan of action to end poverty. Indeed, these resources have been taken up and clarified through the struggles of the poor throughout history. However, the Bible has also been twisted into one of the most effective ideological weapons against the poor. These destructive interpretations have been used to cultivate an acceptance and complacency toward poverty. “The poor will be with you always,” is perhaps one of the most commonly cited passages to support the inevitability of poverty and reinforce a belief that charity is the best we can do to respond.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis’s book, Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor, is a powerful refutation of these distorted biblical interpretations and forms of being Christian. Theoharis asserts, that far from accepting poverty, “when Jesus quotes this phrase [‘the poor will be with you always’], he isn’t condoning poverty, he is reminding us that God hates poverty and has commanded us to end poverty by forgiving debts, by outlawing slavery, and by restructuring society around the needs of the poor.”

Theoharis’s work is built on deep biblical scholarship and decades of organizing with the poor to build a movement to end poverty. Rev. Theoharis is currently co-chair, along with Rev. William Barber II, of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This campaign represents tens of thousands of people across forty-two states in the United States. Together they are building up the power of poor people through sustained and coordinated nonviolent civil disobedience, grassroots organizing, research, education, and artistic, cultural, and religious expression.

The publication of Always With Us? has contributed greatly to this campaign and movement. It is helping to unsettle and reverse deep ideological understandings about poverty, religion, and the possibility for a more just society. The Syndicate symposium allows us to build on and deepen the potential impact this book has on shifting narratives around poverty in the United States and beyond. The scholars and activists who have engaged with Theoharis’s book through the symposium have helped open a lively conversation around the books’ ideas and implications. Their reflections, critiques, and insights contribute to a much needed discussion and debate about how we can begin to break through decades if not centuries of destructive ideology around poverty, the Bible, Christian practice, and the role of religions more broadly in guiding and being guided by the struggle for social change.

Ulrich Duchrow

Response

The Poor and the Money-Driven Civilization

Liz Theoharis, in her book Always With Us? links Jesus’ life with the poor on the basis of the prophets and the Torah with the impressing initiatives in the United States to end poverty. In both cases she rightly transcends the easy ways of charity insisting that the prophetic ministry of Jesus and also our own approach has to address the structural causes of poverty linked to wealth accumulation. Recent research has brought a lot of new insights on the different phases and patterns of these structural developments. These insights can strengthen our common struggles to end poverty.

I. Structures and Phases of the Money-Driven Civilization Starting in the 8th Century BCE

Recent studies suggest that money did not enter daily use as a neutral means of exchange—it was in the context of emerging wage labor, especially in the form of mercenaries in the eighth century BCE (Seaford, 2004; Graeber, 2011; Duchrow/Hinkelammert, 2013; Scheidler, 2015). Before this time—as of about 3000 BCE—money was only used as a unit of account and in long distance trade. With the professionalization of armies, mercenaries had to be paid. The first form of pay was the spoils, particularly precious metal, but then, people were paid in coins, after their introduction around 600 BCE.

The social consequences of the introduction of money into daily life were enormous. Free peasants, after having a bad harvest, could borrow seed only by paying interest and giving their land as pawn. When they could not pay back their loan they lost their land, their means of production, and the family had to work as debt slaves. We have a detailed description of this in the biblical book of Nehemiah, chapter 5. On the other hand, large-scale landed property emerged. One of the first historical witnesses of the new situation was the prophet Amos in the second part of the eighth century BCE (cf., e.g., Amos 2:6–8).

Through the daily use of money with its new mechanisms of debt and slavery, not only did the societies increasingly split into those impoverished and those enriched but also the mentality and attitudes of people underwent a deep transformation. With money, calculating thinking spreads (Brodbeck, 2012).1 Solidarity decreases. The money subject as such is the tyrant who assumes to be autonomous through the power of money—the great theme of the Greek tragedy (Seaford, 2004). Through economic activity by individuals, not as a community, insecurity enters the scene. The only security for participating in the market is having as much money as possible. This is the objective base for greed, the striving for unlimited accumulation of money. Greed becomes institutionalized in the form of interest.

It is also important to understand that, with the use of money, private property emerges beyond the personal ownership of useful things. Money gives property rights to the means of production. So money allows a more effective appropriation of surplus labor and surplus value. It also transforms slaves into impersonal commodities. Also patriarchy is reinforced because only men are allowed to be property owners.

Finally, we have to realize that, from the beginning, the expansionism of money is linked to the expansionism of the empires through mercenaries. Mines had to be conquered. They were staffed by war slaves to extract the metal to transform it into coins to pay the mercenaries. David Graeber (2011, 229) calls this vicious cycle the “military-coinage-slavery-complex.” The first climax of the emerging money civilizations can be seen in the Hellenistic empires and the Imperium Romanum.

All religions and many philosophies of that period rise in opposition to the emerging money-driven civilization—from Greece to China. In other words: it is the historical and social context of these spiritual developments which the philosopher Karl Jaspers (2010) calls Axial Time. The Torah and the prophets criticized the social consequences of money, called for justice, and designed prohibitive and proactive rules. The Buddha identified greed as one of the poisons creating sufferings and tried to overcome it by teaching and meditative practices. For Aristotle the isolated greedy subject within the money-driven (chremastic) economy was a great danger for the polis. This is why he called for the prohibition of charging interest and building monopolies.

Jesus, in the context of the Roman Empire, says (Matt 6:24): “You cannot serve God and wealth (Mammon).” With this statement he does not raise an individualistic ethical concern, but he calls for a decision between two antithetical civilizations—God’s just world (kingdom of God) guided by the Torah, on the one hand, and the Hellenistic-Roman civilization characterized by greed and violence, on the other. Some verses before (v. 19) Jesus had said: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” So he is referring to the treasure-building phase of the money economy (not yet capitalist). In this context Jesus builds a contrast society together with the impoverished people on the basis of the biblical economy of the “enough for all” to become “salt of the earth” and “light for the world.”

In the seventh century CE, Muhammad builds on this biblical base to confront the rich traders class in Mecca. His rejection of collecting treasures, charging interest on loans and his social engagement for justice and support for the poor is an influential example to this day. Theologically, the strong emphasis on the oneness of God is linked to the oneness of and the solidarity within the human family. So I regard Islam as the third wave of the Axial Age.

When in the beginning of the next phase of the money-driven civilization Luther turned against early capitalism, he could do this very legitimately according to his method of evaluating every tradition and its present reality on the basis of the criteria of Scripture and reason. The Bible represents one of the religious and philosophical sources struggling with the emerging money civilization and its social and mental consequences. It is on this ground that he attacked the different developments in early capitalism, which mechanized money accumulation by constantly reinvesting the profits (and not just collecting them in treasures or consuming them in the form of luxury). In his time the problems arose around commercial and usury capital—including its religious dimensions. Later Karl Marx continued the analysis in relation to industrial capital (Duchrow, 2017). In today’s worldwide Oikoumene we face the climax of capitalist development: financial capital. But what is new compared to all former periods is that the absolute law, capital must grow, triggers the necessity for the whole economy to grow which, under the conditions of industrialization, increasingly destroys the earth and with it the life conditions of future generations.

II. Liberation Theology and a Multiple Strategy for Life as Response to the Crisis Produced by Death-Bound, Capital-Driven Civilization

The basic principle of the Reformation was “back to the roots” (sola scriptura). And Luther insisted that the basic sense of Scripture is the historic sense, not allegory, etc. Today this means looking at the sources, the basic scriptures of religions and philosophies with socio-historic methods. My interpretation of liberation theology is that in our times, in all Axial Age religions and wisdom traditions, movements have emerged in view of the present crisis. They tie their own critique and actions to the power of resistance within their original sources, against the negative consequences of the then emerging money-driven civilization. They do so against assimilation in their own religious communities to the imperial capitalist economy and the imperial way of life linked to it.

Along this line, movements have been emerging within the churches of the Protestant World Communities and the Protestant-Orthodox-Anglican World Council of Churches (WCC) as well as in the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican Council II. These are the liberation theology or prophetic movements. They have influenced the official international church bodies. In 2003 the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) rejected the capitalist globalization as idolatry.2 The then World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), after a seven-year process of confession, formally and officially rejected the capitalist-imperial system in its Accra Confession.3 In its tenth assembly in Busan/Korea in 2013 the WCC adopted several documents along the same line.4 Here the alternative is developed under the name “Economy in the service of life.” In the same month, November 2013, Pope Francis published his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.5 Here he states with non-ambiguous clarity:

“Such an economy kills” (53) . . . Therefore,

“No to an economy of exclusion” (53)

“No to the new idolatry of money” (55)

“No to a financial system which rules rather than serves” (57)

“No to the inequality which spawns violence” (59)

For me it is a miracle that—after hard work over decades—a worldwide ecumenical consensus has been reached to officially reject imperial capitalism and work for an economy and culture in the service of life.

All in all we can conclude that, with regard to the original sources of the world religions and philosophies, there is no clash of civilizations but rather a convergence towards compassion and justice. The concept of clash was designed by Huntington in the interest of the Pentagon, needing a new enemy image after the implosion of the “really existing socialism.” As so often, religion was misused for power purposes. This is why, before you can make any positive statement about religion or proclaim any spiritual message, you have to go through the critique of religion.

In any case, at present there is a converging interreligious movement embarking upon a long-haul journey towards an alternative culture of life (cf. De La Torre, 2008). Here each religion or philosophy goes back to its specifics, on the one hand, and to the common heritage, on the other, in their respective original critical sources of the Axial Age. At local, national and international level and short, middle and long range they build alliances with social movements, led by the impoverished, resisting the dominating Mammon-civilization, which is characterized by the spirit, logic and practice of the money-accumulating subject. At the same time they work together for alternatives. Alliance-building is the key. Solidarity is already the counterculture to competitive capitalism.

