Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “slavery

Holocausts and Memorials

The Angel who watches over the Field of Angels at the Whitney Plantation

The sheer scope of the evil manifested in the holocaust is nearly unimaginable. Today’s visit to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem held the inhumanity of those who planned in meticulous detail to annihilate the Jews of Europe and began carrying out their unfathomable horror in the sharpest contrast with the fragile yet resilient humanity of the Jews who lived in an died in and escaped from and survived the work camps and death camps and marches. The incomprehensible rabidity of the hatred of Jews stupefies me.

The numbers are dizzying: A million and a half children murdered. Zero—because Estonia was declared “Jew free.” An entire population murdered. 500,000 people crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto that held 50,000 the day before. 90% of Poland’s Jews murdered. 

Images I will carry with me: Baby pictures. The pages of testimony—accounts of the live of those stolen. A catalogue of the number of Jews in Europe to facilitate their extinction. Four million names known of those taken from this life. Wall of binders ceiling to floor each with the profoundly spare details of 800 souls.

The pages of testimony of those lost/stolen/murdered had strong resonances for me with my visit to the children’s memorial  at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. All of those name plates. And in both cases, no bodies to bury because of the unimaginable cruelty of human beings.

Questions I will take with me: Why did the Poles and Russians turn on their own Jewish citizens with such frenzy? Why did so many of their citizens volunteer to help exterminate the Jews? Why were the North African Jews largely overlooked in the holocaust? Was it because as Africans they were not an affront to the pseudo-Aryan notion of whiteness?

Words I will take with me: “The Nazis were the first holocaust deniers.” The audacity—and not holy womanist audacity—the unmitigated gall to deny the evil work of their guilty hands.

An important conversation and presentation helped me ask who is telling the story, how and why? For example how is the Israeli holocaust museum different from the one in DC? What does the change in perspective mean? E.g. Americans as liberators telling the story versus Israelis as survivors or as those speaking for the dead.

An unexpected response to the anguished question-Why? One of our companions in this conversation drew out the ways some Jews blamed themselves as a people for the Holocaust. From the Satmar Rebbe saying it was punishment for the sins of the people, specifically for Zionism (!) to the early Zionists who said they were not Zionist enough…

How we tell the stories of our sorrows and how we remember our dead reveals who and where we are as much as it says anything about what and who we invoke. Listening to stories about the denigration of the Jews and refusal to recognize them as human, I could not help but think of the many contexts and conflicts in which basic human dignity is denied. We cannot just keep saying “Never again.” 

Lingering thoughts: There was a terrible irony for me in the video of the building of the wall around the Warsaw Ghetto. I cannot not but think of the wall around Bethlehem. With all of the differences in circumstances, there is still something very much similar about them.

Lastly, how to pray in the face of the witness to such great evil, such great suffering, so much sorrow? Walking through the children’s memorial, all I could do was pray each name I heard on a bead of my rosary, remembering the opening words of Exodus, “These are the names…”


How Deep Is Your Love

Photo Icon of Rebekah by James Lewis

Let us pray: God of love, teach us to love as you love. Amen.

The Bee Gees, Dru Hill, Calvin Harris, and a few folk I’ve never heard of have all asked, “How deep is your love.” If they were to ask the biblical characters, more often than not the answer might seem be, “not very deep.” In some cases, downright superficial, in others, plumb shallow. It is something of a virtue that the faults and failings of our biblical ancestors are on full display in the sacred pages, lest we think we must reach unattainable perfection before God will have anything to do with us.

Many of the stories in Genesis are etiological; they are the way the Israelites explained how and why things were the way they were. And whatever one wants to make of these accounts of pre-history, there is something about many of the relational and familial stories that ring true. How many of us, when it comes to our own family stories, tell a sanitized version of our history even though plenty of folk know the full story? That happens in the bible too, in today’s lesson. It is, perhaps, familiar but do we know, do we tell, the full story? [Gen 25:19ff]

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac…

Actually, (what had happened was more like…): These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son with his sister Sarah after he raped her slave Hagar at her suggestion and fathered a son Ishmael who he sent into the desert to die with his mother. We need to tell that story. All of it. Because it has shaped our story here in the Americas and impacted the rest of the world. We need to tell the story that Abraham did not love his children the same. Even though God made him incredibly wealthy, he did not provide for all of his children. He gave “gifts” to Ishmael and his children with his last wife but gave Isaac everything he had.

