Ways of Knowing
Knowing from the Bottom
Monday, February 10, 2020
The vast majority of people throughout history have been poor, disabled, or oppressed in some way (i.e., “on the bottom”) and would have read history in terms of a need for change, but most of history has been written and interpreted from the side of the winners. The unique exception is the revelation called the Bible, which is an alternative history from the side of the often enslaved, dominated, and oppressed people of Israel, culminating in the scapegoat figure of Jesus himself.
We see in the Gospels that it’s the lame, the poor, the blind, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the sinners, the outsiders, and the foreigners who tend to follow Jesus. It is those on the inside and the top—the Roman occupiers, the chief priests and their conspirators—who crucify him. Shouldn’t that tell us something really important about perspective? Every viewpoint is a view from a point. We must be able to critique our own perspective if we are to see a fuller truth.
Liberation theology—which focuses on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression—is mostly ignored by Western Christianity. Perhaps that’s not surprising when we consider who interpreted the Scriptures for the last seventeen hundred years. The empowered clergy class enforced their own perspective instead of that of the marginalized, who first received the message with such excitement and hope. Once Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire (after 313), we largely stopped reading the Bible from the side of the poor and the oppressed. We read it from the side of the political establishment and the usually comfortable priesthood instead of from the side of people hungry for justice and truth. Shifting our priorities to make room for the powerless instead of accommodating the powerful is the only way to detach religion from its common marriage to power, money, and self-importance.
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 would have no top to protect, and the so-called “bottom” becomes the place of education, real change, and transformation for all.
The bottom, or what Jesus called “the poor in Spirit” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3), is where we have no privilege to prove or protect but much to seek and become. Jesus called such people “blessed.” Dorothy Day (1897–1980) said much the same: “The only way to live in any true security is to live so close to the bottom that when you fall you do not have far to drop, you do not have much to lose.”  From that place, where few would expect or choose to be, we can be used as instruments of transformation and liberation for the rest of the world.
 Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes: The Inspiring Story of the Catholic Worker Movement (Orbis Books: 1997), 86.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Yes, And . . . : Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2019), 37, 39; and
Scripture as Liberation, disc 7 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2002), MP3 download.