Genesis: A Bibliography

Here are just some of the Genesis studies that have been helpful for myself and will, perhaps, help you navigate the stories in the Book of Genesis as they relate to the struggle for liberation from all forms of oppression: forms of oppression that are at once present in and struggled against in the first book of the Bible.


GENERAL


Amos, Clare: Genesis [Series: Epworth Commentaries]. 2005: Epworth Press

“The book looks at Genesis as the story of the origin of the world and of God’s people in Israel. The author draws on on her experience of living in the Middle East as she opens up the fascinating accounts of the first book of the Bible. The commentary explores the need for mature and healthy relationships to be developed between God and humanity, and between human beings and the earth they inhabit.”

Amos, Clare: “Genesis” in Global Bible Commentary, eds. Daniel Patte, José Severino Croatto, Teresa Okure. 2004: Abingdon

“What was for us a familiar biblical book, which no longer had anything new for us, becomes once again a surprising, disturbing, challenging, prodding, demanding, or wooing address that we cannot ignore. The muffled, subdued, tamed biblical text with which some of us might have been satisfied become once again alive. Then, time and again, we find ourselves having to wrestle with the text in order to extract from it a blessing, often an unexpected blessing (as happened to Jacob in Gen 32:22-32, a signficant passage in Clare Amos’ commentary on “Genesis”).”

Brenner, Athalya [ed.]: A Feminist Companion to Genesis [Series: Feminist Companion to the Bible]. 1998: Sheffield Academic Press

“This volume in the acclaimed feminist companion to the bible series, edited by Athalya Brenner, draws together a range of leading biblical commentators to discuss one of the most challenging and fascinating biblical texts for feminist interpretation, the book of Genesis.”

Brett, Mark G: Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity. 2000: Routledge

Combining insights from social and literary theory as well as traditional historical studies, Mark Brett argues that the first book of the Bible can be read as resistance literature. Placing the theological text firmly within its socio-political context, he shows that the editors of Genesis were directly engaged with contemporary issues, especially the nature of an authentic community, and that the book was designed to undermine the ethnocentism of the imperial governors of the Persian period (fifth century BCE).

Brueggemann, Walter: Genesis [Series: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching]. 1982: John Knox Press

“The theological interest of the text concerns the way in which the two partners (God and creation/Israel) deal with the promise. The one making the promise is sovereign and will have that promise taken seriously. God is gracious, for he makes his promise even to the unqualified. And God perhaps is faithful, watching over his promise to fulfillment. THe one to whom the promise is given is summoned to be obedient, responsive, and perhaps faithful. Notice: for both the caller and the called–perhaps faithful. That is the issue of Genesis. It is not fully known whether Yahweh, the God of Israel and Lord of creation, will be faithful. And it is not known whether creation or Israel will be faithful. Each text is an invitation to faithfulness and an exploration of the risks and temptations that accompany faithfulness.”

Habel, Norman C., & Shirley Wurst [Eds.] Earth Story in Genesis. 2000: Sheffield Academic Press

  • Conversations with Gene Tucker and Other Writers – The Eart Bible Team
  • Geophany: The Earth Story in Genesis 1 – Norman Habel
  • Rest for the Earth? Another Look at Genesis 2:1-3 – Howard N. Wallace
  • Common Ground: An Ecological Reading of Genesis 2-3 – Carol A. Newsom
  • Earthing the Human in Genesis 1-3 – Mark G. Brett
  • ‘Beloved, Come Back to Me’: Ground’s Theme Song in Genesis 3? – Shirley Wurst
  • Alienation and ‘Emancipation’ from the Earth: The Earth Story in Genesis 4 – Gunther Wittenberg
  • Ecojustic: A Study of Genesis 6.11-13 – Anne Gardner
  • Mixed Blessings for Animals: The Contrasts of Genesis 9 – John Olley
  • The Voice of the Earth: An Indigenous Reading of Genesis 9 – Wali Fejo
  • The Earth Story as Presented by the Tower of Babel Narrative – Ellen van Wolde
  • Chosen People in a Chosen Land: Theology and Ecology in the Story of Israel’s Origins – Gene McAfee
  • The Priestly Promise of the Land: Genesis 17.8 in the Context of P as a Whole – Suzanne Boorer
  • ‘For Out of that Well the Flocks were Watered’: Stories of Wells in Genesis – Laura Hobgood-Oster
  • Forgotten Voices of Earth: The Blessing Subject in Genesis 49 – Carole R. Fontaine

