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Politics of Scripture

Preferential Option for the Poor Once More

“Seek ye first the political kingdom of God and all these things shall be given unto you.”

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’

Exodus 3:1-15 (NRSV)

Let me begin by telling the story of Mizo people’s struggle for independence from the India union to give context to the epigraph and to provide a point of entry into the Exodus passage on which I will reflect.

Mizoram, a predominantly Christian state in the northeast corner of India, experienced a violent and tumultuous period between 1966-1986 due to the armed struggle for independence led by the Mizo National Front (formerly Mizo National Famine Front). Historically, the region and the people did not belong to India and did not self-identify as Indians. It was through the British colonial enterprise that it became part of India. However, it continued to remain peripheral, insignificant, and neglected. This marginalized state of existence is largely responsible for the armed uprising that began in the year 1966 – a movement for independence that lasted twenty years. The famine that devastated the state in the years following the 1959 Mautam (Bamboo flowering and the consequent death of bamboos on a large scale) is attributed as one of the primary causes of the independence movement.

The people warned the government of India of the impending famine that was predicted to follow a natural phenomenon called Mautam in 1959 that occurs roughly in a fifty-year cycle. The word Mautam literally means large-scale death of bamboos (perhaps, some sort of epidemic) whose significance in relation to famine lies in that the phenomenon is preceded by a flowering of the bamboos that results in a huge boom in rat population. The rats feed on the bamboo flowers/fruits and eventually turn to feed on crops and food stocks once they are done with the bamboo flower/fruit. This usually results in extensive damage of crops. As such, in the history of the Mizo people, Mautam is synonymous with famine. 

The pleas of the people to alleviate their suffering fell on deaf ears. The neglect and indifference of the government became unbearable and gave rise to widespread discontent and anger. It eventually led to a struggle to secede from India altogether. India retaliated harshly, including air raids and bombings. The atrocities committed by the Indian army are remembered and recounted with pain and terror even to this day and had a enduring impact on many Mizos’ attitude toward “mainland” Indians – i.e., a deep sense of resentment. Such retaliation is no small irony for a nation that had experienced the heavy hands of British colonial tyranny. It was a stark unmasking of India’s sub-imperial culture and a replication of western colonialism within the Indian subcontinent.

It is in this context of resistance and freedom struggle that the epigraph above is to be read. It was carved on a rock outside a cave used as a church by the underground Mizo liberation army near Champhai in Mizoram, a town not far from Indo-Myanmar border. I would like to make an entry into the Exodus passage under consideration using this inscription, which is an appropriation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, an explicitly politicized reading of Jesus’ teaching that is not unwarranted if one is to take two things seriously: the experience of oppression and subjugation, and the central theme of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God. I will now turn to the Exodus text and return to the epigraph at the end of my reflection.

One major deficiency in the interpretation of the Exodus Event in the history of theological interpretation that persists to this today in many quarters is a completely spiritualized and depoliticized understanding of God’s liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Such interpretation strips the Exodus Event empty of its political content and significance, offering only an excessively spiritualized soteriology that is totally depoliticized and other-worldly oriented. I think this amounts to a form of violence against the text. What is needed here is a political and historicized reading of the Event because the Event is such, although one must be careful not to reduce salvation to socio-political liberation.

Interestingly, this (i.e., depoliticization and spiritualization) was not the case with the Mizo independence movement’s reading of Exodus. They understand the Exodus event as a political liberation wrought by God who is on the side of the oppressed. They believe the liberator God of Exodus to be on their side. They invoke the name of the God who delivered the enslaved Hebrews from the mighty hands of the Pharaoh. A song composed by Zoramthanga, the present Chief Minister of Mizoram, during the height of the insurgency in 1968 alludes to Exodus 23:20 where God promises to provide a guardian angel for the people and also to lead them to the Promised Land. The final stanza of the song implores the God who delivers Israel out of Egypt and leads them through the Red Sea, the One who liberates the Babylonian captives, to deliver the Mizo people. The song continues: trusting God the Liberator we (the Mizos) will keep the banner of resistance flying till the people and the land are liberated from external domination.

This instance substantiates the fact that the Exodus story inspires and sustains emancipatory political struggles all over the world. The oppressed and marginalized people see themselves in the story. They are moved and enticed by the compassionate God who hears the agonizing cries of people crushed under the weight of oppression, the God who sees their plight and takes their side, and acts to liberate them from a life of subjugation, dehumanization, and bondage.

