Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for June, 2016

Biblical Biases


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(This is an attempt to recreate the sermon I preached today, 12 June 2016, commemorating the homophobic terrorist attack that killed 50 and wounded 53 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando FL.)

As we pray for living and the dead let us also offer a word of consolation to God whose heart is broken as she grieves her children killing her children.

Luke 7:36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

In the Name of God who loves us all.

You know what kind of woman she is. The kind of woman folk call a sinner. In and out of the bible that often means she’s doing something with her body of which somebody else disapproves. She’s free, but some will say she’s loose. Or she’a a victim of their fantasies about what women who look like her or are shaped like her really want or do. Or she’s a victim of someone else’s lust and rage and blamed for surviving. Or she is a race or ethnicity that has been constructed as perpetually promiscuous. She might be a sex-worker. She might be an accomplished lover with stories to tell. But what she is known as is a sinner.

But the bible tells me “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” She was a sinner. And so was the man who called her a sinner. And Jesus invited both of them to the table, the same table where we who call names and are called out of our names are welcome.

The woman who anointed Jesus might have been called a Jezebel in another time. African American women have a long history of being called Jezebels. It goes back to the abuse of African women who were held as slaves and then blamed for their own abuse, called lascivious and insatiable. Some ads for slaves in newspapers actually called African women being sold “lusty.” The characterization of black women as jezebels didn’t end with slavery. For a long time after black women could not get justice for sexual assaults; officers wouldn’t take reports. Prosecutors wouldn’t press rape charges but black women were prosecuted for assault if they fought their attackers, some were even put to death. So while for some women and girls, being called a jezebel means you’re fast and loose, for black women being called a jezebel could lead to devastating consequences. Calling someone a jezebel is about controlling them, their body and self-expression.

What does any of that have to do with our First Lesson? (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15) The bible is fairly biased against Jezebel from the beginning because she was a foreign woman who married into Israel’s royal family. Jezebel wasn’t promiscuous or seductive. She didn’t bat her lashes or wiggle her hips at Naboth. Jezebel used the power she had available to her, including her husband’s authority and seized a man’s property, an Iron Age case of imminent domain. Jezebel was a queen and she did what queens do. More importantly, she was a woman whom men could not control.

Reading scripture faithfully means reading it honestly. There is ethnic bias in the bible. There is gender bias in the bible. There is bias against same-gender loving people, particularly men in the bible. That particular bias stems from an Israelite cultural bias, in part of the horror of rape of men in war – not matched by equal concern for the rape of women. The bible reflects the biases of those who wrote it, yet the light of God shines and speaks through it.

The bible also proclaims that God created us all from the same source we are all her children, she is the rock who gave birth to us and one day all nations will stream to the mountain of God. The bible has biases and we have to figure out how we are going to deal with those biases. When the church has taken the biases of the bible uncritically, we’ve been culpable in murder. The church is responsible for poor biblical exegesis. We can choose whether we will perpetuate the narrow biases of the Iron Age or whether we will elevate those texts that transcend ancient hatreds and those of our own day.

The church has blood on its hands. We have been too quick to take on the biases of the bible and too slow to reject them. Look at our shameful history with slavery, colonialism, patriarchy. The church is quick to demonize. You can see it in the gospels where Miriam of Magdala is accused of having seven demons. Often in the New Testament demons are invoked when folk don’t know what else to say: Can’t speak? You have a demon. Can’t hear? You have a demon. Have epilepsy? You have a demon. Have schizophrenia or another mental illness? You have a demon. Just plain evil? You have a demon.

Whatever it was that afflicted the women at the beginning of Luke 8 previously, they were now free, free to follow Jesus and provide for him. And even though some of them have husbands, they seem free of them too because none of them were bankrolling Jesus. Jesus received those women as disciples as he received the woman who anointed him because he did not accept the cultural bias his scriptures had against women.

And Jesus said not one word in support of the Hebrew Bible bias against same gender-loving men. Instead he says to those who embrace him “Your faith has saved you.” Jesus speaks life and if we are his church, his word must be our word. We have a word of light and a word of love to offer this crucified and crucifying world. We must speak those words because too many know only the hateful and hurtful words the church has spoken.

 


Returning to our ROOTS

Both actors played Kunta Kinte

LeVar Burton and Malachi Kirby

I admit that I was disturbed at the news of a ROOTS remake, particularly at the hands of the History Channel that did such violence to the Bible in its whitewashed fan-fiction offering. I was somewhat mollified when I heard LeVar Burton was one of the folk behind it. Then I read Awesomely Luvvie’s (Luvvie Ajayi’s) endorsement. So I decided to watch it for myself with some hopeful anticipation.

ROOTS re-imagined was in a word: searing.

It was beautifully shot and powerfully effective. It was not as impactful on me as the original, nor could or should it have been. The original Roots mini-series was like nothing I or the world had ever seen. Its impact was devastatingly powerful on me as a child, even as a child raised by parents who taught me the unflinching truth about slavery.

Fortunately the new production did not try to recreate the old one but told the story in a new way for a new audience. I did not set out to track differences between the two productions however one stood out to me; Kunta Kinte’s Muslim faith was much more visible. ROOTS is a necessary lesson in American history. I hope families watched with their children as they did before. I hope teachers will incorporate it. I hope clerics will preach about it. I hope America will learn from it.

The musical cultural of the free and enslaved Africans was powerfully portrayed – the use of a trope to sing a subversive conversation about overtaking the slave ship and escaping was breathtakingly beautiful. In it I hear resonances with chanted Torah and Jewish and Christian liturgies and recitation of the Quran. I also loved the way that Kunta and Kizzy were able to connect to their parents across time and space.

I live-tweeted each episode and have storified my tweets. I am not surprised but am disappointed by the number of white apologists for slavery and those white and black folk who want to advocate for a Christianity that doesn’t include slavery, genocide, patriarchy or any other systemic failing so they can hold only individual persons accountable for their sins. We will not have learned the lessons of ROOTS then or now, of our ancestors – enslaved or free – or the history of this nation, the Church or the world if we do not understand that white supremacy and its get are systemic and endemic.

It is apparent to me from the questions and comments I received online that too few white people know the history of slavery in the Atlantic basin, not the fact of it – though there are those who still deny it – the history of daily degradation, malnourishment, torture, rape and incest, maiming, forced breeding, selling of family members and murder. Unlike when ROOTS first aired, the testimonies of former slaves are readily available and scholarship on American chattel slavery is widely accessible. We can’t rely on the educational system to teach meaningfully about slavery. Most of the African American people I know included myself were educated by our parents, other black folk and ourselves. I’m still waiting for white folk especially those who present themselves as allies to do the same in comparable numbers.

Finally let me say something about the truth of ROOTS. ROOTS is not factual in some ways such as the life details, genealogy and identities of some characters. Alex Haley was widely assailed for historical inaccuracies and embellishing. But ROOTS is true. It is true like the bible is true in spite of the places in which is not historically or factually true. Truth is broader, deeper and wider than fact. ROOTS tells the truth about America.