Friday, June 3, 2011

The Bible in the World: Abolitionist, Contemporary and Future Perceptions

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

I just returned from the 2011 iteration of the Nida School of Translation Studies and the second residency of our new D.Min. track in Bible Translation, which took place in Misano Adriatico, Italy.
Faculty and Associates of the Nida School come from diverse places and perspectives with some coming from the field of Bible translation and others from the wider academic field of Translation Studies, with special affinity to Post-Colonial criticism and other ideological criticisms. For many people on one side (you can guess which one) the positive impact of the Bible in people’s lives and in society is perfectly obvious and the thought that Bible translation could contribute to injustice or oppression in the world is hard to believe. For many people on the other side (again, you can guess which one), it is obvious that the Bible and its translation have been part of oppressive imperialistic and colonizing powers and movements and that the Bible has shown itself to be a dangerous book with a problematical reception-history.
I think this is another of those instances where each side tends to be correct in what it affirms but reductionist in what it denies. That is, the Bible has led millions of people to peace, forgiveness, grace and hope, and have led to the establishment of hospitals, schools, orphanages, and innumerable charitable ministries around the world. And it has also been used through the centuries to support unjust and oppressive institutions, relationships and behaviors.
On the flight home from Italy I began reading Allen Dwight Callahan’s The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006). Although I’ve only read the first four chapters so far I can say I highly recommend it (for what I have read so far). But it has also provided a remarkable parallel to what I had just observed at the Nida School.
Callahan discusses the opposing positions of Frederick Douglass (whom I have mentioned in an earlier ETC post) and Henry Highland Garnet in a debate that took place in New York in 1849:
“Douglass and Garnet were both African Americans. Both had escaped slavery from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. But their respective experiences of slavery, literacy, and religion—and so their respective experiences of the Bible—were profoundly different, and those differences crystallized in diametrically opposed views of the Bible's liberating power…. Garnet saw the liberating power of the Bible as self-evident. It was so for him: he assumed it would be so for slaves in the South who might manage to read or have read to them a contraband copy of the holy scriptures that he knew so well” (page 22).
Callahan reminds us that “the abolitionists of the North and the planter class of the South read from the same Bible. Long before Lincoln, Douglass had learned that the Bible was the highest authority of American slavery and the strongest link in the chain of oppression and violence that warranted slavery as the sacred basis for the Christian culture of what would become the Confederacy” (23).
“Bitter experience had taught Douglass and other slaves and former slaves that the master class of the United States bore a whip in one hand and a Bible in the other. It was this Bible that Garnet and his colleagues were now proposing to send to the South” (23).
“Douglass anticipated that the Bibles sent to the South would become raw material for proslavery propaganda” since he “knew intimately what Garnet's limited experience with slavery could not teach: that the justice of the Bible was not self-evident. Douglass had begun to learn the Bible as a slave, and he knew that some people reading the Bible under the slave regime remained tone-deaf to its message of justice” (24).
The two former slaves held dramatically different perceptions of the Bible’s role in either combating or supporting injustice and oppression in ways that directly parallel perceptions found today (over 160 years later) among those who also see the Bible as naturally supporting one side or the other of this justice/injustice divide. So abolitionist and contemporary perceptions of the Bible are similarly divided. What will it take if future perceptions of the Bible are not to be similarly divided on this crucial point?
We who love the Bible cannot afford to be na├»ve about the fact that while it does and should do great good in people’s lives and in the world (including supporting battles against slavery, prejudice and other social evils) it has also been used to promote and/or justify oppressive relationships, institutions or cultural realities, including crusades, inquisition, slavery, apartheid, genocide, the abuse of women, children and minorities. It has been used to empower the powerful at the expense of the powerless.
How can we work to make sure that it serves as a weapon of justice rather than an accessory to injustice? Callahan points out that “none of Jesus’s words have been more influential—and more troublesome for the ideology of American slavery—than the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you’ (Matt. 7:12). Simple observance of this simple principle would have rendered American slavery impossible” (35). Of course, the Golden Rule turns out to be a paraphrase of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (found in Leviticus 19:18 and repeatedly cited by Jesus and his apostles [Matt. 5:43; 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8]). So we are brought back again to Jesus’ own hermeneutic of love.
In his teaching On Christian Doctrine (1.36-37), Saint Augustine of Hippo stressed the importance of a hermeneutic of love. He argued that “[t]he fulfillment and end of scripture is the love of God and our neighbor.” Furthermore, “[t]hat interpretation of Scripture which builds us up in love is not perniciously deceptive nor mendacious, even though it be faulty…. Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception.”
What if future generations could not look back (as I have just done with Callahan’s help) and continue to see that the same contradictory patterns continued through the 21st century? What if the hermeneutic of Jesus, Augustine, abolitionists and others, a hermeneutic of love for God and neighbor might become so widely accepted that those that continue to interpret the Bible abusively would find themselves without any significant following due to a widespread awareness of such tragic abuse?
It is my prayer that God might bring that about and glorify himself through the church in that way… “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21; ESV)

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