The oppressed and the exploited can sing praises to and dance before this God just as Miriam and the Israelites did on the banks of the Red Sea after God’s mighty deliverance. This God is not the abstract First Cause of metaphysics, nor classical theism’s Perfect Being. The “I am” of Exodus is not the God of the philosophers, nor the state God of imperial Rome, or colonial Europe, or the hegemonic God of Christian triumphalists. This is the God who concretizes and particularizes divine universal love by preferentially opting for the poor and the oppressed. This is the God who stands with the marginalized against the Pharaohs of this world and their life-negating powers. This liberating God is the God of life! And it is precisely in this partiality in favor of the least that God’s universal love is to be understood. Otherwise, all talks of the universal dimension of divine love become meaningless and vacuous.

The pioneer African American theologian James H. Cone is right when he maintains that “the liberation of the oppressed is a part of the innermost nature of God. Liberation is not an afterthought, but the essence of divine activity” (Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 67). This is a profoundly vital claim. Here, Cone correctly argues that the liberation of the oppressed is not an addendum or a contingent attitude, nor is it an arbitrary act of God. It is a central aspect of the doctrine of election – God’s election to be humanity’s covenant partner, to employ Barthian vocabulary. As such, the historical liberation of Israel and all oppressed groups is not a mere outward act, but flows from the very nature of God. Put differently, God eternally wills to be the God who preferentially opts for the poor in willing to be God for all. Hence, God is on the side of the poor and the downtrodden because this is what God freely and graciously wills to be.

What we get here is a perfect correspondence between divine being and act (or God’s being ad intra and ad extra). It means positing that the liberative works of God in history are grounded in and they flow from divine essence. We can, therefore, say that God’s solidarity with the poor and the oppressed as witnessed in the Exodus Event and most specifically in the life and death of Jesus Christ is the historical manifestation of who God is eternally and essentially. So, the Exodus Event is the revelation, a repetition of who God is in God’s innermost nature, or who God is in and for Godself, if you will.

Now, why does this matter? Why engage in a rather theoretical dogmatic discourse concerning essential divine nature or on who God is for us and in Godself? I think it matters because it implies that to know God is to know and experience God as the liberator of the oppressed in history even as we actively wait for its fullness in the eschaton. There is no other God! If one comes to know this God there can no longer be a spirituality – a following of Jesus – that is dissociated from emancipatory socio-political engagements. The spiritual and the political are tightly woven together. In the God of Exodus, soteriology is historicized! Furthermore, such theological discourse matters because through it we deepen the claim that God is the liberator when we understand that emancipation is not a mere contingent divine act or an afterthought, but an act that flows from the very essence of God. In making this move we secure the ontological basis for the liberative acts of God in history. In fact, this act of solidarity and divine self-identification with and for the poor has ontological significance in that God eternally constitutes God’s being to be fit for such solidarity – one that entails fellow-suffering, of course, always with the goal of liberation. As such, preferential option for the poor – the central axiom in theologies of liberation – has implications both upstream (divine self-constitution) and downstream (God’s liberative acts in the world that flows from God’s essential nature).

I will end my reflection by returning to the story I began with. My reflection so far has shown that it is impossible and erroneous to read the Exodus event in an entirely ahistorical and spiritualized sense. It is so because the event is a story of political and historical liberation initiated and guided by the God who hears the cries and sees the affliction of the oppressed. And this is how subjugated communities who know the story of Exodus read this text. In it they see a God who stands with them and works for their liberation against the Pharaohs of today. This hermeneutical perspective informed the Mizo liberationist movement’s reading too and they therefore appeal to the Exodus Event in their liberatory struggle and invoke the God of Exodus.

Besides, it is the experience of oppression and marginalization that enable them to read the aforementioned Sermon on the Mount through a distinctly political lens. To urge people to first seek the “political kingdom” of God is a subversive reading of Jesus’ words amidst the marginalization and domination experienced by a people. It is a political reading akin to understanding the Exodus story as a people’s witness to political liberation, which it is. Crucially, to seek the political Kingdom of God is not to fall prey to the seductions of prosperity gospel or to cave in to a decadent desire for excessive material affluence and luxury, or to replace one political despot with another tyrant. Rather it is to seek liberation, justice, and life. For the Kingdom is about shalom! This is a reading that can be best performed by subjects who live under oppression, who are on the underside of history, and are engaged in acts of resisting the might of empires that resolutely deny them full humanity. And such readings must be privileged.

3 thoughts on “Preferential Option for the Poor Once More

  1. Brother Jongte, I welcome and respect your message because it emerges from the reflection of your own experience as a person who has experienced subjugation and marginalization. However, your perspective seems to be heavily influenced by Western/ European theologians, including Jim Cone, whose frame of reference do not include , first hand experiences of indigenous non-western narratives.
    I know the Asian idigenous communities have already developed a body of thought that would be more consonant with your experience as a part of the Mizo people.
    However, thank you for sharing

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