Power, Weakness, and Status Reversal

Endian is a New Testament scholar who has lived in Australia for more than three decades. He has served as a pastor, and has written academic books, journal articles, and articles for a general audience.

Mission Round Table Vol. 18: 1 (Jan-Jun 2023): 27-33
To download a PDF of this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:1.

Experience as an ethnic minority person

Life for ethnic minorities in Australia can be challenging. Even so, I didn’t think too much about it until the death of George Floyd in 2020. The event prompted me to reflect on my experiences as a Christian indebted to Western missionaries and as a first-generation migrant. This paper is very much about my journey of engaging with Scripture and people living at the intersection between faith and culture.

I came to faith in Christ when I was a teenager in East Asia. At the time, I went to a school founded by the well-known missionary and Bible translator, Robert Morrison. I am grateful for the Christian tradition of the school. One of the first books I read as a new Christian was the Chinese version of the biography of Hudson Taylor, whose extraordinary sacrifices for the gospel and exemplary life of God’s-power-in-human-weakness had a profound impact on me. Of course, stories of the sacrifice of missionaries abound. An Anglo-Australian friend, Tom, recently recounted to me his parents’ labour for the gospel among Indigenous Australians in north Queensland.[1] Tom cares for First Nations people deeply and spends a lot of time with them. He is well aware of the powers and privileges he has as a white Australian, but he also shared with me how disempowering the popular rhetoric against white middle-class males is for him. Understandably, it doesn’t give him hope, because he cannot change his ethnicity or gender.

My conversation with Tom highlights the complexity of the issues around race and ethnicity in Australia. However, in this paper I will discuss one aspect of the issue, namely, power and weakness, and the related biblical concept of status reversal. The important place of power in the issues around race and ethnicity is aptly highlighted by Stan Grant, an award-winning Aboriginal journalist, who wrote in a recent article:

Racism? Another word that white people hear differently to us. To white people, racism is something we — Black people — experience. To us it is something other people inflict on us.

Racism is not simply discrimination or bigotry. It is not just an abusive comment. Racism is structural. It is built in.

It is abuse of power.[2]

Injustice against First Nations people started when Europeans took their lands by force. And it is perpetuated when social and economic policy decisions are made by white-dominated parliamentarians who have little first-hand understanding of Indigenous culture and way of life. As an Asian-Australian, I endured more racist remarks when Senator Pauline Hanson infamously said that Australia was in danger of being swamped by Asians.[3] In the church context, I first experienced powerlessness as an Asian when I was the only person of colour on a thirteen-person pastoral team, even though the congregation was very culturally diverse. One Sunday, my superior said in a sermon that Jesus couldn’t possibly be black. Sometime later, a church member from Nigeria told me that he was very disturbed by that remark. I then related the matter to my superior, but sadly, he flatly disregarded the complaint. Of course, Jesus was a Jew and hence the preacher was technically correct. But his dismissal of the church member’s feeling was appalling, and I felt powerless because my voice was not heard.

My experience in theological settings is no better. I have worked in five theological colleges—on faculty, as an adjunct, and as a tutor. Not infrequently, I find myself to be the only non-white person in academic meetings. In my experience, non-white academics are often not consulted when it comes to decisions that affect the multicultural student body. And the recommended readings in the curriculum are largely dominated by scholars from European backgrounds, even though it is not hard to find resources from Majority World scholars nowadays.[4] Given the fact that I am in the minority among colleagues, I feel powerless in making my voice heard.[5]

The least I want to do here is to blame my Anglo-European friends for everything. I believe that many of them are more than willing to walk with me in this journey. The issue, however, is structural and systemic, in that the senior leadership of many churches and institutions is dominated by white Australians and, inevitably, decisions are made according to their worldview and cultural perspectives, with limited, if any, input from people of colour, despite the fact that the Australian churches are highly multicultural.[6] The result is that church ethos and praxis, and the underlying theology, are characterised by Anglo and Western European worldviews.