What do the alternatives look like? This would have to be demonstrated at what can be called the three pillars of capitalism: money, property and labor.

  1. Money, instead of being made a commodity for limitless accumulation and an end in itself in capitalism, can be organized as a public good and a useful instrument in the real economy (cf. Duchrow/Hinkelammert, 2012);
  2. Property, instead of being privatized—which literally means stolen from the community—and as such made sacrosanct, absolute (on the basis of Roman Law), can be organized for use towards good life in community (cf. Duchrow/Hinkelammert, 2004);
  3. Labor, instead of being turned into slavery and exploitation for the sake of producing surplus value for capital can be organized as a rewarding activity in itself for one’s own sustenance and good life in community in careful co-habitation with nature.

Summing up: The struggle of the poor to end poverty can be greatly strengthened through a historic and systematic understanding of the structures of impoverishment, exploitation and oppression to be overcome. With this knowledge we can develop concrete options for action on the basis of the original sources of religions and philosophies and today’s ecumenical, interreligious and humanist movements’ trans-capitalist orientation. Thus we can build alliances for a new culture of life. This would include not only structural but also mental, epistemological and spiritual alternatives. Not only is another world possible but also a renewed human being, able to confront the deathly dangers of the dominating system and enjoying together the beautiful earth, given to all of us.

 

Bibliography

Brodbeck, Karl-Heinz. Die Herrschaft des Geldes. Geschichte und Systematik. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, (2009) 2012. See also http://khbrodbeck.homepage.t-online.de/crisis.pdf.

Duchrow, Ulrich. Mit Luther, Marx und Papst den Kapitalismus überwinden. Hamburg u. Frankfurt/Main: VSA und Publik-Forum, 2017.

Duchrow, Ulrich, and Franz J. Hinkelammert. Property for People, Not for Profit: Alternatives to the Global Tyranny of Capital. London and Geneva: Zed / Catholic Institute for International Relations and the World Council of Churches, 2004.

———. Transcending Greedy Money: Interreligious Solidarity for Just Relations. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. New York: Melville House, 2011.

Jaspers, Karl. The Origin and Goal of History. London: Routledge Revivals, 2010.

Scheidler, Fabian. Das Ende der Megamaschine. Geschichte einer scheiternden Zivilisation. Vienna: Promedia, 2015.

Seaford, Richard. Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

De La Torre, Miguel A., ed. The Hope of Liberation in World Religions. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008.


  1. Cf. idem, http://khbrodbeck.homepage.t-online.de/crisis.pdf.

  2. http://lwf-assembly2003.org/lwf-assembly/htdocs/PDFs/LWF_Assembly_Message-EN.pdf, p.17.

  3. http://warc.jalb.de/warcajsp/news_file/The_Accra_Confession_English.pdf.

  4. Cf. http://archived.oikoumene.org/fileadmin/files/wcc-main/2012pdfs/Mission_statement_approved_10_09_2012_final.pdf; http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/public-witness-addressing-power-affirming-peace/poverty-wealth-and-ecology/finance-speculation-debt/sao-paulo-statement-international-financial-transformation-for-the-economy-of-life.

  5. https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.

  • Liz Theoharis

    Liz Theoharis

    Reply

    Response to Ulrich Duchrow

    Ulrich Duchrow’s historical analysis on the structural causes of poverty are exceedingly important for any serious treatment of economic justice and any attempt to explore what the Bible and history really say about poverty and the poor. Indeed, at the same time that I have been writing and lecturing on my book, I have also been engaged in building the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This campaign is an effort to develop a broad-based grassroots movement of the poor and all people of conscience. It is grounded in sacred texts and the Constitution, and calls for a moral revolution of values in this country. I co-chair this Poor People’s Campaign with Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II of North Carolina, who regularly reminds leaders that the worst thing to be in this work is “loud and wrong.” He implores all of us to engage in deep social and economic analysis.

    The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, alongside the Institute for Policy Studies and other researchers, economists, theologians and policy makers, recently commissioned the Souls of Poor Folk audit to analyze poverty, racism, militarism and ecological devastation over the past fifty years since Rev. Dr. King launched the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. More than a compilation of statistics and stories, the audit attempts to weave together an analysis of who is poor, why we are poor and how the breadth and depth of social and economic injustices have come to be. It documents the alarming and woefully underreported reality that there are 140 million poor and low-income people in the United States, and that 80 percent of people in this country will experience poverty at some point in their lives. Among its many findings the study reveals that we have fewer voting rights today than we did fifty years ago and that a deeply undemocratic political system has empowered extremist politicians who pass policies that hurt millions of people. For instance, through this research we have learned that there are four million families living with poisoned water and that 250,000 people die each year because of poverty.

    Among the 140 million poor people in the United States, we find 65 percent of Latinx people (37.4 million), 60 percent of Black people (25.9 million), 41 percent of Asians (7.6 million), and 67 million white people (39.9 percent of white people). Today, 45 percent of our women and girls (73.5 million), 52 percent of all of our children (39 million) and 42 percent of our elders (20.8 million) experience poverty. Poverty hurts people of all races, all ages, all genders, all religions and all political parties.

    In the spirit of engaging in the kind of social and economic analysis that Duchrow encourages, we have come to see that the high number of people experiencing poverty this year and for many years past is not because these millions of people somehow lack the cultural or social attributes for success. It is not because poor people do not understand how to spend or save money and it is not because all 140 million poor people aren’t working.

    It is because of economic and political systems that worship capital and profit over human life. Today, millions of people are poor in America for many interlocking reasons.

    They are poor because the cost of living has outpaced household earnings. While economic productivity has continued to rise, American workers have seen little or no real growth in their weekly wages over the past forty years. Many of these workers are among the 62 million people working for less than $15 an hour. Yet, the costs of housing, childcare, health care, education, food and gas have increased beyond the pace of inflation. There is no state, metropolitan area or county in the country where a full-time, minimum wage worker—at either the federal or prevailing minimum wage rate—can afford a two-bedroom rental apartment.

    Today, millions of people are poor because racialized voter suppression and gerrymandering create unfair elections that keep poor people, especially poor Black, Latinx and Native Americans, out of the democratic process. Since 2010, more than twenty-three states have passed racist voter suppression laws. In the unfair elections that have followed, both political parties have smuggled politicians into office who have suppressed wages, cut health care, and denied critical social services for the poor of all races, genders, geographies, etc.

    Today, millions of people are poor because of ongoing and intensifying attacks on social programs. In a time when more and more people are in need of a social safety net, federal housing assistance, the public housing stock, food stamps, and other critical social programs have been dramatically reduced. Today, TANF supports less than one in four poor families with children, and proposed cuts to the Farm Bill in the fall of 2018 would reduce SNAP benefits by $20 billion. Even federal assistance to local water systems has decreased by 74 percent over the past forty years, leading to a crisis of water quality and affordability that impacts at least fourteen million people. Meanwhile, new and harsh work requirements have failed to reduce poverty, as has been promised by their proponents.

    Today, millions of people are poor because we have become a debtor nation. With wages stagnating and the costs of living rising, there has been an expansion of credit and debt in the country. The bottom 90 percent of Americans hold more than 70 percent of debt in the country, including $1.34 trillion in student debt. In 2016, twenty-four million American families were living “underwater”—meaning they owe more on their houses than they are worth.

    Today, millions of people are poor because our national priorities have shifted towards a militarized and toxic war economy. Out of every federal discretionary dollar, 53 cents go to our military, while only 15 cents go to anti-poverty programs. Over the past forty years, there has been a tenfold increase in prison spending and deportations. And since 2000, onerous bail structures have accounted for 95 percent of the rise in the incarcerated population.

    I assert that although we are a nation with unprecedented wealth, we are a poor nation because of a distorted moral narrative that obscures this truth and keeps us misinformed. Our news cycles focus on superficial and sensationalized stories, not the reality that hundreds of millions are experiencing. Even the best available measures of poverty do not include enough information on racial minorities, indigenous and native people, the LGBTQIA population, people with disabilities, and those in harder to reach rural communities and small towns.

    Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative has an appropriate quote for problems such as these. He asserts, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is justice.” I appreciate Duchrow’s search to include economic analysis in the approach to developing a moral framework for our time. Indeed, if we do not, the possibility of establishing justice on earth as it is in heaven cannot become a reality.

Kathy Maskell

Response

How Many at the Table?

A Critical Response to Liz Theoharis’s Always with Us?

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;

Love said, “You shall be he.”

“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.”

Love took my hand and smiling did reply,

“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.”

“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”

“My dear, then I will serve.”

“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”

So I did sit and eat.

 

Christian hospitality has always been rooted in a radical and countercultural orientation to “the other”: the earliest Christian communities were known to rescue abandoned infants, and these same communities birthed the first hospitals. George Herbert’s classic poem, “Love (III),” highlights the foundational center of such hospitality: The God who is Love. George Herbert ingeniously employs the heavily-coded interaction between a Lord and lowly servant to illustrate the scandal of Love’s grace, mercy, and abundance. Love has set the table for a banquet and chooses to invite a reluctant guest. The “unkind, ungrateful, ashamed” guest refuses the invitation to the banquet multiple times, but ultimately, the guest must surrender and receive the gift of being served.

