I live life on the slightly paranoid side of cautious, and I have a background in martial arts (the latter may have been spurred by the former). So when I enter a room, even a familiar one in a friendly environment, I immediately scan for any potential or actual dangers. Years ago, my friend and fellow church leader was hosting a planning meeting at his home. His family was gone for the evening and I was the first to arrive . . . or so I thought. Upon entering his home, I started my typical survey work. My eyes swept his living room back and forth even as we engaged in small talk. Satisfied that things were safe and secure, I began to wonder where a third friend of ours was since he was often the earliest to our meetings. And then it happened.
Out of what I thought was the emptiness of a sufficiently lit room came a voice – slightly menacing, slightly amused, completely shocking: “Hi Rut…” Like a fear-born phantasm suddenly materializing in front of me, there was my ever punctual friend, John, sitting not 15 feet away from me, staring at me, and smiling. He’d been there the whole time, completely within my field of vision; but I hadn’t seen or sensed him in any way – at all! It was a slap in the face to my paranoid lifestyle and the pride I took in my martial-arts instilled situational awareness. The sting was lessened, though, because John was really, really good at this type of thing – in fact, he was a professional.
John was in the U.S. Army special forces, an elite soldier among the world’s warriors. As such, he was always armed with a full arsenal of ways to freak people out. Thankfully, his intentions toward me were always friendly! He told me later that what he did to me was a militarized version of what's called “forced perspective.” He left me guessing as to how he did it, but the effect of his actions was clear: Without my awareness (much less my permission!) John manipulated my perspective of the room to the point where I couldn’t see him, despite the fact that he was directly in front of me. He did it so masterfully that I actually felt honored to be humiliated that way. Without intending to, John even managed to teach me a vital lesson in biblical interpretation, one with rather urgent application to seeing current cultural events from a Scriptural vantage point. I’ve never benefited so much from being scared so witless!
In biblical interpretation, we want to avoid what’s called eisegesis, reading something into the sacred text that the Holy Spirit never intended us to get from it. Good exegesis (gleaning the already-present truth out of Scripture) includes wariness of what we might call an inverted eisegesis: failing to see something in Scripture that actually is there. As my militarily trained friend showed me, our perceptions can be manipulated such that we don’t see what’s right in front of us. As we survey the Scriptures, a divinely intended meaning or a legitimately derivable personal application could be staring us straight in the heart, but we might miss it due to a skewed system of perceptions we didn’t even realize was operative within us. A vital step in understanding the Scriptures, then, is understanding ourselves as interpreters.
Whenever I interpret Scripture, I do so as a short, middleclass white guy. (Middleclass might change someday, but short and white aren’t going anywhere!) And that’s fine; it’s just who I am. What’s not fine is my forgetting this fact as my eyes scan and my heart searches the Scriptures. For example, in James 5, the brother of our Lord blasts away at the wealthy, heralding divine judgment upon people within that socio-economic status. “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you …” (Verse 1). James isn’t upset that his audience has money; he’s upset at what the wealthy were doing with it, or rather, what they weren’t doing with it. “Behold, the wages of the laborers who have mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence . . . You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.” (Verses 4, 5a, 6).
As I read James’s thunderous volley against the well to do, I feel like I’m observing his invective from a safe distance. I even feel some personal satisfaction as I perceive holy ordinance slamming into selfish, exploitive millionaires and billionaires. But if I exegete myself as an interpreter of James 5 by surveying my own life from the perspective of others, I begin to get nervous. Every day, my “middleclass” status affords me more wealth than the overwhelming majority of people alive today or who have ever populated human history could even imagine having, especially as a condition of normal life. But that’s my life, every day! My “middleclass” status – even that term conditions me to think of myself as merely economically average – is a globally and historically rare blessing which, according to my divine benefactor, comes with profound responsibility. All of a sobering sudden, I look back at James 5 and I see some of that salvo of judgment heading my way. How have I used, or abused, my wealth? Have I personally benefitted from work unjustly demanded of others or insufficiently compensated by their thieving bosses? I might never have considered asking these questions had I not looked at my life from the perspective of others whose lives are not like mine. And that means I would have remained unknowingly distant from, and unbothered in my ignorance of, what my Savior was clearly saying to me in his Word.
