Delores Williams is associate professor of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis. She is known especially for her articulation of womanist theology, a perspective defined in relationship with but differently from feminist and black theologies.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 14, 1990, p. 1059, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
From the perspective of the biblically illiterate, the final question may be, as one student put it: "Why read a book telling about a kingdom coming when technology has already created paradise? And it’s getting better every day."
While giving lectures at a mid-western college I came face to face with a major affliction among young people: biblical illiteracy. As we tried to interpret some literature crammed with biblical allusions (all of which functioned symbolically), the students were at sea. They knew none of the biblical contexts. Finally we got to the theme of salvation, and a student asked: "What does the Bible say about salvation?"
This prompted me to reflect on the spot about biblical passages that communicated an important word about salvation. Some of that word is positive and productive. It speaks of salvation on earth in a social sense. Some of the word from Paul is problematic. It uses hierarchical and patriarchal imagery to speak of salvation at the end of history. This imagery can be alienating.
Ezekiel and Matthew suggest that salvation has to do with faithfulness, hope and healing. Ezekiel 34 indicates that the community’s salvation depends upon how faithfully and responsibly leaders minister to the people. Unfaithful leaders cause the community to disintegrate, scatter, and lose power in relationship. For the sake of the salvation of community, leaders cannot become "fat cats" feeding off the weaknesses of the people.
When God tells the people through Ezekiel that God will take over their leadership because of the gross negligence of their leaders, one gets a sense of what it means to be faithful in a position of authority. The leader seeks out those members of the community who have scattered "on a day of clouds and thick darkness." The leader seeks the lost and brings them to economic well-being: "I will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel. . . I will feed them with good pasture." The leader is concerned about the physical and spiritual condition of the community. Therefore she or he will use the resources at his or her disposal to "bind up the crippled" and "strengthen the weak." The faithful leader will champion justice and "will feed them in justice."
Not only must the leader be faithful to these tenets of good, leadership, the people must be faithful in participating with the leader in sustaining and healing community members. In Matthew, Jesus makes it clear that salvation also depends upon the people exercising charity and compassion for each other: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, welcoming the stranger and giving drink to the thirsty. Neglecting these responsibilities means damnation for the community.
Paul speaks of salvation in another sense when he affirms hope in a grand resurrection of the dead at the end of history. At this time Christ will become triumphant by subjecting all things under himself and conquering death. Finally all reality (even Christ) will be subjected to God, the father, who will be "everything to every one." Though Paul also suggests that salvation is realized in life when we die to the sin of Adam and take on life in Christ, this image of the eschaton sounds discouraging to many women. In this state of affairs patriarchy reigns supremely in images of God, the Father and Christ ("the first fruits, at his coming". . . "until he puts all things in subjection under his feet")
Paul also suggests an astounding sacralization of hierarchy here: "But when it says ‘all things are put in subjection under him [Christ],’ it is plain that he is expected who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him . . ."
In this vision of salvation at the end of history we can see the final affirmation of patriarchies and hierarchies. Perhaps in Paul’s time these images were not problematic. But our consciousness has been heightened about the ways hierarchical and patriarchal systems oppress people according to sex, race and class.
Citing the Pauline passage, I made this point to the young people: What the Bible says about salvation is not to be interpreted and accepted uncritically. The Bible provides many discussions of salvation in various social contexts, according to various traditions (the prophetic tradition, the apocalyptic tradition) and at different stages in Christian and Jewish history.
But for those who have not read the Bible, it is important to do a literal reading of the text in order to become familiar with its face value. Critical techniques can be used to extract deeper meanings from texts only after the entire book has been read.
My sudden encounter with biblical illiteracy among the young made me aware that in many American homes the Bible has nothing to do with the foundations of faith and morality. Perhaps these very bright young people had learned about Christian ethics only from Western history where Christian ethics coincides with slavery, racism, the Holocaust, the oppression of women and the exploitation of the poor. Inasmuch as these sorts of evils continue, young people have a right to wonder whether knowledge of the Bible makes any difference. Do its teachings about morality and salvation belong to a world passed away long, long ago? Is the Bible merely good literature like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, telling of exploits that fire the imagination but have very little or nothing to do with life as we live it?
Young people have perhaps discovered that as the 20th century nears its end, we in the Western world are living in an age of immediacy where instant gratification and rabid individualism based on greed erode the processes of reflection and moral and spiritual preparation for adult life. I suppose, from the perspective of the biblically illiterate, the final question may be, as one student put it: "Why read a book telling about a kingdom coming when technology has already created paradise? And it’s getting better every day."