Tell that story. Tell the full story.

Last weekend over the 4th of July holiday many celebrated American independence without telling the full story. They skipped over or rushed through the parts in the Declaration of Independence that called Native Americans “savages” and objected to slaves seeking to liberate themselves. When they read, “all men are created equal” they didn’t acknowledge that didn’t apply to black folk or white women folk. They didn’t tell the whole story. The founders of this nation including a quarter of our presidents and a fair number of Supreme Court justices held other human beings in slavery and justified it using scriptures like God’s blessing of Abraham with wealth that included slaves.

And when over this last weekend the room was uncovered in which Thomas Jefferson kept and raped Sally Hemmings, the 14 year-old girl he enslaved, many news outlets referred to her as his mistress. (Sally, the sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, was herself likely the product of rape.) The version of the story that is told is not like the version of the story that Sally and other enslaved girls and women lived; they had no legal capacity to consent and disobedience was punishable by death. Though some will say Jefferson loved Hemmings, he refused to free her ensuring that she would remain a slave and that her children—his children—would be born in slavery. His love for humanity had its limits. How deep is your love?

… Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah…

… Isaac was forty years old when he married his cousin Rebekah because his family married within their own family like his uncle Nahor who married his niece Milcah who gave birth to the man who would become Isaac’s father-in-law, which may help explain Isaac’s own incestuous parents Sarah and Abraham. We should stop sanitizing these stories, and stop reading them uncritically, especially in the church.

Isaac prayed to the Holy One for his wife, because she was barren; and the Holy One granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.

Isaac assumed like all men in the Stone Age and some now that only women could be infertile. And by infertile they meant like inhospitable soil; they didn’t know that women contributed anything two children other than space to grow.

“Genesis 25:26 states that Isaac is sixty when the twins are born; he was forty when he married Rebekah. That means that Rebekah lived with her infertility for twenty years…Yet the text never mentions Isaac taking another woman or fathering children with anyone else.” Tell the story that you don’t have to reproduce the dysfunction with which you were raised. Isaac’s love for Rebekah stands out in the biblical text and even in his own family. Tell that story.

The children struggled together within Rebekah; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Holy One. And the Holy One said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’’

To these cousins, Rebekah and Isaac whose love was deep, twins were born after a period of infertility. And they loved their children, just not equally. How deep is your love?

Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game…

Isaac loved his son Esau because he was a hunter and he loved fresh meat. He loved his son because of what he did for him. But did he love him before he could do anything for him? I know folk—and you may too—who only love folk for what they do for them, and that includes their children and family

…but Rebekah loved Jacob…

Isaac loved one son and Rebekah loved the other. The boys were rivals from the womb and rivals in the womb. They were rivals for their parents’ love before Esau threw away his birthright. How deep is your love? Is it deep enough that you don’t have to ration it? Or perhaps better, how uneven is your love? It is an unhappy truth that we don’t love all of our dear ones the same. Some love one child more than another. Some love their children more than their spouse. Some don’t love one or more of their children at all.

These parents of our faith are a hot mess. They are imperfect in their life and their loves. As are we.

It is long established tradition that we read biblical characters as moral exemplars. But an honest reading requires acknowledging when they are not worthy of our emulation, and digging deeper to find what is.

That may just be this: We are fragile and flawed. We are often stingy with our love and our love is often self-interested. And yet, God loves us. God works with us and through us in spite of our faults and failures. God chooses to be in relationship with us. God even chose to be one of us.

Our love is imperfect. And yet we do love, sometimes the best we can, sometimes the best we know how. But there are moments when our ability to love transcends our human limitations, when we give, share, sacrifice, risk, stand, tell the truth, and when necessary, die with or for someone else.

We are God’s handiwork and the capacity to love is part of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. True love, rooted in God’s love, is inexhaustible and self-fueled. A well that will never run dry. How deep is your love? If you are drawing from the reservoir of God’s love in you, it is endless. That love equips you to hear hard truths, tell the whole story and write a new story for the next generation. Amen.


Faith without Faithfulness is Faithlessness

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God has told you, children of earth, what is good.
And what does the Holy One require of you?
To do justice, love faithfully,
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

James 2:14 Of what benefit is it, my sisters and brothers, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Does faith have the power to save you? 15 If a sister or brother is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; stay warm and eat as much as you like,” and yet you do not meet the needs of their bodies, of what benefit is that? 17 So also, faith alone is dead if it has no works.