Liz Theoharis’s book, Always with Us? also opens with a reference to a banquet. She references the startling Jesus parable of a Lord who throws a wedding banquet where all the invitations are refused. In response, the Lord commands his servants to fill his table with a second round of guests: “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14:15–23). Jesus shares this parable as a part of a longer teaching on discipleship and honor in the kingdom of God. The picture of unlikelies gathered around a king’s table shocks the modern reader’s eyes as much as it did two thousand years ago. The God who Jesus points to, and God’s kingdom, does not play by our rules. Indeed, Always with Us? refuses any theological worldview of the Triune God that might want to fence in God’s power, mercy, and justice. Theoharis challenges the reader to reexamine her own spiritual, cultural, social, and economic prejudices and biases against the poor. Such prejudices and biases amputate the hospitable welcome of the God of Love: Love who alone has the power to choose who sits and tastes Love’s meat, not “the unkind, the ungrateful.” In this essay, I seek to engage some of Theoharis’s key ideas and assertions in Always with Us? through a biblical approach to a “Kingdom of God” theology of hospitality, explaining how that necessitates a call to Jesus-followers being grounded in radical hope, thus directing us towards a pathway for modern-day discipleship that understands the poor themselves as deeply sacramental.

a new “plain-sense” reading

Theoharis makes a simultaneously postmodern and premodern move in prioritizing a biblical theology approach to exegeting and interpreting her key text, Matthew 26:11. This approach creates space for readers who have a high regard for the inner unity of the Bible. These might be the very same faithful who are some of the sixty-four million people living on less than a living wage—after all, the Bible Belt, the Poverty Belt, and the Rust Belt all share the same boundary lines. In many ways, Theoharis seeks to equip and empower the poor to see how their God of the Bible is on their side, not just spiritually but socially, politically, and economically. In order to do so, Theoharis calls for a new “plain-sense” reading of the Bible, one where the arc of the narrative of the Bible reveals story after story of “poor people coming together with God’s support to make meaning of their lives and improve their living conditions” (149). This narrative arc refuses the domesticated, powerless god of the liberals as well as the overly individualistic theology of conservative evangelicals. Instead, there is an invitation for the “priesthood of all believers” to engage in a new community task of undoing the life-denying narrative that poverty is inevitable and is part of God’s will for millions of humans made in God’s image. This reading community models a constructive way forward in not pitting the “politically conservative and personally pious” against the “politically progressive and socially-minded” (61).

When describing her methodology in reading the Bible with the poor, Theoharis highlights how various Poverty Scholars Leadership Schools prefer traditional exegetical methods, where they rightfully resist proof-texting or decontextualized readings because they understand that the story of the Matthew 26:11, the “anointing of Jesus by the unnamed woman at Bethany [Hebrew for the ‘house for the poor’],” can only be properly grasped in light of “the whole Gospel . . . and overall biblical framework of justice for the poor” (59). In this way, Theoharis seeks to demonstrate the vital intertextual relationship between Matthew 26 and Deuteronomy 15, where Jesus quotes Deuteronomy as a means of critiquing the disciples’ short-sightedness in wishing they could have sold the perfume the woman used to anoint Jesus. Emphasizing the reference to Deuteronomy, serves to remind both Jesus’ disciples and current-day disciples that poverty is not a condition of the natural order of things but the sinful by-product of “disobedience or following the ‘works’ of the Roman Empire” (64). Throughout the Old and New Testament, God uses prophets to remind God’s people that sin is never a private matter—the impacts of greed, lust, selfishness, fear, or anger always have a ripple effect on the larger community. However, as great as the impact that sin can have on an entire community, society, or nation, the Bible points to a power greater than the evil of sin: the Holy Spirit.

Although Theoharis asserts that the “anointing at Bethany” is the only anointing where Jesus is made “Christ,” I submit that this is Jesus’ second anointing, following his first anointing by the Holy Spirit, who descended upon Jesus during his baptism. I make this observation to amplify Theoharis’s assertion that Jesus must be understood as the Anointed One who ushers in a revolution: not just spiritually but politically and socially. Where the ancient heresy of Gnosticism lures us to separate Jesus’ spiritual authority and salvation from Jesus’ body, the “double anointing” reinforces the reality of heaven coming to earth once and for all, that there is no spiritual deliverance without physical deliverance, and good news to the poor in spirit must include the materially, socially, and politically poor. Theoharis’s emphasis on interpreting the “anointing at Bethany” in light of the practice of anointing kings with oil in the Old Testament reveals the same thread of God “anointing” God’s prophets with God’s Spirit, for the sake of calling out corporate sin as well as declaring God’s promise that God will restore shalom peace to the community through enacting God’s righteous justice. God’s Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters, who created the heavens and the earth, who brought order out of chaos, is calling for order in the “house of the poor” today, just as the Spirit did yesterday.

hospitality in God’s house

We talked to God, and God doesn’t want any more homeless families. All are welcome to stay in God’s house. (1)

This bold, theological statement served as the moral compass for the mid-nineties occupation of St. Edward’s Church by homeless families in the dead of winter. Theoharis reflects on this experience as a retelling of the Luke 14:15–23 parable of the great wedding feast. The parable, as well as the St. Edwards takeover, declare that God has established different norms for etiquette, value, and provision in his kingdom, namely that “the last” will be served first, and served with honor and abundance. God’s kingdom hospitality dares to prefer the stranger, the outcast, the unlikely guest. In this way, a theology of hospitality that accounts for God’s order, God’s welcome, and God’s economy could allow God to work in us to eliminate false dichotomies of who is or is not allowed to live in God’s house, particularly the “deserving versus the undeserving poor” (5).

Besides the parable of the wedding feast, there’s perhaps no other parable that could clearly establish a disruptive, kingdom approach to hospitality than the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here Jesus engages a lawyer, most likely a Pharisee, who seeks the sanitized, ethnically correct answer for how to “get eternal life.” Philosopher-theologian Jacques Ellul condemned these sanitizing tendencies of the church of his time, and I would argue the church of our time: a church lulled to sleepy mediocrity through its surrender to the gods of technology, consumption, and means. The church in its stupor is unable to properly engage with and access reality. Who, or what, does the church believe to be the cause of poverty? By his lights, Ellul believes that the church is woefully liable to prescribe the wrong “cure” because it can no longer rightfully diagnose reality “of our society and our neighbor”:

If the Good Samaritan, when he saw the man in the ditch, had concluded that he was sleeping peacefully and enjoying peasant dreams, his charitable duty would have been to make as little noise as possible, leave the blissful sleeper alone, and continue his way. The error currently being committed by the generality of Christian intellectuals on the subject of man implies that one should in no way do what is needed in our situation.1

Ironically, within the parable of the Good Samaritan, we do encounter two characters, the two religious professionals, very ones who might represent the church, who “in no way do what is needed” for the situation. Perhaps the religious professionals were “off the clock” and had filled their quota for caring for others that day. Or perhaps in prioritizing their temple responsibilities, they dutifully strove to observe the purity laws, which meant they must avoid contact with someone who might be dead. Either way, the priest and the Levite completely miss the reality of the situation and the opportunity to bear witness to life by preserving life.

Instead, it is the hated outsider, a Samaritan, who chooses to intervene in the life of the Jewish man left for dead in a ditch. This Samaritan compensates for all the in-actions of the previous three characters: the robbers who beat up the Jewish man, the priest, and the Levite. Where two representatives of institutionalized benevolence do not intervene, the Samaritan acts like a servant to the man with his time and money. Jesus refuses to simply give the Pharisee lawyer what he wants: ethical teaching, the rules for receiving eternal life. Through the parable, the Pharisee lawyer is forced to reckon with the reality that the person who gets blessed in the parable is the wounded Jewish man in the ditch, and the wounded man can do nothing except to receive the blessing of care from the person who stops long enough to choose to care. In God’s house, one must get comfortable with the posture of receiving blessing, as well as rejecting the evil, the mysterious, undercover, incipient sin of “not my duty, so not my problem” or “isn’t there a program that’s supposed to take of that for me? Don’t I pay taxes or support that charity so that I don’t have to get my hands dirty?” The person who chooses to care and intervene, the person who engages with reality and in right relationship with someone in need, commits the radical act of hospitality, of participating as a host in God’s house. Here is the seat of blessing, the “thin space” where the reality of eternity collides with earthly reality, and our human actions become infused with the transformative witness of Jesus’ incarnate presence.

Host, hospitality, hospital: all these words share the same Latin root, hostis. An exploration of the meaning of hostis unveils a world of paradox and tension: carries with it the connotation of receiving and caring for the stranger, foreigner, and even enemy. The authority that a host might have in sharing home and provision is countered with the profound vulnerability of opening oneself to another person’s need and even attack. Jesus leads the way in modeling reciprocal, transformative, Spirit-led hospitality; disciples of Jesus follow him as he goes into the crowds and the homes of the lost, the hurting, and the hungry. Jesus directs his disciples to receive him in the guise of the poor, the stranger, or those who seem like enemies. The roles of guest and host become interchangeable, creating a holy, transformative space within which God can be at work in us and through us. Moments before the Last Supper, Jesus allows himself to be anointed by the unnamed woman, who already models the posture of radical hospitality by positioning herself at Jesus’ feet, where she lays down the “authority” of her wealthy perfume to express the vulnerability of her worship of Jesus as Lord: “the unnamed woman . . . has a horizontal orientation modeled on mutual need and solidarity” (112–13). Indeed, when Jesus hosts his last meal, he raises the bread and the cup, signifying his body that will become utterly broken for the world, and his blood poured out for the sake of his enemies. Jesus, the Host, in collapsing all authority and vulnerability into himself, establishes a new table where the wages of sin and death will not have the last word and power structures are being made new. The impossibility of reconciliation is enacted through his body, and the sins of division, scarcity, jealousy, and rage will be set right. God’s economy has enough money, miracles, time, and relationships for all people to experience life in all its fullness. This expression of fullness of life delivers the poor from poverty, the sick from illness and pain, the oppressed from injustice. In contrast, the antithesis of radical hospitality is a potter’s field. Theoharis highlights how the donation from Judas to purchase a potter’s field does not liberate the poor. A charity donation allows for someone to retain all his or her authority without a hint of vulnerability or authentic relationship. More oftentimes than not, charity “does not resolve poverty but instead establishes a horrible burial plot, where the poor are buried in mass graves” (122). Every time the disciples of Jesus celebrate the sacred meal of communion, we allow ourselves to become one with the Host and receive the power of reconciliation into our own bodies. The new communities established through communion are called to enact the rhythm of the same radical hospitality in their daily lives, or “good works. “Good works are those that benefit others in real ways and that glorify God . . . not glorifying patrons who lord their power over others” (113).

radical hope and discipleship

Jesus draws the poor and the outcast to his table as a deeply political act, using all the power and authority given to him by God to declare a counternarrative to the hierarchy of the Roman Empire that relegates the “have-nots” to the bottom. As the Host, Jesus works from both directions: with authority from heaven above and the vulnerability of embedding himself with the poor below. Ellul reminds us that “never do we find in the Scriptures a one-sided approach on the part of God and Jesus Christ. The condemning God of the prophets is always and immediately the God who raises up, comforts, pities, strengthens, and promises. Jesus, who came bringing salvation by giving his life, is the same who also condemns the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the doctors of the law, and the rich. One approach does not go without the other.”2 Jesus imparts this “both/and” power to his disciples: power to condemn and resist the cynicism and apathy that accept poverty as the natural law of the land, justifying the shallowness of our decidedly un-neighborly souls. Hannah Arendt observed that the worst kind of sin was “the banality of evil”—the shallow, thoughtless acquiescence of people who fail to lift their hearts and minds above the waters of the status quo: “The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their mind to be either bad or good.”3

The power needed to break people free from being bystanders in their own lives is nothing short of miraculous, and this power must break in supernaturally because the pull towards selfishness and self-preservation is simply so natural. In the act of worshipping God in word and deed, the Holy Spirit guides followers of Jesus to not direct worship to themselves but to God, the Wholly Other. Corporate worship points disciples to a collective identity, and the God of radical hospitality, the God of the Bible, refuses to segregate the virtues of love and piety from the practical manifestations of political and economic transformation. In the words of Rowan Williams, true, radical discipleship demands that “we have got to grow into a mature stillness, a poise and an openness to others and the world, so that it can also be a transformative mode of living in which the act of God can come through, so as to change ourselves, our immediate environment, our world.”4 This worshipping community that constantly and fluidly moves between guest and host remembers its solidarity with strangers, the poor, and the outcast. Jesus calls the (post)modern-day disciple to not “save” the poor but to be with the poor, to prefer the poor, to be in transforming and transformative relationship with the poor.

Bibliography

Arendt, Hannah. 1981. The Life of the Mind. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Ellul, Jacques. 1973. Hope in Time of Abandonment. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Williams, Rowan. 2016. Being Disciples: Essentials of Christian Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.


  1. Ellul, 154.

  2. Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment, 81.

  3. Arendt, Life of the Mind, 5.

  4. Williams, On Being Disciples, 17.

  • Liz Theoharis

    Liz Theoharis

    Reply

    Response to Kathy Maskell

    In my book Always With Us? I write that when Jesus quotes “the poor are with you always,” he isn’t condoning poverty, bur rather reminding us that God hates poverty and has commanded us to end poverty by forgiving debts, raising wages, outlawing slavery, and restructuring society around the needs of the poor. I suggest that Jesus is reminding the disciples that charity and hypocrisy will not end poverty, and will in fact keep poverty with us always until there is transformative change. Jesus is also reminding his followers that he is going to be killed for bringing God’s reign here on earth and that it is their responsibility to continue the fight.

    As I explain in my book, I believe Matthew 26 is in conversation with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was in conversation with both these passages when he launched the Poor People’s Campaign in the last years of his life. Indeed, the following passage may well be Rev. Dr. King’s own interpretation of Matthew 26:11:

    A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

    So, when Kathy Maskell uses the work of philosopher-theologian Jacques Ellul, I am compelled to explore these intertexualities in greater depth.

    If the Good Samaritan, when he saw the man in the ditch, had concluded that he was sleeping peacefully and enjoying pleasant dreams, his charitable duty would have been to make as little noise as possible, leave the blissful sleeper alone, and continue his way. The error currently being committed by the generality of Christian intellectuals on the subject of man implies that one should in no way do what is needed in our situation.1

    My colleague Willie Baptist often uses analogy to implore social justice advocates to assess the situation of injustice they seek to impact and to plot a path forward. He suggests that we need to know our context in order to know how to effectively respond. If we are dealing with a grizzly bear and we think it’s a teddy bear, he teaches, then we are going to have an entirely different and ineffective set of tactics. In life, we would embrace a teddy bear, but run screaming from a grizzly bear. The same analogy can be applied to the story of the Good Samaritan and what we come to understand as Christian charity and good works.

    The character of the Good Samaritan would have been very familiar with the injustices of Roman society and the violence and risk of the Jericho Road when he saw the injured man on the side of the road. Jesus and his disciples were also familiar with the injustices of Roman society and the deep poverty surrounding them when the unnamed woman entered the house of Simon the leper to anoint Jesus. But throughout history, the urgency that they articulate in these stories and the depth of their analysis is often forgotten or ignored. If we bring the historical context back into our study, we should not be surprised by the radical acts of hospitality that Jesus implores his disciples to offer, but we have too often removed this urgency from our readings of the gospel.

    Dr. King said in his speech in the Massey Lecture Series in December 1967:

    There is nothing wrong with a traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light. But when a fire is raging, the fire truck goes right through that red light, and normal traffic had better get out of its way. Or, when a man is bleeding to death, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed. There is a fire raging now for the Negroes and the poor of this society. They are living in tragic conditions because of the terrible economic injustices that keep them locked in. Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved. Massive civil disobedience is a strategy for social change which is at least as forceful as an ambulance with its siren on full.

    When Maskell and Ellul remind us that the Good Samaritan is not merely sleeping but that he has been wounded by a sick society, we are compelled to remember the words of Rev. Dr. King. We are compelled to approach social injustices as the emergencies that they are. We see more clearly that Christians are called to ignore the red lights of the current system and civilly disobey injustice. We must develop a fusion movement of Samaritans and Judeans, poor whites, poor Blacks, poor Latinx, poor indigenous people and build unlikely alliances amongst those who have been pitted against each other as enemies. I believe Maskell and Ellul would agree.


    1. Ellul, 154.

Paulo Ueti

Response

Matches and Clashes

of Words and Bodies That Disturb the Order

The act of reading does not consist solely in an act of decoding signals, but it is a relational act that changes everything when it begins. Reading is also a political action: it influences reality, it creates reality, it changes the perspective from where we see and speak about the reality. Reading is also a hermeneutic action. Therefore, it is an act that will always be in dispute and conflict. Reading is also a revealing act of who we/you are, what type of person we/you are and what is our/your agenda in the world.

When we decide to read, therefore, to interpret, to perform hermeneutics, we ended up in a relationship with a broader universe, plural and complex, and not simply with a unique fact or reality. It is also important to highlight that we never get to the text or to the reality innocently and neutrally. Let’s not be naïve. These qualities do not exist among us when it comes to getting related to the tissues which we are a part of (life, speech and written text). I agree with a group of academics and activists who affirm that reality is not the same as real. Reality is what we are able to understand from what is supposedly real. What we are able to absorb or notice. We always have our perspective and understanding about what we experiment, see or read (here, I call that as “real”). Every point of view is the view of the point, and never the point itself.

I would like to dedicate the journey and this conversation to Liz Theoharis, as well as to engage in a dance and dialogue with her thought and work (Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor) to change the world, to be happy, to be better. She is a woman, Christian, from the United States, activist for a world without inequalities, free of poverty and violence, committed to the transformations (of herself and of the world), intellectual, dedicated to study the reality of her country and of the Jewish-Christian Bible. Our paths have crossed due to this burning desire (I always want to imagine that it could be the same as Jesus, who “ardently desired to have the Easter’s supper” with those who were in his discipleship) to change, to be changed, to change again and to continue the path with this certainty that this (when and where we always go through changes) is the fundamental calling of those who are coated with Christ.

We are living amidst great challenges and responsibilities. One of them is presented by the religions and interpretations of their sacred texts. What choices do we make when we use the sacred texts? When do we elect one or more texts and when do we interpret it/them “Cui Bono” (to whom it is good, what we do and choose to support or to crash—its text and interpretation)?

There is a very old hermeneutic problem in Christianism . . . the relation between the writing, the word and the event, its meaning is the center of the hermeneutic problem. However, this relation shows itself only through a series of interpretations. These interpretations constitute the history of the hermeneutics problem, including the history of Christianism itself, as long as the Christianism depends on its successive readings of the Scriptures and its capacity of once again convert the Scriptures into living word.1

We are witnesses of an evil use (or misuse) of the biblical texts, the discourses, interpretation and preachings we hear that takes to and promotes intolerance, prejudice, overflows hate, exclusion, eugenics and also incites violence and even murders, all that coming from inside of “religious” people. With the arrival of the Internet, this phenomenon has abundantly increased.

