What does it mean to understand the Bible from a social justice perspective? Generosity is a theme that many grasp from Jesus’ teachings and other parts of scripture. However, his message is still understood as spiritual, otherworldly, and detached from everyday life. Given the times we live in, it’s important to get to the root of the teachings Christians hold dear. Following are some suggestions to help understand the Bible in ways that highlight and encourage justice.
Learn The Context
Would you stop in the middle of writing an email about a car to explain what a car is? Probably not, since the person you’re writing to likely knows what a car is. Why spend time explaining something that most have an understanding about?
This is also true for the biblical writers. For the most part, authors of the texts wrote to those who shared the same cultural context. There are many vital bits of information that the authors didn’t take time to explain because they assumed that their readers already knew. Given the challenges of writing and transmitting information, it would’ve been a waste of energy to explain societal rules that everyone knew.
That’s why it is important to learn the context in which the writers lived. They were not writing to us, so there are important facts about the world they lived in that are not obvious. Without context, it’s easy to create an interpretation of the text that is far from what the author meant. Also, it can rob the accounts of their impact.
For example, the account of the women with the issue of blood (Mark 5:25–34, Matthew 9:20–22, Luke 8:43–48) has a greater impact when context is understood. Exorcists were the doctors of the day, since it was common to associate sickness with evil spirits. Being treated by exorcists cost money, and the woman spent it all to no avail. Constant bleeding would’ve made her ritually unclean, so it impacted her relationships with community. Likely desperate, the woman broke many social norms just to touch Jesus’ cloak— bleeding in public, touching someone while bleeding, and touching a man, among others. These details are not explicit in the text. Yet, they emerge rather quickly when one has an understanding of the context.
Where you’re reading the text, don’t assume you know everything about it. Read it closely, as if for the first time. Ask questions about the characters and their motivations. Now that you know the context, can you read between the lines of the text to see implied messages? Allow yourself to question and challenge the characters’ actions, including Jesus and God. God can handle it. You’ll be surprised what you learn.
A way to practice this is by can locating new details in familiar texts. Maybe you’ve recited Psalm 23 since you were a child. Can you see anything new in the poem? Also, try to read texts that seem similar on their face. The passion narratives (Matthew 26:30–27:66, Mark 14:26–15:47, Luke 22:39–23:56, and John 18:1–19:42) are a good place to practice. Even though they depict the same event, they have a wealth of different details. Can you spot them? How to the details change the story? What new details emerge? Do they change your opinion of the text at all?
Read Different Voices
It’s been said that the Bible should be your main course and that books about the Bible should serve as supplements. “Supplements” in this case are the commentaries and other books that discuss various topics found in the Bible. It’s important to be exposed to other perspectives about what the Bible means. This empowers the reader to understand why communities interpret the text in certain ways.
Here is a list of scholars and writers whose work serves as a great way to expand your perspective
The Politics of Jesus by Obery Hendricks
A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone
Our Lives Matter by Pamela Lightsey
Sexuality in the Black Church by Kelly Brown Douglass
Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew Hart
Unprotected Texts Jennifer Wright Knust
Permission Granted by Jennifer Bird
An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation by Nyasha Junior
Troubling Biblical Waters by Cain Hope Felder
True to Our Native Land by Brian K. Blount and Cain Hope Felder
God vs. Gay by Jay Michaelson
Bipolar Faith by Monica Coleman
Try looking for these books in your local library. If you can’t, or if money is tight, try looking for the authors’ public writing by Googling their name. Also, search YouTube and iTunes for any podcasts or interviews they may have conducted. You’ll still be able to glean insights from them, even if you can’t get your hands on their books.