By the way, just in case we accuse white people of white supremacy, Grace Lung reminds us of the “hidden hierarchy” among some Asians, where people from wealthier Asian countries tend to look down on those from poorer countries, who often have darker skin.[7] We all need to watch out for the “plank in our own eyes,” so to speak, rather than focusing on the “speck” in other people’s eyes (cf. Matt 7:3–5).

Image credit: Roddy Mackay

My experience has led me to think that there can be a “hidden hierarchy” in our mindset (whether intentionally or unintentionally), whereby people of the dominant culture and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are considered superior and more advanced, and that their way of life and theology are models to be followed. My observation has prompted me to ask what can be done about the white domination in church and theological teaching contexts. It similarly prompts me to ask whether there is an unhealthy “hidden hierarchy” in my own attitude. I also need to ask how I can walk alongside white people like Tom in such a way that my approach does not disempower them. Indeed, what are the implications for intercultural training? Since my academic discipline is the New Testament, in the following I will examine selected Bible passages that speak of status reversal, power, and weakness in the hope that they can answer my questions above. But first, I need to mention a few thoughts on biblical interpretation, for that will determine how we read the Bible, and indeed, how we understand the gospel.

Bible interpretation and social location

Within biblical scholarship, there has been substantial resistance to the white dominance of Bible interpretation, often by way of foregrounding the agency of the readers. One of those approaches is postcolonial interpretation, whereby one interprets Scripture by engaging with the legacy of “colonial rule.”[8] According to R. S. Sugirtharajah, “the task of postcolonial studies” is:

  • to analyse how European scholarship codified and studied colonial cultures;
  • to recover how the resistant writings of the colonized tried to redeem their cultures and restore their identity and dignity.[9]

This method of interpretation has been used in a wide variety of ways. I find that it can allow the interpreter to uncover colonial practices and interpretive assumptions, and can provide avenues to understand the text better. But at times, it takes the interpreter away from the meaning of the biblical text itself. This is not the place to evaluate postcolonial interpretation as an interpretive approach, but I will mention one example as an illustration of its usage. David Moe, a Burmese scholar currently teaching at Yale University, concludes his reading of Romans 13:1–7 by saying:

Romans 13:1–7 has long been misread as a “public transcript” that has justified dictatorial authorities in Myanmar. Reading in this way, the text brings good news to the state oppressors and bad news to the oppressed. If Paul’s hidden purpose in this text is to bring good news to both the Christian and civil community, this paper strongly argues that we should read Romans 13:1–7 as a hidden transcript of postcolonial resistance to the governing authorities who misuse their powers to their own advantage. In reading this text as a hidden transcript of postcolonial theology, Christians in Myanmar need to rethink faith not simply as a private confession of Jesus as Savior, but as a public confession of witnessing to Christ’s lordship of justice and peace against the imperial and illegal lordship of human over human.[10]

Space limitations disallow me to engage with the article in detail. Suffice to say that Moe does engage with biblical scholars and discuss the historical context of Romans in his argument; but, ultimately, his focus is the postcolonial resistance of the text in the context of Myanmar. This interpretive method of resistance is also very attractive in my context in Australia, given the legacy of colonial rule and white domination in the parliament.[11] But my love of Scripture causes me to pay much more attention to the biblical text and its original context. Here, I turn to African Americans who treated the biblical texts as life-giving authoritative texts.[12] Zilpha Elaw was a black woman preacher born in 1790.[13] Elaw faced enormous opposition and dangers because of her gender and race. In the words of Lisa Bowens:

In a society that often refused to recognize the humanity of blacks and denied that they possessed souls, Elaw becomes a disruptive figure who breaks societal rules of what is proper for women and African Americans.[14]

Despite her fears and the real dangers she faced, Elaw continued to preach among the enslaved Africans and the slaveholders, and her ministry was quite successful, for many people turned to God and were converted.[15]

Importantly for our purposes, Elaw appealed to Paul’s concept of power-in-weakness in her preaching. She saw herself as an “earthen vessel” for God, who opened the door for her ministry (1 Cor 16:9; 2 Cor 4:7).[16] For Elaw, her low status as a black woman in early nineteenth-century America was not a problem, for God had chosen the weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Cor 1:27).[17] Neither was the lack of eloquent words in her speech an issue, for it was a demonstration of the Spirit and of power (2:1, 4).[18] Here, Elaw used the Scriptures to counter the dominant worldview and system that enslaved African Americans. The interpreter applied the authoritative text to her own context and, in doing so, exposed the inability of her opponents—those from the dominant culture and those in positions of power—to read the biblical texts aright. Elaw’s reading of Scripture served to resist white domination because Scripture was life-giving to her and she saw it as a trustworthy text from God.