Faith without Faithfulness is Faithlessness. Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

I’m not so sure I believe in faith, the idea that there is a set of religious propositions which when assented to—believed in, in which we have faith—define a person or community in relationship to God. I’m not so sure I believe in that. When I hear faith articulated as a set of beliefs, constructed as orthodox, heterodox, heretical and just plain heathen, I get itchy. I mean theologically itchy. I know that Europeans used theological categories like “heathen” to justify enslaving non-Christian peoples. After which they did what they perceived to be their Christian duty (apparently their only Christian duty) and converted the heathen. Which left them in a quandary. These enslaved now-Christian converts shared their beliefs, shared their faith.

But that would be no impediment to slavery on this side of the Atlantic in North and South America and in the Caribbean. In Great Britain, conversion resulting in shared faith between enslaver and enslaved led slowly to the liberation of black Christian folk and even more slowly towards abolition of slavery. But in the American slavocracy, faith, orthodox belief in the same set of theological propositions, did not lead to the liberation of enslaved people. Rather it led to a redefinition of the slaveholding enterprise itself, to be based solely on race and in perpetuity. Now shared faith was no obstacle to buying, selling, enslaving, using, maiming, raping or killing one’s fellow Christian. Faith was irrelevant to the enterprise of slavery. In fact, slaveholding folk exercised their Christian faith, regularly if not faithfully, building the great institutions of the faith—churches, colleges, seminaries—many of which still stand all while profiting off of the exploitation of enslaved people, often sister and brother Christians.

But they had faith. Faith, if there is such a thing, seems to me to be woefully inadequate to meet the righteous demands of a just God. I conclude with the author of the Jacobian epistle—the name is Ya’aqov, Jacob, not James—I conclude with him if there is such a thing as faith, then faith that cannot be seen is no faith at all. Faith that is no more substantial than a shout, tweet, bumper sticker or t-shirt logo is, even if it be a Bill of Rights or Declaration of Independence, is no faith at all if it does not do justice. Faith without Faithfulness is Faithlessness.

One reason I view the faith enterprise with such skepticism is that there is no word for faith in Biblical Hebrew or Aramaic, which means no one in the bible, including Jesus, operated with the concept of faith as a religious category—that is until the Church invented it and incorporated it into its telling of the Jesus story in the epistles and gospels after the fact. For all intents and purposes, faith as many understand it, is wholly a Christian invention, a repurposing of older concepts adapting words already in use in Greek and Hebrew. The Greek word pistis and its older Hebrew antecedent amunah both mean faithfulness and not faith. They are about what you do, not what you think or believe. Before there was such a thing as faith, there was faithfulness. We are called to be faithful because our God is faithful.

But the Church has reduced faithfulness to faith, to belief, what one thinks and affirms, largely in one’s head, which is why in the New Testament faith is primarily faith in Jesus, meaning assent to a set of theological propositions about his origin, identity, nature and relationship to God. That particular Christian understanding is then injected into the scriptures, including back into the Hebrew Scriptures so that faith has replaced faithfulness. As a result, I am convinced too many believe what God requires of us is merely faith, an internal matter the limitations of which are best demonstrated in the concern for salvation without regard for liberation which is no more a relic of the past than the white supremacist ideology that found it to be the perfect companion to slaveholding Christianity.

The stories of scripture like the stories of our nation’s history are stories of infidelity punctuated with occasionally sincere, often failing, attempts at fidelity. Faithfulness is one of the primary attributes of God who declares (somewhat hopefully) that we who are created in her image share her nature. God is faithful and true. God is aman, the source of “amen,” which means that God is trustworthy. In response, those in relationship with God in scripture trust God; they don’t simply believe a set of propositions about God. They trust God and follow God and work at being faithful to God, and sometimes they doubt on the way. Trust in God’s trustworthiness is more than intellectual or even emotional commitment to God’s attributes; it is committal of oneself and one’s life to God’s faithfulness.

