There is a provocative, if somewhat simplistic, article in this month’s Christian Century that examines the Bible through the eyes and experiences of the Global South ("Liberating Word: The power of the Bible in the global South" by Philip Jenkins – which, I think, is available only in the print edition).
One of Jenkins’ main arguments is that the churches of the Global South are able to identify with people, places, and situations of the Bible (famines, oppression, dependence on the land, etc.), whereas we Global North Christians often have to interpret and reinterpret Biblical passages in order to find meaning in what look to us as quaint anecdotes about pre-modern life. They read the Scripture and see themselves, whereas we read Scripture and see stories of people from generations ago that require layers of interpretation. This is probably an overly simplistic summary that denies the presence of a sophisticated tradition of Biblical interpretation in Third World churches, but I’m no expert in these matters – it just seems too simple to me.
Two observations jumped out at me from this article:
- "The average Christian in the world today is a poor person, very poor indeed by the standards of the white worlds of North America and Western Europe."
That is, our North American Christian experience, concerns and questions are not typical of Christians worldwide. We tend to pigeonhole third-world theologians by their continent of origin (Latin American theology, African theology, etc.), and such categorizing allows us to easily set them aside as irrelevant for our experience or for the Church At Large. But as the center-of-gravity of the Christian world increasingly moves to the South, Jenkins suggests that perhaps Christian publishers should start offering studies of "North American theologies" to acknowledge the narrow approach to theology produced by the North. We white guys no longer can pretend to speak for the whole Church.
- "When viewed on a global scale, African-American religious styles, long regarded as marginal to mainstream American Christianity, seem absolutely standard. Conversely, the worship of mainline white American denominations looks increasingly exceptional, as do these groups’ customary approach to biblical authority. Looking at this reversal, we are reminded of a familiar text: the stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone."
Much of the article speaks of a theological and ecclesial shift to the Global South as if it mirrors the slow, gradual movement of tectonic plates. However, as the references to the rejected stone and the long-oppressed African American community in our country suggest, this shift may end up being more of a quake that topples the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly – there is quite a divine justice at work in this shift. Communities that have long been maligned and oppressed by the churches and governments of the Global North are now sitting at the center of Global Christianity, and are about to grab onto the reigns of power.
There is an overly optimistic, rose-colored-glasses tone to Jenkins’ argument, however. He seems almost giddy at the prospect of white, liberals (such as himself?) being challenged by a Global South community of which they are otherwise very sympathetic. He glosses over real conflicts between the ways the Global North and the Global South read the Bible, and he conveniently highlights a few Bible passages that would be interpreted similarly by Global North liberationist liberals and Global South church leaders struggling for social, economic, and political freedom.
Yet many other issues come to life in the pages of the Bible, issues that highlight the Global North/South divide – especially that of the role of women (not just as ordained church leaders, but as humans worthy of respect, education, health care and access to a fair legal system) – to which Jenkins gives scant attention. The fall of the Global North may represent a form of justice – and may validate the geo-political claims of many liberal Global North theologians – but it may also usher in a new period of indifference to various "liberal" or "Global North" issues, such as the rights and value of women, non-Christians and sexual minorities, among others.
Rather than simply brace ourselves for the inevitable, we in the Global North owe it to ourselves, our Church and our world to reexamine our theological and political hegemony, to repent of our place of privilege, and to listen with open minds and hearts to the faith experience of our brothers and sisters in the Global South. Let us face to the South and approach our brothers and sisters with humble hearts, not uncritically, but expecting to find an abundant God active in their churches and in their lives. And let us go, seeking to be partners in this mission we share in the world, a mission of proclaiming Good News to a diverse world.