Elaw’s use of Scripture highlights the importance of social location in Bible interpretation. Here, the interpreter’s experience of oppression gave her an understanding of the text that others couldn’t see. But such an interpretation didn’t foreground the reader to the degree that the interpreter became the centre. In fact, the text remained to be of utmost importance for her, and its authority gave her impetus to resist her oppressors.

In his book, Reading While Black, African American scholar Esau McCaulley underscores a challenge we often encounter in Bible interpretation today. Like McCaulley, we can be caught up in the clash between white evangelical and (the so-called) white progressive theologians.[19] I agree with Western evangelicals who adopt a hermeneutic of trust—that is, the Bible is indeed from God and can be trusted.[20] (By “hermeneutic,” I simply mean “Bible interpretive approach.”) But I am frustrated with some evangelicals who, for example, draw a sharp distinction between preaching the gospel and social action.[21] My frustration stems from the fact that the spiritual and the material worlds are inseparable for biblical writers, and indeed it is something that people from many non-Western cultures are aware of. At the same time, I resonate with McCaulley’s critique of those who push for a more “progressive” theology against the “fundamentalists,” especially when people undermine the importance of Scripture.[22] Like many people of colour, the Bible is vital for my faith. And like Elaw, I find that Scripture is an invaluable encouragement in times of hardship. As McCaulley rightly says: “If the Scriptures were fundamentally flawed and largely useless apart from mainline revision of the text, then Christianity is truly a white man’s religion.”[23] Also, we should “do the hard work of reading the text closely, attending to historical context, grammar, and structure.”[24] But the social location of people of colour is also informative, because it provides insights into the text that other readings may fail to see.[25] As McCaulley says:

The social location of enslaved persons caused them to read the Bible differently. This unabashedly located reading has marked African American interpretation since.[26]

For me, the meaning of the text is central, but one’s social location can be one valuable resource (among many) to help us understand the text, as long as we humbly read the text alongside other readers. It doesn’t mean that the text has multiple meanings, but that, by reading the text together, we can hear the text better. It is with this in mind that I will examine the concept of status reversal in Luke’s Gospel. Our discussion will engage with different biblical scholars, both Western and non-Western, in order to gain a better understanding of the biblical text.[27] At first sight, one may think that status reversal doesn’t have anything to do with ethnicity and race, but we will find that it prompts us to see the intrinsic value of every person, not least those in positions of weakness and powerlessness. It also challenges us to evaluate our attitude and any hidden hierarchy in our mindset.

Status reversal in Luke

Luke’s Gospel is well known for its theme of status reversal, which is vividly shown in the Song of Mary in 1:46–55 that says God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful (dynastas) from their thrones, and sent the rich away empty. God has also exalted the humble/lowly (tapeinous) and filled the hungry with good things (1:51–53). The theme is reinforced by Luke’s frequent references to the widow (9x), as well as its unique mention of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19–31), the Good Samaritan (10:25–37), and parable of the rich fool (12:16–21).

But perhaps the clearest teaching on status reversal is found in Luke 6:20–26.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now,   for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.[28]

So, the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the excluded, and the defamed are blessed because of their allegiance to Christ. But woe to the rich, those who are full, laugh, or are spoken well of. The fact that God hears the cry of the weak and protects the vulnerable clearly echoes Old Testament notions (Ps 10:17–18; Ezek 34:16).[29] Similarly, the woes echo the warnings of impending disasters in the prophetic tradition.[30] In the following, I will survey the views of four biblical scholars on the status reversal theme, and consider how each contributes to our understanding of the text.

