In almost all of history, the vast majority of people understood the view from the bottom due to their own life circumstance. Most of the people who have ever lived on this planet have been oppressed and poor. But their history was seldom written except in the Bible (until very recently in such books as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States). Only in modern times and wealthy countries do we find the strange phenomenon of the masses of people having an establishment mentality! This relatively new thing, called “the middle class,” gives many of us just enough comfort not to have to feel the pinch or worry about injustice for ourselves. Only by solidarity with other people’s suffering can comfortable people be converted. Otherwise they are disconnected from the cross–of the world, of others, of Jesus, and finally of their own necessary participation in the great mystery of dying and rising. Most of us in the Northern Hemisphere have a view from the top even though we are nowhere near the top ourselves. The mass of people can normally be bought off by giving them just enough “bread and circuses,” as the Romans said.
In the early Christian Scriptures, or the “New” Testament, we clearly see that it’s mostly the lame, the poor, the blind, the prostitutes, the drunkards, the tax collectors, the sinners–those on the bottom and the outside–that really hear Jesus’ teaching and get the point and respond to him. It’s the leaders and insiders (the priests, scribes, Pharisees, teachers of the law, and Roman leaders) who crucify him. Check this out, if you do not believe me. How did we miss such a core point? Most of Christian history kept the point from hitting home by blaming the Jews. Power was the problem, not the Jews. When Christians have all the power, they do the same thing, and we also would have crucified Jesus if he had critiqued the Catholic Church or any church the way he did his own religion.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the first Christians are largely “underground.” They are the persecuted ones, meeting in secrecy in the catacombs. During this time, we see a lot of good interpretation of the Scriptures, with a liberationist worldview (i.e., a view from the bottom). You could say that at that time, we were largely a Church of the poor and for the poor.
The turning point, at which the Church moved from the bottom to the top, is the year 313 when Emperor Constantine thinks he’s doing us a great favor by beginning to make Christianity the established religion of the Holy Roman Empire. That’s how the Apostolic Church became Roman Catholicism. We got all linked up with imperial world views, and our perspective changed from the view from the bottom and powerlessness (the persecuted, the outsiders) to the view from the top where we were now the ultimate insiders (power, money, status, and control)–and Emperors convened (and controlled?) most of the early Councils of the Church, not bishops or popes. That is verifiable history. Sadly, most did not see the problem with that (and many still don’t). Many saints along the way still tried to be a Church for the poor, but from a somewhat “superior” and safe stance. It is only in some form of actual solidarity with the outsiders/sinners/little ones that we fully get the message of the Gospel. It is only then that we understand our own poor soul and its neediness.
Gateway to Silence
God hears the cry of the poor.