The huge disparities in the distribution of wealth, power, opportunity and justice are global problems. But most of us don’t need to look far to see stark disparities in our own communities, towns or cities. If I am relatively comfortable, how honest can I be about really caring to solve these problems? Maybe the status quo is not all that bad, especially if I can see ways to improve my own status quo. Our perspective, if at all privileged, tends to warp our sense of caring. This is a human problem with a very long history.
An honest critique of our own perspective is vitally important says Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In his short article “Bias from the Bottom”, he examines this issue by offering an unflinching assessment of Christian history. But it is an assessment equally valuable to anyone, religious or not, who is aware of the corrosive effect of inequality in all its forms, and who is willing to make an honest appraisal of his or her own point of view on the topic.
Fr. Rohr begins, “Much of history has been recorded from the side of the winners, except for the unique revelation of the Bible, which is an alternative history from the bottom: from the side of the enslaved, the dominated, the oppressed, and the poor . . .” In the early years of Christianity, the majority of Christians had been oppressed so the Gospel was alive and relevant, Christians were acutely sensitive to the needs of the poor and oppressed because many of them were both. But things changed.
Christianity became the established religion of the Roman empire in 313 CE, under the Emperor Constantine. Fr. Rohr makes the point that the teachings of Jesus to aid the poor, sick and oppressed began to get lost after this: “For the first 300 years after Jesus’ death, Christians were the oppressed minority; we were rebels hiding in catacombs. But by the year 400, Christians had changed places. We moved from the catacombs to the basilicas.” So now, after centuries of interpreting Scripture from the point of view of a privileged class, the Gospels need to be read again with a “bias from the bottom”, that is, to recognize our responsibility to care for those who have little, who are oppressed, in pain and need.
He makes a powerful case for understanding Scripture in a different way. “But when Scripture is read through the eyes of vulnerability—what we call the “preferential option for the poor” or the bias from the bottom—it will always be liberating and transformative. Scripture will not be used to oppress or impress. The question is no longer “How can I maintain the status quo?” (which just happens to benefit me), but “How can we all grow and change together?” Now we have no top to protect, and the so-called “bottom” becomes the place of education, real change, and transformation.”
There are many secular voices today, that speak out against inequality and the injustice that results. This is a human problem with deep roots that both secular and religious people can work together to solve. But perhaps all of us would do well to listen to Fr. Rohr’s suggestion to “critique our own perspective” and “follow the truth all the way through.”
Fr. Richard Rohr is a progressive religious voice who offers wisdom that is accessible to all, not just Christians. His teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodoxy—practices of contemplation and self-emptying, expressing itself in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized. His website is Center for Action and Contemplation.