Darrell Bock, a well-known professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, says that when “Jesus speaks of the poor or rich, he is not making carte blanche statements about people with a certain social or economic standing.”[31] For Bock, Jesus “is calling people into a spiritual relationship that God imparts to those willing to enter his new community . . .”[32] According to Bock, Luke’s Gospel stresses “a ministry of social concern for those in need” and warns “those who are wealthy not to hoard what God has given to them (6:20–26; 7:22–23; 12:13– 21; 14:12–14; 16:14–29).”[33] I think Bock makes good points here. But my experience of growing up in a relatively poor area in Asia causes me to consider the existence of socioeconomic hierarchy in Jesus’ day. Here, Joel Green’s assessment is informative:

In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as “poor,” but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and “poor” would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honor in Mediterranean world.[34]

Credit: Roddy Mackay

The strength of Green’s analysis is his awareness of the social world in antiquity. The poor are not only characterised by economic deprivation but also debased social status measured by education, family heritage, and other factors. Put differently, the poor are poor because of their vulnerability and powerlessness in a hierarchical society.

Diane Chen, an Asian-American scholar, shows a similar awareness of the social world reflected in Luke when she says:

The poor in Luke encompasses a broad definition. Poverty is experienced economically, emotionally, communally, and spiritually. The poor includes peasants who can barely survive on a subsistence level, the sick plagued with demon possession and debilitating handicaps that render them unclean, tax collectors and sinners despised for their moral infractions, and others of low status who are kept there by the hierarchical society in which they live.[35]

Here, Chen aptly locates the text of Luke’s Gospel in its historical socioeconomic context, and helps us to understand what the “poor” would have meant to Luke’s first audience. God’s extravagant grace is demonstrated in the fact that Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor (4:18–19), people who were at the lower parts of the social pyramid. It is also remarkable that Jesus uses the Sidonian widow and Naaman the Syrian to illustrate the extent of that good news—that even Gentile widows and unclean oppressors can be recipients of the good news, to the bewilderment of his hearers in the synagogue (4:23–30)![36]

Returning to the beatitudes in Luke 6:20–23, it seems that it is the South Asian scholar, Takatemjen, who understands the full force of Jesus’ teaching. He says:

These beatitudes were revolutionary. In every single one of them, Jesus took what was accepted and turned it upside down. Blessed are you who are poor (6:20), Jesus said, not blessed are the rich. In the same way, he pronounced blessings on the hungry, the weeping, the hated and the rejected. Those typically considered unfortunate are promised blessedness or happiness (6:21–22). They are the ones who long for what God has to give them, and God will fulfil their longings in the coming kingdom (6:23).[37]

Thus, the vulnerable and powerless, rather than the rich and powerful, are beneficiaries of God’s blessings. Such is the value system of God’s kingdom! For Takatemjen, the implications for South Asian Christians is that they need to engage with social and economic policies.

But preaching alone is not enough. We must also work to formulate policies and laws that protect the poor. Christian communities are responsible for ensuring that the voices of the poor are heard in parliament and in legislative assemblies.[38]

Perhaps it is because of his social location in South Asia that Takatemjen is very much aware of the systemic and structural causes of poverty and injustice. For him, advocating for better social policies is a response to the teaching of Jesus.[39] As another scholar has said, the beatitudes speak of

God’s social reform agenda. On the one hand, social transformation will not be fully realised until Jesus returns. On the other hand, Jesus expects his followers to embrace the values of this reform agenda in this age.[40]

I should mention that wealth is not in and of itself evil, and neither are the privileges that people have inherited (such as being born to educated parents or growing up in affluent Australia). One should not feel guilty to be a white male in the West, nor should an Asian born to middle-class parents. But what Luke’s Gospel teaches us is that there is intrinsic value in every human being, not least those who are weak and vulnerable. They are not so much objects of charity, but important people who are worthy of esteem and respect. They can be full—not inferior—participants of God’s kingdom. This is, I think, very much what African Americans like Elaw were claiming. This is what I want as an ethnic minority person in church leadership and theological teaching. I want my voice to be heard, not as a minority voice (which is often silenced by the majority) but as a valuable input that can benefit the whole church.

