Image Credit: The Way of the Prophet (detail), silhouette image art work by Mike Van, concept by Vivienne Close.
Bias from the Bottom
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
The vast majority of people throughout history has been poor, disabled, or oppressed in some way (i.e., “on the bottom”) and would have experienced history in terms of a need for change. The people who wrote the books and controlled the social institutions, however, have almost always been the comfortable people on the top. Much of history has been recorded from the side of the winners, except for the unique revelation of the Bible, which is an alternative history from the bottom: from the side of the enslaved, the dominated, the oppressed, and the poor, culminating in the scapegoat figure of Jesus himself.
We see in the Gospels that it’s those on the bottom who tend to follow Jesus: the lame, the poor, the blind, the prostitutes, the drunkards, the tax collectors, the sinners, the outsiders, and the foreigners. It is demonstrably those on the inside and the top who crucify him: elders, chief priests, teachers of the Law, scribes, and Roman occupiers. Shouldn’t that tell us something really important about perspective? Every viewpoint is a view from a point, and we need to critique our own perspective if we are to see and follow the truth all the way through.
Western Christians fail to appreciate liberation theology because of seventeen hundred years of interpreting the Scriptures from the perspective of the empowered clergy class, rather than from the perspective of the marginalized, who first received the Gospel message with such excitement. Once Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire (after AD 313), we largely stopped reading the Bible from the side of the poor and the oppressed. This is why our present Pope Francis is such a monumental breakthrough, holding together both prophet and priest, both bottom and top. He is sure to suffer much for attempting to do what Jesus did.
For the first 300 years after Jesus’ death, Christians were the oppressed minority; we were rebels hiding in catacombs. But by the year 400, Christians had changed places. We moved from the catacombs to the basilicas. That is when we started reading the Bible not as subversive literature but as establishment literature. Once we were in a position of power and privilege, we couldn’t read or understand many Scriptures (for example, the Sermon on the Mount) because we had to maintain our empire, and in this direction the Scriptures give us little support or consolation
But when Scripture is read through the eyes of vulnerability—what we call the “preferential option for the poor” or the bias from the bottom—it will always be liberating and transformative. Scripture will not be used to oppress or impress. The question is no longer “How can I maintain the status quo?” (which just happens to benefit me), but “How can we all grow and change together?” Now we have no top to protect, and the so-called “bottom” becomes the place of education, real change, and transformation.
The bottom, or what Jesus calls “the poor in Spirit” (Matthew 5:3) in his opening address, is where we have no privilege to prove or protect but much to seek and become. Dorothy Day said, “The only way to live in any true security is to live so close to the bottom that when you fall you do not have far to drop, you do not have much to lose.”  From that place, we can be used as instruments of transformation and liberation for the rest of the world