Currents in African American Biblical Interpretation

Currents in African American Biblical Interpretation
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White Christians rarely encounter biblical scholarship from African American, Latino/a, or Asian American interpreters, less so from international scholars. Churches are a little more integrated than they were when Dr. King identified eleven o’clock on Sunday morning as America’s most segregated hour. But the public face of biblical scholarship – the people who dominate TV documentaries and maintain widely accessed blogs – remains white. Currently no African Americans sit on the biblical studies faculties of the divinity schools at Harvard, Yale, Duke, or Chicago. Mention African American interpretation, and someone will ask why one group of people should understand the Bible differently than others. It’s essential that educational work in majority white churches introduce new perspectives for several reasons, not least to help Christians work together across boundaries that have traditionally separated us.

Twenty-five years ago an important collection of essays announced African American biblical interpretation as a movement. When “Stony the Road We Trod” appeared in 1991, just over thirty African American scholars held earned doctorates in biblical studies. The collection demonstrated the wide range of concerns that continue to shape the field. Essays investigated how the Bible has been used to oppress black people, particularly in promoting American slavery but in other ways too. Other essays called attention to scholars’ inattention to Africa and Africans in the Bible, to the diverse uses of the Bible in black communities, to the distinctive concerns of black women, and to fresh interpretations of passages of particular interest to black readers.

“Stony the Road We Trod” rejected the prevailing modes of interpretation among scholars. Biblical scholars tended to restrict their attention to historical questions: how the Bible was composed, what its historical contexts were like, and how biblical passages would have been understood by ancient people. The Bible’s social, cultural, and political significance to actual living readers went largely ignored, as did the possibility that the Bible might mean different things to different people. Along with other movements, African American interpretation opened up the field to a host of new questions.

A lot has changed in the past quarter century. Readers can now find African and African American commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament and the New Testament. Though still underrepresented, African American scholars have joined many faculties and serve in leadership positions in academic societies. Histories of African American interpretation, some going back to the days of slavery and others focusing upon academic interpretation, are now available.

Pastor and theologian Raphael Warnock points to a disconnect between the work of black theologians and the majority of black churches. Here I’ll introduce two recent contributions by academics, then offer one specific example of how African American scholarship has influenced my own work.

African American intellectuals have long devoted attention to the testimonies of slaves, particularly the many former slaves interviewed after the Civil War. Emerson B. Powery and Rodney S. Sadler Jr. turn to the interpretations developed among freed slaves before the Civil War. They ask how the Bible, used so powerfully by the advocates of slavery, became a source of liberation for African Americans. Powery and Sadler credit these early black interpreters with creative and critical interpretation, grounded in their experience of a liberating God who would not authorize dehumanization. This work required them to reject the interpretations that flourished in white society – interpretations whites attempted to impose upon slaves. If some passages of the New Testament sanctioned slavery, the former slave and popular preacher James Pennington argued, its “general tenor and scope” would not allow for slavery. Former slaves made much of relatively obscure passages (“Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God” [Psalm 68:31]) and made symbolic identifications with others (“a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” [Isaiah 53:3]). Whites claimed that Noah’s curse against Canaan (“a servant of servants shall he be” (Genesis 9:25) legitimated slavery, but blacks countered with the tradition that all humans were of one blood (Acts 17:26). One former slave argued that because the first human had been created out of the soil (Genesis 2:7), Adam had dark skin. Whiteness, said William Anderson, was a symptom of a skin disease as in 2 Kings 5:27 – a consequence of sin! African Americans even found ways to befriend Paul, identifying with the apostle’s own experiences of unjust suffering.

Nyasha Junior’s “An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation” models how many African American women have adapted the creative artistry shown by slaves and former slaves in contemporary settings. Before addressing womanist interpretation as such, Junior shows how it relates to earlier movements like feminist criticism, biblical interpretation among African American women forerunners, and other dimensions of religious studies. Womanist biblical interpretation critiques both (white) feminism and (male) black theology by integrating attention to factors like gender, race, and class in one conversation. Womanist interpretation is therefore “intersectional” in taking account of these diverse factors. Incorporating traditional methods of biblical scholarship, womanist interpretation grounds itself in the cultural experiences of black women. Junior emphasizes differences among womanist interpreters, and she concludes that the movement has yet to develop a shared set of assumptions and practices.

I imagine that womanist interpreters might disagree as to whether their movement lacks cohesion. In any case, I can confess that it influences my own work – and in a very personal way. For years I’ve grappled with Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28). The woman cries out for Jesus’ attention, but he ignores her and his disciples complain about her. Even when she kneels before Jesus, he rejects her: “it’s not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (my translation). Finally – for the sake of her daughter – the woman accepts Jesus’ insult: even dogs eat crumbs that fall on the floor.

I’ve wondered, as do others. Does it require this woman’s humiliation for Jesus to heal her daughter? Is she a hero for sticking with Jesus, or is she a victim reduced from standing to kneeling to calling herself a dog? Womanist theologians have shown me that my questions misunderstand the situations that routinely confront women of color. Where many people think of moments like the Canaanite woman’s as ethical dilemmas, women of color often face them as matters of survival. The hero/victim discussion asks the wrong question: this woman does what countless women have done – whatever it takes.

Personally, this encounter with womanist thinking challenged me to remember my own mother. She and I are white, but as a single mother with few resources she endured all sorts of abuse in order to provide for me. Lecherous landlords and colleagues, the scorn of married women (especially in church), you name it: she endured it all. Maybe I’m dense, but it required an encounter with womanist thought for me to see my own mother in the Canaanite woman.

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