Would You Tell Me, Please, Which Way I Ought to Go from Here?2

Liz Theoharis’s book wisely reminds us about which path we should take. And, the answer is quite simple and direct: if we are Christian people, the path to take is the one Jesus took, the actions to be repeated are the same as the ones Jesus did, and the theology to be shared, taught and proclaimed is the same that Jesus developed. The pericope that she chose for her work (Matt 26:6–13) is a highlight into the memories (always selective and full of intent, certainly) of the three gospels. It is certainly related to the agape, the eucharist. It is a story that is told within the “death row” context, Jesus had already been convicted, the accusation that would lead him to his murder had already been settled and his condemnation was decided. The event Liz decided to investigate to understand better, took place within the context of the house (oikia—many times it is also the place where the church service took place). This house was located in Bethany, underlined by her as “the house of the poor” (beth anawi). The person who chose to keep this memory decided that two actions should be highlighted: of the woman, who decided that a person other than herself and of her resources was more important, and Jesus who decided to recognise in her the action of a true discipleship and apostolate (“wherever this gospel is preached in all the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her”). She, with her body and her actions, has publicly expressed her faith in Jesus: she acknowledges, probably not without conflicts, that Jesus’ path is her path, there is no turning back, and she will follow him till the end, she is sympathetic to a man threatened with death because of his choices in favor of others and of another possible world. She was moved by the desire to be entirely there, of getting more deeply connected to the good news that Jesus is, of telling, through gestures, that she understands him and will follow him and stay (something that some of the disciples were not able to do). She will be remembered for that, whilst them for having denied, escaped, hid, and doubted. We are people with desires too. They are revolutionary because they move us, make us uncomfortable and incite creativity. Such a description here for community sensibilisation for mobilization nowadays. A passionate memory here. A method—a way to do things to achieve other things.

A very important fundamental theology concept is that God always takes the initiative of meeting and staying (despite the ungratefulness—Hosea 11:11–19), he surrenders himself, because God is love and passion (1 John 4:19; Ho 1.1-3.11). God’s giving is unconditional in a double entendre: He does not impose conditions and does not accept conditioning. And, summons to the public space of activism for another world.

This idea of unconditional giving, exactly because it is unconditional, is the opposite of what the human being expects. It implies in community spirit, collectivity, partnership, relationship. In fact, we know that, since always, humanity is used to think that “truth = domain.” I belong with those who think that truth = desire (movement). And, to the Christian world, Jesus is the truth, not a book, doctrine or concept. The calculated or conditioned giving is accessible to the common sense because it is part of the human experience, but the unconditional giving shocks with its vision of the world dominated by the meritocratic market (which influenced the theology and spirituality), and by the attempt of imposing a monoculture. Within its logic, the giving has to provide results, has to be acknowledged, has to get implemented in history as a form of a victorious testimony. Because those are, since always, the rights of the truth. When it doesn’t happen that way, there is a problem of grasp and of experimentation. And, a certain level of schizophrenia and incoherence in the development of the biblical theological speech is established: God is unconditional mercy, and “promises forgiveness to all of them, whom with sincere regret and alive faith, converts to Him.”3

The other disciples could not do it, to surrender and trust in another path. Their minds were still dominated by the empire theology and by the pax romana (panis et circus) imperial system. The disciples’ way of ending poverty and suffering was of giving away or making charity, not of sharing. Liz affirms, and I follow the same path, that “Jesus’ answer was in fact the criticism of the method which the disciples (only men, apparently) wanted to use to take care of the poor, challenging the idea that the solution to poverty is charity, which does not change the structures that creates poverty.”4

The first part of Liz Theoharis’s work gives a relevant example of faith, tradition and renovation of the proximity, reading and interpretation of the Word of God, seeking to understand, primarily from the current context where people live, the meaning of a text that was also a product of a context in particular, kept stored in memory and remembered for many years before it was written within another context in particular. Choosing power and intentionality are fundamental in the processes of reading, understanding, interpreting and proclaiming (theologization) of sacred texts. To find in the voice of everyone any truth that I still don’t own is an important epistemological challenge. The other person, even if different from myself, may offer a light so that we understand God’s word, and even the reality.

Therefore, the collectivity/community is the sacred, hermeneutic, missionary place (locus), in order to continue the path of loyalty to Jesus’ project and of a few of his followers. There is where we listen to the sea of interpretative possibilities for the texts/memories to do good, to transform and assure hope in the fight.

The place where we are, the desires we have and the political projects we embrace are determinant factors to the hermeneutic process that leads to freedom or oppression, that sustain solidarity or advocate for individualism and meritocracy.

I still think that our lectures and interpretations about who Jesus is and what his messianism means insist in the individual, not in the community, so that the transformation, healing, salvation, and order becomes different (to this day, the image of Messiah of Isaiah 1–39 [the new David, king, powerful, solo, wealthy, militarized] is still more conveniently relevant to the current system then the image of Isaiah 40–55 [servant, community, together, respecting the other]). The book of Liz and the “common sense” interpretation of Jesus’ messianic identity leads me to investigate more about this other possibility of leadership. In politics we still are thinking like the empire, in the traditional family power relationship is still mono managed. This fact is directly revealed in the way we perform our work of communitarian mobilization, our leaderships training, and in the way we lead popular groups.

In biblical studies and encounters with the text chosen by Liz to reflect, to make exegesis and to interpret, there is a strong component that collectiveness is the transforming force, the messiah is the community (the servant—the service to the other) which, in Christianism, it is the sacrament of Jesus resurrected, the embodied verb of God that sets free and follows his people through his unconditional love.

By reading the gospels and looking at the great part of the world’s population in their expectations of changing, it can be noticed that many people are going through difficulties, some have lost hope in the current system, not able to see a “light at the end of the tunnel,” and others are resorting to violence in order to change the system. In truth, the latter may not want to change the system, but to change places with those who oppress them.

Certainly, years after the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, many good things have happened, but many doubts and uncertainties have grown in the center of the religious community as well as of the civil community. In the religious community, new people joined the path, people that, originally, did not belong to Jesus’ tradition. People who were oppressed, repressed, harassed, and in a hurry to see the freedom taking place soon. They were looking for a safe place and to be recognized as human being and beauty of nature.

A great part of these people hoped that someone would free the population. One Messiah (certainly a rich man, with power, army and authority over them—such as King David was) that would do the entire work, and the sheep (vassals, not disciples) would follow him. It seems like, as mentioned above, they did not want to change the system, but to get on the top of it instead. They were used to that way. They were theologically educated and molded to think that way. They were shaped to be passive. We still are that way sometimes. We still believe that there are people in the Christian community who are the sheep and that there are shepherds who will guide them. If we are called to become like Christ and, if through the baptism we get dressed in Christ, the Christian community is the shepherd to the world and has the faith duty to “not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind [our interior]. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (as Rom 12:2).

The problem is that the gospels provide testimony of another type of Messiah and of messianism. A model constantly forgotten. This is why the couple of Emmaus could not recognize Jesus on the way to their home. The man they hoped to free them was definitively the one walking with them. It did not match.

But this testimony is not free of conflicts and disputes about Jesus’ image. In general, Jesus was not presented as one single person who was going to change the world alone. He (the gospels tell us, at least) is not that type of Messiah. There were many types of messianic movements and different types of messiah after the Babylonian exile. When, for example, we remember of the Exodus liberation, textually edited in the post exile, the person who comes to mind as the one who led the people through the path of freedom and through the desert? The answer is: Moses. Again, one man, court educated and authoritarian (which is usually a trait of unsecure people). Where are Aaron and Miriam in our memories? Where is Jethro?

To Desire the Path, the Community Necessity, and the Acceptance of Its Consequences

The type of Messiah that Jesus chose to be is the model of the suffering servant, the one we find in Isaiah during the exile period (Isa 40–55). He chose to stay away from the David model, which by the way was the model expected by the disciples, apostles, and maybe even by us today. Jesus chose the path of relationship and collaboration to change the world.

Out of love, God came, keeps coming, and incarnated in Jesus. Love, a fundamental way of talking about God, is a movement, not a feeling, it is ethical posture and aesthetics, eccentric by definition, and not individualistic or possessive. To love is to become more than one, to transgress, to go “above and beyond,” to invent the possible, to defy the impossible and to eradicate the individualism, so present here and there. It is dynamic and may disturb the order as, for example, was that girl named Shulamite in the book of Song of Songs, Miriam, Moses’ sister; Joseph, Maria’s husband; and the Syro-Phoenician woman who confronted Jesus and the disciples, the woman who anointed Jesus because “you will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me”; among many other examples of disagreeing prophetic voices and bodies.

It is our duty to be aware that the biblical text is out there, but it does not speak, it does not move by itself. We, the people, do that. Our choices determine theologies, influence behaviors and define norms.

To Assume the Rhythm of the Other—Starting from the Reality

In Jesus’ rhythm, the woman from the text in which Liz worked, understood his examples and does the same. She detaches from herself and from her resources, she puts herself together and wishes to demonstrate that the way of continuing to act according to God’s will, and that in order to no longer exist poor among us, we shall open our hearts, share our resources (not only what is surplus), suspend judgments and acknowledge we all are brothers and sisters (as Deut 15).

