Associating with the Humiliated
The impulse to care for the afflicted, oppressed, and humiliated victims on the margins of society is felt in academic and faith communities past and present. Paul, for example, encouraged the early church to associate with the humble (Rom 12:16). But an academic arena provides a challenge to this type of community association. The classroom seems, at times, to be a sterile environment only affected by each student's own perspectives on the text. How can instructors, who may be motivated by pedagogical, social, or theological commitments, help students associate with the humiliated?
I have been teaching various Bible courses for four years at a conservative religious institution in the Northwest. I have also taught students online from both this college and a sister college in the Midwest. Students in my classes come from conservative middle to upper class families and are typically required to take a Bible class. They have come to college to pursue a degree and to develop their faith. I have also had the opportunity to teach a course for a university in Albania. The class consisted of elite college and high school students. I use the term elite because they represented the intellectual in Albanian culture.
I have noticed that my students here and abroad are not well informed concerning societal issues such as discrimination and abuse. They do not see these as forms of evil that demand personal attention but as issues for government institutions to address. While they may be superficially aware of these issues, they have not reflected on them personally or theologically. When approaching biblical texts that deal with these issues, the students have trouble being moved to feel the compassion, anger, or frustration expressed in the biblical text. This emotional distance between uninvolved modern students and ancient fiery passages makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to be moved to action. It is a challenge for me to let the text move students from the safety and sterility of the classroom to the realities in society.
This dilemma has given me the desire to unite my work in Christian ministry to abuse victims, immigrants, and those struggling with various addictions, with my work in the classroom. Those who do not understand the powerless cannot empathize with them, and those who do not empathize with the powerless cannot practice justice and mercy. Testimonies from victims, however, can create an awareness of powerlessness and the power of the text to create hope.
In the classroom I use testimonies from various areas of life. Testimony from parents who have lost children to disease or have experienced the suffering of a child stimulate an intense reflection on concepts such as divine sovereignty, the presence of evil in sickness, and the need for hope and perseverance. Stories from abused or molested victims also bring similar reflections as well as feelings of powerlessness, shame, abandonment, and a desire for justice. Wives married to sexual addicts also challenge the class to see the need for hope, healing, and justice in the lives of these women who assumed that they were married to "good spiritual men." Those who were homeless or working with homelessness provided an understanding of shame, humiliation, and despair. These testimonies were given to students in writing, through videos and interviews, by serving in shelters, and/or during personal face-to-face discussions with victims.
These stories and experiences are introduced near the end of the semester after students are emotionally and intellectually "locked up" with information that they do not know how to process. They can either "create a new file," so to speak, or reject the information completely. I prepare them to "create a new file" from the text and encourage them to seek answers from the biblical books that we study
Instead of a term paper the students in my courses are assigned a six- to- eight-page theological project, a case study that involves them meeting and talking with someone who has experienced suffering, abuse, death, or emotional trauma. The students are asked to use the biblical texts discussed in class to find a way to provide comfort or hope for the individual and are asked to reflect on and write about what they will do with the individual, the text, and their experiences. This is an attempt to have them process their knowledge of the text with the issues of suffering and oppression among others. Student reflection on this process has suggested to me that the students are emotionally moved to understand the plight of the oppressed and those who are suffering. The students feel more aware of suffering in the lives of others and feel better prepared to help those who are suffering. I have also found that the students have a better understanding of the biblical texts being studied. This is one thing that I have done to move my classes from a type of isolated conceit toward a better sense of what it means to associate with the humiliated.
I do see a potential problem in using this method. It can lead to a period of anger and criticism toward family, religious institutions, and sometimes the government. This is a powerful response to the students' experiences but still a valuable part of the process. This can be a precarious step. It is hard not to make my battles their battles. My own ability to differentiate my emotions on these issues plays a tremendous role in guiding the students through the process of anger to seeking a solution. I do not want them to go away angry without finding a way to solve the problem; that would defeat the purpose of the exercise. I must guide them to process their anger in the text. The anger is one step in their process of healing and must be seen as a stage, not an end. When students wrestle with these issues they also begin to see the insensitivity of those who do not understand suffering, powerlessness, and guilt.
A survey of the students has revealed some information concerning the use of testimonies, case studies, and the theological project. Students indicated that these testimonies and case studies had a strong influence on their perceptions of biblical texts (8.26 on a scale of 1 to 10) and their searching the text for answers (8.47). The lowest response was the action response (7.0), which suggests that the students may not have a vehicle to address suffering by the time of the survey.
The use of victim testimony with student dialogue is a powerful method of teaching biblical texts in an academic setting. Victim and survivor stories help students grasp issues of social justice and oppression discussed in prophetic texts, narratives of violence toward women, and apocalyptic literature. They also evoke a response in the students and allow them to process anger with a resolve for peace and social justice. Victim association stirs empathy toward others and appreciation for biblical texts.
Several reports suggest that this project has moved some students to address issues of injustice and suffering in their communities. Students in Albania have made contact with a local women's abuse shelter and are working with their abuse program, and one psychology major has elected to do her internship in domestic violence intervention. Some of my students in the United States report that they have been moved to show compassion both for perpetrators and for victims of abuse. In one case, others on campus have been persuaded to be involved in doing the same, thus assisting efforts in the community to forgive, monitor, support, and protect.
Time will be a factor in determining the long-term effects of this method of teaching in biblical studies. My experience and research suggest that victims' testimonies and case studies can be powerful methods for creating awareness and a deeper appreciation for the biblical text.
Ronald R. Clark, Jr., teaches at Cascade College, Portland, OR.
Citation: Ronald R. Clark, Jr., " Associating with the Humiliated," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=222