THE BIBLE AS COUNTERHISTORY

Here’s Foucault on the radical nature of the biblical discourse:

“It must not be forgotten that, at least from the second half of the Middle Ages onwards, the Bible was the great form for the articulation of religious, moral and political protest against the power of kings and the despotism of the church. Like the reference to biblical texts itself, this form functioned, in most cases as a protest, a critique and an oppositional discourse. In the Middle ages Jerusalem was always a protest against all the Babylons that had come back to life; it was a protest against eternal Rome, against the Rome of the Caesars, against the Rome that shed the blood of the innocent in the circus. The Bible was the weapon of poverty and insurrection; it was the word that made men rise up against the law and against glory, against the unjust law of kings and the beautiful glory of the Church.”  (From Society Must Be Defended, p71)

During a series of lectures from 1976 Foucault described the nature of the Bible in a way that will be obvious to historians, but might be lost on many of us today. Today we’ve got used to thinking of the Bible two ways: one being a formula regarding other-worldly salvation, the other being a moral yardstick at the centre of society that prevents unseemly change or deviation. So it’s either a historical irrelevance, or a social pest which impedes progress. In either case it seems to have been robbed of the radical dynamism that it’s had at other times.

Foucault’s perspective considers the Bible as it impinges on history. The power and glory of empires are sustained by their histories of greatness… of power, right and might… of illustrious genealogies of kings and queens and Trojan survivors, and so on. The Bible on the other hand rings with a totally different historical discourse – a counterhistory to Western power and glory. It is a history of slaves, and exiles, moral failures, social dysfunction and political disasters. Even it’s genealogies are parodies of imperial boasting, being full of failed Kings, foreigners, women, moral outcasts and prostitutes, as though they were going out of their way to mock the false legitimacy that comes with ‘pure’ lineage:

“It will be the discourse of those who have no glory, or of those who have lost it, and who now find themselves, perhaps for a time – but probably for a long time – in darkness and silence. Which means that this discourse – unlike the uninterrupted ode in which power perpetuated itself, and grew stronger by displaying its antiquity and genealogy – will be a disruptive speech, an appeal: “we do not have any continuity behind us; we do not have behind us the great and glorious genealogy in which the law and power flaunt themselves in their power and glory. We came out of the shadows, we had no glory and we had no rights, and that is why we are beginning to speak and tell of our history.” This way of speaking related this kind of discourse not so much to the search for the great uninterrupted jurisprudence of long established power, as to a sort of prophetic rupture…” (p70)

This might be what Gustav Gutierrez called a theology from the underside of history. It is a counterhistory that doesn’t look to self-legitimising human glory, but rather to prophecy and promise. That is, to the power of God in history, against the oppressive power of the proud – of kings, presidents, prime ministers, barons, tycoons and moguls who remake the world in their own image for their own interests. Rather it is for the vindication of the humble – who cultivate the world for the good and blessing of the other – for God and neighbour.

I think it is the history of empire (and particularly of the enlightenment) that has subdued the Bible and estranged it from history, so that we may only think of it as a book about afterlife, or as a moral preservative for Western society’s endless now. We’ve got used to keeping the Bible out of history as though they’re two mischievous boys who can’t be trusted together.

What we consider here isn’t novel, or new, or liberal or fanciful. How else are we supposed to read that claim of both testaments, “the meek shall inherit the earth,” if not historically? How else are we to pray “may your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” if not historically? The Bible itself demands to be read as such, and it is only our immersion in the history of empire that prevents us from comprehending these words as anything more than benign mysticism and religious poetry.

In the Bible is a historical discourse which will shake the poisonous economics of our time, the dark cultural monopolies of our time, the sexually oppressive iconography of our time, and the alienating social and spiritual malaise of our time. But it is a counterhistory… and if we are to allow it to speak into our time we will first need to allow it to speak to us about our attachments. We will need to brake our sleepily held vows to the endless Western now. To enter into the power of the Bible we will need to re-discover our place in the Jerusalem that speaks from the edge of the Babylonian sprawl… speaking from the Kingdom of humility into the empire of pride…  introducing into its history the “prophetic rupture” of biblical counterhistory.

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