Skip to content

Denying Human(s) Categories

March 1, 2015

On this first day of the month, I just read Mysia Anderson‘s “Celebrating black women during Women’s History Month.” And I was just as shocked just now reading Ana Marie Cox’s “Why I’m Coming Out as a Christian” (and confessed to my fb friend who posted the article that she is braver than I).

Let me quote a bit from each respectively and then respond.

Anna Julia Cooper was born to a black mother and a white slavemaster father and …. notably wrote, “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say, ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’”

With this bold assertion, Cooper poignantly articulated intersectionality. This term, coined by contemporary black feminist scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, acknowledges the interconnectedness and nuance of various forms of oppression, domination and discrimination. Crenshaw’s scholarship focuses on the double bind of gender and race. Her analyses of oppression looks at the ways that systemic oppression interacts with multiple aspects of identity.


I’ve lately observed conservatives questioning Obama’s faith with more than professional interest. Because if Obama’s not Christian, what does that make me?

I have not been public about my faith. I am somewhat tempted to embrace the punk-rockness of being a progressive, feminist, tattooed, pro-choice, graduate-educated believer—and then I have to remind myself that believing in God is about as punk rock as wearing pants, maybe even less so. Almost nine in ten Americans believe in God; in any given moment, how many are wearing pants?

In my personal life, my faith is not something I struggle with or something I take particular pride in. It is just part of who I am.

Well, Anderson, who is a woman, does not make a big explicit deal out of the fact that Cooper was “out” as a Christian, calling herself “black” when the proper term of her day was “Negro.” And, Cox, who is white, does not make a big explicit deal about Obama being as black as Cooper.

I find the human agency to self-label incredibly important. “Coming out” gay or black or Christian or woman is incredibly important and takes — in our days and months and years and centuries and millennia of homophobia, misogyny, black hatred, racism, and religion or science or intellect bashing — bravery.

It’s not just me. Some of my co-bloggers with me, and many of you thinkers and readers here and elsewhere, struggle with our human categorizations and categories. It’s the doubly and triply and mutiply marginalized who we do well to show the most attention and to give the most care and to allow the most agency.

I still think Carolyn Osiek is astute in helping those of us in our current set of categories recall the ancient set; let me re-quote (from a blog comment of several comments made by Kristen, Suzanne, Theophrastus, and me — at T.C. Robinson’s blog — before we commenters there decided to co-blog here); Osiek writes:

From a modern perspective, we would say the categories ‘women’ and ‘slaves’ are partially overlapping. Some women were slaves, but not all were; some slaves were women, but not all slaves were. But, in fact, in ancient categories it is the expression ‘women slaves,’ which seems to us more inclusive, that is a conceptual contradiction. While women and slaves of the ancient Greco-Roman world shared much in common within the male perspective of the patriarchal household, they did not belong to overlapping categories. Both were in Aristotle’s categories fit by nature to be ruled, not to rule. Both shared intimately in the life of the household, including its religion, economy, child production and nurturing, and burial. . . .

Both women and slaves in many ways remained in a state of perpetual liminality. Ancient literature regularly ascribes to one the vices of the other. But if females who were slaves had to be fitted either into the category of women or of slaves, the ancient thinker would have considered them slaves, not women. As females who were slaves, they were doubly fit by nature to be ruled and dominated.

Osiek gets at the rape consequences of the different categorization of humans as “‘women’ and ‘slaves’”:

There is an astonishing lack of specification about slaves even in the literature of marital advice. More ancient authors than might be supposed advocate the marital fidelity of husbands, including Aristotle . . . and Pythagoras . . ., but it is doubtful whether sex with one’s own slaves is included. Plutarch, on the other hand, considers it normal for husbands to take their debauchery elsewhere, to go wide of the mark . . . with a . . . slave. . . . If Plutarch is consistent, then his advice about educating freeborn males not to be overbearing with slaves . . . does not prohibit rape of slaves.

Rape today represents for us all one of the most egregious sins that any in our societies might perpetrate. And we startle at the fact that our forefathers metaphorically and physically might have allowed it, legally, ethically, and culturally. We know women (and in some cases children and men) who have been raped. We (in some cases) have been the victim. We share the devastation caused when a human with a penis sexually violates another human.

We would do well, in my humble opinion, to pay attention to the human categorizations that rape metaphorically.

Here’s some what I intend by that. I struggle to get to the issues, the marginalizing categories, objectively, especially when it becomes so personal and subjective. After my friend posted Cox’s “coming out as a Christian” I found myself wanting to write the following as a comment on facebook (and so I did):

It’s ironic that Jesus Christ never came out (had to come out) as a Christian:
It’s the first day of Women’s History Month in the USA this year. We all would do well to pay attention and give care to those who multiply self identify as (black) (Christian) (manifold categories) women.

The Evolution of Siri in America

February 28, 2015

My first iPhone in the USA was a 3GS, and it had an app on it called Siri.

At the time, nobody knew either that it was intended to be called Hal or that Apple would buy it as an essential part of the later versions of iPhone. Yes, Hal, not Siri.

Not long afterwards, those with the upgraded iPhones with that essential Siri, people like Amanda Marcotte, began to wonder about the advice the app doled out:

Siri behaves much like a retrograde male fantasy of the ever-compliant secretary: discreet, understanding, willing to roll with any demand a man might come up with, teasingly accepting of dirty jokes. Oh yeah, and mainly indifferent to the needs of women.

At my house, we discovered this while playing with Siri’s quickly established willingness to look up prostitutes for a straight man in need….

More troubling and less predictable was Siri’s inability to generate decent results related to women’s reproductive health.

Apple’s spokes”woman” seems to have promised early on, in 2011, that these sorts of human observations about the sexist machine should go away. For instance, Natalie Kerris said:

Our customers want to use Siri to find out all types of information, and while it can find a lot, it doesn’t always find what you want. These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better, and we will in the coming weeks.

Nonetheless, those sorts of human observations have continued through this year. For example, in late January 2015, there were a few more comments by Annalee Newitz:

Siri is a kind of disembodied presence, but clearly her gender matters. Indeed, there was no male version of Siri until 2013….

[W]e’re supposed to associate digital assistant work with traditional women’s roles. Siri is mother who actually cares about you, and Cortana is the most competent secretary you ever had. Which — of course, you never had a secretary. As David Wheeler pointed out last year on CNN, there’s a certain amount of wishful thinking here, given that the age of secretaries died along with the chain-smoking execs of Mad Men. There’s wishful thinking in the mother idea, too, since nobody has a mother who keeps track of their every whim the way Siri will…..

So what is it that Siri and Cortana deliver that a male voice cannot? I think the answer is submission. Again, there are many sexist overtones here. But the sad truth is that these digital assistants are more like slaves than modern women. They are not supposed to threaten you, or become your equal — they are supposed to carry out orders without putting up a fight. The ideal slave, after all, would be like a mother to you. She would never rebel because she loves you, selflessly and forever.

I do want to stress that Siri is female like this in the USA. In Australia, there’s also a female voice. In Canada, the voice is male. In England, the voice is, or was, male too. When he shifted to a she, then some Brits began to protest, if others began to like her:

But it’s not all bad for British users. Many have also posted that they are pleased with the work of female British Siri, saying she is much better.

And now humans using the iPhone get to choose, female or male. Here are the instructions for making the change from one to the other.

And since I’m focusing on the USA, if you speak Danish, Dutch, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Thai and Turkish languages here, then you’re in luck because Apple is working on a Siri that speaks and hears these languages as well.

If your language is English, then you’re still fine to use Siri. You’re okay, unless you want to use your Indian English. You still have to “the need to fake an American or British accent” to get her (or him) to work for you. But just wait, she (or he) is soon going to understand the South Asian lect.

That reminds me of another thing: One of my siblings, who is a Texan from the USA living in Europe as a Permanent Resident of the UK, to be understood, has to speak, not his Texan lect, but the British lect when driving left handed and ordering drive-through at a MacDonalds there. His Siri, an import from the USA, nonetheless, is that female American who tolerates his mother tongue just fine.

