Exploring Biblical Perspectives on Economic Justice: Classroom Reflections
Teachers inevitably learn more about their subject matter as they teach, and student learning can be enhanced as teachers assess student work, receive feedback, and reflect on the educational process as a whole. Having taught biblical studies at the undergraduate level for several years now, I am very aware that I continue to learn—especially in the process of teaching. What follows are a few non-scientific, anecdotal observations I've made in teaching some recent courses. My hope is that other teachers—newer ones, especially—will find something useful in these musings as they pursue their own pedagogical adventures.
The Context: Exploring Biblical Perspectives on Economic Justice
My comments pertain to two recent biblical studies courses I have developed at Saint Mary's College of California (a four-year, Catholic liberal arts institution located in the San Francisco Bay Area). The first class, "Wealth and Poverty in the Bible," explores a range of biblical texts (especially Torah, Prophets, and Gospels) in order to explore economic justice from a biblical point of view. In addition to developing students' familiarity with biblical texts and values, the class incorporates contemporary economic and social issues. My hope is that students will learn to utilize biblical traditions and perspectives as analytical tools and dialogue partners with which to begin assessing and evaluating modern society's paradigms and practices. I have now taught the class twice (spring 2004, spring 2005), and this fall I will teach an updated version of it in a linked-course format. As part of a recent campus initiative, a sociologist colleague and I will offer students an opportunity to join a "Wealth and Poverty" learning community. Students must enroll in both courses (he will teach "Wealth and Poverty in the United States"), and the instructors will sit in on each other's classes. The linked-course arrangement will encourage interdisciplinary reflection and provide a great opportunity to explore further how to improve the teaching and learning in my own class.
The second course, "Living Dangerously: Discipleship in Action," was offered for the first time in January 2005. (Saint Mary's College has a 4-1-4 academic calendar [fall and spring semesters bracketing an interim January Term]. During "Jan Term," students take a single, full credit course in one month's time. Classes are non-departmental, and faculty are encouraged to teach in areas of interest that may fall outside of their normal areas of specialization. The focused schedule and unique opportunities for learning make the short term popular with students and faculty alike.) As part of another campus initiative, a colleague from CILSA (the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action at Saint Mary's College) and I developed "Living Dangerously" in order to provide upper-division students an opportunity to explore issues of economic injustice and violence from the perspective of Christian faith. Taking into account a range of biblical texts, secondary readings related to economic justice and non-violence, and stories of actual Christian believers (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), students considered circumstances and contexts in which Christians encountered difficulty and even danger as a result of acting on their faith convictions. Although some of the issues and many of the biblical readings overlapped with the "Wealth and Poverty in the Bible" course, "Living Dangerously" was quite different in both style and substance. (Since the original initiative called for a two-year teaching commitment, I will teach "Living Dangerously" again in January 2006.)
The Value of Professorial Engagement and Enthusiasm
When my students recognize that I am personally engaged with and enthusiastic about the course material, their eagerness to learn seems to increase. Classes that deal with potentially controversial topics—as mine inherently do—must present a wide range of perspectives and must remain open to diverse points of view. At the same time, faculty need not feign neutrality or ambivalence in order to present a given topic fairly and effectively. Teaching can be a revolutionary activity, and teachers accept and are shouldered with awesome responsibility. What we teach—as well as what we don't—will inevitably influence our world, for better or worse. We should not pretend to approach our craft from a "value neutral" perspective any more than we should engage in brainwashing. Each of us brings our own perceptions, quirks, and questions into the classroom. The goal should not be to hide our perspectives—but to allow them to be vetted and challenged in the process of teaching and learning even as our students' perspectives are being developed, strengthened, or challenged. At its best—and most revolutionary—teaching models a curiosity, an engagement, a lifestyle of learning. In this sense, both effective teaching and successful learning are as much about the how as the what. Each involves engaging in the world with integrity and hope—integrity, because the responsibilities that the educational process brings must not be shirked; and hope, because it serves as a catalyst for lasting, positive change.
