Bias from the Bottom: Week 1
The View from the Bottom
Friday, March 25, 2016
In almost all of history, the vast majority of people understood the view from the bottom due to their own life circumstance. Most of the people who have ever lived on this planet have been oppressed and poor. But their history was seldom written except in the Bible (until very recently in such books as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States). Only in modern times and wealthy countries do we find the strange phenomenon of masses of people having an establishment mentality.
This relatively new thing called “the middle class” gives many of us just enough comfort not to have to feel the pinch or worry about injustice for ourselves. Most of us in the Northern Hemisphere have a view from the top even though we are nowhere near the top ourselves. The mass of people can normally be bought off by just giving them “bread and circuses,” as the Romans said. Many Americans can afford to be politically illiterate, hardly vote, and terribly naive about money, war, and power. One wonders how soon this is going to catch up with us.
Only by solidarity with other people’s suffering can comfortable people be converted. Otherwise we are disconnected from the cross—of the world, of others, of Jesus, and finally of our own necessary participation in the great mystery of dying and rising. In the early Christian Scriptures, or the “New” Testament, we clearly see that it’s mostly the lame, the poor, the blind, the prostitutes, the drunkards, the tax collectors, the sinners—those on the bottom and the outside—that really hear Jesus’ teaching and get the point and respond to him. It’s the leaders and insiders (the priests, scribes, Pharisees, teachers of the law, and Roman leaders) who crucify him. That is evident in the text.
How did we miss such a core point about how power coalesces and corrupts, no matter who has it? Once Christians were the empowered group, we kept this obvious point from hitting home by blaming the Jews, then heretics, then sinners. But arrogant power is always the problem, not the Jews or any other scapegoated group. When any racial, gender, or economic group has all the power it does the same thing—no exceptions. Catholics would have crucified Jesus too if he had critiqued the Catholic Church the way he did his own religion.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the first Christians go “underground.” They are the persecuted ones, meeting in secrecy in the catacombs. During this time, we see a lot of good interpretation of the Scriptures, with a liberationist worldview (i.e., a view from the bottom). The Church was largely of the poor and for the poor.
The turning point, at which the Church moved from the bottom to the top, is the year 313 A.D. when Emperor Constantine supposedly did the Church a great favor by beginning to make Christianity the established religion of the Holy Roman Empire. That’s how the Apostolic Church became Roman Catholicism. As the Church’s interests became linked with imperial world views, our perspective changed from the view from the bottom and powerlessness (the persecuted, the outsiders) to the view from the top where we were now the ultimate insiders (with power, money, status, and control). Emperors convened (and controlled?) most of the early Councils of the Church, not bishops or popes. The Council in 325 was held at the Emperor’s villa in a suburb of Constantinople called Nicea, where the highly abstract Nicene Creed was composed, in which the words love, justice, and peacemaking are never used once. The Nicene Creed is a far cry from the “creeds” spoken by Jesus three centuries before.
Gateway to Silence:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Scripture as Liberation (CAC: 2002), MP3 download;