What Luke’s Gospel also highlights is the systemic causes of injustice, be it the religious leadership that disapproved of Jesus’ acts of mercy on the Sabbath or the synagogue and temple leadership that devoured widows despite the mandate of their own Scriptures to care for them (Luke 6:6–11; 13:14; 20:45–21:4; Deut 14:29; 24:17; 26:12). Stan Grant, who is himself a Christian, is right to say that racism in Australia is structural (see above).[41] This is why the leadership in churches and theological (and mission!) training institutions in the West needs to make sure that ethnic minorities are not only given a seat at the table, but that their voice is not overwhelmed by the white majority. This is why I must examine my own attitude as an educated and lighter-skin Asian, and eliminate any trace of hidden hierarchy in my mindset.

I also hope that I have demonstrated the value of engaging with both Western and non-Western scholars in interpreting the text. Bock rightly says that the wealthy are not to hoard, and Green skilfully highlights the social setting of antiquity. As a first-generation migrant in the West, it is encouraging to find myself resonating with Chen’s reading. And Takatemjen alerts us to the social reform agenda of Jesus’ teaching. The multi-dimensional engagements with the text here are immensely enriching and together they help us to participate in God’s kingdom in our lives. This calls for the inclusion of multiple voices—including the voice of the poor!—in the curricula of theological and intercultural studies, from the development to the implementation of the academic programs.

In addition to Luke’s message of status reversal, I want to invite my readers to take a closer look at Paul’s message of the crucified Christ. The cross is, of course, the basis of our salvation—that, by faith, believers may have a personal, intimate relationship with God. But our whole life, both as individuals and as a believing community, is also to be shaped by the crucified and risen Lord.

The crucified Christ

Paul refers to the cross and the crucified Christ multiple times in 1 Corinthians 1–2 (1:13, 17, 18, 23; 2:2, 8). In particular, in his proclamation, Paul is adamant not to use eloquent words but focus on the crucified Christ, lest the cross be emptied of its power (1:17; cf. 2:1–2).[42] And in 1:22–24, he says:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.[43]

Paul’s emphasis on the crucified Christ would have been absurd to his first hearers. In Paul’s day, the Jews were expecting the coming of the Messiah—the Anointed One—to deliver them from their oppressors, the Romans. Many of them would have expected the Anointed One to be someone like Moses or David, who was chosen by their God to bring deliverance through mighty works. It would, therefore, have been scandalous for Paul to say that the Messiah had died on a Roman cross, which was a symbol of humiliation and defeat. For the Greeks, given their desire for reason and wisdom, it would have been utter folly to think that the Saviour of the world had died on a shameful Roman cross—a gruesome instrument of execution reserved for rebels and the conquered.[44]

Image credit: Stephen G.

But for Paul, the crucified Christ is the wisdom of God (1:24). Indeed, one can only marvel at the paradoxical nature of the message of Christ crucified. The most honourable one—the Anointed One—suffered an utterly shameful death. And the cross, a symbol of defeat, is the very means by which God conquered death—for without death there would be no resurrection, but death has been swallowed up in victory because Christ is risen (15:54).

Remarkably, in his wisdom, God has chosen the most unlikely candidates to be the recipients of the gospel. Paul says that not many of the Corinthians were wise, powerful, or of noble birth (1:26). Indeed, God chose the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised in the world (1:27–28), so that “no human being might boast in the presence of God (1:29).[45]

In the immediate context, Paul is using this to address the divisions in the church, since some

Corinthians said that they belonged to Apollos, others to Cephas, and others to Paul (1:11– 16). But here, we also catch a glimpse of the profound meaning of the cross and its implications. God chose what is weak and despised in the world to shame the strong and powerful, and it is an integral part of his redemptive purpose (1:27–28, 30). Importantly, this is accomplished through the sacrificial death of the crucified Christ. Of course, we should note that there might be a small number of people of higher social standing among the Corinthians.[46] But Paul’s point is that no one can boast, and that the only valid boasting is boasting in the Lord (1:29, 31), not that the privileged and powerful were inferior to the lowly in the house churches.

