The Ujamaa Centre emerged in a time of deep conflict in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. Local communities of poor, working-class and marginalised black South Africans were torn apart by state-sponsored violence. In this context of daily death and violence the cry went up, "How can we hear God speak to us in these times?"
This cry was a common cry in South Africa during the dark days of apartheid. The apartheid state claimed that they were a Christian government, and though there was some prophetic witness from the churches, most churches adopted a position that did not challenge the status quo. So the cry of the vast majority of black South Africans, most of whom are Christian, was how to find a new way of reading the Bible so that they could hear God speak to them. The "gospel" proclaimed by the apartheid state and by many of the churches was not "good news" for the poor!
The Ujamaa Centre was one response to this cry. The conflict in KwaZulu-Natal in the late 1980s brought socially engaged biblical scholars, organic intellectuals, and displaced communities into daily contact. We began to read the Bible together, taking seriously the contributions of each other. What emerged is what we now call "Contextual Bible Study".
Contextual Bible study can be described as consisting of four commitments. The first commitment is that Bible reading begins with the lived reality of poor, working-class, and marginalised communities. The incarnation and life of Jesus give clear testimony to God´s preferential option for the poor and marginalised. So their daily struggles for survival, liberation, and life become the starting point for biblical reflection. Ordinary people are empowered when they discover that it is legitimate to bring their experience to their reading of the Bible.
The second commitment is that Bible reading takes place in community. Contextual Bible study is primarily a communal process in which people read the Bible together. Being willing to learn from one another is crucial to the process. We cannot just make the Bible say what we want it to say, and by reading the Bible with others we allow the views and experiences of others to shape us and our readings.
The third commitment is a particularly interesting one because those who disapprove of contextual Bible study do not understand this commitment. The third commitment is to read the Bible critically. By "reading the Bible critically" we mean that it is important to ask structured and systematic questions of the Bible. This is where the resources of biblical scholars are particularly useful. Ordinary Christians do ask questions of the Bible, but they usually do not have access to the structured and systematic questions of biblical scholarship. Biblical scholars pose a series of socio-historical, literary, and theological-thematic questions to the Bible. In our experience these resources of biblical scholarship are deeply valued because they open up the Bible in ways ordinary people do not usually experience.
The fourth commitment is that contextual Bible study should lead to personal and social transformation. Contextual Bible study is not about gaining knowledge about the Bible; it is about being changed by reading the Bible. South African society has been shaped by biblical interpretation, often in damaging ways. The challenge that lies before us is to allow the Bible to transform our society for the better.
For further details of our history see the Tenth Anniversary Report.
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