A couple of weeks back I was fortunate enough to be present as two presidents addressed the several thousand Bible and religion scholars who had gathered in San Diego for the annual Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion conference. It sounds riveting, I know. Having spoken at the same convention at about the same time of day – albeit to a much smaller crowd (think single figures) – the prospect of a presidential address given by a biblical scholar may not have been every convention attendees idea of a good night out on a Friday right around dinner time in sunny San Diego.
All the same, my wife and I dutifully went along leaving behind three delighted children and a babysitter and a movie, and gathered in the subarctic conditions of the convention center’s air-conditioned great ballroom. The president we came to listen to that night was Fernando Segovia, who was a remarkable choice as President of the Society of Biblical Literature for two reasons. Firstly, he is the first since SBL’s founding in 1880 to be from the global south. Secondly, Segovia’s scholarship speaks to the guild from a vantage point that still sits somewhat at the margins of biblical scholarship. As one of the foremost proponents of a postcolonial approach to biblical interpretation, the ways of reading texts and contexts that Segovia brings to the fore concern issues that are prevalent in much of the global south: endemic poverty, structural violence against women and disempowered groupings and individuals, and widespread and deep-seated corruption at almost every level of society.
You might be thinking that this was some date night for my wife and I, yet, in truth, as Fernando Segovia addressed the several thousand individuals who had gathered there something more entered the room. Segovia’s vision was that the work that might be done back in the libraries and seminar rooms of the universities and seminaries that were represented there that night might come, at last, to take the world seriously as a context biblical studies might speak to and from. Mass poverty; profound shifts in our understanding of identity around matters of ethnicity, nation and religion; a global climate crisis; struggles for political freedoms and representation – all were presented as pressing issues that the cloistered world of academic pursuits must address. We left the convention hall enlivened and inspired by a man who had said that learning matters, not only for its own sake but for the sake of the world we share with one another.
Perhaps in your own working life none of this is new. Perhaps your life is so inextricably linked to the welfare of the world around you that you do not need any inspiration. My suspicion is, though, that most of live out an existence that is disconnected from the welfare of others. For, in spite of the fact that the low-cost of the items at our local grocery is directly dependent on the poor wages and working conditions of the laborers who pick the fruit and harvest the vegetables we buy, most of us do not make the conscious effort to shop as if the welfare of others actually mattered. Similar disconnects could be pointed out across life as it is spent in a global village. Moreover, many of us are conditioned to believe that the vast inequities of this world are so much beyond our contending with that there is simply nothing we can do about it other than try to go about living a quiet and peaceable life as best we can. It took a second presidential address to name that myth for the deception it truly is.
At the heart of the edifice of the attempt to fashion a global free market economy is the argument that states that if everyone were just left to their own devices, without the interference of government or stifling regulation, then the sheer tenacity of the human spirit would be enough to lift millions out of poverty. Therefore, the best thing a decent person in the global north can do is get out of the way, and when retirement comes, keep the peace and play lots of golf. President Jimmy Carter is the antidote to such a blatant fiction. It has been 33 years since he left the White House and the presidency, yet at the spry age of 90 he still travels extensively, seeking to incite and invigorate debate and action that might make a tangible difference in the world. His latest book focuses on women and their plight for justice and well-being in today’s world. Through the work of the Carter Center, millions of lives have been affected for the good through combating various diseases or by working with divided communities on conflict resolution.
Yet, it is not the achievements of the Carter Center that stand out most prominently for me. It is simply the witness of one human being, who decided at some point in his life that being President of the United States was not enough of a contribution to the world he lives in and that the enduring vocation of being human is to give for the betterment of others as long as breath still moves in the body. Who would have thought that a convention of Bible and religion scholars would have offered such an inspiration? I only hope that at 90 years of age, I will be able to look back and say with anything near the same satisfaction that I have made my one life on this earth count. What about yours?