Womanist Sass and Talk Back
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Womanist Sass and Talk Back

Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation

Mitzi J. Smith

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eBook - ePub

Womanist Sass and Talk Back

Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation

Mitzi J. Smith

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Über dieses Buch

Womanist Sass and Talk Back is a contextual resistance text for readers interested in social (in)justice. Smith raises our consciousness about pressing contemporary social (in)justice issues that impact communities of color and the larger society. Systemic or structural oppression and injustices, police profiling and brutality, oppressive pedagogy, and gendered violence are placed in dialogue with sacred (con)texts. This book provides fresh intersectional readings of sacred (con)texts that are accessible to both scholars and nonscholars. Womanist Sass and Talk Back is for readers interested in critical interpretations of sacred (con)texts (ancient and contemporary) and in propagating the justice and love of God while engaging those (con)texts.

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Our backs Tell stories No books have The spine to Carry –women of color
By Rupi Kaur1
Over the years I have become more critically aware of and passionate about the injustices to which the most vulnerable in our societies are subjected on a daily basis. And I have pondered the ways in which I integrate my passions for social justice with my teaching, preaching, and writing. I know that too many of my students and other readers of sacred texts have been taught and encouraged to suffer injustices in silence. In various ways readers are taught to ignore their pain and to stifle their struggles (and those of others) by reading from positions of privilege. Some readers are convinced that it is sacrilegious to question or critique the sacred text, to struggle with it or with characterizations of God in the text. My aim is to prioritize the oppressions and injustices that daily threaten and take the lives of the most vulnerable and to demonstrate other ways of reading that do not trick or force readers to become complicit in their own oppressions and oppression of others.
Biblical interpretation or scholarship is primarily concerned with the world behind the text (the historical) and/or the world the text constructs (the literary) and only marginally addresses the world in front of the text or contemporary (con)texts. But the impact of our contemporary context, like air in the room, is inescapable; it is the elephant in the room and sometimes the elephant is the room. To expect communities most impacted by social injustice to ignore their oppressions in the process of interpretation places a greater and often unbearable burden on them as readers of sacred texts. When members of minoritized oppressed communities are asked and expected to treat social (in)justice issues that impact their daily lives as a postscript to authentic biblical interpretation, their voices are silenced and marginalized and are often unwittingly taught to accept the imposed silence as a sacred obligation and sacrifice that God requires.
In this book, I read sacred texts from and with my locatedness and my embodiment as an African American female biblical scholar. I read from my position and perspective in front of the text, as a person of color who wishes to acknowledge and address the oppression and the suffering of communities of color. Some significant issues of social injustice that impact poor communities of color and particularly African American women, children, and men are placed in dialogue with sacred (con)texts, creating a strategic inter(con)textuality between ancient and living and contemporary testimonies or stories. Injustices in our world summon us to read the sacred (con)texts in ways that reflect and embody the Goddess-God that loves justice and summons us to do justice. God empathizes with and responds to the predicament of the oppressed. God is a living God who continues to inspire and interact with readers to form new, free, life-giving testimonies.
The readings in this book are both inter(con)textual and intersectional. My reading perspective is a womanist intersectional approach that privileges or prioritizes the experiences, voices, traditions, and artifacts of African American women (and their communities) as sources of knowledge production, critical reflection, and ethical conduct. Womanism as a political movement seeks to dismantle oppression in all of its forms and is especially concerned with the ways that bias and oppression based on race, gender, class, and/or sexuality intersect and mutually impact the lives of African American women and other people of color. Womanism as a political movement begins with a commitment to and consciousness of black women’s need for self-love, self-care, and liberation from physical, mental, and spiritual bondage and systemic social injustice or oppression. Self-love and self-care are prerequisites for neighbor and other-directed love and care. Black feminist bell hooks states that self-care for black women is a political act of resistance.2 Womanism as a political movement seeks, promotes, and embodies the well-being of black women and men, the wholeness of entire communities of color, and a global neighbor-love. I wrote this book as an act of self-care, of political resistance to contemporary and ancient (con)texts that threaten, oppose, or are antithetical to the self-care and wholeness of the oppressed. Biblical interpretation is a political act and can be an act of social justice or injustice. I write as an act of womanist resistance, an act of sass and talk-back to (con)texts that disturbingly re-inscribe structures of oppression and are oppressive, that invite us to be complicit in oppression, that primarily depict God as a violent male, that subordinate the other, and that embody and sacralize (the secular is elevated to the level of the sacred) androcentrism, patriarchalism, and misogyny.
Alice Walker, in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, defines a womanist as a woman of color who behaves and talks audaciously and who is serious, in charge.3 Womanists boldly use our agency to interpret sacred texts for ourselves and in ways that free us and our communities from constructions of God that further oppress us and that condone violence on the basis of gender, race, class, sexuality, and othering. I read sacred texts in ways that are relevant to folks who stand daily with their backs against the wall. Relevant and contextual critical biblical interpretation attempts to expose and condemn oppression and violence in sacred (con)texts. Like the Scriptures, black, brown, and yellow bodies and their communities are sacred (con)texts. When we turn a blind eye to biases and violence in our sacred (con)texts, the likelihood is great that we will learn to internalize the oppression in (con)texts and read as oppressed people, rather than as a people who value and seek freedom for ourselves and for others. We are traumatized and we will traumatize others.