My interest in academic biblical study is a rather recent development. I grew up in a vibrant evangelical Protestant culture in which faith was conceptualized almost entirely in individualistic terms. After several journeys to Central America, however, I began losing interest in a God who seemed unconcerned about structural injustice and war. I enrolled in seminary in part to determine whether the Bible knew of a God concerned for personal redemption as well as corporate liberation. I found that the biblical text does in fact testify forcefully to a God passionately concerned about the widow, the orphan, and the alien—the God of the Exodus, the Jubilee, and the prophet Amos. I continue to find myself converted by the good news.
Now, having completed a Ph.D. in New Testament, I teach classes treating biblical perspectives on economic and social justice because I continue to be passionate about the issues. From a personal standpoint, I want to continue exploring how I can live with ever increasing awareness, authenticity, and integrity. I do not ask my students to think like me or agree with me. What I do ask is that they join me in a potentially challenging learning process—one that will require us to explore a range of difficult issues, assess our assumptions and values, and wrestle with the implications of our findings. Students respond because they know that I'm an eager traveler in our common educational journey.
Relevance as a Key to Student Learning
To state that relevant subject matter fosters student learning may seem to represent the height of banality. Nevertheless, my recent courses have reminded me of the powerful role that relevance can play in the learning process. Although we biblical scholars sometimes remain enthralled for years with minute grammatical nuances, historical curiosities, and theological puzzles, we are a rare and strange breed. The wonders of our scholarly playground may be obvious to us, but the excitement we feel is certainly lost on most of those whom we teach.
Few of my students see academic biblical study as a worthwhile, relevant activity—especially at the outset of a course. My classes are filled mostly by students who "have to take" them, given that every student must complete two religious studies courses in order to graduate. Moreover, my students come from a variety of religious backgrounds: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and a range of others. A significant percentage of my students, by their own admission, are "not religious," and a good number have had little or no experience in organized religion. For these reasons, relatively few enter my classroom with a burning sense that the Bible can be relevant for their broader education, their careers, or their lives.
With all of this in mind, I spend at least some time at the outset of every course attempting to describe why students may, in fact, find academic biblical study worthwhile. I suggest that the Bible represents a treasure trove of fascinating, dynamic, provocative, and potentially compelling literature with which any "liberally educated" individual in the West should be familiar. Of course, an adequate grasp of Western history, culture, religion, and politics requires some understanding of the Bible and how it has been used. Quotations and allusions to biblical texts and themes continue to abound in literature, film, and music of all kinds. The Bible wrestles with a number of seminal questions: metaphysical, historical, cultural, existential, ethical, eschatological, and so forth. It is not difficult to make a case for academic biblical study as a component of a strong liberal arts education. Nevertheless, a well-articulated rationale for biblical study does not guarantee student interest.
In my experience, students find biblical literature most engaging and relevant when they can see biblical themes intersect tangibly with important contemporary issues. At a time when millions die for want of basic necessities such as food, clean water, and medical care, when world leaders struggle even to attain modest agreements regarding debt and poverty relief, and when the gap between the poorest and the wealthiest continues to grow, the Bible's demands for economic righteousness can seem disarmingly prophetic and pertinent.
Recent class discussions, student evaluations, and other feedback (including tests, assignments, and student projects) have convinced me that courses designed to examine tangible biblical values—including economic justice—can develop disciplinary competency, foster critical thinking and healthy debate, and enhance student learning. An open-ended existential question such as "How should we live?" can be an especially effective organizing rubric. Postmodernity notwithstanding, I find that most students—Christians and non-Christians alike—are drawn to serious discussions about values, morality, meaning, and purpose. In this sense, academic biblical study can help us focus on compelling and interesting questions—and not necessarily narrowly "Christian" ones—that might be asked about our contemporary milieu.