The way of the cross, then, sounds strikingly similar to the status reversal theme in Luke’s Gospel. A proper understanding of God’s kingdom and the cross calls for the dismantling of any hierarchical mindset and system, for every person deserves to be valued and respected. It means that Jesus-followers are to adopt an alternative social convention of love, acceptance, and embrace, both as individuals and as a community. This is vividly demonstrated in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:22–26:

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable . . . and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member . . . but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.

Conclusion

How then do we embody the crucified Christ today? If Jesus-followers are to adopt a cross-shaped posture and life pattern, they are to honour those who are seemingly dishonourable. This means that, as an educated Asian, I need to be careful not to allow any hidden hierarchy mindset to allure me to despise other Asians (or anyone else, for that matter). It also means that I can walk alongside my friend Tom as we willingly stop holding on to our privileges and powers, be it social, economic, or by way of advanced education, and share life with those who don’t have the same privileges that we do. It means that I regularly remind myself of the need to hear the voice of others whose social locations enable them to read the Bible in ways that enrich my understanding of God and the gospel.

I will finish with a personal story. Growing up in a relatively low socioeconomic area in East Asia, I thought I was inferior to those of higher social standing. But the cross has been a constant reminder of Christ’s self-emptying act of becoming a human, lowering himself to the status of a slave, dying on the cross, and being exalted by God to become the Lord of all (Phil 2:6–11). In Christ, we are not inferior or superior to one another. Although I thought that white westerners were superior, the incarnational and sacrificial life of missionaries like Hudson Taylor, Maria Dyer Taylor, and Jennie Faulding Taylor showed me that there were Christians who followed Christ’s cruciform pattern. I migrated to Australia to work as a professional in IT. But several years later, I felt the call of God to quit my career and go to Bible college. This was the start of a vocation of serving God and his people in different capacities. I have since worked as a pastor, a global education officer in a humanitarian organisation, and a lecturer in theological colleges. But for most of these years, we have lived on a low family income. We always have food on the table, but the financial challenge is a frequent source of anxiety. But God has always been faithful. My wife and I can testify that this way of life helps us to know God and experience him in ways that we otherwise would not have. Miraculous financial provision (without a fund-raising strategy!) is one example. A growing trust in God’s faithfulness is another.

Image credit: Roddy Mackay

This experience of God’s-power-in-human-weakness has helped me to see the world differently. For almost one decade, I have had the privilege of having many students from refugee backgrounds in my classes. A lot of them have to work hard in low-paying jobs. Many of them struggle academically because English is not their first language. As opposed to other high-income migrants, they have a relatively low status in society. Over the years, I have adopted different teaching methods to cater for the needs of a culturally and socioeconomically diverse student body. I think students from non-European backgrounds really appreciate my attempt to read Scripture through non-Western lenses. Indeed, students of Anglo-European ancestry also appreciate it because it brings new insights to their interpretation. I endeavour to include resources written by scholars from diverse backgrounds in the curriculum.

I am convinced that my students from refugee backgrounds have much to teach me because of their sufferings—as refugees whose journeys to Australia were full of danger, as low income, non-white people in Australia, and as people whose loved ones continue to suffer enormously in their home countries. Their faith in God and resilience in adversity are inspiring.

I have found that my life experience has helped me in several ways. As a low-income migrant, I find myself drawing close to my students. I feel that we share something in common. Also, they don’t see me as an affluent professional East Asian with abundant material possessions. I think that, in some ways, they see me as one of them and I feel that we are indeed brothers and sisters in Christ. Importantly, their presence in class encourages me to boldly allow our social location to enrich our interpretation of the Bible without losing sight of the centrality of the biblical text as God’s life-giving word. Reading the text with them and with other students is well and truly an intercultural experience, one that allows us to understand God and the gospel better. I am thankful for the opportunity to participate in God’s mission at this intersection between culture, ethnicity, and the Bible, where the distinction between the powerful and the weak no longer exists because of the crucified Christ and risen Lord.

 

Questions for reflection

1. What is your take on Luke 6:20–26 (and the Song of Mary in Luke 1:46–55)? In what way do the interpretations of scholars from different parts of the world help us understand the passage? How would reading texts in this fashion enhance your work and discipleship of others? What biblical themes would you like to study in this way for the benefit of the people you serve?

2. When you prepare talks, sermons, or lectures for your church or institutional work, how much of your reading comes from books produced by Western authors and how much is from other parts of the world? In what way would reading more widely, and particularly works produced by people where you work, enhance your preparation and delivery? What difference might it make in your ministry?

3. What can people from majority cultures do to ensure that minorities feel they are accepted, valued, and given a level playing field in education, job opportunities, and advancement? Are there systemic, structural, and institutional issues to be dealt with? What can you personally do to help this process? Do you find you are part of a “hidden hierarchy,” whether you are on top, bottom, or somewhere else? Try to describe the power dynamics around this. What can be done about it?

4. Prayerfully reflect on 1 Corinthians 1:18–31 and 12:21–26, and consider how the cruciform love of Christ may shape the way we respond to the issues raised in the article.

 

[1] Tom is not his real name. I have withheld the information for privacy reasons.

[2] Stan Grant, “In the Year of the Voice, Australians Must Overcome a Language Barrier If We’re to Speak to Each Other, to Hear the Same Truth,” ABC News, 12 February 2023, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-0212/voice-to-parliament-language-barrier-hear-the-same-truth/101956684 (accessed 5 May 2023).

[3] Matt Martino, “Pauline Hanson’s Maiden Speech: Has Australia Been ‘Swamped by Asians’?” ABC News, 14 September 2016, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-09-14/pauline-hanson-maiden-speech-asianimmigration/7645578 (accessed 5 May 2023).

[4] I do accept that Majority World resources were hard to find until quite recently.

[5] I don’t mean that my experience is universal among people of colour. I celebrate with those who have positive experiences in white-dominant spaces. But I would like to invite them to walk alongside those who have negative experiences. For another example of the challenges faced by Asian-Australians, see Charlene Delos Santos, “Everyone is Welcome to the Table but…,” Zadok Perspectives 153 (December 2021): 11–12. Santos also offers very good suggestions to “create safe spaces of genuine participation by culturally diverse people” (12).

[6] For example, according to an email from the Baptist Union of Victoria (BUV), over forty percent of the Baptist churches in Victoria speak in languages other than (or in addition to) English. See BUV Communications, email message to BUV Bulletin subscribers, 22 March 2023.

[7] Grace Lung, “Prejudice in the Church,” Zadok Perspectives 153 (December 2021): 9.

[8] Paula Gooder, ed., Searching for Meaning: An Introduction to Interpreting the New Testament (London: SPCK, 2009), 175. Other interpretive approaches that are reader-focussed include, for example, feminist, Asian, Latin American, queer, and other readings. It should be noted that there are diverse interpretive strategies within each of these methods.

[9]  R. S. Sugirtharajah, “Postcolonial Criticism,” in Gooder, Searching for Meaning, 175.

[10] David Thang Moe, “Reading Romans 13:1–7 as a ‘Hidden Transcript of Postcolonial Theology’ in Myanmar,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 157 (March 2017): 71–98.

[11] My heart sank when I read Senator Fraser Anning’s speech in 2017, in which he said that immigrants should “predominantly reflect the historic European Christian composition” of Australian society. This essentially meant that I and my fellow Asians weren’t welcome in Australia. “Full Text: Senator Fraser Anning’s Maiden Speech,” SBS News, 15 August 2018, https://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/full-text-senator-fraser-annings-maiden-speech/8shbk54k6 (accessed 5 May 2023).

[12] Here, I am indebted to Lisa M. Bowens, African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020).

[13] Bowens, African American Readings, 114–31.

[14] Bowens, African American Readings, 119–20.

[15] Bowens, African American Readings, 122.

[16] Bowens, African American Readings, 122.

[17] Julia Foote (1823–1900) was another African American woman who found 1 Corinthians 1:27 useful. Bowens says: “First Corinthians 1:27 and Galatians 3:28 become significant texts for her, affirming that God confounds the wise by using the foolish and that social distinctions, such as male and female, do not determine one’s ability to preach.” Bowens, African American Readings, 240.

