Two St. Ambrose University theologians hope to foster discussion about the relevance of the Bible to modern social issues with the St. Ambrose Conference on Bible and Justice scheduled May 30-June 2. In addition, Micah Kiel and Matthew Coomber, assistant professors of theology, envision the international conference as promoting bridges between the academic study of the Bible and various endeavors for a just world.
A first for the university, the conference brings together scholars, clergy, students and advocates of justice from around the world to explore these areas pertaining to the Bible and justice: empire, gender, poverty and the environment.
Keynote speakers are Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of Harvard University, a pioneer in feminist biblical interpretation; Richard Horsley of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, a distinguished professor of liberal arts and the study of religion; Elsa Tamez of Latin American Biblical University, Costa Rica, a Mexican biblical scholar and pioneer of Liberation Theology; and David Horrell of the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, a professor of New Testament Studies.
The target audience is anyone interested in the topic of the Bible and justice. A broad audience makes for an effective conference, the St. Ambrose colleagues said.
"It's important to me that my scholarship has worldwide applicability; that what we do has the power to affect the world around us; it's where scholarship meets the streets," Coomber said, explaining the impetus for the international conference.
"The Bible is a particularly good resource for justice concerns," Kiel added. "We know a lot of people are interested in this topic ... justice is at the core of our tradition."
While professors can talk among their colleagues about theology, Jesus didn't carry out his mission of salvation "so people like us could wear tweed and mull over ideas," Coomber said. "The conference is about getting people together and talking - scholars, activists, clergy, parishioners, people who might not consider themselves to be activists but are concerned about justice." Coomber considers an activist to be "someone who is willing to stand up for just causes." Activism can include "making a decision not to buy something because you know it was made in a sweat shop, or not shopping at a store that you know doesn't treat its employees well," he added.
More than 40 speakers are scheduled to give paper presentations at the conference during which they will explore how biblical texts might address modern justice concerns. The speakers include academics, clergy and activists, some from St. Ambrose and others from within and outside the United States. A major publishing house has expressed interest in producing a conference volume of selected papers, Kiel noted. Each presenter will have 20 minutes to give his or her paper, followed by a 10-minute Q&A. The papers are to be written at the level of an undergraduate college audience so that lay people from all walks of life can follow along.
"One of my goals is to get all of these different people talking with one another and talking about the intersection between the Bible and justice and to facilitate that," Coomber said. He and Kiel hope that the conference energizes participants and challenges their thinking.
The conference is unique for the university because it has required coordination with all constituencies at St. Ambrose, Kiel said. St. Ambrose's theology department supports the conference as does the university's leadership, as evidenced by funding awarded from the Baecke Endowment for the Humanities and the SAU Strategic Plan. The conference has also received support from the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice. As a result, the organizers are able to keep costs moderate for participants.
Extending an invitation to the community at large to participate "embodies what this university is about," Kiel said. "It's a commitment to justice," Coomber added.
"How fortunate to have an international conference of this type at St. Ambrose University," said Kent Ferris, social action director for the Diocese of Davenport. "We ask those involved in social justice ministry to pray and learn as part of their efforts and the Bible and Justice Conference will allow us the space to do so. I hope many will take advantage of this opportunity!"