Friday, June 06, 2008

From Greek to Justice. . .

I'm not sure exactly when we first met, but I have always been impressed by the intelligence and scholarly acumen of Dr. Carroll Osburn. The man knows as much about the Greek New Testament, its era and beyond into the 2nd and 3rd centuries, as anyone alive. For thirty years he taught Greek to students involved in seminary and graduate education. He has lectured around the world.

Almost 5 years ago now, Carroll took a huge turn in his life. He left the classroom at Abilene Christian University and its College of Biblical Studies to begin working with the Caris Foundation. Involved in many scholarly projects, Carroll volunteered for three decades as a Greek translation consultant to Bible translators working among pre-literate people in Guatemala, the headwaters of the Amazon, and on Native American reservations. While his new assignment leaves room for teaching (he is spending the summer at St. Andrews University), he works most of the year on relief and justice projects in Africa.

What is really interesting is how his careful reading of the New Testament has led him into work among the poorest of the poor in Third World nations.

Recently, I read one of his scholarly papers published in Ex Auditu, the annual journal of North Park Symposium on Theological Interpretation of Scripture, titled "James, Sirach, and the Poor" (Vol. 22, 2006, pp. 113-132).

The essay begins in a highly technical manner, but closes with surprising reflections about faith and the pursuit of justice. I intend to post some of the essay over the next several days to stimulate our thinking.

Here's the first of it:

". . .the reading of James must move beyond those matters obviously intended for early readers. Here one transitions to. . .understanding the text to create a textual world into which readers may enter, along with all they know and experience in their own contemporary context.

". . .Clearly, James is convinced that genuine religion requires social concern and that one's social involvement in the present is just as vital as one's personal religious beliefs and practices. . . .The matter of justice for the poor, once a lively classroom topic, has now taken on new and vital meaning. This opportunity to reinvent myself professionally also became the opportunity for self-redefinition personally, very much along the lines James presents. . . .

"Over the past three years significant involvement in African villages and slums introduced me to societal systems and structural injustice to the poor and became a stimulus as well to reassess Christianity in this light. Matters now occupy my attention which formerly were left to others. Corrupt governments, tribal conflicts, unequal distribution of wealth, suppression of intellectual and political freedom, and militarism are but a few of the many societal systems reflecting injustice with which I work daily in Africa. Structural injustice takes other forms. Perhaps one in four people in the world lack sufficient resources (land, funds, and education) to participate in the global economy, resulting in a growing inequality between rich and poor and unhealthy materialism and consumerism. Industrialized nations impose trade barriers on goods from lesser developed countries that help create poverty. Huge loans to developing countries have resulted in a severe debt crisis. Health care and education are often curtailed in order to repay such debts. . . . Such matters cannot but affect self-redefinition, and they certainly bring new questions to one's textual world."

Reactions? More from Carroll Osburn in coming posts.



Adam Gonnerman said...

Wow. I'm just impressed he went from comfortable academia to the front lines of the spiritual battle going on in our world.

Adam Gonnerman said...

By the way, you mentioned that he is working with the Caris Foundation on relief and justice projects in Africa. What exactly does that mean? What is he doing? Sorry, I know what it means generally, but I'm looking for specifics.

Eric Livingston said...

"...and that one's social involvement in the present is just as vital as one's personal religious beliefs and practices..."

Moreover, I take James' point to be that one's social involvement in the present is a subset and living out of one's personal religious beliefs and practices.

Larry James said...

Couldn't agree more, Eric, as in "show me your faith by what you do!"

Adam, the work of Caris in Africa and elsewhere involves attention to water well drilling, medical/hospital development and outreach to children, especially those orphaned by pandemics such as HIV/AIDS. You can see their work at the website:

Adam Gonnerman said...


Thanks for the reply. I've had inklings that if I manage to get back to Brazil, I might end up engaged in more "social justice" type work.

I can't get that link to work, but when I get home I'll try it.

Anonymous said...

Slightly off the subject, but how come Africa, a country that has been populated since time begin, is still drilling for water?

Anonymous said...

Ask the white colonial powers of the 19th and 20th centuries!

Dean said...

It reminds me of Albert Schweitzer who wrote The Search for the Historical Jesus, closed his academic career and went to work in Africa for the rest of his life. What a great way to continue, and end, his search!