Union Presbyterian Seminary webinar looks at the Bible as a double-edged sword

In the Old Testament, people have found justification both for human equality and for Jim Crow laws

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ricardo Cruz via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — The Bible has not always been an ally in the struggle for anti-racist work, organizers of a Union Presbyterian Seminary webinar noted in publicity for their Tuesday event, “Double-Edged Sword: Paradigms of (Anti)Racism in Old Testament Scripture.” Watch the hour-long discussion here.

The webinar, part of the Just Talk/Talk Just series, was sponsored by Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Center for Social Justice & Reconciliation and Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership and hosted by the Rev. Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr., Associate Professor of Bible at the seminary and director of the Center for Social Justice & Reconciliation.

Panelists were:

The Hebrew Bible “is a source of meaning-making. It is understood as the Word of God, God’s message to humanity, teaching us God’s will that we are to follow,” Sadler said at the outset. But “the Bible has proven to be a double-edged sword, a weapon that cuts both ways.” People have found justification for both human equality and Jim Crow laws in the Hebrew Bible.

Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson

“It’s a powerful text because it provides a community’s view of how they saw God at work at their point in time,” Anderson said. “It’s important to study the Bible because of the power it holds in our lives, and it’s also important to study it in the context in which it was written.”

The Hebrew Bible “reflects the concerns of the literate class” in ancient Israel, Marbury said, including “their hopes for freedom, their political interests, and to a good degree, their theology — how they understood God working in the community. My encounter with the text calls me to be very clear about my own theology, my own political interest and moral position, and my relationship with God … It is the Word of God in the sense it is passed down to me by my community. I am clear about my traditions that inform my understanding of the text … It’s extraordinarily important to be clear about where you stand hermeneutically.”

Stories of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar; Jephthah’s daughter; David, Uriah and Bathsheba and others “have been weaponized to destabilize the African American community” and other communities, according to Page. “As I read them, I have to be very much aware of the ways these texts have been appropriated in ways that are inimical to human thriving.” When preaching on or teaching about a particular text, “I can mitigate the harm they’ve done and help people understand that specific genres communicate the cultural setting in which they were produced … We have to educate about the incredible variety we find in these texts, help unpack them and empower [students] to be informed, responsible interpreters.”

Dr. Herbert R. Marbury

Marbury noted that even the first Creation story in Genesis “argues that somehow God has created everything in a particular order, which is sacrosanct. Order is natural, and we ought to respect God’s law.” Some white Christians have used that text and others “to maintain their privilege, particularly when it feels like it’s being threatened. White supremacy has a way of utilizing texts for that purpose.”

“It depends,” Marbury said, “on what you bring to the text.”

A question that must be settled even before that one, Anderson said, is, “Who has traditionally been able to define the meaning of the Bible? We have a notion that a passage means this, and normally that’s because there is one interpreter handing it down. It shows how power dynamics work … Those perspectives get embedded in what we think the Bible means. We can counter that with thinking about effects. Does it hurt the community?”

The Bible, Sadler noted, was written in part by people going through oppression, people who were conquered and enslaved. Is there a danger reading such texts produced by people with their backs against the wall from the perspective of the dominant group of people?

There is, Anderson said. “It’s a reason we have to be self-critical when we read the Bible. We have to know the context [passages] were written in. Interpreting the Bible isn’t easy. It is something you have to work at, because there are all these factors that go into biblical interpretation.”

The Rev. Dr. Hugh R. Page, Jr.

“Not only is it not easy, it’s incredible fraught,” Page said. “The first place you have to look is in the mirror, and then look around yourself. Then ask tough questions of biblical texts that don’t lend themselves to easy access.” Page said he tries “to identify [biblical] voices that are consciously oppressed. How do you read against the grain so you can identify deeper messages that may not be dominant messages of the text, but are useful nonetheless and provide solace to those with their backs against the wall?”

The texts “have several layers,” Marbury said, including oppressed voices, dominant voices, and voices in between. Ask yourself: “Where does this come from? What are the values of your community? What does your community need at the moment? The values you bring to the text are so important.”

“We often forget that,” said Sadler, “as part of our exegetical process.”

“If you have a dominant group reading these texts in ways that are harmful to groups that are oppressed and marginalized and [you’re] told, ‘This is the only way to read the Bible,’ that is just out-and-out abuse,” Anderson said. “I find I have to advance the notion of biblical authority as participation. You participate in the making of the authority of the Bible. We need to bring who we are, our values, and wrestle with the text.”

The Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler Jr.

Then it was time for Sadler to pose questions from the people watching online. What is the responsibility of preachers, one wondered, to “engage in ‘do no harm’ with hermeneutics?”

“Maybe the number one thing we have to do is tackle the question of authority, how we think about the role of scripture in our faith communities and social locations,” Page said. That’s tied to asking “questions about the ways texts can be appropriately used in informing our conversations about vexing social issues, and that requires nuanced engagement. … Especially if you are a cleric, that can cause more than a little bit of heartburn. You may find yourself at odds with the teaching of your own faith community. We are at the point where backing away from the problem is not a good thing. We have to move ahead and equip people to engage in truth-telling.”

One way to do that in a Bible study or Sunday school setting, Anderson said, is to ask, “What would be the perspective if you were a woman in the text, or the poor? … It’s amazing how differently texts read when you take a different perspective. … Your responsibility is to consider the impact on people. I think we can create more responsible interpreters of the Bible that way.”

Marbury begins “by asking students, what are the values that shaped your theology? What are the characteristics of God as you understand God to be?”

“I tell them, ‘This is the lens through which you read the text. You’ll always find God in that place. Is that the most helpful place to find God in the community to which you are called?’ I sometimes ask, ‘If that’s who God is, find that God for Hagar. If you can’t, you haven’t sufficiently wrestled with the text.’”

Ultimately, Marbury said, “the question is, what is the impact? What is the fruit of this text? Who does it silence? For whom does it advocate? The responsibility for our interpretation has less to do with method and more to do with what are the real-world effects of this interpretation for the communities we serve?”

Asked whether the Bible “gives us a context of liberation and justice,” Anderson said recent studies she’s undertaken of prophets including Amos, Micah and Isaiah all contain words of “condemnation and impending doom, but also a vision of what society will be like afterward. It strikes me how important that is, the wolf lying down with the lamb, turning swords into plowshares. That is the eschatological hope. We are supposed to be living in that in-between time, and the Bible talks a lot about inclusion where exclusion used to happen. We have these threads; we just don’t use them.”

Next in the series of online discussions is “Expanding Katie’s Canon.” It’s set for 7 p.m. Eastern Time on March 14.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?