Yme Woensdregt is Pastor
There is a common saying that “History is written by the winners.” There is a great deal of truth in that saying. Until the very recent past, for example, the history of Canada was written by men who wrote from a British or French perspective. Such a history would have concentrated on the generals who won battles, the men who made decisions about forming the nation, those who had the power to make things happen.
History written from this perspective would have largely ignored the point of view of women and children or those at the bottom of society. More importantly, until very recently, a history of Canada wouldn’t even have included much about the indigenous people who lived here long before the British and French arrived and claimed that they “discovered” this land.
Thankfully that’s beginning to change. In the last 30 years or so, a movement called “the people’s history” has sprung up which tries to tell the story of Canada from the point of view of the ordinary people, of women and factory workers and immigrant labourers. More importantly, such a history includes the indigenous peoples who lived in this land long before anyone ever sailed across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.
The same can be said of histories of any country or any event or any movement. I applaud this movement, because it fills such an urgent need.
But long before this impulse in the contemporary world, it also happened with the Bible. Believe it or not, the Bible is one of the few subversive texts in history. It is most extraordinary and revolutionary because it repeatedly and invariably legitimizes the people on the bottom rather than the people on the top.
The Bible tells stories again and again that those who are chosen by God are the outsider or the marginalized or the “loser”. God takes the side of the rejected son, the barren woman, the sinner, the leper, the outsider.
For example, the Old Testament constantly urges that Israel needs to care for “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger at the gate.” These three groups of people are at the very bottom of society’s pecking order in ancient Israel. They have no one to protect them, no one to speak for them, no one to care for them. They are precisely the ones who need to be noticed and loved. God stands on their side, not the side of the powerful.
In the New Testament, we need only consider the story of Jesus, who was born in a barn, not a palace, to an unmarried teenage mother in a backwoods town in an insignificant country on the margins of the Roman Empire.
Don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself. It is in fact quite obvious, but for some reason we need to have the obvious pointed out to us. Over and over again in the Bible, we are presented with some form of powerlessness, and the story is that God steps into that situation and sets things right.
Even before Moses, God chose Abraham, a “nobody,” and made him a somebody. God chose Jacob over Esau, even though Esau was the elder, more earnest son and Jacob was a shifty, deceitful character. God chose David, the youngest of seven sons to become Israel’s king. God chose Mary, a “humble servant” (Luke 1:48). God chooses the weak, the powerless, the ones without any influence or hope. The pattern always seems to be that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
We have become so accustomed to this pattern that we no longer recognize how subversive it is. And then, like the Disney corporation, we turn these stories into just another sweet rags to riches story and rob them of any power they may once have had.
Rene Girard, a French philosopher and historian, spoke of “the privileged position of the victim” as the absolutely unique and revolutionary perspective of the Bible. In South America, liberation theologians talk about God’s “preferential option for the poor.” It doesn’t mean that God loves the poor more than the rich. God’s love is for all, for rich and poor alike. What this means is that the Bible takes up the cause of the poor because they are so often oppressed in their daily lives.
What a revolutionary way of doing things. Richard Rohr, in a beautiful phrase, calls this the “Bias from the Bottom.”
Contemporary Christians dare not lose this thrust. Otherwise we are in serious danger of misunderstanding what Paul calls “the folly of the cross” of Jesus. Without this bias from the bottom, religion ends up defending propriety instead of human pain, the status quo instead of the suffering masses, triumphalism instead of truth, clerical privilege instead of charity and compassion.
The Bible can’t be domesticated or tamed. We need to read it in all its revolutionary power and listen carefully to the voices of all who have marginalized and oppressed. We’re dealing with radical stuff here.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook