A Hermeneutic of Oppression, a Hermeneutic of Liberation

A Hermeneutic of Oppression, a Hermeneutic of Liberation March 5, 2014

It’s Ash Wednesday, and last night I watched 12 Years a Slave.

For some reason, that film seems a fitting way to begin the Lent season. It is painful. It is intense. It’s the kind of film that is impossible to “like” – it just destroys you. And in the process, it changes you.

While there are plenty of wonderfully thorough reviews of the new Best Picture winner, I just want to share one observation from the film, and then make an Ash Wednesday application.

First, the observation: The same Bible used to oppress became the song of liberation for the oppressed. This can also be true today. [Tweet This]

Two scenes made an indelible impact on me in this regard. Interestingly, Erik Parker made note of these same scenes in a post he wrote last year (which I just read this morning). Here are his words about the first scene:

The first image that caught my attention was how the plantation/slave owners – white males – would gather their slaves and wives to read from the bible on Sunday. In one scene, the white male, standing in front of a group of slaves reads from Luke 12:47 (KVJ) –

“And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

“Many stripes” he repeats, warning the slaves, human beings that he considers to be his property.

“This is scripture!”, he declares, as if it cannot be contradicted and that beatings are God’s will.

And the second:

There was another scene in 12 years a slave that deeply moved me. After a slave died while picking cotton, he was buried in the cemetery full of unmarked graves. As the rest of the slaves gather to mourn, an old woman, presumably the matriarch, begins singing a gospel song –Roll Jordan Roll. This black woman begins preaching – in song – to her community. She preaches to her marginalized, oppressed and suffering community. It is a complete contrast in power. She is surround by her community,  she is not preaching down to them…

As the community sings, the main character, Solomon, is standing there looking totally lost, totally broken, totally hopeless. With nothing left, the only thing he can do is sing. And you can see the hope beginning to well up inside of him. It doesn’t replace his brokenness, but the hope comes along side it. He sings with his community, and finds some hope in these words of faith. The same faith that is used to condemn him to slavery.

My old Reformed Baptist pastor once said that if the Bible is really the inerrant Word of God, then slavery is not morally wrong in and of itself. If that sounds outlandish, consider that well known confederate/slavery apologists like Douglas Wilson do exist in mainstream conservative Christianity. They very honestly acknowledge that in both Old and New Testaments there are no explicit denunciations of slavery as an institution, and there seem to be repeated affirmations of it. So, if every word of scripture is God-breathed, then owning other human beings as property and forcing them to perform hard labor and menial tasks is fundamentally OK (as long as you don’t overtly abuse them).

This only serves to highlight the fact that upholding the inerrancy of scripture often leads to a hermeneutic of oppression. 

But what about the other side of the coin? How does the Bible, when in the hands of the oppressed, become an authoritative word of liberation? It occurs to me that the Southern slaves, as forcibly undereducated as so many of them were, intuitively sensed what can only be described as the true trajectory of scripture. In the powerful, persistent themes of liberation from oppression, this community saw the essence of the gospel itself – it is always, in ever-unfolding glory, leading to more and more freedom for human beings and for God’s creation itself. And it is never, ever, a tool for defending or further ingraining the systems of oppression devised by human empires.

It is strange to me that even today, defenders of biblical inerrancy seem to always push back on liberation theology as somehow playing fast and loose with the text. But anyone who’s honest – perhaps folks like my old pastor or Doug Wilson – will acknowledge that a hermeneutical choice has to be made. Will texts that affirm oppression be held as God-breathed, forcing the ones that demand liberation to be somehow synthesized, spiritualized, and rationalized away? Or will the trajectory of liberation be seen as the Word of God that is speaking loudest in the scriptures, most clearly incarnated in the person and work of Jesus?

A hermeneutic of liberation requires a choice.

And I think it’s a choice to listen to the Spirit herself and not impose dry intellectual theories (like inerrancy) onto the living, Liberating King and his gospel.

Now, an application: Today, Ash Wednesday, is about remembering our human frailty, the finitude of our story, and the sins that so easily beset us. We remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return. We repent for wrongs done, for bad habits formed, and we seek to put the flesh to death in preparation for resurrection and new life.

Perhaps this is a good time for all of us to consider how we have participated in a hermeneutic of oppression instead of a hermeneutic of liberation.

Perhaps we should all do a bit of repenting today.

And perhaps we should recommit to the true trajectory of scripture that is leading us, our neighbors, and the whole world into greater and greater freedom.

Roll, Jordan, roll.

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