Growing up in a New York City barrio and Miami, Cuban-born Miguel De La Torre spent many of his formative years living on the margins of society. But it was only after becoming a successful businessman turned seminarian that he learned to read the Bible “from the margins.”
De La Torre’s family left Cuba when he was 6 months old. His next 15 years were spent in New York City, living in poverty. The family moved to Miami, and the teenager determined he never again wanted to be poor. He obtained a real-estate license and by age 30 was a successful businessman and a politically active Republican.
After leaving Catholicism to join University Baptist Church in Coral Gables, Fla., De La Torre eventually enrolled in Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.—incidentally the same year Al Mohler took over as president. Leaving a six-figure income, “The only job I could get was a janitor,” he says. “It was made clear the only reason is I was a Latino.”
Later landing a night job in the seminary library, De La Torre reflected on his experience and set out to read every book he could find written by an author with a Hispanic name. Many were “liberation” theologians, prompting De La Torre to experience a “second conversion” to view Christianity from the perspective of the oppressed.
Going on to earn a doctorate in religion at Temple University and now in his fifth year teaching at Hope College, a Reformed Church in America-aligned school in Holland, Mich., De La Torre says reading the Bible from cover-to-cover isn’t enough. It has to be read from the “margins,” he says in a book, Reading the Bible from the Margins, published by Orbis Press. A related book, Doing Ethics from the Margins, is due out this fall.
“To read the Bible from the margins is to resist reading the Bible like I’ve always been taught,” De La Torre said at a conference this week sponsored by the Baptist Center for Ethics. The book, drawn from lecture notes he uses with a freshman class, describes a process of viewing the Bible from a new perspective as “learning to read.”
Sidestepping arguments between conservatives and liberals over whether the Bible is true, De La Torre challenges the way affluent Americans interpret Scripture. Dominant cultures, he says, tend to read the Bible in ways that defend their social structures.
As a result, De La Torre says, the affluent often interpret Bible stories like the Rich Young Ruler, the Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12 and other passages on the dangers of wealth with a “metaphoric” reading that speaks to attitudes about possessions rather than saying that the possessions themselves are evil. People who are oppressed, meanwhile, tend toward “material” readings of such passages, viewing the desire for excessive acquisition as sinful in and of itself.
For example, Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20:1-16 tells of a vineyard owner who hires workers in the morning, noon, mid and late afternoon and at the end of the day pays them all the same wages. A metaphoric reading says that isn’t fair to the people who worked the longer hours, so the parable is understood as referring to salvation, which is available to everyone as a gift regardless of how much work one has done. A material reading, however, is that Jesus was aware of the workers’ plight. It wasn’t their fault it took some of them most of the day to find work, and all of the workers needed a day’s wage in order to survive.
De La Torre says such readings from marginalized people cannot be dismissed as interesting perspectives that add some “color” to Bible study. Rather, they take priority over other interpretations, because Jesus’ primary audience was the outcasts of society. Those who are disenfranchised are in a better position to understand the biblical text because they understand what it’s like to survive in a social context designed to benefit others at their expense, he says.
De La Torre contends that much of the doctrinal infighting that divides American Christians is the result of a metaphoric reading of the Bible. “When people ask me if God created the world in seven days, I say ‘Who gives a rip?'” he said. “That’s a question we have the luxury to ask if we’re not hungry. If we’re hungry the question is ‘Am I going to have to wait seven days to eat?'”
De La Torre points out that the Bible has been misused over the centuries to protect power and privilege and to justify ethnic cleansing. How then can Christians who benefit from the oppression of others continue to rely on the Bible’s authority in matters of ethics? De La Torre says the key is to recognize that the Bible is the witness to God’s revelation but is written from the social location of different authors. God’s fullest revelation is found in Jesus, meaning the best way to interpret the Scripture is in light of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
For De La Torre, the litmus test of whether to apply a Bible passage is John 10:10, where Jesus says “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
“Simply put, if a biblical interpretation prevents life from being lived abundantly by a segment of the population or, worse, if it brings death, then it is anti-gospel,” he writes. “Only interpretations that empower all elements of humanity, offering abundant life in the here-now, as opposed to the here-after, are biblically sound.”
De La Torre told 13 ministerial leaders invited to a two-day seminar near Birmingham–sponsored by the Baptist Center for Ethics with a grant from the Louisville Institute–that churches need to consider how much they are willing to change in order to be able to reach the world.
Americans rightly grieve the 3,000 lives lost in terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, he said, but nearly as many children die every day from preventable diseases and hunger around the world. “We accept that as normal,” he said. “We don’t even think about it. Their picture doesn’t appear in the newspaper. It becomes a part of life…. Where are the tears for these children?”
De La Torre says when churches start listening to the voices of marginalized persons, those persons will invest themselves more in institutionalized Christianity. “If someone hears my voice, I’m interested in that,” he said. “If instead they’re only interested in converting me to what they believe, I’m not as willing to commit.”
The ultimate goal of reading the Bible from the margins, he says, is not for the oppressed to take over dominant social structures, and in turn become oppressors, but to dismantle structures that benefit one class over another altogether.
A key step in “learning to read” from the margins is to examine the meaning of words, De La Torre says. The dictionary defines racism, for example, as the “belief” that one’s race is superior to another. The problem, De La Torre says, is that practically no one believes that anymore, yet racism is real.
For him, the key question to ask is “How much are we still in complicity with structures that benefit us because of racism?”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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Miguel De La Torre is also a columnist for EthicsDaily.com. Click here to read his most recent column.