American Bible Society CEO discusses ministry, poverty-themed Bible

As CEO of the American Bible Society, Lamar Vest is continuing a career anchored in ministry. He is a former chairman of National Association of Evangelicals, executive leader of the Church of God and president of Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn. The 193-year-old organization is focusing efforts on illuminating the Bible’s numerous instructions regarding serving the poor and helping them find justice in an unjust world. “The Poverty and Justice Bible” has been printed in conjunction with humanitarian organization World Vision. Its most striking feature is the nearly 2,900 verses highlighted in orange with the graphic appearance of having been done by hand. The intentionality of seeking out biblical teachings is further emphasized by a breakout section called “The Core” located in the middle of Proverbs. It invites deeper study and contemplation of poverty-related topics such as bribery, persecution and addiction. In an interview with Everyday Christian, Vest reflected on how his life in ministry has underscored the need to serve people on society’s lowest rungs. “I’ve had the privilege of serving in national church and Bible ministry leadership for the better part of the last three decades,” Vest said. “This has been a great blessing, but it’s also given me a pretty broad view of painful and critical challenges we cannot ignore. From homeless veterans within every city in this country, whole communities in rural America whose economic futures are unclear, to kids falling way behind in basic education and ratcheting up their risk for dangerous life choices — I can’t ignore the faces of people I’ve come to know, people God so clearly loves. “From early in my ministry, I was touched quite deeply by a trip I made to South America, visiting ministries reaching out to people struggling hard, below the poverty line. I’ll never forget the counsel that was given to me while there: ‘If you’re going to bring God’s Word in one hand, you better have a potato in the other.’” “The Poverty and Justice Bible” is one of the latest in a string of thematic Bibles to hit store shelves running the gamut from the environment to teen spirituality. Vest sees the growth of this marketing strategy as a contemporary adaptation of the Bible’s traditional messages. “While nothing should ever in any way diminish the central Gospel message written large across the pages of Scripture, I see thematic Bibles as a good way to open up and get better access to important areas of application found in the Word of God,” Vest said. “This is certainly what led the American Bible Society to develop a new version of ‘The Poverty and Justice Bible.’ “By literally highlighting the 2,100 passages (in the Old Testament alone) that speak to God’s hopes for poverty and justice, we are letting God’s own Word challenge the notion that the Bible is a dusty, outdated rulebook, showing that when it comes to addressing the biggest social issues of the day, God got there first.” Beyond looking graphically savvy, the highlighting strategy was employed to emphasize biblical teachings which might be attributed to pop culture. “One large hope for the American Bible Society and World Vision in launching ‘The Poverty and Justice Bible’ was to try and raise up what can be a misunderstood and under-represented message of the Bible,” Vest said. “In a recent national survey the American Bible Society conducted, we found that 54 percent of U.S. adults attributed a Bible verse about caring for the poor and oppressed to celebrities, politicians, activists and others including Oprah (Winfrey), (U2 lead singer) Bono, and Angelina Jolie rather than the Bible. “To be clear, we’re not the first to suggest some stronger focus is needed here. Bono, Rick Warren and others have already identified the need to help people rediscover the broad sweep of God’s hope for poverty and justice across the pages of the Bible. We’re looking to open a good, clear read of this key biblical message and timely materials for in-depth study.” That study includes, Vest said, reaching out with Christian love and intentional compassion toward people in need. He said, “Equal access to education, farming and fair trade practices; trees, tools, and even toilets are all covered in the Bible, and explored with some depth in ‘The Core.’ When read in a full, biblical context, there is plenty here that may well surprise us.” And the focus on social justice is a legacy taught through Jesus’ ministry which Vest hopes will continue in the 21st century. “I think the challenge of this ‘Poverty and Justice Bible’ shows us just how much Jesus had to say about this topic,” Vest said. “From His parables, to even the central teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, this Bible makes it just about impossible to miss the specific invitation of Jesus to respond to need and suffering. “When I think about the work of Christ-followers across history — the Christians who stayed behind in plague-ridden cities to help the sick, William Wilberforce going up against British Parliament to abolish slavery across an empire, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who led the charge here in America for Jim Crow laws to be displaced with justice — clearly previous generations of Christians got this. Let’s hope we can join them here, in our own time.”

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