“There is a trajectory of struggle that runs through all biblical texts, and a recognition of this fact means that it is no longer accurate to speak of the Word of God unproblematically or in absolute terms.”1
Ideological criticism, the latest addition to the ever-growing toolkit of biblical interpretation, picks up where social scientific criticism leaves off. While the latter, with more traditional forms of biblical criticism, engage the text with an apologetic eye to understand the context of its writing, ideological criticism goes one step further, bringing into question not simply the forces that helped to shape the text, but the text itself.2
“Ideology” was a word coined by Karl Marx to describe the systematic oppression of the working class by the ruling class.3 More broadly, it speaks of a sociopolitical program used to further the agenda of a privileged group of people. In the context of hermeneutical studies, ideological criticism has been appropriated by a score of subjugated voices, including feminists, liberation theologists and postcolonialists.
The starting point for ideological criticism involves the engagement of a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, which presupposes that biblical texts contain inherent biases, be they racist, sexist or religious.4 By opening the texts themselves to such criticism, it is hoped that their historical and contemporary use in the systematic oppression of various groups be exposed and subjected to restitutionary measures.
Ideological criticism need not be a condemning influence on our use of the Bible. Historical reconstruction canreappropriatethe scriptures for explicitly counter-ideological viewpoints.5 By applying key passages, such as Galatians 3:28,6 and by discerning the perspective and the voice of the Other, we are able to gather the threads together into a new garment, one that provides covering for all and not just a select few.7
Two writers who use ideological criticism in a postcolonial framework are Kwok Pui-lanandSharada Sugirtharajah. Sugirtharajah addresses what he perceives as a primarily Eurocentric interpretation of the Bible:
"Whatpostcolonialismdoes is to enable us to question the totalizing tendencies of European reading practices and interpret the texts on their own terms and read them from our specific locations.”8
Colonial imperialism made use of a kind of replacement mystique where the Israel of old became, for example, the British Empire. Intrusions into the lands of foreign peoples were viewed to be on the same order as the migration into Canaan from Egypt. Native peoples were as the Philistines of old, to be eradicated or enslaved.
The church was often implicated in the abuse of scripture to justify these incursions. Non-Europeans were interpreted to be sub-human, and not worthy of the promises of God. Missionary efforts were viewed with an eye to “civilize” the savages, whose eventual role in the kingdom would never equal that of their white masters, who were the new “chosen” race.
Pui-lan comments on the attitude that was expected of the subjugated, in reference to the story of a Syrophoenician woman found in Mark 7:24-30 and in Matthew 15:21-28:
“Just like the Gentile woman, colonized peoples were expected to be as subservient, obedient and loyal as a 'devoted dog.'”9
The text she is commenting on is one that has troubled many scholars. Why would Jesus say a thing that was so clearly racist? She mentions the view espoused by Burkill, which suggests that the story was subject to a redaction which reflected the evolution of relations between Jews and Gentiles in the early Christian community.10 In such an understanding, we are not forced to believe that it was Christ himself who made the derogatory remark, but rather that those who presented him to a particular audience, namely a male, Jewish one, did.
Were we to attempt to apply a fundamentalist view to scripture (one that resists critical methods), we would be faced with a contradiction, inasmuch as Jesus defends foreign peoples elsewhere, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
For some, the Bible seems to be beyond hope; if it is only the product of a select few who stand to gain from it, then it is to be placed alongside of fantastical myths and fairy tales. But it must be admitted that the Bible is so much more than these, and that it contains some seminal truths which we are privileged to be in fuller awareness of due to the evolution of society through history.
The evidence that God's revelation is progressive is seen in the scripture itself. For example, Paul says in Galatians 3:23-2611 that the Law was given for a time, to bring about an awareness in the collective consciousness of humanity of sin and of the nature of justice. When that had been achieved, mercy was given in the person of Jesus Christ. Humanity, then, is as a child who goes though stages in its thought. Some things which were novel or foreign to the early church have only just begun to find their proper expression in the present.
Ideological criticism is useful in discerning where, and perhaps why, the biblical texts are sometimes primitive in their understanding. It recognizes the sociological nature of “knowledge”,12 by asserting that the “reality” with which scripture was written, received or is interpreted was a construct of circumstance, rather than an absolute to be applied across all time and space.
The hope of ideological studies is that the communication which is inherent in the production of a worldview may widen its embrace to include the voices of the marginalized. Sugirtharajah defines the challenge of dialogue aptly:
"The current postcolonial criticism... signifies three things - representation, identity, and a reading posture, emerging among the former victims of colonialism."13
Pui-lan writes of a threefold analysis of the text, which must address: who vocalizes, who focalizes, and who acts?14 This technique seeks to identify subjective perspectives and discern instances of objectification. It is concerned with recovering the Other from the wayside and bringing him or her into the light.
For example, certain biblical texts mention slavery. If we subject I Timothy 6:115 and Ephesians 6:516 to Pui-lan's analysis, we find that it is Paul, a free Jewish man who is speaking and focusing. He exhorts slaves to act in obedience to their masters, which was used as a justification for slavery until only a few centuries ago. If we admit that the text itself was the product of a privileged member of society at a time when dispensing with the tradition of slavery would have been an enormous undertaking, even revolutionary, then we are able to go beyond the limitations which it might impose today.
The concept that slavery was wrong is not entirely absent from the New Testament. I Corinthians 7:21 (New International Version) says, “Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so.” That slavery is a problem and an offense against persons made in the image of God is recoverable from such a text. However, the fulfillment of the promise of such a counter-ideology couldn't take place until major shifts had occurred in the perspective of the ruling class to accommodate a consideration of the Other.
