toward decolonising hermeneutics
Last night I realised that I’ve been reading the bible all wrong. I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, identified with the wrong people, interpreted through the wrong lens and been listening to the wrong experts.
Last night I woke up and saw that there was something so obvious that it defies me to think how I didn’t see it until now. But then equally, I’m not surprised either. Of course I had to read it the way I’ve been taught.
Suddenly much of the disconnect between the experience that we promote in Christianity made sense, a softer, apolitical gospel that didn’t really speak truth to power.
I find that I skip bits that seem irrelevant but now I see it differently.
Here’s a cheery Psalm, Psalm 59:1–4
Deliver me from my enemies, O my God;
protect me from those who rise up against me.
Deliver me from those who work evil;
from the bloodthirsty save me.
Even now they lie in wait for my life;
the mighty stir up strife against me.
For no transgression or sin of mine, O LORD,
for no fault of mine, they run and make ready.
I’ve often wondered how what it means to relate with the word ‘enemies’ in the Psalms. I don’t have enemies, life is pretty good. We’re not at war, we’re a small nation that’s pretty benign really. So who can possibly be my enemies?
Some background first.
At the time of Jesus, Israel had been ‘conquered’ by Rome. The jews suddenly found they were paying taxes to foreign interests, who whilst only numbering a very small percentage of the population, brought with them the weight of an entire Empire and all it’s organisation, wealth and military might. The Roman governor was put in the land and the authority of the Jewish King Herod was eroded.
There had been uprisings and protests but ultimately the Roman Empire was just too great for these to have any effect.
The roman empire effectively colonised Israel just like it had with many nations around the Mediterranean.
Lawmaking changed, religion changed, currency changed, the justice system changed, the culture changed. Jews were allowed a certain amount of freedom but ultimately only as far as they could without rocking the boat.
Sound familiar? An imperial power annexes a country as its own. The inhabitants are subdued and become a subjects against their choice. The land is now subject to Roman ideas of ownership and control.
I’m probably a late starter on this, but I realised for the first time last night that as a British descended New Zealand citizen, I need to align my hermeneutical identification with the roman empire. The romans held the context of power. They held the controls and parameters of society at the fundamental operational level. They dictated the terms of engagement. And Roman citizens enjoyed the benefits of this privilege.
And the kicker is this. Jesus inhabited the world of the jews. The colonised.
Think about how this affects the meaning of the question of tax:
“Render unto Caesar what is caesars” is often used to justify paying taxes to authorities. Whereas to the colonised Jews, it’s “pick your battles”.
The story of Jesus, in fact pretty much the whole history of Israel resonates with the colonised.
And frankly, this could be a terrifying thing for us. Jesus is the champion of the oppressed—we generally accept that when it comes to the poor and infirm, but they are the oppressed within the oppressed. There are systems in place that are a result of another layer of power that changes how these situations can be dealt with.
Even the way we pay regard to the pharisees in the story will take on a new understanding. They were operating under the layer of powerful oppression, threat of loss of identity, immanent clamping down on religious freedom. It’s not unusual for religious leaders in trying times to revert to fundamentalism out of fear. It’s far easier to galvanise people around clear cut ideology. It’s a pastoral approach to seek to stamp out conflict—which is what Jesus was stirring up.
Who are our enemies? Or are we the enemy?
If we are the enemy in the text, then what is our role? It’s like what Josh said last Sunday and it’s what’s being asked all the time.
Just listen, just sit down and listen to understand.