Near the end of last semester, some of my "Wealth and Poverty in the Bible" students surprised me by lamenting that we had not done more work with biblical texts. I had wrongly assumed that they would soon get bored with the Bible and want to move on to more contemporary—and more obviously relevant—discussions. I was delighted to learn of my misjudgment. My students did not need to be convinced that academic biblical study could be interesting and relevant today. The obvious relevance of biblical texts and themes drew them in. The Bible had revealed volumes about our contemporary values and society, and students wanted to delve even deeper than I had planned. If only that were the case in every class I teach.
Control Does Not Guarantee Learning
I was an undergraduate when I first encountered the work of Paulo Freire. I remember being intrigued with his critique of the "banking" model of teaching and learning, in which the educational process is understood as a transfer of information—a "deposit"—from teacher to student. Even more compelling to me was the idea that education could be understood as a process of "conscientization."
I had been in Central America three times prior to the completion of my undergraduate degree in international studies at Whitworth College, and I was preparing for a fourth trip in 1990 as teaching assistant on a four-month study tour through the region. In the months prior to our departure, I served as a teaching assistant in "Contemporary Latin American Problems," a course taught by Ron Frase, a sociologist, campus minister, and the primary force behind the Central America semester. I vividly remember being stunned by the power of education when understood as conscientization: as students encountered and wrestled with a range of contemporary issues—militarization and war, politics and foreign policy, religion and theology, economics and trade—their very ways of perceiving and engaging the world were often deeply affected. As Frase used to say, "The important thing is not when you grab the truth but when the truth grabs you." Students' experiences corroborated his observation as we traveled through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. I'm convinced that the praxis-oriented style of much of my college coursework was a tremendous factor in my own learning.
Despite the active role students take in graduate learning, typical programs may not encourage an active, praxis-oriented teaching and learning style. Graduate education is often conceptualized in hierarchical terms. Doctoral-level expertise and specialization tend to reinforce hierarchies and stratification. Worse, budding biblical scholars tend to work alone in a library, often isolated from the kinds of communities and contexts that arguably give biblical interpretation its primary raison d'etre. I experienced some of this despite the fact that the schools that I attended (Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, M.Div., Th.M.; Union Theological Seminary-PSCE [Richmond, VA], Ph.D.) were probably less stratified and more collegial than I suspect is typical.
When I began teaching at the college level, I realized almost immediately that I was far more comfortable with the "banking" model of instruction than I wanted to admit. I remember having once been told that beginning teachers often fixate on their course content for a number of years before they become comfortable enough to focus on how they teach as much as on what. That observation certainly describes my own experience. Encouraging active learning, praxis, and conscientization is not easy. To do so requires that one give up a significant measure of "control" over the classroom and its outcomes. When I give a traditional ("banking") lecture, at least I "know" what the students are learning.
Or so I used to think. Increasingly, over the last couple of years, I have begun learning—slowly, in fits and starts—to worry a bit less than I have in the past about my role in delivering the "content" I want to teach. I'm beginning to realize that learning, not teaching, must be the goal of all I do. I suspect that my traditional lectures are probably less effective than I had once thought and that, when I relinquish some control over the pedagogical process, my students seem to take away more from the class in the long run. I can present all the minute details I want my students to learn about a given subject, but doing so does not guarantee that they are learning those details. Finding a more effective balance between a traditional "content delivery" model and a more open-ended, student-centered exploration style need not require, as I once suspected, that classes be "dumbed down." Teaching with less emphasis on "banking" does not make a course "softer" academically; on the contrary, the most effective—and academic—courses are those that enable students to retain, integrate, and make use of learning throughout their lives.
Relinquishing some control over learning can take many forms, including something as simple as a shift from a traditional lecture format to a more collaborative discussion style. Regardless of the specific forms with which one experiments, any movement away from teacher-centered pedagogy toward student-centered learning increases the potential unpredictability of the classroom experience. This unpredictability can be disconcerting to us as teachers, especially if we have grown accustomed to feeling in control of each situation. Of course, discussions and other classroom activities can veer in directions for which we were unprepared. Student-centered learning requires that we learn new skills—such as the ability to "think on our feet" and adapt to an ever-changing classroom dynamic—even as we expect our students to learn new information and skills. In the end, when I give up some of my "control," I actually become a better teacher by becoming a fellow learner with my students—a participant in, rather than the dictator of, the learning process. I'm fairly confident that my students' learning benefits. Certainly, based on my assessment of assignments, tests, discussion quality, and student feedback, overall learning is not hindered when I move away from a strictly teacher-centric pedagogical style. In fact, I think my students actually internalize class material more than they would have if I had tried to control their learning through traditional teaching methods. If that's not the point of all this work, I'm not sure what is.