But what does faithfulness look like? There is a text in Micah 6 that teaches what is means to be faithful through what at the time was likely a dramatic performance, because sometimes theological articulations and sermonic proclamations are insufficient. Unfortunately we don’t have digital or even video recordings from the Iron Age but we do have the script. Since we don’t live in the Iron Age I’ve take the liberty of providing a contemporary title for this performance piece: Law and Order: DoC. The courtroom drama begins with the bailiff:

Micah 6:1 Hear ye what the Just One says:
All rise. Litigate before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear ye, mountains, the litigation of the Righteous One,
and you everlasting foundations of the earth;
for the Judge of All Flesh has a lawsuit against God’s people,
and God will prosecute Israel personally.

In the next scene, the almighty God takes the stand:

3 “My people, what have I done to you?
And how have I wearied you?
[We might say, “How have I gotten on your nerves?”]
Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from [dragged you out of] the land of Egypt;
I redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
5 My people, please remember what King Balak of Moab plotted,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
also the righteous deeds of the Faithful God from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know them.”

 

Then things get really interesting. Israel takes the stand. Israel doesn’t seem to have had the benefit of counsel. You may know the joke that a lawyer who represents themselves has a fool for a client. This is much worse; Israel isn’t even a lawyer. Israel’s legal strategy—if you could call it a strategy—is passive-aggressive angry sarcasm against the Living God who has granted them a hearing. Needless to say this isn’t going to go well.

 

6 “With what shall I come before the Incomparable,
[only imagining them saying, “Your High and Mightiness”]
and bow before God on high?
Shall I come before God with burnt offerings,
with year old calves? Well?
7 Will the Eternal be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

God doesn’t even dignify that foolishness with a response. God just leaves the courtroom and lets the verdict speak for her. Most know the verdict apart from the farsical legal dramedy in which it appears.

8 God has told you, children of earth, what is good.
And what does the Holy One require of you?
To do justice, love faithfully,
and to walk humbly with your God. 

This is Micah’s way of explaining what faithfulness is. Framing God’s expectations for our faithfulness in terms of her faithfulness. God testifies to some off her greatest hits with three points and a poem. Exhibit A) God delivered Israel from slavery. Exhibit B) God provided Israel with a diversity of religious leaders in Miriam, Moses and Aaron. Don’t miss that—one of the witnesses of God’s faithfulness is diversity: lay and ordained, prophet and priest, women and men. And Exhibit C) every single thing God did from Shittim, on the edge of the Sinai desert, to Gilgal in the heart of the promised land.

Micah’s prophetic performance echoes across the ages because the poetry is timeless as is the command of God it discloses: Do justice, love faithfully, walk humbly with your God. The poem even presents itself in three more ready-made points for preaching, the measure of the faithfulness God expects from us: Do justice, love faithfully, and walk humbly with our God.

Do justice. This world is crying out for it. The nation is crying out for it. The blood of my people is crying out for justice. Cis and trans women and men, sleeping little girls and grandmothers in their homes slaughtered by police at a rate that has no comparison in white society. Do justice for them.

Do justice. Dismantle the very systems of privilege that empower you and from which you benefit.

Do justice. Use your privilege, your money, your access and everything at your disposal to wage war against every unjust structure in this nation and this world.

Do justice. Do justice for women who continue to be underpaid and at a greater rate when we are black or Latina or Native American.

Do justice. Do justice for LGBTQI persons who can still be fired for no reason, or denied housing in too many jurisdictions, and who regularly are subject to violence and death on a bigoted whim.

Do justice. Do justice for victims of sexual assault. Believe them. Support them. Stand with them. Prosecute perpetrators, no matter who they are. Work to end the stigma of rape. Work to end the backlog of untested rape kits.

Do justice. Do justice for the children in underfunded school districts right here in North Texas.

Do justice. Do justice for the impoverished, under housed, underfed, uninsured, unemployed and under employed.

Do justice. Do justice for our neighbors and strangers, whether they live like you or not, whether they love like you or not, whether they worship like you or not. Do justice for refugees and immigrants. Do justice for the persecuted. Do justice for our Muslim sisters and brothers who are under siege.

Do justice. Do justice for this planet. Do justice for the air and water and species that are disappearing. Do justice for our native sisters and brothers who are standing with the earth, standing with the water, standing with the buffalo, standing with their ancestors and standing at Standing Rock.

Do justice when it costs you something. Do Justice when you’d rather not. Do justice when it’s hard. Do justice when it hurts. Do justice.