Even if “you will always have the poor among you,” the messianic community (not only Jesus, the messiah), in the equation, is responsible to teach (as this woman did, and certainly learned from Jesus) that the relationship and sharing of resources (solidarity in all levels) are the path (the method) to be loyal to Jesus and to the kingdom, so that God’s name is hallowed (the love, the ethics and the aesthetics of God rule our lives), so that the kingdom comes and his will is done (equality, justice, sharing, love, care), our daily bread helps us achieve (sharing, fight against inequalities), we keep going with the help of the community, seeking to not make mistakes and continue in the path (to resist the detour temptations) and that the evil does not comes, and neither we become its origin.

The memory of Matthew’s gospel made Bethany (the house of the poor) this space where it is possible to notice that the vulnerable body, in need and shouting for company, is actually Jesus’ body. He is the poor as well, marginalized, pursued, stigmatized and threatened with death, the latter inevitable at that point. The united community, even with disagreements, is led by that woman in a messianic act of collective commitment with Jesus’s path. Even under protests (again, by men, apparently) the desire of being with, the act of anointing for the Easter and sharing material resources are marks of the mission for which Jesus called us, collectively, as he was and left his legacy (see the parable of the talents = gospel).

It is not only Jesus’ words that have the power to effect transformation. The action of this woman too, as well as of other women and men of the New Testament and of today. The communities of the canonic New Testament want to help us enter in this communitarian and revolutionary epistemological conspiracy. We all have words/acts of power: in our case, of people who read the Bible and life altogether, common scholars or readers, we all have the same space of sharing the word and become transformed by it.

Hospitality—Care as Hermeneutic Key to Recognize the Word (Jesus)

At the house, that woman offered what no one else could, hospitality. She shared her body, her words and her belongings to take care of Jesus, vulnerable, probably distressed for his future, maybe really expecting more solidarity at that moment. This solidarity came from her.

Them, the men, with the imperial scheme perspiring from their bodies and souls (minds), even after that length of time living with Jesus (let’s remember the announcements of the Passion in the gospels: Matthew 16:21—20:34; Mark 8:31—10:52; 9:22—18:43—the longest one) waited for the messiah who was “the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21), but Jesus preferred (as many communities since the exile period in Babylon) another type of messiah. The suffering servant. The messiah will no longer be a person, but a group, a crowd that gets organized in order to transform their own lives and of the society where they live. It will not use violence or keep a system that sustains inequality. But, will experiment the community as space of life and salvation.

The activity of that woman anointing Jesus makes him recognized as the one who will come along, and who hopes there will be a community that will also come along.


  1. P. Ricoeur, Rehearsals about the Biblical Interpretation (São Paulo: Editorial Source, Novo Século Publisher, 2004), 45.

  2. Excerpt from the book Alice in the Wonderland.

  3. LOC—Book of Common Prayer, Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil, 9th ed. (Porto Alegre: Anglican Bookstore, 2009), 29.

  4. Theoharis, Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 48.

  • Liz Theoharis

    Liz Theoharis

    Reply

    Response to Paolo Ueti

    When defending my dissertation (which I edited and turned into my book, Always With Us?), I announced to my committee that my next biblical project would need to be further work on Messiah and messianism. In my writing, I try to walk a fine line of acknowledging both the predominance of understandings of a singular Messiah who could free the world from violence and oppression and a more collective movement approach to social transformation wherein Jesus passes his messianism to all his followers (and acknowledge the presence of both concepts of Messiah in the Bible and in regard to Jesus and his anointing in Matthew 26). I have yet to develop this next big project, but in the meantime I appreciate the engagement that Paulo Ueti offers in his article on the leadership models embedded in our understanding of Christ/Messiah in the gospel texts.

    Ueti asserts that “our lectures and interpretations about who Jesus is and what his messianism means insist on the individual, not in the community, so that the transformation, healing, salvation, and order becomes different.” This echoes the scholarship of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and many other feminist theologians who have been influential in my understanding of Jesus as Christ/Messiah. I am particularly interested in how Schussler Fiorenza begins her book Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation, “If Jesus . . . were to return to earth, read all his biographies, and attend the Jesus Seminar or the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, he also would marvel and ask with amazement: ‘Who is this person they are talking about?’” (Schussler Fiorenza, 1). I appreciate the humor and truth with which Schussler Fiorenza speaks of Jesus and then Mary Magdalene: “Would she not be puzzled that scholars attribute only to Jesus and not to his companions a movement that they had together envisioned—an egalitarian movement of Divine Wisdom for the healing of the downtrodden, an inclusive community of those who are powerless in the eyes of the mighty?” (Schussler Fiorenza, 2).

    This second statement foreshadows the scholarship by Joanne Grant, John D’emilio, Barbara Ransby, Jeanne Theoharis, Komozi Woodard, David Garrow, and many others on Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Rosa Parks, Jack O’Dell, Fannie Lou Hamer, and other behind-the-scenes leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Over the past several decades, scholars have written biographies and histories that challenge a simpler and less radical version of history and reveal that the famous names of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, were just a few of the people who envisioned and carried out the local work of ending segregation and discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s. Such biographies are telling some of the untold stories of radical activists who organized for decades before and long after the important victories of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. This scholarship is pointing out the limitations of crediting only one charismatic leader for the social program and reform of an era and a movement.

    Just as I believe that these historians and biographers are writing the movement histories that we need to inform movement building today, I believe Schussler Fiorenza’s depiction of the basileia movement contributes to a broader understanding of christos and mashiach in our biblical texts, and the model of justice-making found there. Schussler Fiorenza points out that when scholars have looked at movements such as Jewish apocalypticism, they have not focused on its “collective emancipatory aspects” (Schussler Fiorenza, 24). She critiques the integrationist model to reconstruct Jesus and suggests that one needs a sociological-conflict model to understand Jesus as “a member of a variegated Jewish basileia movement that stood in conflict with the hegemonic kyriarchal structures of the Roman empires, of which hegemonic Judaism also was a part” (Schussler Fiorenza, 40). She goes on to say that current scholars also tend to spiritualize the socioeconomic context of Jesus’ actions and sayings, which in turn characterizes the basileia of God as “pie in the sky” rather than as a social movement to achieve equality and dignity for all on earth in the present.

    In Ueti’s essay and my book Jesus, Paul and other biblical characters are depicted as social movement leaders and revolutionaries. This is also a common interpretation in many empire-critical works, including the work of Richard Horsley, Davina Lopez, Brigitte Kahl, David Sanchez, Margaret Aimer, and others. Yet, these theological interventions still beg the question of a deeper approach to the concept of Messiah. We must question what impact it would have to understand Jesus’ anointing as Messiah/Christ in Matthew 26 as a collective anointing and imploring of his followers to bear the cross of messianism and to not rest until freedom comes for all. In the words of Ueti, “Collectiveness is the transforming force, the messiah is the community (the servant—the service to the other) which, in Christianism, it is the sacrament of Jesus resurrected, the embodied verb of God that sets free and follows his people through his unconditional love.” As long as our understanding of Messiah is rooted in the individual of Jesus and not in a collective and communal movement of leaders including Jesus, we may be waiting for a model of social transformation that has never been and may never be.

Gerald West

Response

“On Earth as in Heaven”

Poverty as a Site of Struggle

I remember distinctly a conversation from the day after our liberation in South Africa. As I was making myself a cup of tea at the university a colleague came up beside me and said, with a smile, “Now that we are liberated, what will you do with your liberation theology?” He was being mischievous, but it was also moment of challenge from someone who was not persuaded that liberation theology was a valid form of theological engagement. My instinctive response was as follows: “Jesus said, ‘you always have the poor with you.’ As long as the poor are with us there will be a need for liberation theology.” With these slightly edgy words we parted. But I have reflected on this exchange regularly as the decades have passed since that day. Liz Theoharis’s book has therefore been a significant recent resource for my ongoing reflections on the place of liberation theology in post-liberation South Africa.1

But before I come to Theoharis’s book, let me try briefly to explain what I meant in the exchange with my colleague more than two decades ago. What I was trying to say, in shorthand form, was that liberation was not a moment but a protracted process and that the presence of the poor was the barometer with which to measure our liberation. Constitutive of my understanding of liberation theology is its central tenet: the epistemological privilege of the poor. “Liberation theologians,” argues Per Frostin, drawing as he does on the documentary resources of “Third World” theologians, “focus on a new issue seldom discussed in established theology: Who are the interlocutors of theology? Or, Who are asking the questions that theologians try to answer?”2 Or, to use the language used by Musa Dube (from Botswana) and myself (from South Africa) within the discourse of biblical liberation hermeneutics,3 “Who are biblical scholars reading ‘with,’ when they read the Bible?” To these questions liberation hermeneutics gives a decisive answer: “a preferential option for the poor.”4 Echoing the words of Latin American Gustavo Gutiérrez, the primary interlocutor of liberation theology is “the poor, the exploited classes, the marginalized races, all the despised cultures.”5 This choice of interlocutors is more than an ethical commitment, it is also an epistemological commitment, requiring an interpretive starting point within the social experience and social analysis of the poor and marginalised themselves. The actual presence and participation of the (organised) poor and marginalised in the doing of theology is pivotal.6 My own social location and work, as a white South African,7 have been shaped by this understanding of liberation theology. My offhand comments to my colleague in the early 1990s have proved prophetic. For while South Africa has made significant steps towards liberation in the legal and political spheres we still wait for “economic freedom in our lifetime,” the slogan of young black South Africans.8 We have the poor with us, and within the work of the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research we continue to do socioeconomic liberation theology with them.9

Within our work, the praxis embodied by Liz Theoharis in her book is a valuable resource. We resonate with her refusal to accept what the South African Kairos Document called “Church Theology”10 interpretations of Matthew 26:6–13. Her careful interrogation of both “popular treatments” (15–23) and “academic treatments” (23–25) demonstrates just how infected biblical interpretation has become with “Church Theology,” a theology that emphasises the personal, individual, and spiritual (and never the political and economic). More importantly, however, is her rereading of this biblical text. And here the resonances with our work abound!