Aren’t these bodiless Siris a mere reflection of their makers? And what subtle, unconscious impressions do their replies make on us (if sometimes the responses are just funny)? And what will be the next evolutions of Apple’s Siri in America? What should they be?

Levine: Short stories by Jesus

February 28, 2015

Originally posted on Judy's research blog:

Last year, I bought a copy of Amy-Jill Levine’s new book, Short Stories by Jesus – the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi (HarperOne, New York, 2014) and have been meaning to post a review of it every since I started using it. I find that the perspective of Jewish scholars on Second Testament writings often helps me to shake of what I have ‘always known’ about the texts and allows me to see something different and I like Levine’s writing. She is one of the contributors to  Coogan, Michael David, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins. The new Oxford annotated Bible  (Oxford [England]; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) and one of the editors of Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler eds. The Jewish annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible translation. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) but this is the first…

View original 210 more words

The Oscars? Men (not women)

February 19, 2015


Oscar is a man. And the Oscars (i.e., the Academy Awards) feature men more (even though a human named Cheryl Boone Isaacs is now the president of the Academy). And for some years now, out of research conducted at San Diego State University, has come the Celluloid Ceiling Report showing men make more films and make more money from them than women have made or can make. The past year is worse than the previous year, the data in the annual reporting by Martha M. Lauzen show.

One film watcher has decided, therefore, that this year (2015) she will watch 52 films, one per week,[per her clarifying comment below] 365 new films, one per day, made not by men but by women. “Initially I was just going to do [my watching of] the films directed by a woman,” she says, “but then I realized the statistics for female screenwriters are abysmal.” In women-directed movies also written by women, there seems to be a difference that Marya E. Gates has begun to notice already when watching the films and noting how men can be presented in them: “men tend to be more intimate in films directed by women.”

What more will be seen in the 2015 movies women have made that this woman is watching?

And don’t we already know what most film viewers otherwise will see? How about this:

With its tendency to follow conventional themes, clichéd metaphors, given genres, and above all stereotypes of the female figure—[movies of 2015 are] hardly a satisfying source for tracing women’s “real” presence (or the presence of “real” women). Rather than evidence to their presence, [the film set of this present year] furnishes manifestations of their absence and erasure. There are ample ways by which women can be made to disappear from the [movies that represent] them. Woman’s absence is represented by procedures of silencing (woman is ideally mute or notoriously garrulous); stereotypization (woman is “good,” “bad,” “ugly,” etc.); abstraction (allegorical woman as concept without body); mythologization and dehumanizing (nymph, Medusa, Amazon, demon, beast); objectification (woman is a reified body without subjectivity or mind; she is matter, commodity, chattel, prize), and the like. It is the task of [2015 film] criticism to follow the varied ways in which women and concepts of gender are manipulated—fictionalized, fantasized, poeticized, metaphorized, narrativized, dramatized—in [the movies this year].

Closely related to the question of women’s presence/absence in [film making] is the issue of female voices. To what extent are those female voices captured within [movies] “authentic” and unmediated? Aren’t they muffled by male transmission? Don’t they serve the [screen writer’s and the director’]’s androcentric position? Female voices seem often to embody patriarchal “truths” about women’s speech (women abuse language by lying, quarreling, complaining, enticing, and so on). However, utterances of female protagonists help to reveal the limits of the androcentric logic that produced them. They indicate points from which the homotextual hegemonic monolith can be dismantled.

Well, the two paragraphs above are not my words. And to be fair, they aren’t about 2015 films, who Oscar is, or the ways women are and fail to be represented in movies this year. That is not an excerpt from “Modern Hollywood Filmmaking: Portrayal of Women.” Rather, it is a quotation of Tova Rosen from her “Medieval Hebrew Literature: Portrayal of Women.” I just wanted to think about how different things might be from one era to another, from one medium to another, from one year to the next. What on this day in 2016 might be different? Who is Oscar’s sister anyway?

Masculine Greek: for an adulteress, not an authoress?

February 17, 2015

For some time, Greek readers of the unsigned and unclaimed New Testament epistle of Hebrews have wondered whether its author might be an authoress. Bloggers like me have wondered.

Facebookers continue to wonder. Yesterday, for example, one of my facebook friends posted this:

An oldie but goodie: Did Priscilla write Hebrews?

One of the most prolific “biblibloggers” responded tersely:


And I asked:

absolute no?

To which he replied, a bit more:

absolute we will never, ever know so no, no

Another of my friends (fb and IRL) entered the conversation to say how he wished the Harnack hypothesis that Pricilla wrote Hebrews were true but that he himself couldn’t overcome the fact that the author must be male because of the masculine Greek self-referential language used by the writer of the letter.

I gave a knee-jerk, bigger picture feminist response:

Recently, Deborah Copaken Kogan reminded us readers of the following:

… centuries of literary sexism, exclusion, cultural bias, invisibility. There’s a reason J.K. Rowling’s publishers demanded that she use initials instead of “Joanne”: it’s the same reason Mary Anne Evans used the pen name George Eliot; the same reason Robert Southey, then England’s poet laureate, wrote to Charlotte Brontë: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”

The earliest epistolary literature of Christianity was not the biz of a woman’s life. Not even Priscilla’s, who would be inclined to use the masculine participle (to hide her being feminine), wouldn’t we all agree?

And the conversation has stopped. Now I want to start it up again only by getting back into the particulars of the masculine Greek.

A little primer in what the masculine Greek objection is all about and why it might not be relevant is here. Ruth Hoppin there is rightly quoted as explaining how the gender of the verb in question is ambiguous: that is, διηγούμενον may be not only masculine in grammatical gender but also neuter. The author might not be “telling” (or technically, rhetorically giving a διηγήσεται (or a diegesis, or ‘narration’) as a default male – as a man. It could be some somebody (with gender not specified), says she, Ms. Hoppin.

The whole sentence goes like this:

Καὶ τί ἔτι λέγω; ἐπιλείψει με γὰρ διηγούμενον ὁ χρόνος περὶ Γεδεών, Βαράκ, Σαμψών, Ἰεφθάε, Δαυείδ τε καὶ Σαμουὴλ καὶ τῶν προφητῶν,

In the KJV, that is Englished this way:

And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me [the man writing] to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:

It’s the declension, the suffix if you will, that shows this verb takes a subject that is either a man or a gender generic (i.e., neuter) subject (i.e., anybody).

Even so, (and either ambiguous way) it is NOT a feminine verbal with a feminine subject.

But, however, nonetheless, and (as some of us, both anybody men and women, say in here Texas) hold your horses. There are examples in Greek literature, and Christian Greek literature, and Christian biblical literature (yes even the canonical Christian Bible, the Holy Bible) in which the masculine (or neuter) verb references a female. Yes, I know, that does not mean it’s feminist necessarily. The one example I want to give is of Jerusalem. Yes, that’s right. The Holy Polis, the Holy City. She is likened to a prostitute. She is called an adulterous adulteress who messes around with her own kind even. And not only the prophet of the LORD calls her that but also through the Prophet G-d Himself calls her that. Yes, I know. It’s a translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Yes, I understand; not everybody appreciates the Septuagint, that spurious translation done in Egypt, which enslaved the Hebrews. Nonetheless, here it is, what we call Ezekiel 16:34 –

καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν σοὶ διεστραμμένον παρὰ τὰς γυναῖκας ἐν τῇ πορνείᾳ σου, καὶ μετὰ σοῦ πεπορνεύκασιν ἐν τῷ προσδιδόναι σε μισθώματα, καὶ σοὶ μισθώματα οὐκ ἐδόθη, καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν σοὶ διεστραμμένα.

Here is how Sir Brenton Englishes that:

And there has happened in you [sir] perverseness in your fornication beyond other women, and they have committed fornication with you, in that you give hires over and above, and hires were not given to you; and thus perverseness happened in you.

Now, to be clear, Sir Brenton did not write the implied “[sir]” because his context shows that Jerusalem is a she, not a he. I’ve added that to his English. I’ve added it because the Greek of the LXX translators implies a male (or at the very least a gender unspecified neuter), not a female.

My question is this, Why in Christian Greek scriptures are we not so inclined to allow a Priscilla to do what another Jewish Greek writer would do? If an adulteress can be referred to by male (or clearly Not Female) terms, then why can’t an author who is a woman?

The literary of the Jews of Egypt and the Sappho of Lesbos

February 16, 2015

This is a 10-minute post to add to the blog series on the Interpretive Spins and Literary Sparks in the Ψαλμοὶ. Abram K-J (who’s in a group reading the Greek Psalmoi this year) is the inspiration for this particular post. He wrote one yesterday that reminded me of one of the fragments of Sappho. He’s struck by the syllable count of one particular word as much as anything:

One thing that continually impresses me about Greek is its preponderance of multisyllabic words. / Much of this has to do with how its verbs are conjugated. The four-syllable verb μεγαλυνω, for example, when inflected in Psalm 19:8 (Psalm 20:7 in English Bibles), becomes a majestic seven-syllable ending to an already beautiful verse:… [read the rest here]

What Abram didn’t mention is that this long-syllable-phrase appears multiply. So let me show the LXX Greek on that, the Hebraic Hellene. Then let me show the Sappho fragment of Greek lyric. And I’m going to add my quick quick English translation.

ἐν τῷ σωτηρίῳ σου,
καὶ ἐν ὀνόματι θεοῦ ἡμῶν
πληρώσαι κύριος πάντα τὰ αἰτήματά σου.

νῦν ἔγνων ὅτι ἔσωσεν κύριος τὸν χριστὸν αὐτοῦ·
ἐπακούσεται αὐτοῦ ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ἁγίου αὐτοῦ,
ἐν δυναστείαις ἡ σωτηρία τῆς δεξιᾶς αὐτοῦ.

οὗτοι ἐν ἅρμασιν
καὶ οὗτοι ἐν ἵπποις,
ἡμεῖς δὲ ἐν ὀνόματι κυρίου θεοῦ ἡμῶν

We’ll cheer
In the rescue, yours sir,
And in the name of The god, ours,
We’ll Go Great Giving High Praise.
He’ll fulfill, Oh Kyrios will, all of the requests, yours sir.

Now I knew that He rescued the One, Honored-with-Oil, His.
He’ll hear Him, and out of High Heaven Holy, His,
In Power, the rescue of the right hand, His.

Those’ll praise in chariots
And those others in cavalry,
But we will in the name of The god, ours,
We’ll Go Great Giving High Praise.

ἴψοι δὴ τὸ μέλαθρον·
ἀέρρετε τέκτονες ἄνδρες·
γάμβρος εἰσέρχεται ἴσος Ἄρευι,
ἄνδρος μεγάλω πόλυ μέζων.

Go high with the Great Roof!
Oh Hymen!
Grab it, technicians, men!
Oh Hymen!
Groom of the Bride is coming, equal to Ares,
Oh Hymen
A Great man? Plenty Greater!

Love subjectively: translating Luke 10

January 24, 2015

This post of mine takes a rather subjective perspective. You could call it my commentary.

This morning I’m struck by what I perceive as the Greek Rhetoric influence on the gospel of Luke. And the text, its language, seems quite aware of the Hebraic construction of the Hellene of the Septuagint. Luke Chapter 10, in particular, is an example. The first pericope, or episode, has the didactic Jesus engaged in the speech-act of sending his students (disciples, learners, talmidim) out in groups. Note the number, the nod to the LXX. Within the instruction is Greek simile, Hellenic fable/parable, and Hebraic metaphors. Through the larger story, readers find allusion both to the Hebrew Bible and also to the Greek of the translation done in Alexandria, Egypt; and so there are literary hints of insider cultural coded language. There are aphorisms and there are hidden gems and there are revelations, letting the reader in on the joke, so to speak.

Then we readers come to what is famously known as the parable/fable of the good Samaritan. The Greek readers are to this point siding with the pure Jewish interlocutors, Jesus, and his talmidim apprentices, and their god, who is called (in Hellene) Kyrios. But the surprise turn in the fable/parable is that the hero is not pure racially.

The set up, rhetorically and literaturally, is the Socratic dialectic between Jesus and one of the experts in the writings of the Five Books of Moses (a Talmid Chacham, a Torah scholar). The latter questions the former first. His is a very seemingly personal question:

Διδάσκαλε, τί ποιήσας ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω;

Didactic-Teacher, What do I do for life on and on? What do I do to inherit that?

And so the former, in return, questions the latter. Again, it is highly personal and intensely subjective:

Ἐν τῷ νόμῳ τί γέγραπται; πῶς ἀναγινώσκεις;

In the Torah what is written? How do you read it?

The reply, the ἀπό-κρισις, the retort if you will, might seem, to us readers of Luke, to be simply only merely a direct quotation from The Shema of the Torah. At the very least, we might expect the Hebraic Hellene of the Septuagint’s version we call Deuteronomy 6.

But there’s a twist. Or a twisting. An interpreting, a changing up, an addition to what is verbatim in the Law. It’s not even the gospel writer’s clearer Greek translating of the Hebrew text, clearer than the Hellene translation of the Hebrew translators who lived before him so far away in Egypt. No, out of the mouth of the Torah scholar, this Talmid Chacham, comes a new take in Greek, with a mashup of what’s in the Hellene of Levitikus 19:

οὐ μισήσεις τὸν ἀδελφόν σου τῇ διανοίᾳ σου,
ἐλεγμῷ ἐλέγξεις τὸν πλησίον σου

καὶ οὐ λήμψῃ δι’ αὐτὸν ἁμαρτίαν.
καὶ οὐκ ἐκδικᾶταί σου ἡ χείρ,
καὶ οὐ μηνιεῖς τοῖς υἱοῖς τοῦ λαοῦ σου
καὶ ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν·

ἐγώ εἰμι κύριος.

Which roughly can be Englished this way:

thou shalt not hate that brother of yours in that mind of yours,
reproofing you shall reproof those in that near space of yours

and thou shalt not bear sin on his account
and it shall not be vengeance of yours, thine hand,
and thou shalt not be angry with the children of those people of yours,
and thou shalt love those neigh you

I am kyrios [master]

Granted, the “dia-noia,” or διανοίᾳ σου, is a very good Greek translation of the Hebrew in the sense that it captures the profound subjectivity of the requirement of this law, this teaching. The prohibition against “hate” puts it in the individual, in his or her heart, or in the Hellene, deep in the mind’s thoughts.

And so when the one rabbi retorts to the other, and when that other (Jesus) validates the answer as “correct,” the translation or interpretation or hermeneutic here expressed is very, very singularly personal and very, very profoundly subjective.

If you won’t mind, then, let me verbatim reproduce Luke’s Greek. And my English:


The universal requirement of love, and the object of that comprehensive love, wholly falls on the individual. This law, in my view, deconstructs the hierarchy of the Kyriarchy, bringing within close proximity of the Shema the additional command to love thy neighbor and in thine own mind and heart to not hate thine own brother.

Of course, Luke 10 goes on. The two rabbis get into their dialectic over “neighbor.” And didactic Jesus tells the fable that deconstructs the pure notion of the near or neigh one as a pure breed like these two pure teachers talking.

In this literary, rhetorical, fable-parable-law context, love deconstructs and love is very very subjective universally.

Susannah Heschel on “Selma”

January 18, 2015

Here are a few links relating Susannah Heschel’s reaction to the absence of her father, Abraham Heschel, from the movie “Selma.” She wrote,

The 50th anniversary of the 1965 march at Selma is being commemorated this year with the release of the film “Selma.” Regrettably, the film represents the march as many see it today, only as an act of political protest.

But for my father Abraham Joshua Heschel and for many participants, the march was both an act of political protest and a profoundly religious moment: an extraordinary gathering of nuns, priests, rabbis, black and white, a range of political views, from all over the United States.

Perhaps more an act of celebration of the success of the civil rights movement than of political protest, Selma affirmed that the movement had won the conscience of America.

President Lyndon Johnson had just declared, “We Shall Overcome,” and congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act would come quickly. Thanks to the religious beliefs and political convictions of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., coalitions had been built, religious differences overcome and visions articulated that meshed religious and political goals.

My father felt that the prophetic tradition of Judaism had come alive at Selma. He said that King told him it was the greatest day in his life, and my father said that he was reminded at Selma of walking with Hasidic rebbes in Europe. Such was the spiritual atmosphere of the day.

Read more:

Other links and interviews:

Fresh Controversy …
Following in my father’s footsteps
Their Feet Were Praying

5 More Cities Allowing Students to Read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail for Free

January 16, 2015

This Friday in 2015 before the USA Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday, news sources in America are reporting the following:

What’s more, for all of my BLT co-bloggers, I would just like to announce also that students in cities around the world are now allowed to read The Letter from a Birmingham Jail published widely before the march on Selma also “for free” on Monday, when students across the States of America will neither be segregated nor integrated in schools. Here are two previews:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;

when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;

when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;

when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;



when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”;

Martin Luther King Jr. and Two of His Children


when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you;



when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;



when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”;

when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments;

when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you [white rabbis and white Christian clergy] can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern.

Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.


One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”


I wish you [white rabbis and white Christian clergymen] had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.”

Martin Luther King Escorting ChildrenMLK-walks-Mississippi-Children

They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.


translating “tout est pardonné”

January 15, 2015

Our BLT post “tout est pardonné” is generating lots of readers, which normally we are just fine with. Some English readers are finding it by searching for “translation of ‘tout est pardonné’” and expecting to learn what the French of the cover of the most recent issue of Charlie Hebdo must surely mean.

What it means, literally, as we say, is “all is pardoned.” What it signifies, figurally, however, is not that at all. Rather, with the apparent intent to flaunt and to draw charges of “blasphemy” from those who cheered on the crime of killing 12 persons in Paris, the phrase, satirical and ironic, actually means meanness: “Not anything is forgiven after all.” The crime of murder is matched by the sin of desacralization. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Death for Death. The stuff more safely in Theatre. Which brings me to the purpose of this post. I’d like to recall a few paragraphs by Hélène Cixous. This is from her essay “Le lieu du Crime, le lieu du Pardon” (or “The Place of Crime, The Place of Forgiveness” as translated into English by Catherine A. F. MacGillivray):




The full original is here, the translation here.

Father Wil Gafney and womanism

January 13, 2015

Rachel Held Evans invited readers of her blog to “Ask a womanist biblical scholar” questions, namely “The Reverend Wil Gafney, Ph.D. [who] is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas and is an Episcopal priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth.”

The Rev. Dr. Gafney has responded to many of the more than 40 questions posed to her. My favorite of her responses is this one:

Rebecca and Erin, Teaching a girl that she matters, that her voice and ideas matter even when others say they don’t is appropriate at any age. I have been an out feminist and womanist my entire clergy and scholarly career. Girls have always been able to see and hear that in my experience. Some of my practices are using explicitly feminist God-language, not just “inclusive” because folk hear/see/imagine a male god when they hear “God.” I also chose to be known as Father Wil when I became a priest so that the male priests and I would have the same title – which in that church they also used for God. When the Sunday School teacher told the 5 year-olds, “This is Father Wil and she’s going to say our Mass today,” the little girls’ eyes lit up and they sat up. The paradigm shifted before their eyes. There was another woman priest but she used a different title and I felt was seen/placed in a different category.

I don’t know that we can talk about freedom in the gospel without talking about freedom from the enslaving paradigms with which it is also framed and which are constitutive of it. That means talking about androcentrism, patriarchy, sexism and misogyny in the scriptures and in the church from the pulpit, in the theological classroom, in congregational conversations, in public theology and the scholarly literature. We must talk about slavery in the gospels, about Jesus healing but not freeing slaves and using the language of slavery as normative.

Father Wil does here with one male familial pronoun what one of my BLT-cobloggers, Suzanne McCarthy, does with another. She notes at another blog how she counts herself among the brethren:

I grew up among the Brethren and accepted that term as applying equally to men and women. Early letters of the Brethren to groups of believers were usually worded “greetings to my brothers and sisters in the Lord”…. I have a fair tolerance for archaism and would feel included in the term ‘brethren’. I came close to putting a subtitle on my Powerscourt blog of “women among the brethren,” since the only biography of Lady Powerscourt was in a book called “Chief Women among the Brethren.”… However, I decided to research the word ‘brethren’ a little more and found that it has been considered outmoded as a word for ‘brothers’ for several hundred years.

What Father Wil does for a girl in Sunday School, this same clergy person does for me. My eyes light up and I sit up, which brings me to another of her responses to questions, another of my favorites:

Dear Dan, first I’d like you to know something about your [“white, comfortable, middle-aged Englishman”] perspective that you may already know, that it is not the only one nor even the “right” one. Womanism is black women’s interpretation but it is not only for black women. Womanist biblical interpretation enriches every person and every community’s understanding of the biblical text. There are things you will never see in the text without reading in the company of black women. In the post-colonial, post-Atlantic slave trade world, it is crucial that peoples who have historically benefited from the sale and plunder of black women’s bodies, justifying those practices with their readings of scripture learn to hear and the scriptures in our voices and through our eyes.

I am one of those every persons with a community, and, with my eyes lit up and sitting up now, I am enriched by Father Reverend Dr. Gafney’s interpretations.

We can find her blogging and preaching here:

And here are the responses she gives to several of the questions asked:


P.S. – my own question asked is this one:

You have at times discussed yourself as a “fem/womanist” and have talked of the value of a “fem/womanist hermeneutic; that is, one that lies at the intersection of feminist and womanist hermeneutical practices.” You nuanced that to go on to call yourself, “a black feminist who works and worships in solidarity with my womanist sisters.” You make clear your “intent to participate in the redemption of a radically egalitarian ethic from the pale hands of those who infected it with racism and classism.” And you say that a “fem/womanist hermeneutic … affirms the full personhood and divine image of all humanity and combats oppressions—racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, elitism, imperialism—on multiple fronts in response to the presence and activity of God in the cosmos.” This seems as expansive, inclusive, and universal as bell hooks’s saying, “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” And yet when you acknowledge the multiple oppressions (of more than just “pale hands”) the slashmark in “fem/womanist” begins to sound like Catherine Keller’s “feminist fourfold” from “genderfold” /to “colorfold” /to “queerfold” /to what she seems to leave open and fluid as “manifold.”

At what point do self-identities free us / and must they always somehow also implicate us (in the acts of oppressings)?

(I’m thinking of your related statement here: “Those of us who self-identify as Christian can never allow ourselves to forget that the Shoah, Holocaust, wasperpetrated in Christian lands by baptized hands.”)


Enumerating Techie Sexism

January 13, 2015

“This, of course, isn’t the first time a tech product has prioritized men over women. The vast majority of tech companies are staffed by men, especially on the development side. Phones are too big for many women’s hands. The newest artificial hearts are designed to fit 80 percent of men but only 20 percent of women. Drop-down menus show ‘male’ over ‘female’ even when the rest of the menus are alphabetical. But when it comes to data-tracking, there’s a perceived element of democratization. How could an app or tool that simply lets you track things be biased? Let us count the ways.”

– , “How Self-Tracking Apps Exclude Women: ‘Self-knowledge through numbers’ seems like a genderless goal, yet the actual products out there are anything but.” The Atlantic

The Deadly Violent Evangelists and their Gospel

January 12, 2015

Nick Norelli has a post up today entitled “The Gospel” that starts in this way with a contemporary English language problem for Christians:

The term “the gospel,” it seems, functions as a buzzword nowadays. It’s a shorthanded way of talking about one’s hobbyhorse of choice. For example, a preacher who is big on holiness will tell us that the cheap grace teaching of so many is not “the gospel,” but rather holiness is “the gospel.” Or a teacher big on grace will tell us that the legalistic teaching of the holiness preacher is not “the gospel,” but rather grace is “the gospel.” Or six day creationists might tell us that “the gospel” is God creating all that exists in six 24 hour days. Liberation theologians tell us that “the gospel” is social justice. You get the point.

It’s worth going back a bit to the ambiguities in the good spellings of English to recall how the word evolved rather problematically; here’s from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Etymology: Old English godspel, doubtless originally gód spel (see good adj. and spell n.1), good tidings (compare láð spel evil tidings), a rendering of the Latin bona adnuntiatio (Corpus Gloss. Int. 117) or bonus nuntius (‘Euuangelium, id est, bonum nuntium, godspel’, Voc. c1050 in Wright-Wülcker 314/8), which was current as an explanation of the etymological sense of Latin evangelium, Greek εὐαγγέλιον (see evangely n.). Compare Gothic þiuþspillôn ‘to preach the gospel’ (εὐαγγελίζεσθαι), < þiuþ-s good + spillôn to announce (cognate with spell n.1). When the phrase gód spel was adopted as the regular translation of evangelium, the ambiguity of its written form led to its being interpreted as a compound, gŏd-spel, < god n. and int. + spel in the sense ‘discourse’ or ‘story’. The mistake was very natural, as the resulting sense was much more obviously appropriate than that of ‘good tidings’ for a word which was chiefly known as the name of a sacred book or of a portion of the liturgy. From Old English the word passed, in adapted forms, into the languages of the Germanic peoples evangelized from England: Old Saxon godspell, Old High German gotspell, Old Norse guð-, goðspiall; in each case the form of the first element shows unequivocally that it was identified with God, not with good. The Old Norse form has survived into modern Icelandic; the continental Germanic languages early discarded the word for adoptions of Latin evangelium.

And since the OED editors want us to look back to the Greek (from which the phrases like Godspell and Gospel and such are derived semantically), well then. Let’s return to the Hebraic Hellene of the Septuagint, where the good news was not always so good. Where it was, rather, actually violent, and even deadly:

καὶ ἐξέδυσαν αὐτὸν καὶ ἔλαβον τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ καὶ τὰ σκεύη αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀπέστειλαν εἰς γῆν ἀλλοφύλων κύκλῳ τοῦ εὐαγγελίσασθαι τοῖς εἰδώλοις αὐτῶν καὶ τῷ λαῷ

καὶ ἀποστρέφουσιν αὐτὸν καὶ ἐξέδυσαν τὰ σκεύη αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀποστέλλουσιν αὐτὰ εἰς γῆν ἀλλοφύλων κύκλῳ εὐαγγελίζοντες τοῖς εἰδώλοις αὐτῶν καὶ τῷ λαῷ αὐτῶν

ὅτι ὁ ἀπαγγείλας μοι ὅτι τέθνηκεν Σαουλ καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν ὡς εὐαγγελιζόμενος ἐνώπιόν μου καὶ κατέσχον αὐτὸν καὶ ἀπέκτεινα ἐν Σεκελακ ᾧ ἔδει με δοῦναι εὐαγγέλια

These three verses are respectively the Greek Jewish translations of the Hebrew scriptures for 1 Chronicles 10:9 and 1 Samuel 31:9 and 2 Samuel 4:10. And here is Sir Lancelot Brenton’s English rendering of that Hellene:

And they stripped him [Saul] and took his head and his armour and sent them into the land of the Philistines round about to proclaim the glad tidings to their idols.

And they turned him and stripped off his armour and sent it into the land of the Philistines sending round glad tidings to their idols and to the people.

he that reported to me [David] that Saul was dead even he was as one bringing glad tidings before me: but I seized him and slew him in Sekelac to whom I ought [as he thought] to have given a reward for his tidings.

This translation of a violent and deadly bit of history of “Philistine evangelists and their ‘good tidings'” is probably good news for anybody who is tired of dogma around religious words.

“tout est pardonné”

January 12, 2015

According to the AFP news agency, the gunmen shouted: “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad”. This is absolutely ridiculous and an insult to the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him). Our Prophet does not require avenging. Forgiveness and compassion defined our Prophet Muhammad, not violence and revenge. These extremists show complete disregard for the compassion and care displayed by the Prophet throughout his life. Islamic sources include many instances where the Prophet (peace be upon him) had the opportunity to take revenge upon those who wronged him, but refrained from doing so.
Qari Muhammad Asim – Senior Imam at Makkah Masjid, Leeds

French media are reporting on what they say is the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French weekly that was the target of a deadly attack last week. It features an image apparently of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad shedding a tear and holding a sign that reads: “Je Suis Charlie” [“I Am Charlie”]. The cover reads “Tout Est Pardonné” [“All Is Forgiven”].

The new cover was released two days before the magazine’s latest issue hits the newsstands. And it comes less than a week after some of Charlie Hebdo‘s top cartoonists were killed in a deadly attack on the magazine’s offices.

Some Muslims regard any depiction — even positive ones — of their prophet as blasphemous. The two gunmen who killed 12 people at the magazine’s offices last Wednesday claimed they had “avenged the Prophet Mohammed” as they left the scene….

Charlie Pelloux, one of the magazine’s columnists, said that this week’s issue will be available in 16 languages, according to Agence France-Presse.

NPR is not posting images of Charlie Hebdo’s most controversial cartoons at this time. For an explanation of why, please click here.
Krishnadev Calamur – editor, National Public Radio

Learning to Call Myself White

January 10, 2015

I remember how hard it was to learn to call myself a woman.

Growing up, through high school, my female classmates and I were called “girls,” of course. (Or very rarely, “young ladies,” though mostly when we were in trouble.) So that’s what we called ourselves.

That’s what our mothers called themselves, too. They talked about “getting together with the girls”, “girls night out.” Occasionally “ladies,” usually in a humorous vein.

In college, I didn’t much like any of the words I might use to describe myself. I paid close attention to their counterparts for my male classmates. We all called them “guys,” which would mean I should call myself and my female friends “gals”: which I did, often, but it felt just a little too cowboy-Western to me. If my male friends weren’t “boys” then I shouldn’t be a “girl”; only on the rare formal occasions when they were “gentlemen” should I be a “lady.” “Young men” and “young women” sounded both too young, and too nineteenth-century. “Males” and “females” sounded both insufficiently human, and even more nineteenth-century.

I remember when I went to a sleepover party, the summer after sophomore year, with some reunited high school classmates of both sexes. One of them had made signs that designated separate sleeping areas for “Men” and “Women”: spelled out in a hand that was big, bold, unapologetic, and perhaps just a little self-conscious. I remember looking at that sign, “Women”, and thinking, I would not have had the nerve to write that word.

It wasn’t until I was out in the working world, aware that I was facing sexism, aware that the male-dominated field in which I work would further aggravate it, that I got serious about actively trying to own the word. It helped that having a fulltime job with a steady paycheck and my own apartment made me feel like an official grownup, but it was still hard. I had to practice saying it. It felt awkward for about the first two years, I think. If I hadn’t been a determined feminist, I would have given up.

Because it felt so awkward. It didn’t feel like something nice girls say. To call myself a woman was to assert my adulthood, my identity, my expectation that I would be taken seriously. It meant owning my embodied, space-taking-up identity, and naming it. It was an assertion of power: not something that girls are socialized to do.

Learning to call myself white reminds me of that. It feels awkward. Oh, I can do it all right if I’m reeling off all my social locations, perspectival-theology style: Catholic, Christian, theist, straight, cis, white, American, middle-class. When “white” is just one of many defining characteristics that I’m naming, it doesn’t stand out so much.

But simply to say “I’m white”: it feels, again, like something nice girls don’t say. It feels rude, in fact: because “white” means “privileged,” it means systemically better off in a number of ways, and I was raised to believe that it’s rude to point out how you’re better off than other people. (And you probably heard the echo in my writing, the echo in American society, that whispers, simply, “better.”) It, too, is a statement about power.

It feels wrong, too, because as a child of the 60s and 70s, I was socialized into the belief that the civil rights movement was successful, the era of Jim Crow was over, and we were all Americans now, and race didn’t matter anymore. That meant it wasn’t something you talked about. Nobody told me that: it’s just that nobody did, once the songs of the integration era were no longer played on the radio. I had tacitly learned that you don’t talk about race because we’re all not supposed to see race anymore: the word “post-racial” wasn’t coined until later, but the attitude was there.

