Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

"Power Over" or "Power To"

After watching Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza's lecture, it occurred to me that what is happening in my own little neck of the woods is what is happening on a broader scale in church and empire. The big flap over my post that was recently published on Presbyweb and is still generating conversation on Toby Brown's blog, has to deal with interpretation of scripture and the rhetoric of empire.

I find it fascinating that so many of my loyal opposition think I am a heretic and desire my removal from the PCUSA. Before my expulsion I would like to suggest that some attention must be paid to the power dynamics of the church and of empire. Why is what I write, teach and preach in my own little corner of East Tennessee such a threat?

I do teach and preach what I think are values contrary to the values of Empire and "power over." I reject interpretations and applications of scripture that dehumanize. This is why I challenge the notion that the whole of the Bible is the "Word of God." Yet at the same time, we do have to deal with this text that is theologically authoritative for the church and culturally authoritative for the empire of the United States.

Fiorenza points out that when we turn the Bible into "The Word of God" it serves exclusion, dominance, and violence--the attributes of empire. She suggests that the scriptures contain the Word of God. Not all of it is revelatory of the divine will of compassion and justice. From her speech:

[Feminists] have pointed out that the Bible has not only been written by human hand, but by the hand of elite men. It is not only the product of past imperial cultures, but also has and still is used to instill the dehumanizing violence of such cultures as "The Word of God." If biblical norms and traditions are not only historically conditioned by empire, but also ideologically determined, then one must ask what kind of authority does the Bible have for believing communities today? It is not only a historically and theologically limited book, but also ones that implicates the ethos and violence of empire.

She concludes:

Since Christian fundamentalism draws on the language of empire inscribed in Christian scriptures, Christian liberationist readings need to reconstruct elements of a radical democratic and egalitarian vision that is also inscribed in Christian scriptures. We need to rescind the authority of scripture not as "power over" that demands obedience but as "power to" as enabling decision-making power as discerned of the Spirit.

The oppression of the authority of Scripture is not just an inter-Christian problem, but it is a challenge to all those who seek to change cultural-political ethos of empire and its internalizations. Discretion becomes more and more pressing when at a time in the name of God and the Bible, anti-democratic tendencies are on the rise.

In response to this question, several hermeneutical approaches have been developed. The approach which I have found most helpful utilizes classic theological teaching which recognizes that the Bible contains revelation, namely in the form of a written record, but that not all of scripture is revelation. In line with Augustine and Thomas of Aquinas, this approach articulates the criterion that limits revealed truth pertaining to matters of salvation or well-being. The theological criterion for the sake of our salvation, for our well-being allows, us to adjudicate everything said in scripture as to whether it fosters well-being. It compels us to reject the authority of those biblical texts that are inscriptions of empire and violence.

As theological subjects we have to insist on our spiritual authority to assess both the oppressive as well as the liberating imagination of particular biblical texts in concrete situations. We need to do so because of the imperial function of authoritative scripture claims that demand unquestioned obedience and acceptance. Yet biblical authority understood as "power to" is not something that requires the subordination of the human. Rather it understands scripture as a resource of creativity, courage and solidarity.

The creative power of scripture is something ongoing, that can be articulated only in and through the rejection of the violent power and ethos of empire. The truth of sacred scripture is not something given once and for all. The words of scripture are not engraved tablets of stone. Rather they are nourishing threads of divine wisdom which empowers us to struggle against the violence and exploitation of empire in our daily life.