Historical reconstruction in ideological criticism goes hand in hand with modern ethics. Often it is the latter where the Spirit is found to be speaking, urging the church to look past the limitations of a narrow hermeneutic. Yet for some, a word cannot be inspired if it is not explicitly stated in scripture. One area where ideological criticism may provide support to new theological direction is feminism.
That the Pastorals seem to confine the role of women in the church quite explicitly17 need not restrict the application of ideological methodology in recovering positive instances of the opposite. We may point out the example of Priscilla, a coworker of Paul who was said to have instructed Apollos in Christian doctrine (Acts 18:26). We may also respond to the text by recognizing from nature and from experience that women are indeed capable of leading men. Some might even suggest that Asian countries are ahead of North America in this matter, citing the fact that while neither Canada nor the U.S. has ever had a female President or Prime Minister, both India and Pakistan have.18
By using ideological criticism to recognize some of the inherent biases in the texts of scripture, we are able to pose the question: “who stands to gain from this reading?” In so doing, we make the move towards freedom. We become more aware of the tendency in some theologies to abuse scripture by forcing their application in situations which may no longer be relevant, or may be only relevant in a particular context.
This new lens gives us the responsibility to carry out a “theoethical assessment”19 before using a Bible passage in any old situation. For example, the verse often used to justify antisemitism (or anti-Judaism), Matthew 27:25 (“Let his blood be on us and on our children”)20 clearly no longer applies to the current interfaith dialogue.
Perhaps the best way to conclude this paper would be to present a creative retelling of a well-known parable, the Good Samaritan, to show how our perspective might be broadened to include hyper-marginalized persons:
There once was a Caucasian catholic man who was assaulted in the alley behind a strip club, robbed and left for dead. A priest who happened to be leaving the club saw the man but thought to himself, “I should help the poor soul, but then it might get out that I have been here at this place,” and he hurried off into the night. Then a police officer walked by and, after a cursory glance said to himself, “This fellow must have passed out drunk here behind the club- I'll leave him to sober up by himself.” Then an African-American prostitute who was on her way to pay off her pimp saw the man, and took pity on him. She called one of the bouncers to bring him inside the club, where she phoned an ambulance. She went with him to the hospital and paid for his bill there with the money she owed her pimp, since the man's wallet and health insurance card had been stolen earlier.
The use of ideological criticism has been shown to possess value in liberating the voices of the oppressed from the limited ethic of some scriptures and also from narrow uses of scripture. By applying a hermeneutic of suspicion, we may expose the inherent weakness of certain texts in providing guidance in the continually evolving world. Further, in attempting historical reconstruction, we have recovered scripture from total obscurity and demonstrated the possibility of using it to create a broader perspective from which to solve challenges previously unresolved. The issues of postcolonialism, slavery and feminism, among others, have been given new light through a consideration of the Other and via the operation of key scriptures in our hermeneutical dialogue.
Fiorenza, E. Bread not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. (Boston: Beacon, 1984), in Shantz, C.,Lecture Notes for NT, (Toronto: St. Michael's College, 2004).
Pui-lan, K. “Women, Dogs and Crumbs: Constructing a Postcolonial Discourse,” pp. 71-83 in Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1995).
Shantz, C., Lecture Notes for NT, (Toronto: St. Michael's College, 2004).
Sugirtharajah, R, "Biblical Studies after the Empire: From a Colonial to a Postcolonial Mode of Interpretation," in R.S. Sugirtharajah (ed.), The Postcolonial Bible(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998).
Sugirtharajah, R., Asian Biblical Hermeneutics andPostcolonialism: Contesting the Interpretations(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).
1Mosala, I., in Shantz, C.,Lecture Notes for NT, (Toronto: St. Michael's College, 2004).
2Fiorenza, E. Bread not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. (Boston: Beacon, 1984), in Shantz, C.,Lecture Notes for NT, (Toronto: St. Michael's College, 2004).
3Shantz, C.,Lecture Notes for NT, (Toronto: St. Michael's College, 2004).
4 Fiorenza, E. Op. Cit.
5 Shantz, Op. Cit.
6 “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female- for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (New Jerusalem Bible)
7 Shantz, Op. Cit.
8 Sugirtharajah, R, "Biblical Studies after the Empire: From a Colonial to a Postcolonial Mode of Interpretation," in R.S. Sugirtharajah (ed.), The Postcolonial Bible(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), p. 16.
9 Pui-lan, K. “Women, Dogs and Crumbs: Constructing a Postcolonial Discourse,” p. 78 in Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1995).
10 Ibid. pp. 75-76.
11 “But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the Law, locked up to wait for the faith which would eventually be revealed to us. So the Law was serving as a (tutor) to look after us, to lead us to Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But now that faith has come we are no longer under a (tutor) looking after us, for all of you are the children of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus...” (parenthetic mine to replace the word “slave” in the original New Jerusalem translation.)
12 Shantz, Op. Cit.
13 Sugirtharajah, R., Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism: Contesting the Interpretations(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), p. 16.
14 Pui-lan, Op. Cit.
15 “All those under the yoke of slavery must have unqualified respect for their masters, so that the name of God and our teaching are not brought into disrepute.” (New Jerusalem Bible)
16 “Slaves, be obedient to those who are, according to human reckoning, your masters, with deep respect and sincere loyalty, as you are obedient to Christ...” (New Jerusalem Bible)
17 For example, I Timothy 2:12 says, “I give no authority for a woman to teach or have authority over a man. A woman ought to be quiet...” (New Jerusalem Bible)
18Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister of Pakistan twice, while Indira Ghandi was President of India.
19 Shantz, Op. Cit.
20 New Jerusalem Bible.