Biblical Interpretation: modes and themes from an Indian Christian
I feel like the embodiment of a blessed hyphen. A hyphen exists as a symbol of creative and conscious tension between two realities both of which may be wonderful gifts from God. One part of this reality stems from my being Indian Christian by birth and upbringing. I lived, learnt, and ministered in India for the first 30 years of my life. I am the sixth generation of consecutive Christian priests. I am the grandson of a Canon of the Anglican Church in India and the son of a minister of the Church of South India, who became the Bishop of Madras in time to ordain me to the priesthood in 1985. I ministered as a priest and social activist among untouchable communities in rural South India. The Dalits, as the untouchables wish to be called, challenged and reshaped me as a Christian disciple, theological teacher and Bible interpreter. Dalits, meaning broken or crushed ones, consist of about 15 per cent of the Indian population. They make up about 160 million people who were outcast, dehumanized and pushed outside the village or city gates. They were literally untouchable, and often unapproachable. The term pariah in fact takes its root meaning from their plight. "Pariah"is a Tamil word that means polluted drum people. Because it was made from the skin of dead cattle the drum was the epitome of degradation and pollution. Perhaps this can be contrasted with the pure book people who were the high caste Hindu Brahmins. Pariahs are outcast people because they are not human enough to be part of the Caste system. It is important to note that more than half of the Indian Christian community is comprised of Dalits. They found new life in the good news of Jesus Christ. Those Dalits who could not touch or read or even hear the sacred book of the Hindus were handed the book of life in the Christian Bible. And I was privileged to interpret this newly acquired treasure book among newly empowered Dalit Christians.
The other part of this reality is constituted by my being formed by the global west. I have been embraced and influenced (some will even say infected) by the west during the latter part of my life. I have lived, learnt and ministered in the US for 9 years during the 1980s and 90s. Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School were my academic homes. No doubt there was a concerted effort to reeducate me in these academic establishments. Natives, the western academy thinks, are too trusting of everything: people, texts, and institutions. Little did they know that native interpretation was as metaphorical and whimsical as expert scholars! Combining my so-called native craftiness with my so-called scholarly competence I became more creative, critical and imaginative in reading and explicating the Bible. But this was not an individualistic experiment. Biblical interpretation in the west also was rooted in worshipping and witnessing communities of faith. St. James' Episcopal Church (Cambridge) and St. Paul's Episcopal Church (Malden) were my spiritual and ministerial communities. For many years I was an associate priest in the Diocese of Massachusetts. And for three enriching years I was privileged to serve as Interim Priest among the communities of Cambridge and Malden. After returning home to Indian to teach theology for 9 years, I moved back to Washington DC last year. At Wesley Theological seminary, along with my teaching, I also help minister to the Episcopal students through a weekly Eucharist.
Belonging in my case is a reconciliation of multiple unbelongings. I am not fully Indian because of my western influence and I am not fully western because I speak and act like an alien in the US; I am not solely an academic since I value the experiential and, sometimes, counter-scientific faith of the Christian community and I am not faithfully Christian because I respect the rigorous critical work of the biblical and theological scholars; I am not a typical liberal because I am consistently recovering my evangelical passion and I am not a classic evangelical because I am discovering my liberal theological openness; I am not technically Dalit since I was not born of untouchable parents and I am not purely high caste since I come from a mixed caste marriage. And yet these multiple unbelongings have invited me into a deep sense of belonging. Being a Christian is the collage on which these various unbelongings seek mediation. In a sense the Church, as a community invited by Christ, is a canvass to represent and reconcile various forms of unbelongings. Jesus comes into the world not for the secure and the self-assured but rather for the fragmented and the unconfident. "When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, 'Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?' When Jesus heard this, he said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.' (Mark 2: 16-17) Belonging, for the Church, is a gift of grace that assembles various unbelongings in the spirit of Christ for the sake of reconciling and healing the fragmented world.
