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BY RALINDA B. GREGOR, EXECUTIVE EDITOR
|Professor Gerald West at the 2008 Lambeth Conference|
A key part of the Human Sexuality Conference hosted by the Ujamaa Centre and Chicago Consultation was the daily Bible study using Prof. West's contextual Bible study method, which is "always situated within the social analysis and needs of particular communities of the poor, the working-class, and marginalised. It is their perspective on reality that shapes the whole Bible study," according to "Doing Contextual Bible Study: A Resource Manual" by West and the Ujamaa Centre staff. According to the manual, these Bible studies must always end with an action plan to transform society and it may be necessary to "provide participants with additional resources from non-governmental, governmental, and community-based organisations to take their plan of action forward."
The studies in the manual reflect the liberation theology that was birthed in Latin America and made its way to South Africa during the struggle against apartheid beginning in the 1980's. Liberation theology was rejected by the Catholic church, but West's Bible studies, with their emphasis on liberation theology, were used at the Anglican Communion's Lambeth 2008 meeting of bishops. Liberation theology was a key topic of discussion during The Episcopal Church's House of Bishops meeting held in Quito, Ecuador in September, 2011.
Although West's Bible studies were used at the Lambeth Conference, they are not without criticism. The Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll, retired vice chancellor of Uganda Christian University, said, "West's program is ‘prejudiced' from a particular perspective: ‘judging the text's meaning from the perspective' and applying the text in terms of systemic ‘transformation.' What of course is interesting is that this ‘perspective' does not proceed naturally from the poor themselves. Taking the example of the "widow's mite" (Mark 12:41-44), West notes [in the manual] that the ‘typical' first responses of South Africans is to see it as involving ‘faithful giving, sacrificial giving, the importance of right motives in giving, how the poor tend to give more proportionately than the rich, and other similar responses'." West's methodology takes the readers down the path of looking at the widow as a "victim of the oppressive practices of the scribes" and the temple as part of the oppressive economic and social system.
West asks facilitators to put the three verses in context of Mark 11:27- 13:3. According to Professor Noll, "What is revealing is that the context West finds is exclusively political and economic - Jesus' critique of the Jerusalem temple elites - rather than theological. Whereas I do not deny that, like the prophets, Jesus did accuse the elites of stealing the portion of the poor, this is not the primary thrust of the passage. The larger context is Holy Week, "the Lord coming to his temple" (Malachi 3:1) and Jesus' implication that he is not only the Davidic messiah but the pre-existent Lord who spoke to and through David. (Mark 12:35-38)"
West's narrow-minded focus on the marginalized leads him to at times reject the plain meaning of scripture and adopt a revisionist interpretation. One of his Bible studies deals with the account of Sodom and Gomorrah. At his Lambeth press conference, West told reporters every reference to this passage is about injustice and inhospitality rather than sexual immorality [which is clearly refuted in Jude]. West also claimed he did not have a clear position on Lambeth resolution 1.10 which seems unlikely for a theologian.
In looking at scripture only from the viewpoint of the marginalized and searching for the socio-political thrust of each passage, West's contextual Bible study method concerns itself more with political action than the saving work of Christ on the cross. Professor Noll points out that "This sort of approach represents the twilight of ‘liberation theology,' which seems to have passed its zenith 20 years ago. So far as I can see, it is also kept alive more in South African universities than in the churches of sub-Saharan Africa."
See more coverage of the South African Sexuality Dialogue meeting: