Sandra Bland and Texts of Terror

In this July 10, 2015, frame from dashcam video provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety, trooper Brian Encinia arre
In this July 10, 2015, frame from dashcam video provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety, trooper Brian Encinia arrests Sandra Bland after she became combative during a routine traffic stop in Waller County, Texas. Bland was taken to the Waller County Jail that day and was found dead in her cell on July 13. (Texas Department of Public Safety via AP)

The Bible contains a number of stories that biblical scholar Phyllis Trible calls "texts of terror." These stories of abuse, exploitation, and violence against women expose the misogyny of patriarchal biblical cultures, and their lack of comforting resolution leaves uneasy questions for people of faith.

For contemporary readers, these texts of terror also illuminate contemporary stories, like that of Sandra Bland. Sandra Bland was the young Black woman who was stopped for a minor traffic violation by police in Texas and forcibly arrested when she allegedly was combative. Unable to raise the $500 needed for bail quickly, she spent three days in jail before she was found dead in her cell, supposedly from self-asphyxiation.

According to Trible, texts of terror illustrate the failure of systems of power to prevent violence against women or to provide victims of violence with justice. In the Bible, Hagar, a slave, is exploited and abused. Tamar is the victim of sexual violence at the hands of her brother. An unnamed woman in the book of Judges is gang raped, murdered, and dismembered. This event leads to the capture and rape of 600 more women. The daughter of Jephthah is sacrificed because of her father's ill-taken vow, and then her father blames her for his violence against her.

In these stories (and others), women are victims of male terror and unbridled male power. They are property, objects in transactions between males--whether father-in-law and son-in-law, the man of the house and the violent men of the city, or a woman's father and God. At the core of these stories are violence, brutality, and dehumanization for which the texts do not offer a satisfying resolution.

We can also read Sandra Bland's story as a text of terror, illuminated by these biblical stories, leaving people of faith with difficult questions. Like the women in these stories, Sandra Bland was the victim of terror, of the power of patriarchal systems to confine and enact violence, of the intersection of racism and misogyny. Her dehumanization by police is evident in the video that shows police restraining her on the ground, even as she complains of injury. Like many of these women who disappear from their own stories and who do not speak for themselves, Sandra Bland, who had been an outspoken activist for racial justice, was silenced, first in a jail cell and then by death.

The question for us now is how do we hear Sandra Bland's text of terror? How do we interpret her story and the stories of those biblical women against the systems of power that abuse, terrorize, and kill? In particular, for those of us who are white, how do we hear Sandra Bland's text of terror as a narrative of white patriarchy with which we are complicit? For Trible, we read texts of terror in memoriam for women who are abused. She notes that in the story of Jephthah's daughter, the postscript reports that, despite the finality of her father's vow, Jephthah's daughter is remembered in Israel because of faithful women who establish a testimony of what was done and yearly mourn in remembrance of her.

Trible says that texts of terror leave us with a call to repentance and change. There's no happy ending to texts of terror. No resurrection. No justice. Just the glaring judgment of narratives of abuse and death, sanctioned by systems of social, political, economic, and, often, religious power. What is left to us is to hold up these texts as indictments of the systems that inflict terror on women, particularly women of color, and to demand change so that no other Hagar or Tamar or unnamed woman or Sandra Bland must face these terrors again.