The conviction that scripture reading must be connected to life is what drew Gerald West
to dedicate his
career to contextual Bible study.
A white South African, West
became politicized in the struggle to end apartheid and was asked to leave the church in which he
had been ordained.
credits the socially engaged witness of Desmond Tutu with drawing him into the Anglican archbishop's church.
West was a founder of the Ujamaa Center in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
The center's mission is to address issues in the local context through Bible study.
"We were forged in the violence that wreaked havoc across the KwaZulu-Natal Province, in the 1980s, where forces of the apartheid state and forces of the United Democratic Front came into conflict, and there was massive violence," West
explained in an interview in Berkeley, California, while completing a sabbatical at the Pacific School of Religion
"And out of that violence, the cry went up of 'What is God saying to us?' The Ujamaa Center
was a very small attempt to bring the Bible into that question; to say, well, we don't know what God is saying, perhaps.
There's just so much violence, it's almost impossible to know what is happening.
Where is God in all of this destruction?"
Ujamaa's Bible studies purposefully combine Bible scholars with "ordinary readers," who haven't been formally trained in biblical scholarship.
"I'm not privileging; I'm not saying it's any better, but it is different, and we need to recognize that it's different," West
says, "For me, the challenge is, is there a usefulness in this difference?
I think there is."
, Brueggemann, and Okure all agree that overreliance on scholarship can cause problems.
"So let's acknowledge that there are different voices," says West
, "and let's explain why we have privileged the voice that we have privileged, and why we have silenced the voices that we have silenced.
The Ujamaa Center
is often invited to conduct Bible studies for those with HIV/AIDS, many of whom have been told by their churches that the disease is God's punishment.
"Does scripture talk about God punishing people with diseases?
and Brueggemann believe that this insight is crucial to making progress in the Anglican Communion's debates about sexuality.
agrees: "I can perhaps begin to respect you, if I begin to understand that your voice is a legitimate scriptural voice, and you recognize that my voice is a legitimate scriptural voice.
Walter Brueggemann, Mary Gordon, Teresa Okure, and Gerald West
will be keynote speakers at Trinity Institute's
41st National Theological Conference, Reading Scripture Through Other Eyes, January 19-21, 2011.