Do justice. Do justice because you can’t talk about faithfulness or faithful love without justice. Do justice because you cannot stand in injustice and walk with God. Do justice. Do justice because faith without faithfulness is faithlessness. It is written, “faith alone is dead if it has no works” but I say unto you: Faith without Faithfulness is Faithlessness.

 


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.


Black Like Me: Erased from the Noah Movie

I pay attention to the peopling of the world in the vision filmmakers. I want to know if there are people like me in their worlds, people of African descent, people of color. In Darren Aronofsky’s vision of Noah and his world I do not exist. People like me do not exist. Black, brown and beige people do not exist even though the story is the story of the destruction and re-peopling of the whole Earth. Noah and his family and all of his ancestors and even all the lost, dying, drowning people are white people. Adam and Eve glow with the light of innocence in their white skins. Ham, the ancestor of African peoples – at least according to the biblical text –has white skin and as a little boy, dark blue eyes. And that matters to me as a biblical scholar and seminary professor and, as a person of African descent whose ancestors were enslaved in the Americas, whose enslavement was justified in part on readings of the Scriptures that emerge from ancient Israel because these texts are also my scriptures.

As an origin story, the story of Noah and his sons and their descendants purports to tell the story of human diversity, many peoples of differing ethnicities descended from a single family, a common ancestor. There is an evolutionary equivalent. However on this planet, the first humans were African, all others derivative. Without other genetic material, the offspring of black and brown people can be lighter than their parents, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

Expecting an origin story, even a mythological one, to make some sense and correspond in some way to the world from which it emerges is not confusing scripture with science. While they are not incompatible, they are not the same. As a biblical scholar I want to remind readers and viewers that Genesis is a collection of sacred stories in the larger collection of Israel’s sacred stories including ancestral, origin and cosmological stories. Those texts and their stories were neither scientific methodologies – how to make a world in seven easy days if you don’t define a day as the earth’s 24 hour rotation because they thought the earth was flat and… – nor are they historical archives.

As a seminary professor I ask my students how the text is true. These mythological lifespans do not correspond with what we know about human beings, the archaeological or scientific record. They did not correspond to what the Israelites knew about their flat-earth world either. (The prelude to the Noah story in Genesis chapters 6-9 says that Noah is 500 years old when he fathers his sons. Gen 7:6 says that Noah was 600 years old when the flood began.) As origin stories the stories in Genesis preserved the cultural heritage of the people who would become Israelites, heritage that converged with and diverged from other ancient near eastern peoples with their own impossibly long-lived ancestors and their own flood stories.

The movie is an interpretation of the biblical narrative as are all readings, whether on film or not – including those that claim to be literal readings. As such, the movie is a midrash, in the tradition of classical Jewish exegesis. One aspect of midrash is filling in the spaces in the stories. We all do that to some degree. Putting the text on the screen requires filling out the story. Darren Aronofsky’s choices create a new interpretation of the story and that is neither a good nor a bad thing. That is the work of meaning making. And we all do it. For those fixated on the truth of the text, proving or disapproving the existence of Noah, the flood or God, I can’t help you. I’m not arguing either case. Nor, I think, is the movie. (Aronofsky speaks about his vision of the film here.) It is telling a story, a story of Noah, based of the biblical text.

The reduction of truth to literally true or not at all is a contemporary notion, like limiting biblical interpretation to literal readings (except maybe for parables). The truth is the biblical text uses a variety of genres, rhetoric and literary devices to communicate the truths of its messages (plural) through the lenses of its original speakers, writers, editors and those who preserved it. Beyond that, religious readers see the hand of God at work in differing ways. Some understand the text to have been dictated and copied unerringly and find their favorite English translation to be an exact rendering. Others find the hand – better breath – of God at work in each phase of the process including among those who hear, read and interpret as much as with those who spoke, remembered, repeated, recorded and translated.

The truth of the text is not in or limited to its literal reading even on the cases where the text is literally true. As a Christian the paradigm that helps me understand the richness and complexity of the text is the nature of Jesus, human and divine. The text is human and divine. The text is not, cannot be, more divine than Jesus. And like Jesus, the human parts cannot be easily listed as separate and distinct from the divine parts. To say that Jesus’ physical hunger was exclusively human is to reify the old dualism in which the body and all of its processes are somehow lower and lesser than the spirit and its processes. God becoming human, embodied, enfleshed, sanctifies our humanity, including our human bodies.

My black, woman’s body is a human body but it is not represented in Darren Aronofsky’s movie. No one in the whole wide world that he has created is black like me.

My review of the movie’s content in relation to the content of the books of Genesis and Enoch is available here.


Subversive Service: Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”

Dear Mr. Daniels,

I had the great pleasure of meeting you during one of your visits to the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in the company of your mother whose ministries in music and service have enriched my life as a congregant and as a priest.

I had the tremendous pleasure of seeing your film, The Butler, earlier today. It was simply phenomenal. I want to thank you for making this moving, poignant, revelatory film. And I want to commend you for how you made it. In telling the story of Cecil Gaines and his family, you have told the story of America, our shared history, from slavery to freedom. [For those who haven’t seen the movie, specific details follow.]

While this film was wildly entertaining and full of laughter, I appreciate that you did not shy away from horrors of slavery and its legacy in America. I say “slavery,” because although the film begins in 1926, you demonstrate with incisive clarity that the world of the share-cropping south in 20th century America was no different than that of the previous slavocracy in many ways: White men and women did what ever they wanted to black folk – raping and killing without consequence. The regular rape of black women in from of their families, often including children who were products of those rapes, continued well into the Civil Rights Era. It would be another half-century before a black man who tried to protect his family could hope to be protected or supported by the law. It was particularly important for me as a black woman that you started with that horrific reality and its aftermath.

I’m a seminary professor who thinks about how we teach and tell our sacred stories. I am so grateful your visual text. Your masterful storytelling and cinematography told the story of the Civil Rights Movement through the tender story of an African American family, showing their life, love, and laughter through celebrations and struggles with heart-warming intimacy; a rare portrait of a black family on film or television. Thank you.

I particularly appreciate the way you used contrast in the film: the shots of the lunch counter-sit in cutting in and out of the state dinner were breathtaking. There were others but the contrast between Mr. Gains and his son Louis and their journeys to political action were particularly profound. I loved that each had his own journey and could not see or understand the other’s journey. While each was changing the world in his own way he struggled with the incomprehensible choices of his son/father. I was particularly struck by the refections of the King character on the subversive dignity and service of the black domestic – weaving those storylines together was sheer brilliance.

And, as a priest and pastor I deeply appreciate your honest look at intergenerational conflict, the often difficult relationship between fathers and sons and estrangement that many experience. I loved the many small moments that bore witness to the stories of black folk in America like Mr. Gaines who had never been to school sending his children to college and reading to the President’s daughter. And I noticed with delight that there was a character with your mother’s name.

There is so much more I could say: The cast was incredible. Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding Jr. were all stellar. The transformations of Robin Williams and Live Schreiber into Dwight Eisenhower and LBJ were inspired. The script was compelling. And Carol’s afro was everything! I want to thank you deeply for making this powerful film, telling the story of my people and my country. May God continue to bless you with vision and the means to bring those visions to life.

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.


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.

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Letter to My Enslaved Ancestors on the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

 

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A Letter to My Enslaved Ancestors,

Emancipation ProclamationI don’t know your names or from where you were stolen. I don’t know how many of you freed yourselves or died in bondage. Yet I claim you all and I honor you. The savage ferocity of slavery has torn your names from the memories of your descendants but not your lives, your survival, your strength. I want to thank you for surviving and enduring the unimaginable. As I give thanks for you, I weep for you. I give thanks for your sacrifice – not that you sacrificed yourselves, but that you were sacrificed – human sacrifice on an epic scale to greed and misanthropic racism.

I know that I cannot know the fullness of the horrors you faced, endured, survived and to which some of you succumbed. Yet I must try to give voice to them. In your stolen names I now name some of the horrors of American chattel slavery: intergenerational terrorism, murder, kidnapping, rape, forced pregnancy, forced miscarriages and abortions, child abuse and neglect, physical, mental, emotional, sexual and spiritual torture, beating, burning, stabbing, scarring, maiming, forced illiteracy, extirpation of culture and religion, violent imposition of a morally bankrupt idolatrous Christianity, and much, much more.

What ever it is that I am and all that I am, I am because you were. I cannot contemplate my future without reflecting on my past, our past. Our nation now looks back 150 years to the Emancipation Proclamation. Many will pretend that one man freed the slaves in the United States and its territories with the stroke of a pen. They will not tell the stories of dirty tricks and politics. They will not say that the Proclamation only freed some slaves in some circumstances. They will not say that the majority of slaves freed themselves. They will say that their own ancestors were all on the side of the angels. But we know different. We know the truth and the truth has set us free.