And it feels wrong because I was taught that the correct term to use to describe such persons, when a term was necessary at all, was “African American.” And “white” is not the counterpart to “African American.” “White” is the counterpart to “black,” and until very very recently, I did not use the term “black” to describe people. “Caucasian” is the term I was taught to use to describe myself, as the counterpart to “African American”; but it isn’t, is it? The counterpart should be “European American.” But nobody ever says that; it sounds silly. (Because European-American is what “American” means, whispers society.)

But I persist, awkward as it feels. I persist because I believe, as I did when I was learning to call myself a woman, that it is important. It is important to name that privilege that I have, that power. It is important to talk about race, because the civil rights movement of the 60s did not solve everything, because race still matters, because structural racial inequities still exist, and if we cannot even name ourselves in terms of race, then how in God’s name can we talk about racism? And we need to talk about racism.

I persist because I was dumbfounded at the fulminating responses from the white men in the Senate to Sonia Sotomayor’s statement that the court needed the perspective of “a wise Latina.” It was so obvious to me that her lived experience as a Latina did bring an important perspective that white men simply did not have. I could see, in the discourse around that interaction, the privilege of the white male perspective that perceives itself, and is accustomed to being perceived as, the “neutral” and “objective” (and “correct”, whispers society) perspective.

I persist especially now, after something I heard while participating in an excellent twitterchat on James Cone, father of black theology. Someone said something that made me fully realize, for the first time, that white theology is contextual theology. White theology is contextual theology. White theology is just as contextual as black, indigenous, feminist, queer, asian, mujerista theologies are.

My brain went on reciting White theology is contextual theology over and over again, as if it were sitting in a classroom, writing lines. Even though I had studied contextual and perspectival theologies in grad school, I had missed that “white” was being treated as the neutral, objective, unconditioned, unmarked, default. (“Traditional”, whispers the academy). For the first time, I realized I had the same damn blinders on as those Senators whose ignorance had stunned me.

So I persist. And I keep practicing.

Hi. I’m Victoria Gaile, and I’m a white woman.

Thanks to my co-blogger Kurk, whose comments on my self-identification as white in other posts and comments prompted this post. And thanks to @DruHart, @h00die_R, and the other folks of @AnaBlacktivism, who hosted the excellent #JamesConeWasRight twitterchat.

(What) might we learn from R Crumb and from Charlie Hebdo?

January 8, 2015

May I just start this post by expressing my deep sadness at the senseless killing of Stéphane Charbonnier, Cabu, Tignous, Wolinski, Bernard Maris, the two yet to be identified police officers trying to protect them, and the five other individuals murdered and still not identified publicly by the French authorities investigating the tragedy? My thoughts and prayers are for their grieving families, and for their nation, and for our world. And please know that my sentiments here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my other co-bloggers here at BLT, each of whom I respect very much.

I posted some time ago asking, “(What) might we learn from Adolf Hitler and from Otto Weininger?” Laura Ziesel had been asking about learning from St. Augustine and Martin Luther, which was also prompting my additional questions again about learning from R. Crumb and Aristotle. To be fair to my cobloggers and everybody else, although these questions of mine are mine, I am always interested in What are your questions? And so I’d asked.

At another blog, getting at Aristotle’s mindset and method behind his gynophobia and misogyny, I had asked Bible bloggers excited about cartoonist R. Crumb’s sexist and racist illustration of the first of the Five Books of Moses whether they were okay with the illustrator’s legacy of hatred of women, and his anti-Semitic and anti-black racisms. These questions produced a series of posts:

Where does fear and hatred begin in the mind of a young man, like Hitler, and how is it spread?

How is this rhetoric in Germany expressing hatred of Jews different from this rhetoric in France expressing hatred of Muslims in the extreme?

Carolyn Wyatt for the BBC has let all of us in the world know this:

In rational, post-Enlightenment Europe, religion has long since been relegated to a safe space, with Judaism and Christianity the safe targets of satire in secular western societies.

Not so Islam. The battle within Islam itself between Sunni and Shia, so evident in the wars of the Middle East, and the fight between extremist interpretations of Islam such as those of Islamic State and Muslims who wish to practice their religion in peace, is now being played out on the streets of Europe with potentially devastating consequences for social cohesion….

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, some five million or 7.5% of the population, compared with Germany’s four million or 5% of the population, and the UK’s three million, also 5% of the population.

And so I think we all will want to ask questions as I go lumping Charlie Hebdo in with R. Crumb and all my questions. Didn’t the Holocaust happen in “post-Enlightenment Europe,” this “safe space”? Can Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with their respective middles and extremes and fundamentalisms be lumped together as needing safe spaces? Can Charlie Hebdo and R. Crumb and Rabbis, Priests, and Imams and heads of state, women and men, express themselves safely and peacefully? When wars and terror really are not okay for anybody anytime, then when are wars of words and terrible images that betray fears and hatreds okay?

Is what a former contributor to Charlie Hebdo writes something we might learn from? These are my questions? What are yours?

Sexualized Racism: Crucifying Jews and Lynching Blacks

January 7, 2015

[René] Girard compellingly argues that human sexuality often incites a violent response. He shows this in terms of marriage and community relationships…. He says, “Sexuality leads to quarrels, jealous rages, mortal combats. It is a permanent source of disorder even within the most harmonious of communities.” — Kelly Brown Douglas, What’s Faith Got to Do with It? Black Bodies/Christian Souls

Let me confess in my own body and soul the profound biases (i.e., deep and implicit and involuntary responses) to a Southern Baptist Christian upbringing. I grew up an American missionary kid in South Vietnam the last decade of the Vietnam War (or the American War depending on who you ask) until 1975.  My white father’s assignment by the Foreign Mission Board was “field evangelist,” and my white mother’s was “church and home.” When I was 4 years old, my left temple was busted open by a rock thrown at me by a Vietnamese kid, which led to my having to get stitches in a U.S. military clinic. My two white brothers, my anh and my em [big brother and little brother], and I quickly learned how to befriend certain gangs of Vietnamese boys, and we, I can confess, participated in our share of rock fights over the years. There were no clinics for the Vietnamese kids, unfortunately. Often the violence was brought on by sexualized and racialized taunts. There’s the Vietnamese equivalent to “M*ther F*cker,” which is some of my earliest language learned (and I didn’t learn that English phrase until I went to the USA after the war and went to public school in Texas at age 13). There’s the phrase Mỹ lai, which is the equivalent of “B*stard.” There’s a Vietnamese finger gesture somewhat equivalent to the “middle finger” in the West (except it’s to signify fe-male genitalia), and if that didn’t work, well, exposing one’s male genitalia might provoke a fight. That with public urination on the other person often did the trick. Once I got beat up so badly that when my father returned home from church that evening he left again to try to find some in the gang who had injured me to confront them. Another time a Vietnamese soldier found me and my em walking alone, and slapped me on the cheek without explanation, and told my father it was in retribution for what I’d done to his son. Another time my father discovered us all in the middle of a rock fight and first caught and confronted my Vietnamese friend (or enemy) and then, in the middle of the fishing village we lived in, spanked me to show his Christian justice or something. (I just read today Derek Flood’s Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross, and some of it brought back to mind much of the sort of gospel I was raised on.) Anyway, I want say that my parents owed their gospel much to the Southern Baptist church, which was formed out of racialized doctrine (and racialized practice), in order to justify from the Bible the owning of black slaves by white Christians. Before we left for South Vietnam, we lived in Texas, where my father pastored a Southern Baptist church and where he and my mother employed an African American woman, “The Help.” Throughout their years as American Southern Baptist missionaries, they likewise always employed such “help.” If sexism existed in America during the Vietnam war, then it did in Vietnam at that time as well. Many of my childhood memories are of the American GIs trying to pick up Vietnamese women and of Vietnamese women working to get picked up. Some of my childhood friends were Amerasian whites and others Amerasian blacks. You can imagine the sort of privilege a kid like me had there during those days and years. And you must only just imagine the home life of missionaries and their children if you haven’t lived that.