Her starting point, theologically, is a prophetic refusal to accept that “poverty is inevitable” (xiii). Her starting point, methodologically, is to reread this biblical text with “the least-recognized theologians of the twenty-first century,” “the poor” (xvi). These two related starting points cohere in her invocation of the words of Jesus (in Luke 4) concerning “good news for the poor” (xvi). Though she does not use the work of the South African Contextual Theology practitioner Albert Nolan, her arguments echo his notion of the gospels having a particular “shape.”11 Nolan’s and Theoharis’s point is that unless what we call “the gospel” is “good news for the poor” then it is not the gospel. I would put this more provocatively. “The gospel,” both Jesus makes clear (Luke 4:16–30), is “good news for the poor,” but bad news for the rich. There is no general generic “gospel” for everyone.

Theoharis stands within the trajectory of liberation theology in which the Bible has a predominant shape: it is “good news the poor.” Given this orientation, the problem of “popular treatments” and “academic treatments” that read Matthew 26:6–13 is one of misinterpretation. But, she argues, if we use the “contextual Bible study” process of the Poverty Scholars Leadership School (54), we come “to see Jesus’s statement ‘the poor you will always have with you’ as a social critique of poverty rather than a comment condoning the existence and prevalence of poverty” (50–51). While I appreciate her careful explanation and practice of a form of “contextual Bible study” in which she reads the text with “low-income and faith leaders” (32), there is another trajectory within liberation hermeneutics that is not so sure that there is the kind of coherence across scripture that Theoharis works with.

Alongside South African Contextual Theology in the 1980s, another South African liberation theology, South African Black Theology, made it clear that the Bible itself was a “site of struggle.” Representing the second phase of South African Black Theology,12 Itumeleng Mosala states clearly that “the texts of the Bible are sites of struggle.”13 Though Mosala acknowledges that the final literary form of biblical texts bear witness to these struggles,14 his primary focus is the sites of struggle that produced and are evident within the various redactional editions of the biblical text. While Mosala accepts the final form as a starting point for ideological redaction critical work, he recognises that the final form “cannot provide inspiration to oppressed peoples because it is inherently a theology of domination and control.”15 It is an over-determinative hermeneutic of trust towards the Bible “as an innocent—and transparent container of a message or messages that has caused black and liberation theologians not to be aware of—or, more correctly, to appropriate as otherwise—the presence and significance of oppression and oppressors, exploitation and exploiters in the signified practices that the biblical texts really are.”16 Mosala argues that we must work with a hermeneutics of suspicion in which the Bible itself—intrinsically and inherently—is a site of struggle. Put bluntly, there is contestation about poverty within the Bible itself. Refusal to accept this reality about the Bible, Mosala argues, may lead the poor and marginalised to take up biblical texts that ideological co-opt them into the ideologies of the ruling classes (of biblical and contemporary contexts).17

Notwithstanding Mosala’s warning, I yearn with Theoharis to hear a liberating voice within scripture. Though she does not adopt the radical suspicion of Mosala about the Bible’s final form, she does recognise that socially engaged scholars, reading with the poor, must be attentive to the “hidden transcripts” in scripture (94, 126). Her book is important, in that it provides a persuasive intertextual argument for an alternative reading of Matthew 26:6–13. In addition to the rereading process of the Poverty Scholars (32–52), Theoharis’s own exegetical work in chapters 4, 5, and 6 makes a compelling argument for Jesus as one of the poor, within a context of empire, and within a world wracked by poverty, debt, and dispossession. Within this site of struggle, Jesus leads a movement of the poor, in which he is a pedagogue of the poor, who is anointed by an unnamed woman as a coworker in the struggle against poverty. Within this carefully argued intertextual exegetical process—shaped by the epistemology of the poor she reads with—Theoharis comes to the conclusion that

the passage is a critique of empire, charity, and inequality, rather than stating that poverty is unavoidable and predetermined by God. Poverty is created by human beings—by their disobedience to God and neglect of their neighbor. Jesus shows another way: ending poverty is possible, through the practice of covenant economics, as seen in Deuteronomy 15. Matthew 26:11 both refers to people’s failure to follow God’s law and commandments (that is, the forgiveness of debts, the release of slaves, provisions for those in need without further benefiting only the wealthy) and instructs us on how to establish a reign of prosperity and dignity for all (that is, institute the Jubilee and Sabbath throughout the land). In God’s Kingdom, there will be no poor because poverty (and perhaps wealth?) will not exist. This is what Jesus is saying when he proclaims, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” (73–74)

As Liz Theoharis notes, there is much in her work that resonates with our work in the Ujamaa Centre in South Africa (147). However, there are some differences. In terms of method, our “Contextual Bible Study” methodology privileges thematic-semiotic and literary-narrative interpretive methods, precisely because they are accessible to the poor we read with. A starting point in “historical context” (54) foregrounds the scholar rather than the community, and so we draw on socio-historical only after we have engaged in a collaborative rereading of the text’s domains as “text.”18 Furthermore, we work overtly with a Bible that is a “site of struggle,” a Bible that is internally and inherently contested. So we accept that there is a “public transcript,” just as there is a “hidden transcript” (to use James Scott’s terms).19 Indeed, by being overt about the Bible as “having” diverse often contending voices (at both a literary-narrative and a socio-historical level), we acknowledge how many of the poor actually experience the Bible, as over against them. And while part of this is the prevalence of “Church Theology” readings of Bible in the churches and public realm, part of it is the very “nature” of the Bible as itself a contestation between marginalised and elite voices.

With Theoharis I want to affirm that more of the Bible is a discernible hidden transcript of the voices of the poor and marginalised than Mosala would acknowledge. But I am persuaded by Mosala (and the poor we read with) that “struggle” is a central interpretive category. I hope I am wrong, but I also tentatively accept, with Mosala, that “the struggle” is our future as it has been our past. Poverty is not inevitable, but as Theoharis struggles to admit (in her parenthesis in the quotation above), wealth refuses to relinquish its greedy extractive and systemic relationship with poverty. The wealth are wealthy because the poor are poor. As long as wealth remains, so must poverty. So a luta continua, the struggle continues until the systems that perpetrate and perpetuate poverty are destroyed. There is no comfortable message here for the wealthy, and just as the disciples of Jesus struggled to grasp his radical critique of the Jerusalem city-temple system in Mark (Mark 13:1–2) and the consequences for those “who devoured widows houses” (Mark 12:40), so too most Christians today will not accept Theoharis’s provocative analysis. They are too invested in systems of economic inequality. The struggle will continue.

I have used Mark’s gospel here deliberately, for we are persuaded, within the Ujamaa Centre, that most of Mark is hidden transcript theology. But what about Matthew? Here we are not as sure, which is why Theoharis’s book deserves our attention.20 We do work with Matthew in communities of the poor and marginalised, using Matthew 20:1–16 and Matthew 6:9–13 regularly to engage with evil economic systems. But in each case we read “against the grain” of Matthew’s reception of these discourses of Jesus. Jesus, we think, was using the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1–16) either as an argument for a radical form of “socialism” or as a radical critique of “capitalism.”21 We are not sure which, but let those we read with decide, based on their own experiences of the casualisation of work. What we are clear about is that Jesus was dealing with economic issues not religious issues (Jew/Gentile). Similarly, with respect to “the Lord’s Prayer” (Matt 6:9–13), we refuse Matthew’s framing and read the prayer as the radical economic manifesto of Jesus, placing a colon at the end of v. 10, and so reading the rest of the prayer as an argument for systemic economic transformation.22 Matthew’s gospel is for us a site of struggle, with Matthew at times co-opting and so partially neutralising the radical praxis of Jesus and the movement of the poor.

These differences aside, there is much we have in common, including an overarching commitment to a See-Judge-Act praxis, in which we analyse reality from the perspective of the poor (See), then Judge this reality from a prophetic reading of the prophetic trajectories of scripture, and then go on to Act to change reality so it conforms to God’s kin-dom on earth.

Bibliography

Frostin, Per. Liberation Theology in Tanzania and South Africa: A First World Interpretation. Lund: Lund University Press, 1988.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1973.

Kairos. Challenge to the Church: The Kairos Document; A Theological Comment on the Political Crisis in South Africa. Braamfontein: Kairos theologians, 1985.

———. The Kairos Document: Challenge to the Church; A Theological Comment on the Political Crisis in South Africa. Revised 2nd ed. Braamfontein: Skotaville, 1986.

Mosala, Itumeleng J. Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

Nolan, Albert. God in South Africa: The Challenge of the Gospel. Cape Town: David Philip, 1988.

Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990.

Theoharis, Liz. Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.

Waetjen, Herman C. Matthew’s Theology of Fulfillment, Its Universality and Its Ethnicity: God’s New Israel as the Pioneer of God’s New Humanity. London: Bloomsburg / T. & T. Clark, 2017.

West, Gerald O. “Accountable African Biblical Scholarship: Post-Colonial and Tri-Polar.” Canon&Culture 20 (2016) 35–67.

———. “Africa’s Liberation Theologies: An Historical-Hermeneutical Analysis.” In The Changing World Religion Map: Sacred Places, Identities, Practices and Politics, edited by Stanley D. Brunn, 1971–85. London: Springer, 2015.

———. “The Co-optation of the Bible by ‘Church Theology’ in Post-Liberation South Africa: Returning to the Bible as a ‘Site of Struggle.’” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 156 (2017) 185–98.

