On the week of commemorating Tienanmen Square massacre on June 4th, 1989, we must think about liberation. I don’t have much to say about June 4th that people who are much better qualified haven’t already spoken. The bodies flattened by tanks (literally flat) are still fresh in my memory. As a biblical studies specialist, I may have something of broad relevance. The relevance came by the way of an advertisement I saw recently.
Recently, I’ve seen a new series by a reputable publisher that started a new series on contextual reading of the Bible. The advertisement causes me to pause long enough to disrupt my Right Texts, Wrong Meanings series. One description of a book caught my eyes. More importantly, this description made me think. It describes the book as “These essays de-center the often homogeneous first-world orientation of much biblical scholarship and open up new possibilities for discovery.” Of course, the “first-world” technically means that the location was under US (and western) control while the “second-world” was under the USSR. The “third-world” is contested territories. Now that the second-world has collapsed with the breaking up of the USSR, we have only two worlds left: the first and the third.
Upon further review of the authors, I notice one of the editors to be Asian-descent but is now teaching in the US. The Asian country from which he immigrated is far from third-world (in the pejorative popular usage of the term “third-world” by “humanitarians”). In fact, it is a much more thriving country than the US at the moment. Even as a developed world, US may even be less developed than some of the formerly third-world countries. These countries now become the “more developed” world. So, how is his position non-first-world? I should call his world the “hyper-first-world” (at least “developed world”) based on what I know about that country, but then his teaching in the US causes him to be a hybrid of sorts with perhaps the label Asian American. Thus, his perspective should not be considered non-first-world at all. It wold be hard for him to demonstrate 1) he was under poverty and oppression 2) he is now highly influenced by that experience. To call his perspective third-world is to categorize everything “occidental” to be first world (and “modern,” “advanced,” … “better”). Even with intentionality of trying to yield to a broader perspective, this series creates a description that smacks of the pitfall it is trying to avoid.
A friend of mine (aka the blog name Chinglican) and I have been conversing about how it is possible to be an evangelical with liberationist tendency in many parts of the world but not so much the US. In the US, the “liberationist” is the “other”, a liberal, a nut case and most likely a commie. Not so other parts of the world. Why is this? I think we should relabel everything. How about calling the western US reading of the text, a capitalist reading? The fact is, an interpreter can be an evangelical reader of the text without sacrificing cultural context. Sure, grammar and syntax as well as historical backgrounds are important. I believe that. But after that, so what?
What we have is the occidental blind spot. What do I mean by that? It is terribly easy to label the “other” this or that category without being quite aware of one’s social location when reading the Bible. This is a fact! If we look at the “first world” and “third world” labels, we would find that such geographical terminologies to be divided by the Global North and Global South, with the underprivileged being the Global South (aka the “third world”). My friend who’s almost done with his PhD, Mr. Chinglican, gladly informed me that such terminologies reflect a time when global wealth was distributed based on colonial power. This outdated historical fact no longer holds true. The world has moved on, especially in economical and intellectual terms. The sooner we wrestle with this fact, the better reader we will become of the Bible, not in terms of its original message but in terms of the relevance of the original message for today’s world. We should also wrestle with how others read the Bible who according to historical past were the “other” but are no longer so. Without first properly and accurately applying a label (even a negative label) to our own social location in light of the “other” (well, what we consider the “other” though the “other” may consider us the “other”), we continue to favor our own version of truth to be the whole truth.
I do not think we have deconstruct all the old labels thoroughly enough. At least a lot of labels, based on colonial (and antiquated) social-economic geographical terms, are no longer adequate if not outright misleading. Purely from social-economic and intellectual development, the colonial dichotomy between first world and third world isn’t always going to work. Having taught in Hong Kong for almost three years and being active in many contexts over there, I can no longer read the text the same way. Am I third-world? Well, Hong Kong is not third-world. Although it was still a British colony, its social-economic condition was already first-world even when I first immigrated some forty years ago. Its present subway system is more efficient and cleaner than any of the ones I’ve seen in the US. No, I did not work in a third-world mission field. Hong Kong is a developed world. By all accounts, I worked in a first-world academic post dealing with a different set of political and social challenges than the US.
Due to my contextual concerns, I do not think I can ever apply the Bible the same again the way I did in the US. Some might see some liberationist tendency, but that is just my own contextual application of the gospel with no deliberate leaning towards liberationist hermeneutics. Most people who know me still consider me evangelical, though I even have trouble with that label “evangelical.” How do I mix the liberationist and evangelical together? I never try. It just happens when the biblical world and my world collide Beautiful fireworks happen when the two worlds collide.
In my own experience and reflection of the false labels (I can name so many examples), I think we need to start thinking about our own reading context in light of other people’s reading context. Sure, there’ll always be haters saying stuff like, “Oh, he really isn’t Reformed enough. He is a liberationist. He must be liberal then because we know that all liberationists are liberals.” I used to worry about how people would label me but I realize in the last decade or so that such haters will always exist because the majority of the people in our world do not know how to walk in the shoes of the others (and I don’t use the word “others” pejoratively here).
Contrary to the impression of this post, I’m not trying to advocate for more politically correct vocabulary here. My plea is grander. The fact is, many in the US are too comfortable where their biggest problem may be whether Obamacare would take a bit of their earnings away while people are getting killed, imprisoned and oppressed not just in “third-world” societies but even in developed places. Then, I just brought up the political dimension. My context here then isn’t about economics then but has a political aspect because certain environments call for a political reading. Politically speaking, economically developed countries that appear stable are not necessarily stable at all. In other words, the old labels tell me nothing about the interpreter’s perspective or context or experience. Being aware of our interpretive location also demands that we understand the locations of others. This is why we must surge ahead and do better for the sake of the gospel.
I think we’re facing challenging times in the globalized culture. Paradigms shift faster and faster. We’re being challenged to revamp or even discard all our labels. Navigating in this murky water will be risky but navigate we must or our blind spots will become our entire vision. It is no longer (it never was) adequate to label anything that does not fit our comfort zone of old labels. Everyone reads the biblical texts with his or her lenses. Everyone interpreting other readings also interpret those lenses through our own personal lenses. Our reading of other readings and other lenses determine whether we reach true understanding of what “others” are saying.
Liberationist or not, never forget June 4th, 1989.