Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for March, 2013

Crucifixion and Sexual Violence

On this Good Friday as on many before, I consider anew the full range of torture and humiliation to which Jesus of Nazareth was subjected, physical and sexual. The latter is so traumatizing for the Church that we have covered it up – literally – covering Jesus’ genitals on our crucifixes. But the Romans (and others) who used crucifixion as more than a form of execution, as a form of state-sponsored terrorism – really lynching – to control subject populations were not inclined to respect the human or religious dignity, culture or customs of their targets.

The mocking, taunting, forced stripping of Jesus was a sexual assault. He was, as so many of us are – women and men, children and adult – vulnerable to those who used physical force against him in whatever way they chose. Those who rush to say but he wasn’t raped, or at least he wasn’t raped miss the point. (And we don’t know that he wasn’t. We can only say the Gospels do not say that he was. But would they?) The combination of various forms of sexualized violence and lethal violence are potent dehumanizing expressions of dominance as in ritual castrations combined with lynching in the American South – and North.

It is hard to think of Jesus that way. Hard to find images that preserve that historical perspective. (I couldn’t find any nudes that also portrayed him as a Semitic, Afro-Asiatic, man.) An internet search is not for the faint of heart. The sexualization of a bound man or woman is an obvious and a familiar trope in pornography. The association of Jesus with BDSM (bondage, discipline/domination, submission/sadomasochism) is horrifying (for me and for many others, but clearly not for all). The line between consensual sexual encounters and assault and sexualized murder is crystal clear for me. Crucifixion, like all forms of lynching, is depraved and should make us uncomfortable whatever our sexual pleasures.

The Church that has a hard time talking about sexual violence perpetrated against mere mortals has an understandably hard time thinking about the sexualized connotations of the crucifixion of the Son of God. The reason the Church has such a hard time thinking critically and talking about sexual violence is because it has a hard time thinking critically and talking about sex. The Church – and I really mean churches, congregations and denominations – has had and have a hard time talking honestly and publicly about good healthy sex and so they are unable to speak authoritatively about its antithesis and perversion, the use of sex as a weapon.

There is so much shame associated with sex for so many Christians and those who lead, teach and preach in Christian communities, and that shame is regularly heaped on women and gay or effeminate men. Yet the scandal – and it is scandalous – of the Incarnation is that God pulsed into this world between a woman’s thighs, in not only the spit and shit of a stable, but passed through her vagina, as Bro. Cornell West says located “between the orifices for urine and excrement.”

Jesus has been carefully shielded from female and male genitalia in the tradition ever since. The idea of Jesus being in either a heterosexual or homosexual relationships are both anathema for many Christians. Even the notion of Jesus’ own human sexual development  – erections and nocturnal emissions – is taboo. And what of his own actions? Could Jesus be fully human as a teenaged boy and man without ever fantasizing or masturbating? If he was truly unmarried in a culture that married teenagers off as soon as they went through puberty in lieu of birth control because there was no controlling those hormones, how did Jesus deal with his own, natural, healthy, God-given sexual desires?

Celibacy is a powerful, counter-cultural witness in our world and in the time of Jesus. And at its best it is a mature affirmation of a life fully dedicated to God (in Christian tradition), building families through love and spiritual kinship. Celibacy doesn’t make a person asexual. But sexual difference can make someone a target for sexual violence. The exposure of Jesus’ naked body on the cross was a particular shaming targeting a man who was not normatively, heteronormatively, coupled.

I always think of the beginning of Jesus’ (human) life as we memorialize its end because the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the beginning of the miraculous pregnancy that produced him regularly occurs during Holy Week as it did this year (on Monday, the day after Palm Sunday). Sometimes it falls on Good Friday.

Tradition says the Virgin’s conception of Jesus was absent sexual pleasure – and there are those who deny her a healthy sexual relationship with her own husband. The child of her body, the Blessed Ever Virgin Mary or Ever Blessed Virgin Mary – is it her blessedness or her virginity that is perpetual? – depends on where in the Protestant /Catholic divide you fall. (Here I am a Protestant.) Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Jesus, Mary’s child of Nazareth is the Son of Woman as surely as he is the Son of God. Her humanity was his humanity in his birth and in his death. Jesus’ death was a parody of his birth, at his crucifixion he was as naked as the day he was born, and again covered in blood and water, but dead when his body was placed in his mother’s arms and his head laid on her long-empty breasts.


Whitewashing Jesus’ Judaism

We begin with the simple historical fact that Jesus was a Jew… It is impossible for Jesus to be understood outside of the sense of community which Israel held with God… The Christian Church has tended to overlook its Judaic origins, but the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew of Palestine when he went about his Father’s business, announcing the acceptable year of the Lord. (Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. pp 15-16, 1949)

[The film clip is from the Lumo Project. Compare their portrayals of Jesus and his disciples with those of the History Channel.]

The Church has struggled with Jesus’ Jewish identity, sometimes violently, sometimes lethally at the expense of the lives and property of Jews. One of those responses has been anti-Judaism – related to, but distinct from, anti-Semitism. Anti-Judaism minimalizes, trivializes, demonizes and/or declares Judaism incomplete, invalid or insufficient. This is sometimes called supercessionism, the idea that Christianity replaces and completes Judaism. However, the Christians who hold to this theology vehemently disagree with the same notion in Islam.

The History Channel’s blockbuster production of the bible sadly perpetuates the Christian heresy of anti-Judaism in its depiction of Jesus. First, the producers erased Jesus’ ethnic identity by refusing to cast an actor who shares Jesus semitic ancestry and looks like the semitic peoples of the world in North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia. They cast a European for Jesus and for most of the ancient Israelites (see my previous commentaries here and here) and for most of Jesus’ disciples. However, they cast semitic-looking actors for the Pharisees and a Moroccan for Satan (for more on that click here). This identifies the Israelites, Jesus and his immediate followers with whiteness over and against the Jews. The construct of whiteness is a thoroughly modern one from which Jews have been excluded and to which they have been included as their social and political fortunes wax and wane with regard to the dominant culture.

Second, Jesus’ religious Jewishness is erased in the production. Jesus is a Torah-observant Jew who wears tzit-tzit, the holy fringe on his garments. (See Num 15:38–39; Matt 9:20; 14:36; Mark 6:56; Luke 8:44) He does not wear it in the production contrary to the Gospels – not even in the synagogue! Likewise the History Channel Jesus does not cover his head in public or even when teaching. As an observant fringe-wearing Jew and Torah teacher Jesus would cover his head – and not with a pashmina as he does that one time in the synagogue scene (see image above immediately following synagogue service).

The synagogue service (taken from Luke 4:16-30, greatly abridged) perversely misrepresents Jewish liturgy, worship and tradition. There is a cantor chanting in a lovely trope (musical intonation). But what is he chanting? Well, he starts with:

 וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

And Moses spoke to the Israelites…This is the beginning of a couple of verses in the Torah, Lev 24:23; Num 9:4; 17:6) but the cantor does not chant Torah. He chants part of a medieval hymn,

לכה דודי לקראת כלה פני שבת נקבלה

Come my beloved, to greet the bride, and welcome Shabbat. That song would not be composed for more than a thousand years yet and would be sung on Friday night as Shabbat breaks, not afterwards on Saturday as depicted. Jesus is called to the bema to read from the scroll of Isaiah with the words “y’amod Jesus.” However, his Hebrew name includes his father’s name. No Jew is called to the bema or Torah without a full name – naming practices vary contemporarily with regard to including mothers but in the first century Jesus would have been called up as “Yeshua ben Yosef.” Omitting his father’s name is tantamount to calling him a bastard. While there are scenes in the gospels in which Jesus’ paternity is questioned and challenged, this is not one of them.

The lethal legacy of anti-Judaism means that Christians cannot be cavalier about misrepresentations of Judaism with any ethical integrity. Johanna van Wijk-Bos writes convictingly in the preface to her 2005 Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice“After Auschwitz” Christian teaching and preaching must take place in the light of what was perpetrated in Christian lands by Christian hands, and must take account of the ultimate consequences of Christian “teaching of contempt” for Judaisam and the Jews. (p xviii)

Theologically speaking, Jesus was and is still a Jew – from the perspective of a confessing Christian who believes that he is very much alive. Jesus’ Judaism is manifest in his teaching and preaching, and in his love of God and for scripture. Historically speaking, the processes by which the followers of Jesus became known as Christians, distinct from Jews and primarily Gentile took centuries and included many reversals and struggles.

Emptying Jesus of Nazareth of his ethnic and religious identity and their markers leaves a hollow shell that can be filled with anything at all – insert dominant culture here – and devalues and denies the specificity of the Incarnation.


How Patriarchy Almost Destroyed America

Olympus Has Fallen was a fabulous movie! I loved it. I didn’t realize that it was an Antoine Fuqua film until the end. but I wasn’t surprised. I have enjoyed most of his movies. There are always these twists that get me thinking…[SPOILER ALERT]

The Secretary of Defense, Ruth McMillian played by Melissa Leo had a heroic scene of the kind that is regularly played by men: The future of the whole world is at stake. The terrorists want the codes to the CEREBRUS system to deactivate the nuclear weapons. But the SecDef won’t give up the codes. She takes a beating like a woman. She is prepared to die for her country. But the (male) president orders her to give up her code. He swears that they won’t be able to get his – they need three codes. He does not let her die for her country like a soldier. I wondered if it had anything to do with her being a woman.

To be fair, he had already ordered the male Admiral to give up his code after the terrorists put a knife to his throat and starting cutting, saying the same thing. He, the President wouldn’t give up the code – even though he knew that his son was out there somewhere and the terrorists were looking for him to use him as leverage. Maybe the President wasn’t sexist, maybe he was just cocky. He was so convinced that he could hold out if he was tortured.

But they didn’t torture him. They hacked his code. They had time to hack just one. And he had ordered his subordinates to turn over the other two codes already. And because he didn’t let the female SecDef go out like a hero he put the nation and the world at risk. The terrorists activated the failsafe and began the process of detonating all our nuclear weapons in their silos to turn our country into a nuclear wasteland.

Of course, this set the scene so the male hero could save the day. And he did it big time, with style, humor, panache, guts, glory, and a ridiculously high body count. It was a great movie but it could have gone a whole other way if the POTUS hadn’t had a fit of paternalistic patriarchy and let the SecDef take one for the team and give her life for her country. Maybe next time Mr. Fuqua.


H.A.M. Hard As a Mother (In Israel)

[I prepared this meditation for the Logan Legacy Prayer Breakfast, celebrating the life and legacy of the Rev. Canon Thomas Wilson Stearly Logan, the longest lived priest of African descent in the Episcopal Church who died at the age of 100, at the request of the committee who assigned me the theme of “Engendering Prophecy” from the story of Deborah.]

 

One of my favorite stories about Father Tom was how he lived long enough to change his mind about women in ministry – and it wasn’t a last minute deathbed conversion either. He lived long enough to hear from God and see God at work in women priests, pastors and preachers who I will call today the daughters of Deborah, who was herself a daughter of Miriam, the Mother of Prophets. 

The committee asked me to talk about Engendering the Prophetic from Deborah’s story. It’s an easy topic because God engendered the prophetic in women and men like Anna and Amos, Miriam and Moses, Huldah and Hosea, Noadiah and Nehemiah. 

Today we are going to hear from Deborah:

Judges 5:6 “In the days of Shamgar ben Anath,

in the days of Yael, caravans ceased

and travelers kept to the byways. 

7 Then the peasantry prospered in Israel,

they grew fat on plunder,

because I, Deborah, arose,

I arose as a mother in Israel.

As the hip-hop heads say, Deborah went H.A.M.: Hard as a Mother (in Israel). Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

 

Judges chapter 5 is one of the oldest passages in the Hebrew Bible, describing events more than a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. That makes our Scripture lesson over three thousand years old. Older even than Fr. Tom of blessed memory, may his name and legacy endure as long. 

Deborah was the sixth Judge in the line of succession: From Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to Othniel, from Othniel to Ehud, from Ehud to Shamgar and from Shamgar to Deborah. Unlike women preachers today who are regularly called by some folk only to give a “women’s message” Deborah governed the whole people and commanded the whole army in which she was the chief warrior as well. Her word was law and she proclaimed from a throne near a large palm tree between Beth-El and Ramah. That is, when she wasn’t kicking Philistine and Canaanite butt that sorely needed kicking. Deborah was H.A.M. – hard as a mother.

When God appointed Deborah to lead the nation, eighty years of peace and prosperity had just come to a crashing halt under the hooves, heels and wheels of Canaanite cavalry and infantry. Then for twenty long years the Philistines ground the Israelites into the very ground. Judge Shamgar beat back the Philistines single handedly when they joined the Canaanites to double team Israel, but it wasn’t enough. And then he died.

And Deborah suffered with her people. You see a prophet is of the people and for the people. A prophet loves the people and leads the people. A prophet weeps with and for the people and when necessary, bleeds with and for the people. There are a whole lot of folk calling themselves “prophet” and “prophetess” in this day and age. Some of them have it printed right on their business cards. 

Well, Deborah didn’t have a business card. She had a sword – and I believe a good right hook. Because you can lose your weapon in a battle, but when your body is your weapon, an extension of your will, then fists and fingers become the weapons of your warfare when you run out of rocks and sharp, pointed sticks. Any other veterans in the house know what I’m talking about? Deborah was hard and hardcore. That was the context of her ministry. 

You see Deborah’s people had immigrated to Canaan without checking with the Canaanites. And there were some fights – and to hear Joshua tell it, he killed everybody, but the truth is he didn’t and they had to figure out how to get along together, and they still do. Killing everybody on one side or the other wasn’t the answer in the Iron Age and it’s not the answer today. Deborah helped her people live in the real world after Joshua and his war stories were laid to rest. She didn’t go looking for trouble. But when it found her, Deborah went in and went in hard, hard as a mother, in Israel. I believe the motto on her coat of arms if she had one would have been: “Don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing. But if you start it, I will finish it.”

The big story moves from conflict to conflict, from oppression to oppression, scarcely taking account of the individual people and families struggling to survive day after day. And Deborah was there between the lines of the text. She was there in good times and bad. She was there for births and deaths, weddings and funerals, accidents and illness, good harvests and famine. She was there when folk acted a fool and had to be locked up and when the whole people of God worshipped on one accord. She didn’t just show up when there was a press conference. She was there on the front lines when it was time to go to war calling the shots – she was the shot-caller. Those of us who have served our country know that we cannot expect our soldiers to go where we are unwilling to lead them. Deborah led her people from peril to prosperity.

There were many bitter, vicious battles and terrible losses on all sides. Just when the Israelites had carved out a little space and paid for their peace in the blood of their fallen, within four generations they were overrun. Canaanite oppression was accompanied by an economic depression. It didn’t matter how much or hard people worked, they couldn’t always feed their families or keep their homes. Their savings weren’t being gambled away on Wall Street; they were being burned in the field, and stolen as their livestock was driven off. They lived through hard times. The loss, pain, anger, rage and fear were the same that people feel today. People were hurting. And they took their pain to God.

Deborah’s people cried out to God. She cried out with them and for them. That’s what a prophet does. She speaks to and for God, praying, preaching and when necessary, weeping, wailing, shrieking, shouting and cursing. And Deborah cursed – she cursed the tribes who didn’t show up for battle because they had it good and weren’t concerned about their sisters and brothers. One of those tribes, Machir, has never been heard from since. Deborah cursed them right out of this world.

 Deborah prayed. And God answered. But it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy. God didn’t wave a magic wand and fix it. That’s a hard lesson, because there are still desperate, hurting, frightened people, losing their security through no fault of their own. And so to God who created the warrior-prophet in her own image and the quintessential churchman, priest and canon in his image we give thanks and we pray:

God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer. Continue to raise up faithful servants from among your people to lead and inspire your people, to speak truth to power, to stand firm in the face of overwhelming odds, to serve you by serving your people. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer.

Keep up us in peace that our prophets and people no longer have to learn the ways of war. Teach us to live together in mutual respect with all of the peoples of the earth at home and abroad. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer.

We give you thanks for the life and legacy of the Rev. Canon Thomas Stearly Wilson Logan and we give you thanks for all of those women prophets and priests who welcomed him into glory, Sarah, Rebekah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Huldah, Noadiah, Esther, Anna, Junia the Apostle to Florence Li-Tim O, the first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer. Amen.

The Rev. Mother Florence Li-Tim O


Erased By the History Channel

Hannah, a sculpture al Mamilla Mall, JerusalemOne thing for sure, the History Channel's mini-series has people watching, talking and blogging. But are people reading the bible? Some are I think. I hope that this series leads to deeper and richer conversations with and about the text than are possible in any multi-media production. I'd like to see folk read the narratives that were shown in the series to see how they compare to the production and read stories which were left on the cutting room floor. I'd like to offer a list of characters, an A-Z (as much as is possible translating, transcribing and transliterating Semitic names into English) of just some of the biblical characaters and their stories yet to be told by the History Channel.

Here is a list of just some of my favorite biblical women missing in action, erased from the History Channel's abridged Hebrew Bible/Old Testament:

The Abigails (one David's wife, one his sister),

Abishag (David's last woman),

Basemath (Esau's wife),

Bilhah (slave-mother of the Israelite people),

Cozbi (murdered by Aaron for marrying an Israelite like Moses and both of his wives),

Dinah (one of Jacob's daughters),

Deborah (both of them),

Elisheba (Aaron's wife),

Ephrath (Caleb's wife),

Gomer (the woman, not the man of the same name),

Hannah (who becomes a prophet in Jewish tradition),

Hammutal (one of the last Queen-Mothers of Judah),

HaSophereth (the female scribe who served in the time of Solomon),

Hoglah (one of the sisters for whom God changed the Torah),

Iscah (neice of Sarah & Abraham whose daughter married their uncle in the incestuous first family),

Jael (avenger of raped women),

Judith (both of them),

Jemimah (not the slave-era distortion),

Keren-happuch (beautiful, wealthy sister of Jemimah & Keziah),

Keziah (along with her sisters above shared her name with many enslaved African women),

Keturah (Abraham's other, other woman),

Lillith (the one Isaiah knew about),

Maacah (all five of them),

Mahalath (both of them),

Mahlah (both of them),

Milcah (both of them),

Noah (the woman, not the dude),

Nehushta (the last of the Queen-Mothers marking the end of an era),

Noadiah (the prophet who led all of the prophets of Jerusalem),

Penninah (who lived with a man who loved another woman but kept sleeping with her),

Puah (one of the deliverers who delivered Moses),

Rizpah (her body was used by men but she used her body to teach a king or two a thing or two),

Serach (daughter of a patriarch whose stories extend far beyond scripture),

Sheerah (who built three cities, naming one of them after herself),

Shelomith (all four of them),

Tamar (all three of them),

Zillah (the first woman dragged into polygamy),

Zeruiah (David's other sister), 

Zilpah (the other slave-mother of the Israelite people), and

Zipporah (Moses' wife). 

For a reminder of what the History Channel focused on instead, see the twitter archives below:

 

Twitter Stream on The Bible, March 17 episode #3

Download the March 17 episode Twitter stream (pdf)

WilGafneyTweetStream03182013WilGafneyTweetStream03182013


History Channel’s Satan and President Obama

Many viewers of the History Channel's Bible mini-series saw and see a resemblance between the character of Satan and President Barack Obama. Comparison photos such as the one above are circulating on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. The History Channel denies any resemblance and any attempt to pattern the character after the President.

Whether one sees a resemblance or not, the History Channel has produced a biblical epic with virtually no actors from contemporary corollaries of biblical lands, so the North African (Moroccan) actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouzaani is highly visible as Satan in a production where the Israelites are portrayed by white actors. I have previously addressed the use of race in the series here and here and here. The History Channel is responsible for what it broadcasts just as the producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, and their casting agents are responsible for the product they produce.

I can't say whether the resemblance between the Satan character is intentional or not, or present or not if it is not visible to some viewers. I can say that the casting of this actor for this role was an intentional one. He looked the part to someone. Whether that was because of a resemblance to the President of the United States in full makeup or because he is a North African is equally problematic. 

I say as a biblical scholar that the casting of this series is unhistorical as it pertains to the Afro-Asiatic world of the bible with one or two critical exceptions. At the same time, the treatment of race by these producers reproduces the racist history of Christianity in the West, particularly in the Americas where it supported and benefited from the Atlantic slavetrade.

The choice to make Samson a big black man with a sexual appetite for white women was an intentional one. The choice to erase Samson's father from the narrative so that his black mother was single mother was an intentional one. The choice to cast essentially every other biblical character from lands corresponding to those from Egypt to Iraq with white actors, including some with Scottish and British accents was intentional. The choice to portray the creation of the first human as a white man emerging from sandy white soil rather than a black or brown person arising from the red-brown soil of the region was an intentional one.

The History Channel's production is aimed at an American audience – in addition to a global one – at a time when the first African American President of the United States is subject to repeated insults and regular disrespect from public and political figures. This production with its whitewashing of the people of God on whom colonizing settlers modeled themselves as they exterminated Native Americans like Canaanites and enslaved Africans like Gibeonites is contributing to the racial discourse at the present moment. And what it is contributing is a distortion of beloved biblical history and fodder for white-supremacist ideologies based on racist interpretations of the bible. 

It might all be the working of a collective unconscious. Yet even on that level it is intentional, real, present and destructive.


Jesus’ Bible and the History Channel’s Bible

The third episode of the History Channel's ratings-shattering series, The Bible, moves from the Israelite scriptures of Judaism and Christianity to the New Testament added by Christians to the canon we share with Judaism. I have previously responded to some of the issues of the series here and here and here. Today I'd like to reflect on some of the differences between the scriptures that Jesus knew and preached and the ones presented and, to some degree, created by the History Channel. (That the scriptures of Jesus were set in Africa – Egypt and West Asia – ancient Israel and Canaan and not Europe as their casting claims, must be repeated.)

To begin with, there was not a single collection of bound scripture in the time of Jesus. (Not that HC claims that there was.) There were collections of vellum (leather) scrolls – not papyrus as shown in tonight's episode. And, all of the scrolls that would become biblical books were not yet in the canon, that is on an authorized table of contents. This passage from Luke identifies the bible as Jesus knew it (or as the author of the gospel knew it, or both):

Luke 24:44 Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 

Jesus is describing the tripartite canon of Judaism in which the Torah (Pentateuch in Greek) is Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Prophets are the Former  Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings – the latter two being single, double books, the Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve, (Hosea – Malachi) and, the Writings beginning with the Psalms. (Curiously, the rest of the Writings seem to be in flux: Proverbs, Job, the Song, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel – not a prophet in Jewish tradition, the double books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.) Notice all of the scripture from the third division that has not yet made it into the canon by the time of Jesus – nothing other than Psalms.

Howard ThurmanThe iconic scholar-saint, preacher-pastor, mystic and mentor, Howard Thurman, wrote of the "religion of Jesus" including the scriptures of Jesus in his groundbreaking volume Jesus and the Disinherited. That book shaped my own vocation as a biblical scholar. The scriptures of Jesus were the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible (including those of the Aramaic Targums and perhaps to some degree those translated into Greek, the Septuagint.) Christians have problematically traditionally referred to the scriptures of Jesus as the "Old" Testament or Covenant, in part because of language in Jeremiah and other places that God would do something new in the world including a "new covenant." As a result, Christians have struggled to articulate the relationship between the two testaments. Some have completely rejected the First Testament, except perhaps for the book of Psalms, and have been rejected by the Church as heretics, frequently called "Marcionites" after a bishop infamous for his rejection of the texts that were the scriptures of the same Jesus he confessed as Lord. Others look to the scriptures of the First Testament as a series of predictions – sometimes coded – pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, serving little other purpose. Others receive them as fully scripture, inspired and authoritative as are the newer texts in the collection.

As a Hebrew Bible scholar who loves the Hebrew (and Aramaic and Greek) scriptures of the First Testament, I am always troubled when they are given short shrift, whether by preachers in Lectionary traditions who think preaching the gospel means preaching (nearly if not completely exclusively) from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or representations of the biblical narrative in print and other media like the History Channel's production that reduce the First Testament to a mere prologue to the "real" story. I am mindful that Jesus preached the gospel without the lectionary, and he did so from the scriptures of Israel, the scriptures of Judaism.

1611 KJV ToCThe History Channel begins the Jesus story midway through the third of five episodes. Yet anyone whose ever held – let alone read – a Christian bible knows that the pagination of the First Testament is more than double the Second. There are 23,261 verses in the shorter version of the First Testament used by most Protestants in the 66-book bible and 7941 verses in the New Testament. By the way, the Protestant Bible is the shortest and newest of Christian bibles and used by the fewest number of Christians around the world, yet its adherents – particularly in the American context – are the loudest. Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Episcopal bibles like the original 1611 King James Version of the bible, Martin Luther's revolutionary translation and the earliest manuscript with both testaments, Codex Sinaticus, have 72 to 80 books or more and are read by the vast majority of Christians on the planet, more than a billion and a half people. There is perhaps the most diversity among the Orthodox with Ethiopian Orthodox including Jubilees and the Books of Enoch and some Slav churches including all four Esdrases. There are 29,474 verses in longer versions of the First Testament, including the Deutero-canonical (or Apocryphal Books). Many are unaware that the shorter Protestant bible was created in the new America, during the revolutionary war when a printer took it upon himself without the authority of a church council to print a bible whose contents he chose. That bible, The Aitken Bible is also significant for having been printed with the authority of the Continental Congress.

In other words, 75% of the bible we have is the bible of Jesus and of his people, the foundation of his ministry; 25% of Christian bibles tell and interpret the story of Jesus. The History Channel has ignored those proportions. To be sure, they are entitled to tell the story however they choose. But their choices are doing nothing to counter the rampant biblical illiteracy in this country.

For example, after watching the most recent episode will viewers understand the context and content of the Immanuel prophecy? That it was of a child who had already been conceived in Isaiah's time? That before that child learned how to tell good from bad the kings arrayed against Ahaz would be gone? For Christians, those verses also prophecy of Jesus, but they never lose their original meaning in their original context.

Is 7:14 …Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 


Habemus Papam ~ The World Has a Pope

Habemus Papam! We have a Pope! 

Pope FrancisDoes that we include me? I argue yes. Not that Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Pontiff is my Pope or even Pope of the world. He is certainly not the world's only Pope. Pope Tawadros II, the beloved Coptic Pope is Francis' rare peer. 

Yet Pope Francis is in some sense the world's Pope. His stature is secured by the size and influence of the Roman Catholic Church, their work and witness in the world. 

I am an Episcopal priest in the Anglican Communion in the broad Anglo-Catholic tradition that shares a common origin with Roman Catholics. We are kin, but we are not the same. We are all Christian and I believe in our sometimes very different ways struggling to different degrees to be disciples of Christ as we understand him and that discipleship.

I rejoice with and for my Roman Catholic kin and friends in the selection of their new Holy Father, Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ. And I am hopeful for the future into which he will lead the Roman Catholic Church and how that will impact the world we share.

I do not expect Pope Francis to call a Third Vatican Council to overturn the celibacy requirement for priests – even though the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges it only adopted that rule to keep married pontiffs like the first thirty-nine popes from passing down the See of Peter like an ordinary kingdom. I do not expect Pope Francis to return the Roman Catholic Church to the tradition of women deacons in the scriptures or pave the way for women's ordination to every office. I do not expect the Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis to change long-standing Roman Catholic doctrines on birth-control, abortion or human sexuality. All of those changes would be welcome and I do not rule out the possibility…

My hope and prayer for Pope Francis is that he would listen to the voice of God and shepherd the church faithfully. If he is faithful in all things, then I believe the church cannot but help to change its ways. If Pope Francis truly shifts the perspective of the church to that of, with and for the poor as he has promised in his first words and by choosing the name of St. Francis of Assisi then he will – with God's help as we say in the Anglican Communion – change the world. 

If at every opportunity Pope Francis continues to reject opulence for the sake of opulence and moves beyond that to the eradication of poverty, hunger and disease and, use of the vast wealth of the Roman Catholic Church to for the relief of the poor he will have embodied the Gospel on a scale the world has never seen.

And, I hope, Pope Francis will signal a new era for the Roman Catholic Church in one other way. I hope and pray he would release from holy orders all clergy and religious guilty of and implicated in the sexual abuse of children and adults and covering it up from their vows, authority, employment and benefits and hand over all accusations of misconduct to law enforcement agencies around the world for investigation and prosecutions when warranted – as determined by legal authorities. If he did this he would restore the integrity of the badly damaged and tarnished church.

Whatever path he takes, I pray for and with him and with and for those who love and follow him.


icanhasgozpel, race, gender & me

Pastor Chris Tiedeman discusses the History Channel’s much ballyhooed miniseries on the Bible, its constructions of race and gender and my take on it.


Response to Bible Series Sermons

[Update: Their final response to which I will not respond further.]

I have been responding to the History Channel's The Bible mini-series. Much of that response has been in the form of critique here and on twitter. One series of tweets and my most recent blog post generated a response from Rodney Sampson, Executive Producer of Bible Series Word, which produces sermons to accompany the series. I was critical of the apparent corporate sponsorship of sermons, particularly by a black male preacher given the racialized treatment of the biblical narrative by the series.

As is so often the case on twitter, we exchanged a couple of tweets with escalating rhetoric. Bishop Sampson has posted a blog addressing me directly and my response follows:

You are correct that "[a]uthentic relationships are built over time." I understand this quote was in reference to the Burnett-Downey team and not to me, but it is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree and is the spirit of my response to you.

I encourage you and your production in the pursuit of "truth, open and transparent dialog regarding Biblical antiquity." The viewing public, whether religious or not, Christian or not would benefit from such an approach to the Bible and its narratives. As for the rest of your post, you claim that I made a false statement but do not clarify what it is or offer any evidence to counter it. You then begin to assail me. That is not dialog. I won't respond in that vein. You claim, "ignorance and verbal abuse will not be tolerated at all," however your letter belies that.  

I will address one aspect of the tortuous logic in your piece, that because I critiqued your production I should resign as a priest in order to fund an alternate vision. No. Such an assertion is quite frankly bizarre. 

However, after the verbal assault and creative thinking you made an interesting claim that was new to me:

Now, rather than to simply ignore the lack of color and representation of women in the mini-series, we created the conversation and dialog directly with the executive producers (Roma Downey and Mark Burnett). We also sought permission to create an official sermon series inspired by the mini-series in order to create an opportunity for faith leaders of color and beyond to add a complimentary voice to the epic mini-series that millions have watched to date and will potentially engage for decades to come.

I appreciate your awareness of the limitations of this series. This is the first time I'm hearing anyone associated with the project make this acknowledgement. 

I appreciate your sharing your understanding of the scripture and its interpretation in the following portion of your missive. We share a concern for the liberating aspect of the scripture but in very different ways, with very different assumptions and interpretive practices. Lastly, I want to affirm your final words, "we welcome intelligent and meaningful dialog and conversation." If that is indeed the case, then I invite you to respond in a meaningful way to my blog post, Black Samson & White Women on the History Channel. I have chosen to look beyond the personal attack on me in the response that you entitled "dialogue". But I will not tolerate any further disrespect. I am willing to have an actual dialog with you.

Grace and peace to you.


Black Samson & White Women on the History Channel

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The History Channel’s miniseries on the Bible is a ratings blockbuster. The Bible is an incredibly important text in the history and culture of the United States and Western world, and has its roots in the Eastern world. One would think that the media outlet that entitled itself the “History Channel” would be concerned about those roots. One might even think that the History Channel would endeavor to expose and explore those roots. But last night on episode two, the ill-named History Channel offered us a modern day Mandingo fairy tale.

The choice to cast Nonso Anozie (a black man in a bad dreadlock wig) as Samson as is in no way an attempt to demonstrate the visual and ethnic diversity of the ancient Near East in which this story is set, specifically the West Asian, East and North African context of the scriptures. The absence of characters of African descent up to this point makes that clear. (Just as the use of Black and Asian actors for angels makes them wholly “other” in the cast and not legitimate human bodies.)

That Samson is a big black man with brutish strength and a predilection for white women is no accident in this casting or production. One of the hallmarks of Rona Downey’s and Mark Burnett’s vision of the Bible is the erasure of the Afro-Asiatic Israelite ethnic identity and its replacement with a white, American fundamentalist Christian identity. They do this in several ways.