———. “Deploying the Literary Detail of a Biblical Text (2 Samuel 13:1–22) in Search of Redemptive Masculinities.” In Interested Readers: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J. A. Clines, edited by James K. Aitken, Jeremy M.S. Clines and Christl M. Maier, 297–312. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.

———. “Liberation Hermeneutics.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, edited by Steven L. McKenzie, 507–15. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

———. “The Lord’s Prayer as Economic Renewal.” In Global Perspectives on the Reformation: Interactions between Theology, Politics and Economics, edited by Anne Burkhardt and Simone Sinn, 85–94. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2017.

———. “Newsprint Theology: Bible in the Context of Hiv and Aids.” In Out of Place: Doing Theology on the Crosscultural Brink, edited by Jione Havea and Clive Pearson, 161–86. London: Equinox, 2011.

———. The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon. Leiden and Pietermaritzburg: Brill and Cluster, 2016.

———. “The Vocation of an African Biblical Scholar on the Margins of Biblical Scholarship.” In Voyages in Uncharted Waters: Essays on the Theory and Practice of Biblical Interpretation in Honor of David Jobling, edited by Wesley J. Bergen and Armin Siedlecki, 142–71. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2006.

West, Gerald O., and Musa W. Dube, eds. “Reading With”: African Overtures. Semeia 73. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1996.

West, Gerald O., and Sithembiso Zwane. “‘Why Are You Sitting There?’ Reading Matthew 20:1–16 in the Context of Casual Workers in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.” In Matthew: Texts@Contexts, edited by Nicole Duran Wilkinson and James Grimshaw, 175–88. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.


  1. Liz Theoharis, Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017).

  2. Per Frostin, Liberation Theology in Tanzania and South Africa: A First World Interpretation (Lund: Lund University Press, 1988), 6.

  3. Gerald O. West and Musa W. Dube, eds., “Reading With”: African Overtures, Semeia (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1996).

  4. Frostin, 6.

  5. Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1973), 241.

  6. Gerald O. West, “Liberation Hermeneutics,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, ed. Steven L. McKenzie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); “Africa’s Liberation Theologies: An Historical-Hermeneutical Analysis,” in The Changing World Religion Map: Sacred Places, Identities, Practices and Politics, ed. Stanley D. Brunn (Dordrecht, Heidelberg, New York, London: Springer, 2015).

  7. “The Vocation of an African Biblical Scholar on the Margins of Biblical Scholarship,” in Voyages in Uncharted Waters: Essays on the Theory and Practice of Biblical Interpretation in Honor of David Jobling, ed. Wesley J. Bergen and Armin Siedlecki (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2006).

  8. Figures released in May of 2016 indicate a South African unemployment rate of 26.7 percent; http://www.statssa.gov.za/?page_id=1854&PPN=P0211&SCH=6622.

    The slogan “economic freedom in our lifetime” has been used by both the ANC Youth League and newly launched political party the Economic Freedom Fighters; http://www.ancyl.org.za/show.php?id=8037.

  9. http://ujamaa.ukzn.ac.za.

  10. Kairos, Challenge to the Church: The Kairos Document (Braamfontein: Kairos theologians, 1985); The Kairos Document: Challenge to the Church, revised 2nd ed. (Braamfontein: Skotaville, 1986).

  11. Albert Nolan, God in South Africa: The Challenge of the Gospel (Cape Town: David Philip, 1988).

  12. See Gerald O. West, The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon (Leiden and Pietermaritzburg: Brill and Cluster, 2016), 326–48.

  13. Itumeleng J. Mosala, Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 185.

  14. Ibid., 40.

  15. Ibid., 134.

  16. Ibid., 41.

  17. Ibid., 188; Gerald O. West, “The Co-Optation of the Bible by ‘Church Theology’ in Post-Liberation South Africa,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 156 (2017).

  18. “Deploying the Literary Detail of a Biblical Text (2 Samuel 13:1–22) in Search of Redemptive Masculinities,” in Interested Readers: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J.A. Clines, ed. James K. Aitken et al. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013); “Accountable African Biblical Scholarship,” Canon&Culture 20 (2016).

  19. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990); Gerald O. West, “Newsprint Theology,” in Out of Place: Doing Theology on the Crosscultural Brink, ed. Jione Havea and Clive Pearson (London: Equinox, 2011).

  20. See also Herman C. Waetjen, Matthew’s Theology of Fulfillment, Its Universality and Its Ethnicity (London: Bloomsburg / T. & T. Clark, 2017).

  21. Gerald O. West and Sithembiso Zwane, ““Why Are You Sitting There?,” in Matthew: Texts@Contexts, ed. Nicole Duran Wilkinson and James Grimshaw (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).

  22. Gerald O. West, “The Lord’s Prayer as Economic Renewal,” in Global Perspectives on the Reformation, ed. Anne Burkhardt and Simone Sinn (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2017).

  • Liz Theoharis

    Liz Theoharis

    Reply

    Response to Gerald West

    I appreciate deeply the thoughtful reflections, epistemological moves, and challenges Gerald West makes in his article. As Itumeleng Mosala proposes and West affirms, I believe that it is especially important as both students and practitioners of the gospel to stay in the “sites of struggle” with our biblical texts.

    Upon entering seminary at Union Theological Seminary, I was introduced to another biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible, and her concept of “Texts of Terror.” Exploring Trible’s hermeneutic and analysis of how women have been and continue to be abused and subjugated in the name of the Bible was both dismaying and freeing. Dismaying because I saw more starkly the many stories in the Bible used to justify violence and oppression. And freeing because I realized that there are those who hold the Bible in high esteem who are still willing to disregard it (or at least parts of it) because it has been used to degrade and defile life.

    As I write in my book, throughout the two decades I have worked as an advocate and organizer for a movement to end poverty, there has rarely been a week when I do not hear a reference to “the poor will be with you always” as justification for inaction in the face of poverty and to claim the eternalness of poverty. So, when I first started preaching on the text, long before I had entered a doctoral program in biblical studies or engaged the content and context of that passage from Matthew 26 and John 12, I would come forward and say that to be faithful to other teachings of the Bible on poverty, we could ignore and overlook this one. I would then continue on and preach that God is love, Jesus sided with the poor, and quote the Beatitudes and Matthew 25 to say that for Christians to help the poor was to help God.

    However as I have applied myself to reading the Bible and following the biblical instruction to “loose the bands of wickedness,” I have seen that it is impossible to ignore these sites of theological struggle. I learned through my studies and through my social justice work that it is not possible to ignore or skip over this or any other biblical text that is used to terrorize, because there is a battle for the Bible currently being waged whether or not those oppressed by it decide to engage.

    The Bible and church have been significant to social movements throughout history. During the abolitionist, industrial union, and Civil Rights movements in the United States, and in other movements for justice across the globe, both those supporting social change and those protecting the status quo have used the Bible, God, and the church to make their stand. Slaveholders quoted “slaves obey your masters” from Colossians 3:22 and the book of Philemon about returning runaway slaves to their masters. Slaveholders even created a Bible that did not include the Exodus, the prophets, or Jesus’ references to “good news to the poor” and “release to the captives.” At the same time, Abolitionists used the Bible to argue that God condemned slavery and that all Christians and people of conscience should follow. Harriet Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, was called “Moses” and many of the most prominent Abolitionists were preachers and pastors.

    Although times are different today, a theological battle is nevertheless taking place around poverty. The area of the southern United States known as the “Bible Belt” is also known as the “Poverty Belt,” where there is the deepest and most contiguous area of poverty effecting people of all races, genders, and ages in the country.1 This is possible, in part, because the Bible has been politicized in a way that says that poverty is a result of sin against God and individual failure, and the biblical passage “the poor will be with you always” (Matt 26:11) has been interpreted to mean that God wills poverty.

    I therefore acknowledge and appreciate West’s point that, “put bluntly, there is contestation about poverty within the Bible itself. Refusal to accept this reality about the Bible, Mosala argues, may lead the poor and marginalised to take up biblical texts that ideologically co-opt them into the ideologies of the ruling classes (of biblical and contemporary contexts).”

    In his book Law, Power and Justice in Ancient Israel, Hebrew Bible professor Douglas Knight argues that the laws and political structures of the ancient Near East and the codes found throughout the Bible were products of the elite cooptation of popular movements and practices of the poor. Knight asserts that these laws served to maintain order and to control the people in the interests of the wealthy, and that the common people came up with their own norms, values and practices to subvert that status quo. He writes, “If today we can be suspicious of the motives of our own politicians and power centers, it is appropriate for us to be equally suspicious of the motives of comparable behind-the-scenes interests and practices during ancient Israel’s history as well.”2

    It is with this lens that I believe we must investigate and excavate these biblical sites of struggle, with special attention to texts of terror that are used to justify oppression. This does not mean we should seek to find liberation in every text and it may mean we run the risk of co-optation, but not engaging and reinterpreting these texts has had and will continue to have dire consequences.


    1. Based on a census study about poverty, Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto, writes, “Immediately apparent is a broad ‘Poverty Belt’—states where more than three in ten people live in high poverty areas—stretching from West Virginia through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. The states with the lowest concentrations of poverty, where less than 10 percent of the population live in high poverty areas, are Wyoming, New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware and Maryland.” Richard Florida, “Map of the Day: America’s Poverty Belt,” Atlantic, December 8, 2011. Accessed October 25, 2013. http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2011/12/americas-new-poverty-belt/677/.

    2. Douglas A. Knight, Law, Power and Justice in Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).

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