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Every year during the third weekend in November, I attend a conference that attracts thousands of biblical and religious scholars from around the globe.
This year, I presided at a session on the history of biblical interpretation where senior scholars were invited to reflect on the task of recovering past interpretations of Scripture. One scholar suggested that the growing interest in the history of biblical interpretation offers biblical scholars the opportunity to recover, explore, and learn from voices that have traditionally been marginalized in the work of mainstream biblical interpretation—women, people of color, those from the majority world. She described this work of recovering marginalized voices as “amplification,” a term she borrowed from White House politics.
As the story goes, during the Obama administration, female staffers struggled to be recognized and often felt like their voices were marginalized. To remedy this, they adopted the strategy of amplification such that when one woman made a key point, other women would repeat it and give credit to its author. The effect was to force everyone in the room to recognize the contribution and its source. Obama noticed this effort and responded affirmatively by calling on women staffers more often.
In a similar way, this scholar sought to amplify the voices of those interpreters who were influential and novel in their own day and in their own communities, but whose contributions had been largely ignored or absorbed into mainstream scholarship without acknowledgement or recognition of their source. For her, this was not an extra-curricular endeavor, something to dabble in when she had some extra time.
She was compelled to engage in this scholarship at the margins, so to speak, out of moral conviction and in service to the church. These voices, these interpreters, she suggested, had gone unrecognized for far too long. It was time to acknowledge their contributions to the understanding of Scripture, both to honor these marginalized voices properly, but also to help the church embrace more fully all of itself, all that God has given to the church by which the church may be built up.
Amplification in Scripture
As I was listening to this paper, it occurred to me that we see a similar phenomenon in Scripture. Here the amplifying is less about the voice of the marginalized. Instead, Scripture amplifies the presence and contributions of the marginalized so that they would be noticed and known and more fully welcomed and enjoyed by the life of the community.
Take the book of Philemon, for instance. Against the backdrop of the Greco-Roman world, which was extremely hierarchical, Paul goes out of his way to advocate for a runaway slave, aligning himself with someone who, under Roman law, was considered property and had no legal personhood. Though the culture deemed Onesimus a non-person, however, Paul insists that in Christ, he is family, he is a brother. As such, Onesimus is owed the same honor and dignity that he himself would been given as a Roman citizen and an apostle. “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me (v. 17).”
One can only imagine how Philemon, a leader of the Church of Colossae, would have welcomed the apostle Paul. There would be food and fanfare, expressions of welcome and hospitality, a seat at the head of the table. Paul would very quickly have been brought into the center of the life of the household and everyone would know that he is a person of great importance whom they should treat with respect. This, Paul says, is how they should treat Onesimus. They are to amplify his presence as a brother in Christ, enfolding him into the community and inviting him to share of his gifts.
We see a similar phenomenon in Romans 16. There Paul sends greetings and commendations to various persons who have joined him in the work of the gospel. What is striking about this text is the number of women that Paul highlights and commends. In the Roman world, women were largely relegated to the home and did not participate in the public realm. But here, though the culture had largely marginalized women, Paul amplifies their work in the gospel and their leadership in the church. In doing so, he both honors their work and invites the church to embrace fully all that God is giving them through women and their leadership.
All of this got me to thinking. Perhaps it’s time that those of us who participate in predominantly white churches commit ourselves to reaching out, learning about, honoring, and amplifying the presence and work of more marginalized Christian communities in North America. African American, Latino, and refugee communities come to mind.
I don’t know exactly how to do this. But I suspect that in doing so, we will not only honor these largely marginalized communities (which should be motivation in and of itself), but we will also be deeply blessed by what God has to give his church, how God may build up his church through them.