Charity and Structural Change: An Ongoing Challenge
As we examine economic values and justice from biblical and theological perspectives, I have found that it can be especially difficult for some students to understand and—more importantly—to internalize the difference between charitable activities targeted at immediate needs and efforts focused on long-term structural inequities. We live in a society that values the philanthropic impulse, and charitable generosity is manifested in many important ways. In my experience, students can readily see how faith commitments might engender intermittent volunteer work at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Asking why soup kitchens or homeless shelters are necessary in the first place—and whether or to what extent faith commitments might (should?) be channeled toward the elimination of their root causes—is a much more difficult question for students. They are not to blame, of course. We have a difficult time as a society (at least in the United States) recognizing—or admitting—that we participate in (and often benefit from) social systems that may cause more harm than our charitable activities can possibly alleviate.
To be sure, charity and generosity are crucial; they are biblical and theological concerns of the highest order. At the same time, it is clear that the God of the Bible is deeply committed to stemming the tide of structural injustice (e.g., Exodus, Jubilee, Prophets). Ultimately, charity and structural change need not be placed in opposition to one another. Teachers should recognize, however, that the logic of charity will seem quite natural to most students. By contrast, the rationale for structural change may seem fuzzy or artificially manufactured.
The Bible can itself provide an effective antidote for this imbalance. When students encounter biblical instructions regarding such things as debt forgiveness, gleaning, and fair market practices, and when they realize that the Bible's notion of justice is defined by how society treats its most vulnerable (as opposed to the treatment of the "middle class," as is the case in most American political rhetoric), they begin to realize that justice understood in terms of societal structures has deep biblical and theological roots. In this context, teaching becomes akin to participating with students in a process of recovery and retrieval. Indeed, some of my students—who would not have envisioned the Bible as an ally in their own commitments to justice—have been surprised and heartened to learn that they already agree with some of the Bible's most important values.
My sense is that there are no simple, foolproof ways to help students move beyond relatively simplistic notions of charity toward more challenging structural questions. I have found that it is necessary to highlight the differences often and in various contexts; repetition is certainly crucial in any learning process. Class discussions and secondary readings can be effective as well. I have used both Walter Wink's The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Trade, 1999) and Ronald J. Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 1997 [5th edition, 2005]) to great effect. Each of them introduces the idea of structural or societal sin in a way that students can readily grasp and debate. Moreover, exploring biblical and theological values found in Catholic Social Teaching (e.g., human dignity, common good, multiple levels of justice) can help students see the integral link between biblical faith and social justice. Service-learning is also worth considering in this regard. This praxis-oriented methodology has become a popular and powerful tool for learning. (Service-learning is a central component of my "Living Dangerously" class and it will be included in the "Wealth and Poverty" learning community this fall.) While it is not a silver bullet on its own—some placements may actually reinforce the tendency to overlook root causes of social inequity—service-learning can provide a vivid "text" for discussion and analysis. As teachers, we can join our students in the learning process, encouraging them to explore issues pertaining to charity and structural change alike.
A Closing Thought
Teaching is a difficult, challenging endeavor. At the same time, there are few things I have more fun doing. Perhaps the main reason for this is that teaching is never a one-way street. I have the regular privilege of learning with and from my students, the hope of the next generation. I can think of nothing else I would rather do. Let the struggle for justice continue.
Michael Barram, Saint Mary's College of California, email@example.com
1. Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Seabury, 1970.
Citation: Michael Barram, " Exploring Biblical Perspectives on Economic Justice: Classroom Reflections," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=421