1) Casting: they cast an abundance of white American and European actors and occasionally paint some dirt on their faces to make them look a little brown. Consider the creation of humanity, told in a flashback. Humanity was created from the humus, an earthling from the earth, in Hebrew an adam from the adamah. Instead of the rich brown-red soil native to Israel, Palestine and the Great Rift Valley which descends from the Holy Land down into Kenya and Tanzania, the producers use sandy white soil from which springs a sandy white man. However, Satan is played by a Middle Mastern man, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni. While widely advertising a “Hispanic” Jesus, the producers actually cast a Portugese actor, Diogo Morgado, with white skin as Jesus. His skin has to be white since Roma Downey (of Touched By An Angel fame, part of the powerhouse team along with Mark Burnett behind this anachronistic whitewash of the bible) cast herself as the Blessed Virgin Mary – shades of Mel Gibson casting a white Jesus so he could insert his own feet into certain shots.

2) The second way the production replaces authentic Israelite identity with a white American fundamentalist and evangelical construction is in the use of quintessentially American race motifs like that of the big black buck or Mandingo, the brutishly strong, bestial black man and his preferential taste for white women. By transforming all of the Afro-Asiatic Israelites into white people, “simply” casting an Afro-British actor as Samson stages a lynching propaganda piece that the Klan would be proud of under the cover of the bible and “diversity.”

3) The third re-writing strategy of the team involves gender. The bible is an androcentric and patriarchal text. It is also a text that has many women’s narratives, including those of strong women wielding power and authority in spite of their patriarchal and androcentric context. There is no room in the Burnett-Downey recreation of the bible in their own image – right down to their own skin tones – for strong biblical women so they simply exclude them. A partial list of the women who have been cut from the narrative include: Yocheved, Moses’ mother and the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Zipporah, Moses’ wife and her sisters so that Moses is not the product of a strong community of women all of whom save his life in different episodes, but a lone ranger, a man who became a hero on his own. Hoglah, Milcah, Maacah, Noah and Tirtzah, the daughters of Zelophehad who are mentioned in more biblical books than there are Gospels, for whom God changed inheritance laws in the Torah that women might receive an inheritance – not worthy of attention. The great woman-warrior, Prophet and Judge (sharing those titles with Moses and Samuel and no one else, not even Joshua) Deborah, who ruled the nation – excised. Hannah, the theological revolutionary who taught the priesthood how to pray – unnecessary.

There is a final whitewashing, silencing strategy employed by these producers. That is sanitizing genocide, slavery – when the Israelites are the slavers, sexual violence and heterodox theologies. The bible is a wonderfully rich, complicated, challenging, illuminating, revelatory text. It is also horrifically violent and does not say what we want the way we want it to. We must take it in its entirety seriously as a cultural and historical artifact and as scripture – if that is our confession. But this series erases the texts in which Joshua and the Israelites slaughter babies, kill their mothers, fathers and brothers and take their sisters as war-brides as long as they haven’t had sex – prepubescent girl-children – on the orders of Moses and God. They ignore the texts in which God calls for the enslavement of non-Israelites and their children in perpetuity – the scriptural and theological basis for the Atlantic slave-trade and American slavocracy. They ignore the texts in which entire ethnic groups are exterminated by divine command. And they even ignore the horrific sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls within Israel: Lot’s offer of his daughters to be raped by a mob, Israelite fathers selling their daughters into sexual slavery with the permission of God and Moses, a Judge of Israel sacrificing his daughter like an animal and celebrated as a hero of faith in the New Testament, abduction, rape, forced pregnancy used repeatedly as tools of war. Bathsheba’s abduction and rape recast as consensual adultery.

In the American context when rape is being redefined while male bible-thumping legislatures require physicians to forcibly insert instruments into women’s vaginas one day and deny them access to legal medical procedures the next, it matters that and how the bible is being distorted in primetime. Whereas evangelical leaders like Jim Wallis watched with “great delight,” I watched with horror.

In the American context the Israelite identity has been claimed by Christians and particularly by Western, European Christians who were also constructing the categories of white into which they placed themselves and the Afro-Asiatic Israelites. And, the United States was viewed, claimed and seized as a new Canaan for the new Israelites to conquer and subdue, hosting the reincarnation and reenactment of biblical slavery painted in black and white. This is why the whitewash of the bible on the History Channel is so pernicious. It is a continuation of slave-holding racist exegesis. And they ought to be ashamed.

Twitter Stream from Dr. Gafney:

View and download in interactive pdf format

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History Channel (Whitewashes) The Bible – Day 1 (3/3/2013)

The History Channel debuted the first episode of its 10-part series on the bible on 3/3/13. It was widely watched and reported as the ratings winner for its time slot. As a biblical scholar and seminary professor (who had been called early in the production but did not work on the project) I tuned in eagerly to see this latest construction of the bible in the public square. I was, in a word, disappointed. The Afro-Asiatic Israelites were portrayed nearly universally by people of European descent who occasionally appeared light brown with what looked like dirt on their faces. (I understand that Samson will be portrayed by a black man – associating blackness with brute strenght is not a redeeming decision by any means. I live tweeted the episode. You can peruse the conversation below.

View the Twitter Stream in interactive PDF format twitterstream03032013

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