Isaiah 55, I submit, is addressed to a community that struggles between belonging and unbelonging. It is a prophetic summons for the exiled community of Israel in Babylon to either continue to belong to the Babylonian empire or risk unbelonging in order to seek wellbeing for all in the new future offered by Yahweh. The first 5 verses of this chapter lay this out well. The coercive and exploitative empire may offer security for some sections of the community but Yahweh wishes to open a path for a new future for the whole community where food is plentiful, labor is rewarding and fidelity is directed to Yahweh rather than the rulers of the empire.
It is in this historical setting, where the people of Yahweh are conflicted between collaborating with the exploitative empire and resisting assimilation in order to pursue a new future offered by God, that the anonymous prophet of Second Isaiah, writing around 540 B.C.E., pronounces his lyrical message. The word is direct and pointed: "Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is still near."But this word is also theologically disturbing. Is there a time and place in which God cannot be found? How does one make sense of this image of God who teasingly plays hide-and-seek? Is God not the one who seeks and finds us or are we, distracted and deluded human beings, to set out to seek in order to find God? For me, Claus Westermann's translation helps overcome some of these problems. He puts it thus: "Seek Yahweh, since he may be found, Call upon him, since he is near." In other words, God is really close to human beings. We need only be aware of God's nature of always drawing close to the ones whom God loves and cares for and intends to save for abundant life. He is waiting close at hand to find us in our need for God.
Two thoughts in relation to our own context stem from the literary feature of this passage. The first extrapolates an interpretation for this particular word by placing it within the trajectory of future promises of God in the life of the people of Israel. Thus, although this prophetic word in Isaiah 55 arises out of the context of temple sacrifice there is a gradual moving away from the cult to the community in the history of the people of Israel. The call to Israel is increasingly to encounter God in the real world. Amos starts this shift in focus. Finding God in the working of justice and peace in the community becomes the focus rather than pleasing God in the cultic performance. Christian proclamation of the Good news takes this to the extreme: God becomes close at hand through the process of emptying Godself into the world in the form of a human being. (Phil. 2:7) The promise of God's new future involves the whole life of the whole community. And God is at work to birth this future.
Second, the summons of Second Isaiah to seek and call upon Yahweh arises from a situation of lament. Bruce Birch makes this connection. "[T]he hymns and laments of the psalms are a great influence [on the literary character of Isaiah 40-55]. From this setting in the cult (i.e. the Israelite worship setting with priest and Temple) comes the promise of salvation. This type, used often by Second Isaiah, is patterned like the words of assurance given after a lament…" This speaks to the issue of what occasions the word of God and who are the audience of the words of Second Isaiah. While much of Second Isaiah is written to comfort and convince the people under the weight of exploitation and oppression by the Babylonian empire this section of Isaiah 55 appears to address those who benefit from the empire and trust that things will get better as the benefits of the empire trickle down to everybody. In other words, the lament of the peoples crushed under the weight of the empire becomes the occasion for the prophet to speak to the collaborators with this evil empire. The word is directed thus to the wicked who are expected to forsake their self-interested ways and the unrighteous who are called upon to distrust their scheming thoughts. Those who belong to the empire and benefit from its regimes of power over the world are asked to trust in what God wills to do for the welfare of all the people of God. Brueggemann puts this forcefully, "'The Wicked,' I suggest, are not disobedient people in general. In context, they are those who are so settled in Babylon and so accommodated to the imperial ways that they have no intension of making a positive response to Yahweh's invitation to homecoming…This 'return' is not simply a spiritual resolve but the embrace of a new hope and a new historical possibility that entails a dramatic reorientation of life in political, public categories."
It is clearly difficult for the people in the U.S. to identify with the exile community of Israel struggling under the rule of a foreign empire. On the other hand, this passage may be addressed to those who actually believe in the future of the New World Order under the leadership of the US. Richard A. Horsley believes that there is an intimate connection between the empire's that subjugated the people of God and the emerging US superpower. He says, "From the mid-twentieth century, by virtue of its economic power and military supremacy, the United States moved from one of the two superpowers to the sole remaining superpower. Although U. S. military forces are stationed at many points through out the world and are moved quickly anywhere to suppress any disruption to the 'new world order' of the pax Americana, the United States dominates mainly through client regimes and 'international' economic institutions..." Through the interweaving of economic clout, political deals, military might, religious rhetoric, media manipulation and knowledge production the US and its various modern collaborators have floated a powerful empire. While it may benefit many who belong to the mechanism of the empire it also brings much violence, some fragmentation and continued hunger to many in the world. They are the weepers under the sweep of the New World Order. The counsel for the wicked to forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts is also an invitation to return to the thoughts and ways of God. The lament of those who are victims of the regimes of worldly empires that benefit some at the expense of the welfare of all becomes the warrant for God's word to those who shape and share in the existence and expansion of the oppressive empire. This calls for a new and profound discipline of listening to the cry and lament of those crushed and broken by the empires of the world. Christians in the US in solidarity with the agents of God's reign are to become broadcasters of this word of judgment against the empire and word of hope to the crushed and broken ones. Is the Episcopal Church prepared to listen to the prophetic word and turn around from being collaborators with the empire to becoming empowering agents of those who are crushed but wait patiently for God's new rule on earth as it is in heaven? For me, a Christian from the impoverished two-third world in the South, it is mind boggling that the word of prophecy and call for repentance to the wicked and unrighteous accommodators and collaborators with the imperial empires of this world has been overlooked in an extended and bitter dispute over matters of sexual orientation. I believe that all of us (both kingdom-weepers in the empire and kingdom-seekers of God's new order) must be ready to turn together to matters that are at the core of the battles between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of Mammon. Let us together confront the wicked and the unrighteous to repent and believe in the gospel. How long can we be fed on milk "as people of the flesh, as infants of Christ"rather than on "solid food”? (I Cor. 3: 2)
There is a further reiteration that God's thoughts and ways are in opposition to those of human beings that are propagators and promoters of the regimes of worldly empires and their collaborator. It is important to note that the term for human thoughts do not so much refer to self-reflection or internal musing but rather to the calculating devises, schemes and plans that are misguided by the desire for self-expansion. In the context of the self-confident and self-expansive strategies of human calculations and designs Yahweh asserts the unsurpassable fullness of His thoughts and ways:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is 55:8-9)
The height of the plan of God, for me, points to the comprehensive and wide-ranging dimensions of the economy of God. Just as the higher one becomes more all-inclusive and far-reaching the vision; so also the schemes of God encompasses all beings in devising the welfare of the entire human community.
The heights of the word of God though are not preserved in loftiness and pureness apart from the depths of the world. Indeed "the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater…"(Is 55: 10) The word and the world are conjoined in the purposes of God to usher in the new rule of Yahweh. Word from God has to be incarnated to become word for God. There is a meaningful narrative concerning this world-infusing propensity of Sacred Word or Speech. One of the Puranas, which are texts of the oldest Hindu legends, tells the following story: "The gods had become quarrelsome and Vac, Sacred Speech, fled the profaning gods to hide in water. When the vengeful gods claimed her, the intimidated waters gave her up. So Sacred Speech fled the water and took sanctuary in a forest. Again the god claimed her, but the trees refused to surrender her to the spiteful gods. Instead the trees gave Vac to human beings in offerings made of wood: the flute, the drum, the lute, the pen, the brush. With these human beings were instructed to tell of the [Creator and] Creation." Sacred Speech or Vac or Logos is fused into creation to be about the business of mobilizing God's word for action and into adoration. The Gospel proclaims this unambiguously: "And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth."(John 1: 14). The amazing concretization of God-among-us is the crux of the Christian gospel. We acclaim the words of Jesus in Luke, "For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you"(Luke 17:21). The mystery of the presence of God is disclosed by incarnation in the world of flesh and blood. Jesus inaugurates a reign of God that is different from the regimes of the Empire. But we should not forget that along with this concrete commingling of God with the world the mysterious surplus of this particularity of God-with-us is also maintained. Thus, along with John we say with humility, "Among you stands one whom you do not know."(John 1: 26). The mystery is not depleted into idolatrous human form. This reign of God also transcends human orders.
The final section of our passage is one of hope both in God's word and human ability to respond to such a self-emptying word. God's word is lifted up as an efficient and efficacious word. It is a word of accompaniment seeking to accomplish God's devises in the world. In other word, the word is a living word: it instrumentalizes God's rule in opposition to the imperial strategies of worldly regimes. Westermann puts this succinctly: God's word "is not primarily something with a content, but the instrument by means of which something is effected. God's word is a word that does things. When God speaks something comes about." It is because of this power of God's word to accomplish transformation that people without power within the regimes of this world pray, work and trust. The following crisp statement quoted in an early twentieth century Mission Report from India may be cited to make my point: "'No.' said the child, 'the Bible does not end with Timothy; it ends with Revolutions." The above statement coming from a reflection on life among Christian Dalits in South India, during the 1930s, is an interesting example. On the one hand, the observation that is made by the child concerning the facts of the sequential ordering of the books of the Bible is somewhat accurate: Timothy is not the last book of the Bible. On the other hand, the alternate fact that is claimed is enigmatic in its truth. And yet it bespeaks of the transformative intent of Bible interpretation. While it may not be accurate with regards to the actual name of the last book of the Bible, it nonetheless may be truthfully indicating the operative ends ('end' in terms of what it finally accomplishes) that can be expected if the Bible is put to work in real life. A. Maria Arul Raja makes this same point cogently when he observes that "the Bible [for Dalits] by its very nature, is not primarily meant for dogmatic or pietistic or even moralistic interpretation, but essentially oriented towards 'performing' transformation."
But yet the power of the working of God's word, which is trusted upon by the crushed and broken ones, is also tied up with the repentance of the wicked and the unrighteous ones. In his book entitled, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture,
Brevard S. Childs make an interesting point. "The great strength of the Reformers' interpretation was in recovering the living voice of God in the written Word that called forth a response from a people fully anchored in time and space." The word of God is a co-operative word in the world. It is not conceived as a hypostasis. Hypostasis is a form of self-generative energy which brings something into being by means of its actions alone. Any interpretation along such lines of this passage "forgets the fact that the word of salvation spoken to Israel…does not work automatically. It is spoken to men [and women] who have the power to accept it or refuse it…God's word does not magically call a new state of salvation into being. The only way by which it effects what God designs it to do is the hearkening to, and acceptance of, the message of salvation." People of God are you willing to risk unbelonging in the imperial designs of the expanding new world (dis)order in order to belong deeply and passionately to the new rule of God?
As an outcome of who I am blessed to become thus far, let me admit that my biblical interpretation emerges from several allegiances. As a postscript to my interpretation, let me place before you some principles that seem to have operated in this reflective assignment. First, I am filled with gratitude and reverence for the book that transforms no-people into God's own people, as was the case with Dalits in India. Thus, I am optimistically attentive to the Bible as a transforming book. The gift of possessing the Book also involves the privilege of celebrating the promise of humanization. Second, I am drawn to the challenge of mediating biblical interpretation between the over-learning of the cynical and skeptical theological experts and the anti-learning of the naïve and literalist biblical specialists. Third, the Bible needs advocates who commit themselves to read texts with great sensitivity to the 'little people' of the world. Regimes of power generate their own interpretive narratives, which are then circulated by powerful networks of global media, as universal and true. The infra-visions of the crushed and the broken one that are expressed in lament need to be the locus from which the word of God can be spoken courageously as prophetic denouncement and compassionately as merciful announcement. Fourth, commitment to word cannot be at the expense of commitment to the world. It is in the meeting of these two that God has a chance to concretely fulfill God's purposes. Word comprehension together with world perception spawns a living word. The word of God has always and will forever pursue entanglement with the created world. The affirmation thus that "the word became flesh and dwelt among us"is both a theological and historical fact. It historicizes the inclinations of the past and it theologizes the anticipations of the future. Finally, the Bible is always a book of life that nurtured and nourished me along with the communities I have served. Therefore, it is a book that connects us with several international and intergenerational communities of Christian faith. In the bonds of the Spirit we are entwined together in pressing, sifting, kneading, and stretching this shared book of life to do what God wants it to do in our lives and for the life of the whole world. Expanding the metaphors of Elizabeth Sussler Fiorenza we could say that the Bible is bread of life for the world rather than stone for preserving the rules of the Church. "Rice not stone,"Indians might say, "but with much curry with the rice to feed the whole world abundantly.