When Kelly Brown Douglas in What’s Faith Got to Do with It? Black Bodies/Christian Souls quotes Girard and Orlando Patterson to develop her own contention that “lynching exemplifies the brutal potential of a platonized tradition… through the matter of sexuality,” I confess I find this rings true. She tells the history of America, of Christian white theology, as including how “white society confirmed its belief in black people’s inferior and satanic nature by characterizing … [t]he black male … a rapacious brute and the back female a seductive Jezebel… to sexualize a people… an effective for maintaining control and power over that people.” This rings true in the history as I understand my own people. Brown Douglas, self-identifying as a black female, is trying to give a good answer to the good question “How could you, a black woman, possibly be Christian?” She starts her book with horrific stories of nearly 5000 human beings in the United States lynched publicly not too terribly long ago with no prosecutions of the perpetrators to ask other questions, like, “Why is Christianity so often implicated in vicious crimes of racial, gender, and sexual hatred?”

She uses the present tense in these questions, as if there is still some problem to continue to grapple with. And so does James H. Cone when he tries to look back at the past. He tells the interviewer:

I’ve been writing The Cross and the Lynching Tree over a long period of time. I was writing it before the Obama and Wright controversy emerged. The book emerged out of my attempt to understand what the gospel of Jesus and his cross might mean for America. Especially for America since they crucified so many marginal black people in its history through lynching, the same way Roman society crucified Jesus and so many marginal and poor people during the time of the empire.

I wanted to suggest that maybe if Americans could see the cross in the light of the lynching tree, they might be able to understand what the cross really meant in the 1st century and what the cross might mean for the people who have put other people on crosses.

What the cross meant for my Southern Baptist American missionary parents was that Jesus was not on it. They scorned the Roman Catholic crosses that kept him crucified, perpetually hung up in death. They did not, when I was a little missionary kid, teach me about lynching or seek to identify Jesus’s killing with others who have been oppressed and killed.

But that’s typical. It’s “so traumatizing for the Church that we have covered it up – literally,” confesses Wil Gafney.

She goes one to say this:

The mocking, taunting, forced stripping of Jesus was a sexual assault.

And if you click here, she gives us pictures.

This is all so awfully subjective that I’m afraid my own upbringing is enmeshed with the horrors and realities. It’s American, and Christian, and raced, and sexualized, and violence.

And yet the histories and the violences and the stories and the subjectivities go back further, more deeply, into other racisms and sexisms. Sometimes we can only bear these things in our present time through art. And sometimes even that art is marked.

Marc Chagall, for example, had and made one rather peculiar and “very personal response to the atrocities” of the Holocaust. Here it is:

One art educator at “Ben Uri, The Art Museum for Everyone, The London Jewish Museum of Art,” explains:

This painting was created at the end of the Second World War, and depicts the
anguish Chagall felt at the increasing number of revelations about the persecution of
Jews during the Holocaust. It is a very personal response to the atrocities.

Importantly, many symbols that Chagall used regularly in his works are used in this
one but with different significance. The floating figures do not symbolise love as in
many of his other works, but pain and horror.

Additionally, most of Chagall’s other paintings of Christ have his eyes closed and a
loincloth covering his genitals. Here Christ’s eye is open to look at the Nazi, and the
loincloth removed.

The picture broadens the view of theology, beyond racialized and sexualized Christian America. It also focuses it on the race of Jesus, and on his sexuality, in terms of empire oppressors, like the Romans and like the Germans. That also, I’m afraid, takes me back to my own childhood and all that was covered up in shame.

So why are you reading this post? Or, rather, let me ask the question another way: what’s my point for readers of this post? Well, you have your own stories, don’t you? And many of us are dealing with American race and sex and violence issues today. And we’re finding much in these issues to be horribly profound with histories that run deep. And just maybe our considerations and our conversations about them might help us understand more and work together to positively change much.

Lost in Translation: The Disappearing Drummer Boy

January 2, 2015

Lost in Translation

When I first watched this lovely a capella arrangement of The Little Drummer Boy by the Pentatonix, I was especially struck by the diversity of the group. I teared up when I saw that — at least to my eye, which is particularly poor at this sort of thing — some of the singers would not have looked horribly out of place in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. “It’s just too bad,” I thought as I watched, given what’s going on in the country right now, “that there isn’t a black singer, too.”

Oh wait – there is, he shows up about a minute in. That’s funny, why would they wait so long to show another singer? Or did I just miss him?

I watched it again. Oh, there he is at the beginning, I did just miss him. Huh.

But something seemed a bit off about the video. Was it just me, or was he really getting less screen time than the others? I’m lamentably new to paying close attention to issues of racism, so I wasn’t really sure. I watched it a few more times.[1]

And it wasn’t just that. Look at the arrangement of the singers: all the others are standing in a semi-circle, with him at the center, slightly in front of them. Look at the choreography, at about 2:00, when the lyrics get to “Shall I play for you?”, and again at about 3:00. Doesn’t it look like they are all centered on him, and that those moments are leading into segments that were really intended for him to shine?

This gentleman’s name is Kevin Olusola. In addition to beatboxing, he plays piano, cello, and saxophone. He combined two of those skills and won second place in the international competition “Celebrate and Collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma” for his “cello-boxing” arrangement of “Dona Nobis Pacem.”

He sings vocal percussion for the Pentatonix. He is the percussion section. They’re singing “The Little Drummer Boy.” He is the little drummer boy. He is the Little Drummer Boy!! He is the star of this song!

The arrangement shows it. The choreography shows it. They were clearly designed to put his talents front and center. Literally!!

But in the translation from performance to music video, he was somehow demoted from star to sound effects guy.

Which is terribly sad, because the video is the final product. It’s the only thing we get to see. We can imagine; we can try to fill in with our mind’s eye the camera angles that were edited out, the shots that would have kept him centered in the frame during those segments that were intended to feature him. But we’ll never see them.

Now. We have to talk about the fact that it is the black guy that this happened to. Are we looking at racism in action, here?

Remember that racist actions are not exclusively determined by malice or even by intent. Just as with sexism, systemic biases and unconscious individual bias can produce outcomes and actions that are racist. Not long before I saw this video, I had recently read an excellent analysis of the street harassment video that was going around about a month ago, by a sociologist who looked at three hypotheses that could be compatible with the video’s presentation of a white woman being harassed only by men of color, “almost all black men.” So I was primed to think about similar effects in this music video.

I don’t think there was any kind of racist intent here, even though the camera has to work pretty hard to avoid Mr. Olusola, seeing as how he’s standing front and center.[2] I think that several independent judgments about the normative aesthetic for music videos, and about marketing, were affected by systemic racism to produce this video.

Let’s take marketing first. It seems quite likely to me that the person in charge of PR for Pentatonix didn’t think the video would be as popular if it starred the black guy. Is that a racist decision, or a practical decision?[3]

Maybe it wasn’t even that conscious. Maybe they were just looking at the popularity of all the singers, trying to make sure that the most popular singers got the most screen time.

That leads into the normative aesthetics for music videos. (Now, I don’t have any expertise in this at all, and I rarely watch music videos, so this is a novice’s view.) First of all, it was clear that the camera always focused on the singer who had the lyrics and/or the melody, which I believe is a usual convention. Secondly, all the harmonies are very legato, sung almost entirely on vowels. It’s an almost ethereal aesthetic. This is reflected in the eyes, the faces, the gentle swaying of the four singers that the camera lingers on. The setting, too, is very light and airy; the dominant background is the white, cloudy sky, with a hazy skyline in the distance.

Beatboxing is not ethereal. It emerged in hiphop, which is an African-American artform, and incorporates techniques that are used in forms of African traditional music.[4] It’s almost entirely consonants: the opposite of legato. It is a thoroughly and visibly embodied technique: all lips and tongue and teeth and cheeks. It cannot be made to look ethereal. If the video editor was aiming for an ethereal aesthetic, is that racism, or is that artistic judgment?

Just as with feminist work, part of anti-racist work is becoming aware of how all these little decisions, none of which were made with race consciously in mind, nevertheless have been influenced by race. In America, the default person is white, and the default culture is white. But, as Kurk is so fond of pointing out with regard to gender, the default is not marked: only the “other” is marked. So white people say things like “American culture” and “black culture,” when what we actually mean is “American white culture” and “American black culture.” The “white” part gets lost in translation.