Remembering that you built this country with your bare hands, your blood and broken bodies forming the mortar that cements it together – on a bloody foundation of other massacred peoples, that you freed yourselves and this nation from the curse of slavery, that you reconstructed this nation after it began cannibalizing itself over the right to exploit your bodies, I now look to the future. I look to the future that will be and I look to the future that I hope will be.

The racism, sexism, xenophobia, misanthropy and greed that characterized your times endures and adapts. And those plagues are hounded, challenged, diminished, transformed and rejected in our time by many of those who have benefitted from them and as well as by those of us who have borne its burdens.

The future I envision is one in which the United States is further enriched by the presence and contributions of citizens who reflect the breadth of the world’s peoples, and one in which ethnic majority and minority status will be upended and have no power. I also see a future in which power and resources which are currently concentrated in a dwindling segment of society multiply across race and class categories leading to a strengthening of us all. I also foresee a future in which some will still exploit others: we still disenfranchise some people with state and federal laws and taxes as it pertains to marriage and its benefits; we have not closed the pay gap between women and men; we have not done justice for the native peoples of this land; sexual slavery and trafficking endures, the poor remain with us.

In a future which yet may be, I see your children’s children’s children across the ages transforming our society, economy and infrastructure with renewable energy sources and eradicating abject poverty and hunger in partnership with sister and brother Americans whose ancestry circles the globe and in partnership with all peoples everywhere.

In order to reach our future, we must survive our present. Our children must survive and thrive and there is much that imperils them: poverty, substandard education, violence, lack of access to health and dental care, astronomical incarceration rates, a deeply flawed justice system, failure and inability to dream a world beyond the one they know or to which they have been confined, hopelessness.

In your name, in your memory we work and pray and struggle, weeping and rejoicing at what has been and what will be.

[Cross-posted on the Huffington Post. Letters from other contributors can be found here.] 


Sabbath of Just-Laws and My Two Cents

Jean-Leon Gerome: Selling Slaves in Rome

Shabbat Mishpatim & Shabbat Shekalim 5772

On this Shabbat that we examine toroth, laws, that we hope are rooted in mishpat, justice I offer my mechatzi shekalim, my half-shekel, my two cents on this double-shabbat.

Imagine with me. We are our ancestors. We have been liberated from Egyptian slavery. There are Israelites and Nubians and Phoenicians and peoples from every nation conquered by the Egyptians, perhaps even a few Egyptians in the great Exodus. We are all looking for a new start. We have been on this journey long enough that we’re taking it for granted. We no longer wonder where we are when we wake up. The miraculous events of the past few weeks seem like a dream except the pillar of cloud is there and there is rumbling from heaven whenever Moshe goes in to the Mishkan. We have the water and food we need each day even though we are in a desert with no oasis in sight.

From time to time Moshe comes to us with Torah, words of teaching from God of Fire and Cloud who accompanies and guides us. God and Moshe are teaching us how to be a people, how to govern and conduct ourselves, how to treat others and how to revere God, so that when we get to freedom in our new home, we will know how to live, not as the Egyptians live, not as any of the other nations of earth live, but we will model a new way of living, we think, we hope. And yes, there are other nations with codes of law and we have some laws in common, but ours is special, different, singular, like our one God.

Those of us on this journey were born in slavery as were our parents and their parents before them, generation after generation. The freedom of this journey is the only freedom any of us have ever known. We can scarcely imagine what it would be like to have land, vines and fig trees, sheep and goats, our own homes with our families, to labor for ourselves and our community, to be free of the brutality and ravishment – but we don’t talk about that. We speak of our enslavement without ever mentioning how women and girls are treated by the slaveholders of every time and place, and sometimes boys and men as well. We tell the story of Yosef who got away from that evil woman, but we never mention those who did not escape their predators.

Today, Moshe’s words include something that we thought we’d never hear again. Some of us will be sold back into slavery. And there will be no escape, no Exodus. Lo tetze. She shall not go out. There shall be no Exodus, no liberation, no freedom for her.

