As God gives us to see

by Mark Safstrom

Where we read from matters. Our past understandings inform our reading, as does our education, social class, gender, race, theological background, and a host of other factors. We don’t come to a text as a blank slate, whether it is a sacred, scientific, or literary text.

Though commonly acknowledged today, such admissions were less obvious to most educated, privileged readers a couple of generations ago. The Civil Rights movement and subsequent reform movements, along with globalization and the diversification of American society, have made it essential to be aware of the place from which we read. Even in biblical exegesis, the “plain meaning” of the text is but one of several important reading strategies that seminarians must prepare for.

Rather than find this complexity dizzying and threatening, the believer who has faith in Christ can assert with St. Paul that our reading may be dark at present, but yet anticipate a point when “we shall see face to face” (I Cor. 13:12). We read with hope that someday we will understand clearly what is painfully difficult to understand now.

I’ve always assumed that “then” meant after death or at the culmination of the age. But what if we consider that “then” is not the eschaton, the end? What will I understand better one week from now? Or one year? A decade?

Christian theology has traditionally asserted that it is the Holy Spirit who illumines our readings of scripture, whenever we understand, are convicted, called and equipped by our reading. Few Christians would claim that one reading of the Bible is sufficient. Rather the prevailing wisdom has been that constant regular reading and hearing of the Word should accompany us throughout our lives. Why? Because our changing circumstances will bring new growth, new understanding, and new vantage points.

This past fall, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to read from prison, attending weekly classes at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison outside of Chicago. Stateville houses North Park Theological Seminary’s School of Restorative Arts, where “inside students” and “outside students” take master’s level classes together. For one of our semester-long group projects, my group has been exegeting Genesis 4 on the story of Cain and Abel. This first crime in the Bible is a homicide with dire consequences for the murderer. Yet, we see that even Cain is not without God’s protection, as prior to any repentance on Cain’s part, God extends to him that promise. Though an outcast, he does not wander alone forever, even founding the first city, which by definition would need to include other humans. Life for Cain was not “over” because of his crime. He had a future. Reading this passage deeply, in a prison housing many people convicted of murder, certainly has changed how I will read this passage from now on.

Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, director of the program at Stateville, explains the value of this kind of transformative, restorative learning environment, in her talk “The Liberal Arts in Prison.” In similar fashion, Mary Spriggs’s sermon, “Risky Discipleship,” challenges us to consider reading from the perspective of those with a range of physical and mental ability levels. Richard Priggie’s lyrical reflection on the Creation story, from the perspective of ongoing environmental protests, encourages us to consider our kinship with the Earth – after all, we are made of the same stuff. Jodi Fondell offers an alternate view on how controversies regarding the degree of inclusion of LGBTQ persons in Christian congregations might be handled differently, with an aim to honestly wrestling with biblically grounded understandings of Christian freedom. And Al Tizon’s reflection on what it means to be “Mission Friends” foregrounds friendship as the essential starting point in engaging in the business of Christian ministry. How would our controversies be different if we prioritized friendship in our mission?

One of the most adept Bible readers in American history, Abraham Lincoln, eloquently wove scriptural references into so much of what he wrote and said. After the tumultuous election of 1860, rather than isolating his political rivals, what did he do? He brought them into his cabinet! This adds profound meaning to the adage, to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Even after the trauma of the Civil War, at his second inaugural address in 1865 and shortly before his death, this conciliatory, restorative posture, rooted in scripture, still guided Lincoln as he guided the nation into its post-war healing. We read the words of this powerful address together at Stateville.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

It matters who we read with, because it is the people we read with who matter most.

Guds frid – God’s peace.