Marketing considerations are driven by the target demographic and target genre (as defined by record labels or whatever the equivalent is these days); if you want mainstream success, you target white audiences, with an aesthetic that appeals to white culture.

Let me be very clear: I am not ragging on Pentatonix here. I love their music, and I wish them success. I am not saying that they are a racist group, or that their marketing people are racist, or that their video editors are racist. People aren’t racist nearly as often as words and actions and outcomes are.

I’m just really sad that, after making all the decisions that went into making this video, they didn’t notice that the result had lost something important in translation, and throw it out, and try again. Because I really wanted to see Kevin Olusola as the little drummer boy.

And if they released another, differently-edited video that did star Mr. Olusola? I would totally buy that.

[1] Thanks to @h00die_R and @tapji for watching the video and validating my impressions that something was not right here.

[2] And thanks again to @h00die_R for this observation.

[3] This issue was brought up by David Chen and quoted by Zeynep Tufekci in her article about the street harassment video.

[4] According to Wikipedia.

Finally, thanks to Regina Heater who reminds us those of us who celebrate it that it’s still Christmas with a lovely commented list of Christmas music over at A Nun’s Life, which is how I came across this video in the first place.

Psalm of a Soiled Dove

December 17, 2014

**The following is a flight of theological imagination**

Psalm 84

The original author of this psalm was a young woman, perhaps a Midianite, who was ravished away from her home by a pillaging army and forced to serve as one of the whores that traveled with the army to provide recreation for its soldiers. She was freed from sexual slavery by the Israelite forces that defeated her captors, and found refuge among the Israelite women. Psalm 84 is a song of praise to the God of the armies who freed her and of the women who welcomed her, a God who sees her as pure and innocent despite her enslavement as a whore. Although the text was later adapted for use as a pilgrim psalm during the Temple period, traces of its origin remain, as we shall see.

1 How sensual are your tents,
O LORD of armies!
2 My soul yearns, it faints
for the encampments of the LORD.
3 My heart and my flesh
cry out for the living God.

These verses mix imagery of the boudoir with that of the military camp. The erotic imagery is frequently interpreted as a poetic means of indicating intense passion for the LORD, while the remaining language is overlooked. In fact, the psalmist here deliberately uses the language and imagery of impassioned sexual desire — which she had been forced to simulate in her sexual slavery — to convey the depth of her authentic passionate response to the God who freed her from enslavement.

The incongruous juxtaposition of a boudoir response to the rough surroundings of a military encampment is clever and intentional, as can be seen by reading them together with verse 11. If the locations in these verses are interpreted as referring to the beautiful courts of the Temple, as they are often translated, the psalmist’s rhetoric is weakened.

4 Even the sparrow has found a home
and the swallow a nest for herself,
that places her fledglings by your altars,
LORD of armies, my king and my God!
5 Blessed are those who dwell in your house!
They never cease to praise you!

These verses are about the women of Israel, among whom the psalmist found a home. The words for “sparrow” and “swallow” are also the names of women, Zipporah the Midianite wife of Moses, and Devorah the judge of Israel whose army drove Sisera to defeat at the hands of Jael, who later became the wife of Heber the Kenite. Devorah’s song of Jael’s victory notably includes a passage in which the mother of Sisera wonders what is keeping him, and concludes that he must be delayed by raping young women, as usual. Some scholars even speculate that Jael herself was the psalmist, but there is little evidence to support this view.

The psalmist may be referring to herself as the “fledgling” who has been taken in and given a home by the women of Israel, the descendants of Zipporah and Devorah. Or, perhaps she identifies with the swallow (thus the speculation that she herself was Midianite) and had recently been made pregnant by her captors (in which case, her plight would have been even more desperate), and she rejoices that she has found a place to settle her own child.

In verse 5, she invokes blessings on those who dwell in the encampment of the LORD, who have made a place for her. It is by their actions of welcome and charity for an oppressed alien that they “never cease to praise” the LORD.

6. Blessed the folk whose strength is in you,
in whose hearts are the ways of the pilgrims,
7. who, as they pass through the Valley of Tears,
transform it to a refreshing spring,
bringing early rain that cloaks it with blessings.

These verses continue the theme of blessing the people of Israel, who find their own strength in the LORD and whose actions, made powerful by that strength, have transformed the psalmist’s bitter tears to blessing psalms. The references to water here also allude to the ritual cleansing of impurities, looking ahead to verse twelve. A “soiled dove” might have expected that her past would be held against her; instead, the loving actions and generous spirits of the women of Israel recognize that as a victim, she was blameless, effectively washing away any impurity associated with sexual sin, in floods and springs and rains of blessing.

8 They walk from strength to strength:
the God of Zion is shown forth.
May they walk from strength to strength;
May they see God in Zion.

Verse 8 could be read either as a description of the faithful people of verse 6, who by their actions make present the God of Zion; or as a blessing upon those people, as they continue their pilgrimage towards Zion. In fact, both readings are intended.

9. LORD God of armies, hear my prayer;
listen, O God of Jacob [and Leah and Rachel].

The prayer of verse 9 is the blessing of the previous verses.
Although the surviving text invokes only the God of Jacob, it seems quite probable that the psalmist would also have associated that God with Leah and Rachel, considering her experience and the kindness she received from the Israelite women.

10. Regard our protection, O God;
look upon the face of your anointed.

This verse continues the prayer of the previous, asking God to look (favorably) upon those who rescued and now protect the psalmist (and perhaps her child, or other women who had also been rescued), and are demonstrably the anointed of God.

11. Better one day in your encampments
than a thousand “I have chosen.”
Better the threshold of the house of God
than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.

The quoted phrase may have been the ritual language used by the patron of a brothel to indicate his selection, and might therefore have been used by the women as shorthand for such a forced sexual encounter.

These verses return to the opening theme of the psalm. The brothel in which the psalmist was enslaved would have been relatively luxurious, devoted as it was to sensuality, and she would likely have had a private section allocated to her, at least while she was working. But even a place at the threshold of the camp of the LORD is a thousand times to be preferred to her former circumstances.

12. For a sun and a shield is the LORD,
God is acceptance and honor.
The LORD does not withhold, but bestows
blessings on those who are blameless.

Verse 12b is usually translated “grace and glory,” for the parallel with sun and shield in 12a and for the alliteration. But the semantic fields of the Hebrew words include acceptance and honor, which the psalmist — blameless for the sexual slavery into which she was forced — has received.

13. O LORD of armies,
happy is the woman who is secure in you!

As the psalmist, indeed, now rejoices that she is.

Thanks to my co-blogger Suzanne McCarthy, whose speculation about whether Psalm 84 was written by a woman, and whose association of sparrow and swallow with women’s names, gave wings to this flight of fancy. Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, particularly the footnotes that puzzled over certain phrases, provided additional inspiration. Special thanks to Thomas Bolin, who helped me fuss over possible readings of the verb forms in verse 8.

I must also acknowledge, with deep gratitude, the generation of women who developed the practice of reading with theological imagination as a means of accessing the lost, forgotten, and suppressed voices of women in scripture: a practice that I had previously held at arm’s length. Without their work, particularly that of Sr. Dr. Miriam Therese Winter, in whose writing I was primarily exposed to the technique, this piece would never have been written.

While I do not present this as an academically solid exegesis of psalm 84, it does offer a plausible reading of some otherwise puzzling images and phrases. I found that my imagination was quite thoroughly captured by the story of my “soiled dove” psalmist, and her experience with the generous and loving Jewish women who gave her refuge. They were a blessing, a mitzvah, to her, making present the blessing of the LORD upon her; and she blessed them and blessed the LORD in return.

Did it really happen?
Could it really have happened?

Does it matter?

I will never read this psalm in quite the same way again.

May the God of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham,
the God of Rebecca and Isaac,
the God of Leah, Rachel, and Jacob,
the God of Zipporah, Devorah, and Jael,
bless our reading and our imagination,
and inspire us through them
to grow in faithfulness, generosity, and praise.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 409 other followers