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Centering Race, Hope, Bible History, Middle East Borders

March 23, 2013

My own race, that particular construct of my person and my body and my skin color, is “white.” And with that comes my other, additional, exponential privilege: “male.”

For me, my friend Rod reminds me, my reading of the Bible and its history must be so positional. I agree. Rod himself “self identifies” this way:  “Rod the Rogue Demon Hunter, Preacher of Hope | Black Scholar of Patristics | Writer for Nonviolent Politics. Destroyer of Trolls. It must be that angry puppy.” That’s how he sounds in his writerly voice, but when you hear him in person, listen to his voice that way, then you will also indeed hear that sermon of “hope.” Always when we meet he seems to remind me of the poor, of the underprivileged. For that, I’m most grateful, needing such reminders and hope. I’m spending a little time on Rod here at this blog because he also spends a good deal of time reminding me and all who will read his blogposts of those constructs and politics of race. This “black” scholar recently, for example, read a book by Rob Bell and noticed how the privileged author “denies his own whiteness, his own story as a …”  If you like, you can read from your own position how Rod must do his “Reading [of] Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis from the Margins.”

Today, the boundaries in the Middle East are drawn along the lines of race. The politics cannot avoid the color of skin. In this way, the history of the Bible is shared by those in exile, in Exodus, and on their way to the promised land. How must one, and from what central or marginal places, read the ancient stories and think of the present struggles? Where is the hope?

It’s important how the President of the United States, in the Middle East, positions himself rather personally. His hope is in history not necessarily his own or even that of his own people. And yet he makes the positional connections to the Hebrew Bible. Earlier this week in Jerusalem, he invoked a black American Civil Rights leader who identified himself with Moses:

“As Dr. Martin Luther King said on the day before he was killed, ‘I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.'”

Then, in Ramallah, at the Palestinian headquarters, Mr. Obama continued:

To African Americans, the story of the Exodus was perhaps the central story, the most powerful image about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity — a tale that was carried from slavery through the Civil Rights Movement into today.  For generations, this promise helped people weather poverty and persecution, while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon.  For me, personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, the story spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.

What is of particular note is how the President is identifying something “within every human being.” Palestinians and Israelis would share this common “yearning,” he suggests.  When pressed, nonetheless, he can draw parallels and intersections between the histories of African and Jewish peoples in various contexts:

This story—from slavery to salvation, of overcoming even the most overwhelming odds—is a message that’s inspired the world.  And that includes Jewish Americans but also African Americans, who have so often had to deal with their own challenges, but with whom you have stood shoulder to shoulder.  African Americans and Jewish Americans marched together at Selma and Montgomery, with rabbis carrying the Torah as they walked.  They boarded buses for freedom rides together.  They bled together.  They gave their lives together — Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner alongside  African American, James Chaney.

In every context in the Middle East, for this American a black American, it’s the “poverty and persecution” of “African Americans” reading “the story of the Exodus” as “perhaps the central story” that is of import.

In black scholars of the Bible we hear such audacious hope again and again. Here are just a few examples (from The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora).

Judy Fentress-Williams, in her essay “Exodus,” writes:

The metaphorical language of the Bible is like music, allowing the story of exodus to move from event to tradition and organizing motif.  It can be retold with differing emphasis, resulting in a remix that seeks not to replace earlier accounts but to affirm and respond to earlier accounts.  For example, if the exodus is the point of orientation for Israel’s identity and imagination, then the exile becomes the “anti-exodus” and the return to the land is a second exodus, all variations on a theme.  In the prophetic tradition, the familiar language and images of the exodus are remixed to offer a new understanding of who God is.  Take the example of the prophet Amos:

“Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the LORD.  Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)

The inclusivity of a remix stands in contrast to the practice of sampling.  In sampling, a small segment of a recording is repeated, or looped, to form the foundation of another song.  Sampling allows a song to cross genres and to fit into other settings.  It is a way for music to live on in subsequent generations, as the example of James Brown makes clear.  However, taken from its original arrangement, the small piece of music takes on a different character.  The inherent danger of sampling is that the subsequent generations do know the song in its entirety, the original artist, or the context….

Wil Gafney, in her essay “Reading the Hebrew Bible Responsibly:… Multicultural Israel,” writes:

Responsible reading of the scriptures of Israel also calls for revisiting the ways in which racial constructs are imposed on the text. Israelite identity is, like all identities, a constructed identity; in its earliest formulation, it is a cultural rather than a biological identity. Yaakov, the Heel-Grabbing Sneak, who becomes Israel the God-Wrestler, is the grandson of Abraham the Chaldean in Gen. 11:28. His Caldean kinfolk would eventually evolve into the Babylonian Empire that decimated his descendants — so the Israelites and Babylonians shared biology but not culture. The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh shared African maternity because of Joseph’s marriage to Asenat, the Egyptian in Gen. 41:45. Even Moshe, Moses, the Torah-Vessel, married non-Israelite women — Zipporah the Midianite in Exod. 2:21 and an unnamed Nubian woman in Num. 12:1 — meaning that some of the priestly community had multicultural heritage. A non-Israelite, mixed multitude accompanied Israel when they departed Egypt in Exod. 12:38 and became absorbed into the community. In 2 Sam. 22:51, David — called “meshiach,” or “messiah” in Hebrew, and “christos,” or “christ” in Greek (although generally translated “anointed” in English) — was the grandson of a Moabite woman named Ruth.

