by Merryn Hellier
from Signs of the Times No. 57 - Apr 2015

As I read the Autumn newsletter of Modern Church, I found it harder and harder to discover what was 'new' or 'modern' in it.

It came just as I had finished re-reading Voices from the Margin edited by R.S. Sugirtharajah. These voices are all Christian theologians who have to deal with poverty, oppression and severe hardship as a way of life. If life is lived in such conditions, the philosophical discussions of western theology are utterly irrelevant. Different theisms, spiritualities, exclusive / inclusiveness, eucharistic sacrifice etc. are of little matter.

By way of illustration I will quote from Brazilian and Chinese theologians.

The Brazilian theologian, Carlos Mesters says,

Without money or ability to read books about the Bible, the poor simply read it through their faith lived in community, and their lives of suffering as an oppressed people. Reading in this way, the poor discover within it the obvious truth which they did not know or which was hidden from them for centuries, namely:
1. a history of oppression like their own today, with the same conflicts; and
2. a liberation struggle for the same values which they pursue here in Brazil today: land, justice, sharing, community, a decent life.

For them salvation means being liberated now from the forces that enslave them – not just a place in heaven, or as Soares-Prabhu from India put it:

The anti-pride of Jesus is not self-abasement, but fearless and active service towards an alternative community of anti-greed. The poor bring their real life problems with them into the Bible, always bearing in their minds the situation of the community they want to serve. From this they discovered that ordinary people no longer need to depend on others to understand the Bible. They are not passive consumers but active producers of living liberation, saying that the Bible is no longer a strange book but 'our book'. We should be asking how the Bible can best help a person, not how can we make that person what our own understanding tells us God wants.

Kwok Pui Lan, a theologian from Hong Kong, says:

In the great century of missionary expansion, many acted as though they alone knew what the Bible meant, believing that they were closer to the truth. The gospel was invariably interpreted as being the personal salvation of the soul from human sinfulness.

This interpretation reflects an understanding of human nature and destiny steeped in western dualistic thinking. Other cultures, having a different thought form, may not share similar concerns. As T. T. Wu, notes,

Such terms as original sin, atonement, salvation, the Trinity, the Godhead, the incarnation, may have rich meaning for those who understand their origins and implications, but they are just so much superstition and speculation for the average Chinese.

This simplistic version of the gospel takes away from the struggle against material poverty and oppressions. But in the name of a 'universal gospel' this thin-sliced biblical understanding was pre-packaged and shipped all over the world. The American W. Hutchinson believed that

Christianity as it existed in the west had a "right" not only to conquer the world, but to define realities for the peoples of the world.

If other people can only define truth according to a western perspective, then Christianization really means Westernization!

The authority of the Bible cannot hide behind the unchallenged belief that it is the Word of God, nor an appeal to church tradition defined by white, male, clerical power, as marginalized people are asking if the Bible can help in the global struggle for liberation.

Tough words to swallow, yes, but they are given to us by deeply caring and experienced Christians. When we are so bound by scholars, books and tradition we don't see beyond ourselves, but they are worthy to be taken seriously because theirs is based so fully in the sort of life Jesus led. More than that, it leads us to think in a new way about the problems of a shrinking church. After 2000 years of trying, we have to admit that we are no nearer to fulfilling the Western picture of Jesus' mission.

We're good at loving and worshipping God and developing our own spirituality, but we are seriously lacking in creating the 'good news for the poor' at the heart of Jesus' first recorded sermon in Nazareth, and echoed throughout his life. Is it time to start changing our questions?