Exodus 21:7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, lo tetze, she shall not go out as the male slaves go out. 8 If she is unacceptable in the sight of her lord, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be ransomed; he shall not sell her to a foreign people – he does not have the authority to do so because of his treachery against her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall treat her justly as a daughter. 10 If he takes another woman for himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or intercourse of the first woman. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing – no money.

In Exodus 20-23 the treatment of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves is repeatedly addressed. The passage begins (Ex 20:10) and ends (Ex 23:12) with Shabbat rest for the Israelites, their livestock and any resident aliens within their midst; the call for Shabbat is universal. Yet there is an omission of the free women in the household.

Ex 21:7-11 speaks of unmarried women and girls who are sold into slavery by their own fathers, (or perhaps parents), setting this Torah in the middle of the Exodus journey, allowing for the literary possibility that some young women left Egypt as freedwomen but were sold off along the way or entered Canaan as slaves. Their own fathers nullified the freedom that God gave them through Moshe, for money. A critical reading of this text looks at this passage in light of its much later composition, and sees it speaking to a period of desperate poverty in Judea, perhaps after the restoration as in Neh 5:5 Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”  

But this torah isn’t set in Nehemiah. It is plumb in the middle of Exodus. My first question is how are we to understand this torah in its literary context? Why would a father newly freed from slavery sell his daughter? It is striking that the text doesn’t require the family to be in debt, he can just sell her at a whim. Perhaps the best thing that I can say about this text is that it was revised in the canon, Deuteronomy 15:12-18 grants release to these enslaved women in the same circumstances as enslaved men and sens them both out with resources to help them establish themselves in the world.

Since yatza is the primary verb of the Exodus, I hear the “going out” as emancipation – but in this case, denial of emancipation, from slavery. In other words, women and girls who are sold into slavery shall not be released from bondage except as specified in this text. Yet there are some slight protections for her: The man her father sells her to cannot use her sexually and then sell her to non-Israelites. It seems he must be an Israelite himself. Her buyer cannot use her sexually if he designates her for his son’s sexual use and he cannot reduce her material provisions – food, clothing and the opportunity to conceive – if he acquires another woman. While these provisions leave much to be desired, they are clearly aimed at preventing sexual use and abandonment of vulnerable women having been sold by their fathers. I think that the very existence of this passage indicates that this is exactly what was going on, that girls were being sold, used sexually and then resold. The text refers to this as “treachery” “against” or “in” her, bevigdo-vah. The penalty – if one can call it that – for the slaveholder who does any of these things is that he forfeits all rights to the woman or girl. Verse 8 says that her enslaver shall let her be ransomed; it is not clear who will ransom her. It is hard to imagine her father buying her back.

Lastly, verse 11 says that the emancipated woman shall go out “for nothing, chinam,” “no money, ayin keseph,” that is, if someone does ransom her from slavery. She will not plunder her former enslaver as did the Israelite women plundered the Egyptians, and she will not be led to a land flowing with milk and honey. She will be on her own to make her own way in a world that may not value a formerly enslaved woman with a sexual history.

The fate of these women slaves, whether or not they are eligible for this conditional emancipation depends entirely on whether they “please” their lords or better, “if she is ra‘ah in his eyes.” So then if the woman sold by her father is not attractive to her new owner and he has sex with her anyway and then decides to get rid of her then the provisions of Ex 21:7-11 come into play. However, according to the logic of the text, if the slaveholder refrains from having sex with her, then he can sell her to a foreigner or give her to his son for his sexual and reproductive use. Then, lo tetze, she shall not go out to freedom.

My questions: How are we to understand this torah in its literary context? How does the tradition value individuals in relationship to the community? Then, reading beyond it’s context into our own, there is a belief that some people have the right to dominate and control the bodies of other people. This notion is fundamental to the scriptures but older than them even though it is sanctified by them – and by the scriptures of many if not all religions. The radical patriarchy assumed by the text is not a thing of the past. Men (and women) still sell their daughters. Some due to extreme poverty, others out of greed or addiction. Contemporary sex-trafficking and slavery keep this torah relevant. How do we fight the assumptions of this text as patriarchy continues to infect our public, religious and political discourses.

Lastly, I’d like to suggest that perhaps, Moshe’s promulgation of patriarchal toroth in the Divine Name, had something to do with his being barred from setting foot in the Promised Land. Perhaps. Shabbat shalom.

(The image: Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904): "Selling Slaves in Rome," Public Domain Photos)