[18] Bowens, African American Readings, 123.

[19] See Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (Downers Grove: IVP, 2020), 5.

[20] Cf. McCaulley, Reading While Black, 20.

[21] Cf. McCaulley, Reading While Black, 11. I resonate with Jayakumar Christian, former National Director of World Vision India, who says that the New Testament does not separate development from evangelism. See Jayakumar Christian, “Perspectives on Poverty and Transformation,” in Signs of Hope in the City: Renewing Urban Mission, Embracing Radical Hope, ed. Graham Hill (Melbourne: International Society for Urban Mission, 2015), 225–26.

[22] See McCaulley, Reading While Black, 6–9.

[23] See McCaulley, Reading While Black, 8–9.

[24] McCaulley, Reading While Black, 21.

[25] I am glad that Brad Vaughn no longer uses “Jackson Wu” as his pseudonym for his Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission (Downers Grove, IVP, 2019). Initially, I didn’t know that he was using a pseudonym when I read his books, but I could easily detect that he wasn’t a native Asian. Perhaps this is an example of why social location can make a difference? Having said that, I do appreciate Vaughn’s contribution.

[26] McCaulley, Reading While Black, 17. Emphasis original.

[27] Due to space limitations, I won’t be performing a detailed exegesis of the text itself.

[28] All Scripture citations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA), unless otherwise indicated.

[29] Diane G. Chen, Luke (Eugene: Cascade, 2018), Kindle Location 2338.

[30] Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 265; Darrell Bock, Luke (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), 122.

[31] Bock, Luke, 120–21.

[32] Bock, Luke, 121.

[33] Bock, Luke, 47.

[34] Green, Luke, 211.

[35] Chen, Luke, 2327. I find Chen’s statement about poverty particularly helpful: “Poverty is experienced economically, emotionally, communally, and spiritually.” By the way, the notion that the “poor” in Luke 6:20 is about the “spiritually poor” seems to be exegetically unsound, for the “woe to you who are rich” in 6:24 doesn’t make sense if the “rich” there means “spiritually rich.”

[36] See Siu Fung Wu, “Good News to the Poor,” in Another Way to Love, ed. Tim Costello and Rod Yule (Brunswick East, Australia: Acorn, 2009), 78–80.

[37] Takatemjen, “Luke,” in South Asia Bible Commentary, ed. Brian Wintle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), Kindle Location 1346. By the way, I don’t mean that Takatemjen is the only one who sees the upside-down kingdom value here. For example, Tom Wright says: “This is the shape of the kingdom: the kingdom which still today turns the world upside down, or perhaps the right way up, as much as ever it did.” Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London, SPCK, 2001), 72.

[38] Takatemjen, “Luke,” Kindle Location 1346.

[39] Indeed, Takatemjen says later in his commentary on Luke that “Jesus’ model for hospitality speaks to our multiracial, multilingual and caste-divided societies.” Takatemjen, “Luke,” Kindle Location 1364.

[40] Wu, “Good News,” 82. It is worth mentioning here that the beatitudes in Luke 6 do not mean that the poor should seek to become rich and powerful. The warnings in 6:24–26 are clear!

[41] Likewise, Teela Reid, a First Nations person in Australia, says regarding the forthcoming referendum on the Voice to Parliament: “The one thing First Nations people don’t want is any white guilt on this . . . We want systemic change, we want racism to stop in our nation, we want people’s hearts and minds to change in this process.” Karen Tong, “Will the Indigenous Voice to Parliament have Enough Power to Effect Change?,” ABC News, 13 April 2023, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-04-13/will-indigenous-voice-to-parliament-haveenough-power-to-change/102210064 (accessed 5 May 2023).

[42] More literally, 1 Corinthians 1:17b says, “so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied.”

[43] Emphasis added.

[44] See also Siu Fung Wu, “Paul, the Spirit-People, and People on the Margins,” Australasian Pentecostal Studies 22, no. 2 (2021): 255.

[45] ESV. Emphasis added.

[46] The fact that “not many” of the Corinthians were wise, powerful, or of noble birth suggests that some of them were of higher social status (1 Cor 1:26).

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