History Written By the Losers

African proverb captures the same spirit

Before I delve into a lot of specifics about how social justice work is encouraged throughout the Bible, I want to start with a simple but important observation. There is a maxim in studying history:

History is written by the victors.

The farther back in history you go, the more likely this maxim is to be true. After all, it takes literacy to write, which “the losers” (the uneducated) often didn’t have. It took money to write and to copy, which “the losers” (the poor, which was the majority) often didn’t have. And of course it took still being alive and in a social position of freedom, which “the losers” (of military battles) often weren’t. It might be optimistic to suggest that as we become adapted to the hyper-connectivity of the Internet would allow the oppressed their voice, but I’m not sure we need to look any further than the latest Facebook hoax to reject the idea that it really is any more democratic of a medium.

There are certain implications of this maxim for those studying history. For example, if you’re reading a summary of a victorious battle written by the scribe of a conquering king, it is usually going to be written in a way that makes the conquering nation look as good as possible while making the conquered look as bad as possible. In Googling around for this post, I saw a great line (paraphrased):

Of course good always conquers evil. The victors write the history.

The victorious army’s writers may exaggerate just how many enemies they killed or water down how much they lost, or may emphasize the moral flaws of their enemies while glossing over their own. Reading with this in mind is typically a requirement of studying Ancient history, in large part because the Ancients did not view the task of history in the same way that we do now and so they did not see anything wrong with this approach (and whether we like it or not, we still do it, just a bit less obviously).

All of that introduction to say, even setting aside for a moment the Christian belief of divine inspiration of the Bible (1 Tim 3:16-17), there is something remarkable about our Scriptures: it is a very rare exception to the above rule. It was written by the losers, about the losers, and continually emphasized how much God loves the losers. Even more significantly, biblical authors continually step forward to challenge the so-called “winners” (ie, those with power) about how they use their power. The fact that the text survived this long and is now the most-read text in the world is pretty amazing if for no reason other than that those in power never managed to wipe it out as they would many other texts (and stories told orally) that so blatantly opposed them.

The Old Testament follows a bunch of losers called the Israelites. They were a small nation. They didn’t have a lot of money. Their religion set them apart in a way that didn’t help them get along with their neighbours. Their land was pretty good, but they didn’t really keep control of it for long since they were routinely under the oppression of a more powerful nation. A lot of the stories of the Old Testament are ones where the flaws of the key players are clearly on display.

The New Testament isn’t much different. Jesus was from a town often mocked (e.g. John 1:46) and born to a mother who became pregnant out of wedlock. Then he got himself killed by the power-holders of his day, a combination of the religious and the political leadership who did not like his radical message which challenged their power. He died on a cross, which is pretty much as big of a loss as they come, not just dying but dying in an absolutely humiliating way as a traitor and blasphemer. And then he rose again, and his fellow losers – fisherman, tax collectors, and the like – kept on writing and living in his name.

Just a few of the Bible’s “losers”

The Bible: written by losers, about losers, and for losers. My hope is that we all, many of us “winners,” are able to open our eyes to this unmistakable thread of Scripture. That’s not an easy task but it is one I am excited to undertake with you over the next year.

Note: This article was originally written for my work with the Canadian Bible Society and then adapted to post here. Expect more articles coming soon as part of an upcoming justice initiative.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.