Because my socio-economic status and life experience blurs my perception of James 5’s full import, I have much to learn from those who’ve endured injustice which mirrors or perhaps even exceeds the conditions which ignited prophetic fire in James’s soul. I especially have much to learn from those who’ve endured such conditions on American soil, the land in which I’ve been reared and in which I’ve enjoyed such a peaceful and prosperous life. To counter a forced perspective which tells me that my personal experience is normal and even normative for others, I need to view crucial and defining aspects of our nation’s history through the eyes of the (literally) tortured souls who bore the brunt of its brutality. When I look beyond my life of relative social and economic ease and view my nation’s history through the eyes of others, I see conditions within the church and broader society which are stunningly similar to those which prompted James and other biblical prophets to call down shock and awe divine judgment. Earlier this month, I had the painful privilege of gaining this kind of perspective as I read Frederick Douglass’s personal memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1995).
Narrative is a firsthand account of the realities of slavery in the pre-Civil War United States. Douglass (1818-1895) considered his own suffering as a slave to be on the relatively light side of the burden born by so many black people in bonds, and that only reinforces just how profoundly dehumanizing every instance of slavery, and the entire system itself, actually was. Narrative is a fairly short read whose rhetorical power is enhanced by its straightforward, non-sensationalistic prose. This man of seismic historical significance simply tells his story of life prior to his escape to freedom, a life which even millennia afterward put him in such close, empathetic proximity to so many sufferers of injustice whose plight the Holy Spirit chronicles in the Scriptures. Looking at life through his eyes, I see more clearly what the Lord says, and has been saying to me and to my country, through his written Word.
James wrote to a Christian audience, to professing believers whose works showed little evidence of true, living faith (James 1, 2). In American history, so many victims of the kinds of injustice James calls out among Christians have also been held in bondage by professing believers. As in James’s day, these self-proclaimed Christians were turning a deaf ear to the cries of those whom they were oppressing. They refused to see themselves from the perspective of their victims, no matter how Scripturally informed that vantage point was, and no matter how closely the conditions they created and perpetuated matched the evils which God’s word so clearly forbade. They thought so little of those whose value and dignity were stipulated on the first page of Scripture that they failed to see their own attitudes and actions as situated squarely within the condemning crosshairs of God’s relentlessly righteous law. In fact, many of them doubled down on their unrighteous deeds, even claiming Scriptural justification for their radically unbiblical attitudes and actions. The consequences of that culpable ignorance have been lethal for so many and have left large, still gaping lacerations on our nation’s collective soul. We’d be foolish to think that present-day social upheavals aren’t in so many significant ways traceable to and shaped by the everyday atrocities of our not too distant past.
One of the most illuminating and instructive portions of Narrative comes after the main body of writing. Because Douglass had spoken so strongly against the religion he personally observed and in the context of which he personally suffered, he felt compelled to write an appendix in order to distinguish between what he called the “Christianity of Christ” and the ostensibly Christian “religion of the south (which is, by communion and fellowship, the religion of the north)” (Narrative, 74). Douglass writes,
“What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper . . . Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity . . . We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members...” (Narrative, 71).
Now think again of James 5 as Douglass laments,
“The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life . . .” Further, “We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles . . . the bitter cries of the heartbroken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master . . . The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity” (Narrative, 72).
That so many in Douglass’s day who sincerely claimed Christian faith supported such obvious dehumanization demonstrates the pernicious, blinding darkness of self-deceit, and therefore the desperate need we all have to exegete ourselves away from forced perspectives in our interpretations and applications of the Word of our Lord. What evils in our day are we ignoring, continuing quite sincerely in our Christian profession but perhaps all the while living in drastic, hypocritical contrast to that confession? What Scriptural words from our Savior are staring us straight in the heart while, under the influence of unexamined, forced perspective, we let our eyes pass blindly over them, time and time again?
Douglass’s Narrative sheds searing light on present circumstances; it showed me just how blind I've been, despite previous study, to the true nature and significance of staggeringly obvious, ethically egregious phenomena in our nation’s history. It reminded me as I view present day traumas of just how easily my vision can be directed without my realizing it toward peripheral matters rather than primary, toward prizing investigations of present-day consequences over investigations of historical causes. The Lord would have us engage in a biblical "both/and" that looks at all of life and history through the lens of Scripture. To keep our eyes free from forced perspective as we look, we need help from the broader body of Christ.
Proverbs 11:14 tells us that “where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” We must take advantage of the views offered to us by those who are different from us, people biblically-minded and providentially equipped to see what we do not; and we must seek to serve others in this way as we're able. We ought to welcome the opportunity to compare vantage points as a blessing which can move us all closer to seeing with, and living justly in light of, the definitive clarity of our Lord’s own vision as expressed in his holy Word.