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Union Presbyterian Seminary panel looks at biblical texts that can make antiracism work difficult

The sixth discussion in the Just Talk/Talk Just series is a lively one

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Alexis Brown via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — A panel of New Testament scholars convened by Union Presbyterian Seminary late last month took on the uncomfortable reality that “contrary to popular opinion, the Bible has not always been an ally in the struggle for antiracist work. Though replete with Scriptures that convey God’s vision for a world of equality and justice where every human being is created in the common image of God and viewed as equally valuable, the Bible has also been used for more nefarious ends,” including, as a webinar promotion put it, “theologically justified supremacist thought.”

The webinar, “Troubling Biblical Waters: (Anti)Racist Paradigms in the New Testament,” which can be viewed here, was the latest in the Just Talk/Talk Just series cosponsored by the seminary’s Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation and the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership. Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr., Associate Professor of the Bible and Director of the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation, hosted the panel, which included:

  • Dr. Brian K. Blount, President and Professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
  • Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Professor of New Testament and Culture and Vice President of Academic Affairs and Academic dean at Chicago Theological Seminary.
  • Dr. Emerson Powery, Professor of Biblical Studies and Assistant Dean at the School of Arts, Culture and Society at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

Sadler put this question to the panel: Is the New Testament useful or problematic as we talk about issues of race?

Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder

“It’s both/and,” Crowder replied. “My concern is we have to talk about race in the Bible and the race of those engaging the Bible. That informs what we bring to the text even before we read and interpret the text. We look for a word from the Lord, but also a word in this age of Black Lives Matter.”

“There are texts that can be problematic depending on how they’re used,” Powery said. “One can hold up certain causes based on certain texts without reading and thinking through the larger contexts. The Bible has an American context that travels alongside … There are useful passages and passages that need to be wrestled with and maybe pushed back against. We need to engage it with our full selves.”

“Race is a contemporary construct. We impose a lot on the biblical material,” Blount said. “The biblical writers are human beings fraught with complexities of the context in which they found themselves.”

Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr.

Sadler then asked the panel to look at “this perilous text,” Ephesians 6:5-9, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and trembling … as you obey Christ” and “Masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Lord in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.”

Blount said it’s “interesting to look at enslavement based on the power dynamic, not a color/racial dynamic.” The language “allows for the misreading” that would say, “If you are enslaved, it’s because your race is inferior. God wants you to acquiesce.”

That’s “based on a racialized understanding that’s different than what’s in the text,” Blount said. “It’s right to look at that text as a problematic text.”

“We hear time and time again that context shapes content,” Crowder said. “Roman power and domination and imperialism informed what these biblical writers dared to describe … There are ways in which African Americans have interpreted against these passages and reframed them for their own liberative purposes.”

Dr. Emerson Powery

Powery said he’s never heard a white preacher speak about verse 9, for masters to stop threatening people who are enslaved. “It’s still problematic,” Powery said, “to think about those early Christ followers situating their practices in the world context where hierarchy is the standard practice.”

“We know, for example, that the New Testament is written from primarily a male perspective,” Blount said. “Even when women stand out, they are often unnamed. In Pauline literature, some material suggests women have a secondary status. On the other hand, Paul works with apostolic leaders who are women. I use gender here to suggest there is an analog for looking at race. There are striking moments when women are leading disciples, where outsiders are highlighted and lifted up in the text. Readers who bring their own cultural perspectives to the text can downplay those moments or emphasize other texts.”

Portions of the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection “become troubling,” Crowder said. “The women are perceived as prevaricators. It’s troubling what the text says and what it can be saying to today’s society, that women are telling their truths. As preachers we preach one way on a text, then years later preach it in a different way. It’s time and the Spirit. These texts are living and breathing and moving, just as those interpreting them are.”

Powery said that Acts 15, “the coming together of various folks to talk about including Gentiles” and mentions tensions between Paul and Barnabas “sets up important conversations for not just Jews and Gentiles, but conversations about race and inclusion.”

Then there’s Acts 2, Crowder said, where a diverse crowd gathered at Pentecost heard “in their own language and framework. We have to pay attention to the ways people are affirmed for being who they are. It’s a variety, a buffet, a wonderful way we are all created in the Divine’s image.”

According to Powery, if preachers read texts “on behalf of the marginalized, we have to find hermeneutical strategies for wrestling with the texts. When churches are more inclusive of the LGBTQ community, their minds are opened. Those of us whose ancestors are formerly enslaved, we should be at the forefront of reading in liberative ways on behalf of those on the margins.”

Dr. Brian K. Blount

“Created in God’s image — that’s a bedrock for attacking racism,” Blount said. “The same for the LGBTQ community — who are we to categorize and impose categories on God’s Creation? We use that lens to denigrate others, and the biblical record is trying to destroy that.”

“When we come to spaces and there is tension, we don’t leave the table because there is tension,” Crowder said. “We can use our gifts to sojourn with our congregations.”

We’ve only to look to the Book of Revelation to see “a radical inclusion of who is before the throne,” Blount said. “In the end, even for those understood to be antagonistic, there is a radical inclusion of every tongue, nation and tribe flowing into the city, the new Jerusalem.”

“If that’s God intent,” Blount said, “our mandate is to create that in the present.”

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