The multicultural nature of Israel is especially important to read over and against racialized constructions of Israel as ethnically and racially monolithic, and their construction as “white” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The supposed whiteness of biblical Israel has been used to sanctify colonization of black, brown, and beige peoples around the globe, invoking the ahistorical “Conquest of Canaan” paradigm.

And Hugh R. Page, Jr., in his essay “Notes from a Station Stop: An Editorial Postscript,” writes:

I pen this postscript [in 2009] in Montpelier, Vermont, a fortuitous set of circumstances having brought me to this historic capital in a state, several of whose cities and towns were purportedly home to stations on the Underground Railroad….

As I wander the streets immersing myself in the local culture of this unusually vibrant town, I appreciate how much has changed in more than two and one half centuries, how different our experience must be from that of my Africana forebears who came here in the early to mid-1800s on a different kind of journey.  The leader of the free world is now African American.  Vermont was a “Blue State” in the last presidential election.  Cars with “Obama-Biden” bumper stickers abound.  I am here voluntarily, rather than through forced exodus.  I am a citizen whose basic rights are protected by federal and state laws.  I have a choice in lodging.  I arrived by light of day, rather than under the cloak of darkness.  For the most part, local merchants have greeted me with warmth.  By and large, I am no different than any other tourist.

Yet, from time to time I am conscious of palpable feelings of “otherness.”  On some occasions I appear to be almost unnoticeable to [the] passerby; on others, the continuous “gaze” of the random onlooker makes me feel hyper-visible.  It could be that I am an obvious anomaly in a state with an overall population that is roughly 96.8 percent White and only 0.8 percent Black.  Perhaps it is because in a city of 7,760 any newcomer stands out, particularly if that woman or man is a person of color; or that at 52, I am twelve years older than the typical Montpelier resident.  Whatever the case, whether in clergy collar, business attire, or the urban bohemian garb de rigueur for so many, I seem to attract attention.  Blending in is difficult to say the least.  I have the occasional thought of perhaps retiring here.  Yet, as was the case with those Africans who sought liberty here and farther north long ago, I am conscious of how race and the experience of Diaspora have been written into my psyche and my physical body.  I wonder how such may have been etched, subtly or overtly, into the collective consciousness of Vermonters.  I realize that nearby cities like Jerusalem, Goshen, and Jericho reflect colonial American inscriptions of the Bible onto the state’s landscape.  I wonder what subtle messages about person hood, derived from that same source, have been comparably inscribed, and to what extent they are in conversation with the ideals espoused in the state’s Constitution and the tradition of political autonomy that continues to find expression in local Green initiatives and secessionist rhetoric.  I wonder why questions akin to these seem to arise whether I am at home or on the road.  I also wonder if such musings about the Bible, personal safety, and local ethos have been and remain a hallmark of life in Diaspora.

Nonetheless, I recognize that by conjuring — and refusing to relinquish — memories of the Underground Railroad, Montpelier has become, at least for me, holy ground; and my trip here has taken on a special quality.  Consequently, this postscript has been transformed into a contemplative reflection on both The Africana Bible and the milieu from which it has come.  As far as my role in preparing these closing words, it has evolved.  I am, for the moment, far more than simply a general editor writing a concluding essay from a hotel situated along the Winoooski River.  I walk in the footsteps, and hold close the memory, of those passengers for whom that secret railway was the route to freedom.  I write realizing that The Africana Bible is, in fact, part of the cultural fabric they helped to write.

Narratives of crisis, social dissolution, pilgrimage, exile, displacement, and restoration have been the primary texts through which many of ancient Israel’s scriptures have been parsed and alongside of which they have been read in various Africana settings.  Every experience — actual, imagined, or hoped for — is a prism for interpretation, a canon for appropriation…..

In giving the three quotations by three different Hebrew Bible scholars, all African American, I’ve ended with the one who ends the book where the various essays appear. I end with the male’s quotation.  And yet, my friend Rod, also a male, reminds us of the margins from whence comes the “boldness of black women of all ages to challenge racism, sexism, and classism.”  The black women in the White House today, including Michelle Obama and Malia Obama and Sasha Obama, are preparing for another Seder.  This first family (the very first African American first family) reading the Haggadah remembering and centering the biblical exodus history together acknowledge and symbolize hope.  So Barack Obama recalls:

Whenever I meet these young people, whether they’re Palestinian or Israeli, I’m reminded of my own daughters, and I know what hopes and aspirations I have for them. And those of us in the United States understand that change takes time but it is also possible, because there was a time when my daughters could not expect to have the same opportunities in their own country as somebody else’s daughters.

As a father of daughters and a son in a world hoping for peace, I find this rather powerful and important.

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