Writing this book was personally therapeutic. It became a space where I could release and deal with some of my own posttraumatic stress from watching too many videos of black men, women, and children killed as a result of encounters with police officers or who were violently yanked out of a classroom chair or flung across the room like a bag of trash. The contemporary justice issues this womanist project addresses include the water shut offs in Detroit (and the Flint water crises), unjust systems/structures, police brutality and profiling in poor communities of color, oppressive pedagogy, and sexual violence. The social (in)justice issues addressed in this book are those that impact the communities where I live and teach in the Detroit metropolitan area and that impact women and communities of colors in cities like Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; Minnesota; Cleveland, Ohio, and places in between and beyond.
Although therapy encourages us toward wholeness, it is never easy; it in fact can be quite painful to confront, honestly, what ails or haunts us. Writing this book was more difficult than I anticipated both because of the subject matter and because of an added responsibility that I assumed. I chose to become a foster parent with the intention to adopt; it did not work out for the child and me. I do not regret the time we spent as parent and child. And I have not yet given up on her or on providing a permanent home for a child or teenager. Trauma caused by violence and oppression is difficult and sometimes impossible to overcome. The traumatized child often resists attachment to persons that attempt to love her and to help her become free from violence that haunts and from suppressed hauntings. We traumatize ourselves and our children when we allow them to believe that the violence they experience is God’s will or that God sanctions violence so that we might find God. Critical biblical interpretation can function (a) as a means of conscientization about oppression embedded in sacred texts and in society and that gets falsely attributed to God; (b) to demonstrate connections between contemporary ideologies that undergird social injustice and oppressive ideologies in sacred (con)texts and interpretations of those (con)texts; and (c) as a source of hope and courage, reminding us that God is on the side of the oppressed and justice.
Many readers are uncomfortable with moral ambiguity in sacred narratives, seeking to align their own lives with the perceived and presumed clear or unambiguous ethical commands and characterizations of God and God’s heroes and heroines in sacred texts. Interests, ideologies, and movements attributed to the divine are often sacralized and androcentric (male centered) concerns and prescriptives masquerade as divine mandates. Sacred narratives written and interpreted from the perspective of the winners have the power to further oppress and police the marginalized, minoritized and/or subordinated or the losers, and to persuade the latter to think and behave in ways that do not serve the interests of justice, equity, peace, and love in the earth.
Chapters 2 and 3 of this book construct inter(con)textuality between the injustices that contemporary women of color are experiencing and the stories of two female characters in the biblical text. In Chapter 2, “Water Is a Human Right, but It Ain’t Free,” I read the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from the perspective of the Detroit water shut offs that began in 2014 and continue to this day. Most of the poor in the city of Detroit are African American mothers and their children who simply cannot afford to pay the increasing cost of water. But many stereotype Detroit residents as lazy Jezebels who do not want to pay their bills. Similarly readers have stereotyped the Samaritan woman as a Jezebel that Jesus saves. God knows the stories of the Detroiters impacted by the water shut offs like he knows the Samaritan woman’s story, and he condemns neither one of them. In fact, Jesus’s offer of living water is pivotal to the narrative and can be compared to the United Nation’s declaration that water is a human right. Jesus’s offer is subversive to empire. In Chapter 3, “Race, Gender and the Politics of ‘Sass,’” I read the story of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark’s Gospel through the interpretative lens of the Sandra Bland story. Bland was the African American woman whose encounter with a police officer over an alleged failure to signal before she switched lanes ended with her death in a Texas jail cell. For both women, sass and talk-back functioned as a language of resistance.
In Chapter 4, “Epistemologies, Pedagogy, and the Subordinated Other,” I argue that the stories of the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Alexandrian Jewish man Apollos in the Acts of the Apostles are parallel characters. I read the two narratives inter(con)textually with the liberative pedagogies of African American women of color, together with my own scholarly personal narrative. Chapter 5, “Slavery, Torture, Systemic Oppression and Kingdom Rhetoric” offers an African American reading of Matthew 25:1–13. I argue that the parable of the ten virgins is part of a trilogy of slave parables that reinscribe oppressive structures. Reading with slave testimony and postcolonial and social political theory, I problematize master-slave ideology and kingdom of heaven rhetoric as appropriate metaphors for God and God’s power and presence.
In Chapters 6 and 7 biblical texts are read inter(con)textually with the contemporary issue of police brutality and police sexual misconduct. In Chapter 6, “Moral Authority, Insignificant Young Bodies and Sacralized Violence,” I read 2 Kings 2:23–25 through the lens of racial profiling and police brutality against young African American males. I draw upon group-position and power-threat theories to understand the racial divide when it comes to perspectives and experiences of policing and brutality. With Chapter 7, “A Womanist Reading of Susanna: Patriarchal Authority, Sexual Violence, and Profiling Women of Color,” I move beyond the Protestant canon to read the apocryphal text of Susanna inter(con)textually with the contemporary issue of sexual harassment and violence that women of color experience from police officers. When misogynistic men control and constitute the justice system, vulnerable women are not safe, not even women of relative privilege. Often the smallest act of resistance to oppression can have far-reaching consequences. Sometimes multidimensional forms of oppression that a woman faces force her to triage by responding to the most imminent threat that from her perspective carries the grimmest consequences for her quality of life.
1. Kaur, Milk and Honey, 171.
2. hooks, Sisters of the Yam, 7.
3. Walker, In Our Mothers’ Gardens, ix.

Water is a Human Right, but It Ain’t Free

A Womanist Reading of John 4:1–42
Context always matters. In the summer of 2014, the City of Detroit began shutting off water to thousands of residential customers unable to pay their water bills, while service to businesses with past due accounts in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars remained uninterrupted.4 In 2017 too many poor residents in the City of Detroit still live without running water.5 The City of Detroit is not the only city to shut off water to residents; other cities in Michigan like Hamtramck, as well as the cities of Baltimore and St. Louis have done the same.6 The nearby city of Flint, Mi...