Reading it upside down

It’s human nature to scramble to be on the side of the majority. We will always try to find connections with others that form cliques and create a power base. Put a diverse group of people in a jury room or a lifeboat, and they will attempt to clump. If there are obvious connecting points like skin tones or gender, majorities will form and subtle biases set in. The women will gather against the men. The tall versus the short. The brown eyes versus the blue. But the same phenomenon will happen even if there are no obvious majorities. The introverts will mobilize against the extroverts. Or the morning people versus the night owls. No one wants to be the minority, and no one wants to be oppressed.

Mark Twain, never afraid of being in the minority himself, observed,

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

I believe he’s talking about more than cheering for the underdog. He’s saying that being a member of a power-based clique is reason enough to question how we got there and what we are doing to stay there. What am I doing to oppress the minority? Do I believe that a winner requires a loser? Where am I vulnerable to group thinking? How am I silencing other voices? These are the kinds of questions commonly asked by the Old Testament prophets.

In My Problem with the Bible, Brian Zahnd says we in the West have been reading the Bible incorrectly. We love to identify with David versus Goliath, or Moses versus Egypt, or Israel versus Babylon. Our Sunday School curriculum is built around that idea. We think we are the minority or the underdog, but we’re not. Instead, Zahnd says,

I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa….
I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire.

So the characters we should be identifying with are Nebuchadnezzar and Caesar. When’s the last time you put yourself in Pharaoh’s or King Saul’s sandals? Suddenly the shepherds Moses and David become “pesky” and “annoying.” We find ourselves, like King Ahab (1 Kings 22:8) muttering that we don’t want to ask the prophets because they always give us bad news.

The problem is that we, as majority, wealthy English-speakers in the empire try to identify with a Hebrew slave, an exile or a shepherd, and it’s a bad fit. More than that, Zahnd says it’s dangerous.

What happens if those on top read themselves into the story, not as imperial Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans, but as the Israelites? That’s when you get the bizarre phenomenon of the elite and entitled using the Bible to endorse their dominance as God’s will. This is Roman Christianity after Constantine. This is Christendom on crusade. This is colonists seeing America as their promised land and the native inhabitants as Canaanites to be conquered. This is the whole history of European colonialism. This is Jim Crow. This is the American prosperity gospel. This is the domestication of Scripture.

History is usually written by the victors, but the Bible is history written by the conquered, the oppressed, the exile, the occupied and the enslaved. Unless we come from that vantage point, the Bible is not good news. It challenges our power, it asks what we’re doing for the minority. It questions our subtle oppression. It attempts to reveal the blind spots of the majority.

The article is well worth reading. But it also calls us to pause and reflect.

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