A Personal and Social Transformation through Scripture
I thought to myself, "Surely it is the people involved; they are not politically aware.” But then I led Bible study with the most politically aware and intellectually astute of all our students; I worked with an ecumenical and interracial group in East Harlem; I went to every conceivable class of church. Still it did not happen. No matter how much I wanted discussion to verge on the social, it generally tended to remain privatized, individual, personal. At first the sheer excitement of what was happening to people at a personal level mesmerized me. I was willing to leave it at that. Later they would become social activists, I hoped.
Finally I had to concede that it was not going to happen, and for exactly the same reason that it almost never happens to Billy Graham's converts, or people in psychotherapy or the human potential movement, or devotees of Eastern religions, or simply students of theology. It would not happen because it could not happen. There has been erected an invisible glass wall between ourselves and the social system. Whenever we try to move against the system itself, we hit the glass wall; we are deflected, and we rise to transcend the discomfort of injustice or institutional evil by purely private means. It is the ideology of individualism, and in this country, it exists to protect racism, sexism and the class system of capitalism.
The received wisdom till then was that the New Testament is only concerned with personal ethics; if one is interested in a social ethic, one must turn to the Exodus or the prophets. Then I read William Stringfellow's Free in Obedience (New York: Seabury, 1964) and became convinced that the biblical category of principalities and powers could serve as the basis for a social ethic based on the New Testament. Work on The Powers That Be, first conceived as a single volume, grew into ten books and occupied 28 years.
As a part of my preparation for writing about The Powers That Be, June and I decided to spend a sabbatical semester in Chile in 1982 so that we might experience what it is like to live under a military dictatorship. As a result of that experience, I became increasingly convinced that nonviolence was the only way to overcome the domination of The Powers That Be without creating new forms of domination. I decided to test this hunch in South Africa where we spent part of a sabbatical in 1986. On our return, I wrote a little book, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987), which urged the churches of South Africa to become more involved in nonviolent direct action against the apartheid regime.
With the financial help of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, our little church in the Berkshires of Massachusetts individually addressed 3,200 copies to the black and white English-speaking clergy of South Africa. Later, the South African Roman Catholic Church distributed another 800. The book infuriated some; how dare a white American male tell those who are already suffering to suffer more, voluntarily and deliberately.
Even more anger came from those committed to a violent solution. But the book had its intended effect. Someone from the outside had to say what few within could say without losing credibility. The book redefined nonviolence (which was heard there, due to the conservative white missionaries, as nonresistance and passivity) in an active, militant sense, and did so by appeal to Jesus' own teaching. Within a year, the debate had completely reversed itself (my book was only one of a number of factors) and the head of the South African Council of Churches, Frank Chikane, was calling on the churches to engage in active nonviolence.
My growing interest in nonviolence led to an appointment as a Peace Fellow for the year 1989-90 at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.
My preoccupation all these years has been to facilitate personal and social transformation through Scripture and art, movement and meditation, even as we throw ourselves into nonviolent social struggle. I am thrilled to see liberation, feminist, womanist, black, and gay theology each emerging in its own right. The enormous resistance of scholars to the transformative task is at last beginning to yield. Increasingly, scholars are recognizing that we cannot change our scholarship unless we change our lives.
I listen intently to the Book. But I do not acquiesce in it. I rail at it. I make accusations. I censor it for endorsing patriarchalism, violence, anti-Judaism, homophobia, and slavery. It rails back at me, accusing me of greed, presumption, narcissism, cowardice, and an addiction to war. We wrestle. We roll on the ground, neither of us capitulating until it wounds my thigh with "new-ancient" words. And the Holy Spirit is right there the whole time, strengthening us both.
That wrestling insures that our pictures of Jesus are not mere repetitions of the prevailing fashion. They can be a groping for plenitude, an attempt to carry on the mission of Jesus, and an effort to transcend the conditioning of the Domination System. And in the end, we may not just be conforming Jesus to ourselves but, in some faint way perhaps, conforming ourselves to the truth revealed by Jesus.
My deepest interest in encountering Jesus is not to confirm my own prejudices (though I certainly do that) but to be delivered from a stunted soul, a limited mind, and an unjust social order. No doubt a part of me wants to whittle Jesus down to my size so that I can avoid painful, even costly change. But another part of me is exhilarated by the possibility of becoming more human. So I listen in order to be transformed. Somehow the Gospel itself has the power to activate in people the "hunger and thirst for justice" that Matt. 5:6 speaks about (whether by Jesus or by someone else of the same mind). There are people who want to be involved in inaugurating God's domination-free order, even if it costs them their lives. Respondeo etsi mutabor: I respond though I must change. And in my better moments, I respond in order to change.
Truth is, had Jesus never lived, we could not have invented him.