Using Social Exegesis on the Pages of Life

Interpreting the Baltimore Riot in Context

by Pastor Chris Williamson

In John 4:9, a parenthetical comment is made about the social climate of the day when it says, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” The Apostle John inserted this commentary to let readers then and now understand that Jesus’ actions went against the grain of normalcy. By publicly ministering to the Samaritan woman, Jesus broke down religious, racial, and gender barriers in one swoop.
Good Bible students will do their best to discover why Jews and Samaritans struggled relationally. A concerted effort will be made to understand the historical tension that existed between the two interrelated people groups who were divided in the same land. Their quest for context will eventually lead to the Old Testament, select commentaries, and writings of antiquity. This process of interpreting the Bible soundly is called exegesis.
The Need for Social Exegesis
Exegesis is the discipline of methodically extracting truths out of the Bible. Exegesis uncovers the historical, grammatical, cultural, and literary aspects of the Scriptures in order to bring about a sound interpretation in modern times. I am thankful for every professor who taught me biblical exegesis, but unfortunately, these same professors failed at teaching me about social exegesis.
Social exegesis is the ability to observe and wisely interpret the multiple layers and complex pieces of society. It not only strives to contextualize the whole picture, but it also detects the uncomely holes in the picture while investigating how the holes got there in the first place. As with biblical exegesis, social exegesis peels back the economical, historical, cultural, racial, and institutional layers of the American narrative. It turns back the pages of life so as to go forward objectively.
Similarly, we go back to go forward when counseling people, even if we’re not professionals. With young people who practice cutting, for example, we don’t chastise them for their self-destructive behavior. Instead, we seek to understand their pain in order to help them. More than likely we will refer these disillusioned youths to licensed counselors who understand the psychological roots of cutting.
Riots and Root Causes
The riot that occurred in my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland following the funeral of Freddie Gray caused America to relive another tragic event rooted in apparent injustice. Outside observers watched the shameful behavior of a few misguided people who destroyed buildings and looted businesses in a moment of unbridled rage. However, what many of us failed to witness was the underlying context that had been brewing for decades.
To understand a riot is not an attempt to justify it. Rather, it is an attempt to learn from it. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted French novelist Victor Hugo by saying, “Where there is darkness, crimes will be committed. The guilty one is not merely he who commits the crime but he who caused the darkness.”
When utilizing social exegesis, we can properly interpret ruinous events and the environment that helped produce them. Social exegesis keeps us from throwing stones at the people who threw rocks at the police. Social exegesis operates in the spirit of I Chronicles 12:32, which says, “From Issachar, men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do…”
To understand the times, we have to interpret them impartially. To know what to do, we have to care. As we do with ancient Bible stories, we must place ourselves in someone else’s living conditions, whether imaginatively or literally. Having been to Israel twice, I was able to walk where Jesus walked. Experiencing the topography helps me interpret the Bible better. Comparatively, walking in the shoes of certain segments of society where arrest rates are higher, prison terms are harsher, and police brutality is more frequent should move us with compassion and not just disapproval.
Resist Committing Social Eisegesis
A wise man once said, “Poor neighborhoods have poor schools. Poor schools have poor teachers. When you have poor teachers, you have a poor education. When you have a poor education, you can only work on poor paying jobs and live in poor neighborhoods. It’s a very vicious cycle.”
I believe God’s people have a responsibility to break this cycle, whether we live in it or outside of it. We can’t afford to make bad situations worse through ill-informed comments based on “social eisegesis.” If eisegesis reads things into the Bible that aren’t there, social eisegesis inserts fears and stereotypes into the story of “those people.” It goes on to point fingers without pointing thumbs. This is why social exegesis is preferred because it leads to a kind of social action that preaches the gospel to the poor, heals the brokenhearted, and sets the oppressed free. Jesus was anointed for such tasks and so are we.
POSTED: May 19, 2015