PARTICULAR


Goldingay, John: “Hosea 1-3, Genesis 1-4 and Masculist Interpretation”in A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets, ed. Athalya Brenner. 1995: Sheffield Press

“As far as I know masculist interpretation of Scripture does not exist; indeed its birthing m”ay be premature. By masculist interpretation I mean something different from male interpretation which is simply what everyone did until twenty years ago. That was interpretation undertaken mostly by males of texts which were written mostly by males, without the possibility occurring to anyone that this might limit or skew what the interpreter saw. Feminist interpretation drew attention to all that and asked what might become visibile in texts when women read them as women rather than as honorary men. Masculist interpretation is parasitic on feminist interpretation; it is by definition post-feminist. It asks what might become visible in texts when they are read in conscious awareness of maleness. Arguably, at least, masculist interpretation of course need not be limited to males any more than feminist interpretation need be limited to females, but in this piece I write as a man seeking to be self-aware as a man.”

McKinlay, Judith E. (New Zealand, Pakeha): “Sarah and Hagar: What Have I to Do with Them?” in Her Master’s Tools: Feminist and Postcolonial Engagements of Historical-Critical Discourse, eds. Caroline Vander Stichele & Toddy Penner. 2005: Society of Biblical Literature

Now Sarai was barren; she had no child (Gen 11:30). It is in this way that the Bible introduces Sarah, with a barrenness that hangs over and settles upon those whose lives intersect with hers in the early chapters of Genesis, coming to rest most particularly on Abraham and Hagar. Poignantly interwoven in the Abraham cycle is Hagar’s story, appearing in two episodes (Gen 16 and 21), a cycle that is layered with that thick clustering of motifs so significant for Israel’s story: wilderness, divine annunciation, divine notice of affliction, even the naming of God (however enigmatic). Abraham may be the “father” of ancient Israel, but in the foreground of his narrative stand Sarah and Hagar, two biblical women, met in an ancient text, who continue to haunt our memories and imaginations. But is it possible for me to find connections with them, and should this be the aim of my reading? Is the question of my title–“what have I to do with them?–even an appropriate one?”

Oduyoye, Modupe (Nigeria): The Sons of the Gods and the Daughters of Men: An Afro-Asiatic Interpretation of Genesis 1-11. 1987: Orbis Books

“Modupe Oduyoye presents a fascinating study in the area of biblical interpretation in drawing upon biblical and West African languages. This is a work that ought to stimulate thought and make African theologians more receptive to the call to take a fresh look at the Bible against the background of African life and thought.” –Kwesi A. Dickson, Professor of Old Testament Studies, Director of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana

Rao, Naveen (India): “Decolonizing the Formulation of Scripture: A Postcolonial Reading of Genesis 12, 20, and 26” in Decolonizing the Body of Christ: Theology and Theory After Empire, eds. David Joy & Joseph F. Duggan. 2012: Palgrave Macmillan

“Naveen Rao speaks of the complex ways in which the marginalized appropriate “scribality” even when they are denied access to writing. He analyzes the use of three independent stories of liberation in the book of Genesis and concluded that taken as a whole, Genesis is a text where narratives of oppression and liberation are interwoven. The author raises important questions about the subaltern’s desire to select and incorporate stories of liberation into the larger corpus of texts that become the scriptures […]”

Simopoulos, Nicole M. (European American, USA): “Who Was Hagar? Mistress, Divorcee, Exile, or Exploited Worker: An Analysis of Contemporary Grassroots Readings of Genesis 16 by Caucasian, Latina, and Black South African Women” in Reading Other-wise: Socially Engaged Biblical Scholars Reading with their Local Communities, ed. Gerald O. West. 2007: Society of Biblical Literature

“In what follows, you will hear three distinct–and, as I will argue, valid–interpretations of the story of Hagar and Sarah as found in Gen 16, by three groups of ordinary, untrained readers: white, middle-to-upper-class Catholic and Protestant women living in Northern California; Latina Presbyterian immigrants and refugees from Mexico and Central America living in Northern California; and black South African Protestant women from both rurual and urban South African townships enrolled in a year-long theological training program in Kwa-Zulu-Natal, South Africa.”

Wafula, Robert J. (Kenya): ‘“I Am What You Are Not!” A Critical Postcolonial Reading of the Africa Bible Commentary’s Abraham–Lot Stories” in Postcolonial Perspectives in African Biblical Scholarship, eds. Musa W. Dube, Andrew M. Mbuvi, and Dora Mbuwayesango. 2012: Society of Biblical Literature

“Applying [Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza] to the Abraham-Lot circle of stories, Wafula finds the [African Bible Commentary] commentator oblivious of the ideologies peddled by the text. According to Wafula, the ABC fails to read Abraham’s story within its large ideological agenda that had already assigned his “seed” to Canaan, a land with indigenous natives.”

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Hajar: of the desert by amina wadud

In Muslim cultures, the patriarchal family rules supreme, and yet Hajar was (literally) thrown out in the desert to fend for herself and her child without even a second’s thought to the impossibility of her location as confirmation of patriarchy.  How does such a woman who enters the story to confirm patriarchy even survive when the same patriarchy abandons her?  Now she re-configures as the most significant player in the survival of a people and their entire legacy.  How then do we reconcile with Abraham, the dead beat dad, Sarah the selfish bitch, and even God, the benevolent?!

via Hajar: of the desert by amina wadud

Texts of Terror, Episode 1: Sarah’s Slave, Abraham’s Survivor

TEXTS OF TERROR, EPISODE 1: SARAH’S SLAVE, ABRAHAM’S SURVIVOR

This series is designed for the Conversations about Religion! group. I thought it might be of interest to some here, and invite you to join us on that platform as well.

“Texts of Terror” was the name Feminist Old Testament scholar, Phyllis Trible (b. 1932), gave to the passages in which women were the object of terrifying violence in many parts of the Bible. We start with a well-known, hardly-known story within the Book of Genesis: specifically within the accounts of the revered founding father of the faiths named after him, the Abrahamic religions; Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

I say this part of the Abraham story is well-known because Christianity and Islam alone make up over 50% of the world population combined and owe their spiritual origins to the patriarch and his progeny. His story is still preached within synagogues, churches, and mosques for its motifs and dilemmas and paradigms for the faithful.

And I say hardly-known not because the origins of this originating story are murky and mixed within the pre-history of Israel, nor because the Jews claim Isaac as Abraham’s promised son and the Muslims claim that position for his other son, Ishmael. I say hardly-known because Isaac and Ishmael were step-brothers of a scandalous conception. Whichever was the promised one, one of them was a product of a rape.

In all our interpretations, most of us heirs of Abraham have missed this foundational crime. This aspect of the story is hardly heard among today’s believers.

The story that is found in the Hebrew Bible, or Christian ‘Old Testament’, does not say that Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, was raped. And it would be surprising if any child in Sunday school were asked what they thought of Hagar’s perspective. In the well-known version, Hagar is little more than a plot device in Abraham’s and Sarah’s story of faith and doubt.

Abraham doubts that God really will provide him with a son. Sarah’s barrenness leads her to offer her maidservant as a surrogate. In jealousy she later banishes Hagar and the child, Ishmael. In wonder, she finally accepts the miracle that she has become pregnant. It turns out they never needed doubt the Lord who promises the impossible and comes through.

That’s how the story goes. The message is didactic: trust in God, don’t use one’s own strategies to get to the promised land. It is as if Hagar did not really exist except as a diversion for the protagonists.

But who was Sarah to offer her maidservant? And what are you as a ‘maidservant’ if in your service you can expect to be offered up to your mistress’s husband for sex? Are we not talking about slavery and about sexual-slavery? Could Hagar have refused? Did she have the power to say no? For roughly 2,500 years of interpretation within the temple and synagogue, the church, and even the mosque (where it is Hagar’s son venerated, not Sarah’s) we missed these basic questions. We took a pious moral message from the story (trust in God) while ignoring the glaring injustice done to the woman whose life is just a sidetrack, for Abraham, for Sarah, and for us. Hagar was raped.

Whether her being an Egyptian may or may not have brought in a racial element at the time, but it does today. Abraham was a Chaldean but slavery was and was not racialised in the era that the story supposedly took place. A Chaldean would as likely become enslaved by an Egyptian, or way more likely considering Egypt was already a serious empire.

As far as race goes, we know that the descendants of Isaac would would later look at the Ishmaelites with some mild contempt and conceit: something like cousins, but one’s a bastard. The tension is still felt in the Abrahamic people today. Jews and Muslims may each consider themselves the chosen heir of Abraham, and see the other as a mere off-shoot of the truth heritage. Like the supposed Curse of Ham, used to explain the origin of dark-skinned African people, used to justify their oppression, so too does the debate over the children of Abraham function in poisonous ethno-religious violence.

And yet, in all this, Hagar is ignored. That she is a person, that she is a person in her own right, is revealed in the response of God when she cries in the desert to which she has been banished. Her child, too, will become a great nation. The promises of God will be carried on through the child born of rape as well.

And Still. Hagar was given by her owner to her owner’s husband. She was fucked. She fell pregnant. She served her purpose and was done away with. We can not take away another piety about God blessing those hard done by. Any moralising that moves too swiftly past the ugly truth is one more cover up of what happened to Hagar.

Sarah probably hardly knew any better, or at least no different. She was likely bought in marriage, too. So Hagar was given to her owner’s owner. We notice that there is a hierarchy at work in what we unironically have come to call the Patriarchal Narratives.

Did you know, Abraham had even tried to sell Sarah to the king, Abimelech, at one point… just to save his own hide? This was the culture where women are purchased, used, dispensed with. Male children were what they were to produce, whether by rape or by consent. Their value was based on their wombs. Commodities.

There are reasons to feel sorry for Sarah too. There has been much to gain from reading her story of doubt and belief. She’s a complex character within the story being told. But we read in this story layers of oppression, and Hagar and Sarah might be looked at through Womanist–not just Feminist–eyes. They are both oppressed as women, but their oppression is not the same, and it is Sarah who oppresses Hagar, not the other way around.

In more recent centuries, Sarah might be a white plantation wife, Hagar the black house-slave, or just white women in relation to black women in the still-present dynamics of gendered and raced oppression. So, indeed we must think of Hagar as a Black woman in the same sense that the recently passed, James Cone, founder of Black Liberation Theology, compared the cross of Jesus to the lynching tree, and the One who hangs on it to the Black person in America.

Biblical interpretation has always done this kind of dialogue-work between the today and the back-then. This is a basis of how faith communities engage with the Scriptures as a conversation partner for their own lives. But it has been women who noticed Hagar’s suffering as a woman. And it has been Black women who noticed Hagar’s suffering as a slave. I mentioned 2,500+ years of Hagar being ignored, but in African-American sources Hagar has been noticed for 300+ years (as in, when the first African-American congregations took a hold of these stories in defiance of white interpretations). It was in the White, Western churches that Hagar was buried completely in the desert that Sarah banished her.

It is those who have been oppressed who notice oppression in the Scriptures. It is those fighting for real-life freedom who liberate the text from its bondage. The “Gospel” of the Bible, the Spirit behind the Word: these are the domain of those at the margins of the society, as well as at the margins of the faith community, and not those at the center. In re-membering so, we pay tribute to Hagar, our mother, and our mother, Hagar, lives on through us, just as was promised. “Though you have gone through all this, you too will become a great nation.”

Written by Alexander Jordan Holmes-Brown


Phyllis Trible edited a whole book dedicated to Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children, with Letty M. Russell co-editing. It is Womanist theologian, Delores S. Williams, who takes up the topic of “Hagar in African-American Biblical Appropriation”.

Williams’ major work, in fact, is the magnificent Sisters in the Wilderness, published in 1993.


Below are some of the comment I received over Facebook, critiquing this reading of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham, or taking the reading further by providing contextual insights. I respond to them in turn. To read them as they appeared originally, see: https://goo.gl/2W1Xg1

From Jean: I take it the above author is Williams excerpted from a book edited by Trible? Personally, I find this interpretation thought-provoking but extreme. It doesn’t take the socio-historical context of the ANE into account but seems to interpret the text from the standpoint of modern democratic feminst ideals and judging the authors/narrators who lived thousands of years ago in an ancient patriarchal culture with standards and values that they do not share with modern Christian readers.

I am open to reading Christian womanist theologians since they do open up new avenues for reading biblical texts, but in this case I disagree with her reading of Hagar’s story… she makes certain conclusions about Hagar’s treatment, but there are other equally valid conclusions to be made because the biblical narrators present characters whose speech and actions are ambiguous (see Robert Alter’s book “The Art of Biblical Narrative” or Gunn & Fewell “Narrative in the Hebrew Bible”).

Using narrative criticism, I don’t think the biblical narrator presents Hagar being raped, but I do think there are clues in the passage that show the narrator thinks Hagar has been most unjustly treated and that he is sympathetic to what she has gone through – after all her story was recorded as Scripture, she is named, she is positively portrayed as a proactive woman with deep emotions, and most significantly she is seen by and speaks with the angel of the LORD (not many women in Scripture could make that claim). Also, the boy Ishmael while not the child of promise is not considered a mistake because God has plans to bless him and make him into a great nation. The characters in these stories are flawed and complex and our assessments of them will always vary because the situations are ambiguous.

AJHB: Dear Jean,

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I am the author of the post. It is not an excerpt from Williams, although I owe a great debt to Womanist and Feminist theologians and biblical scholars like her and Trible.

I’m glad you found the re-reading of Hagar to be thought-provoking, and extreme. Extreme is certainly how my emotional response to the story colours my reading — even if I’d like to take the text in an objective way.

I thought I made it clear that my reading is openly biased and that I hinted at the texts ambiguity and lack of clarity of the power dynamics of Hagar’s pregnancy. I was wanting to read between the lines and ask, how might Hagar have experienced being given by her mistress to Abraham for sex. I infer that precisely what was normal back then is rape.

As for reading today’s values into the text, that, I believe is the responsibility of the reader who wants to be more than purely descriptive. For example, the killing of all men, women, and children in Canaan (not that it really happened) was wrong, then and now, whatever the Biblical justifications for it, whatever the supposed commands of the Lord, whatever the extenuating circumstances, whatever the value system of the perpetrators. I think this is pretty basic and wonder why many wish to give a kind of detached “well that was how things were back then” approach… I think such an approach is ideologically suspect as my own admittedly suspicious reading.


From Lyn: An excellent response Jean I too have found womanist theologians thought-provoking. But that said I find them often hard to read as Jean has noted because they don’t take into account the socio-historical context of the ANE. There are some glaring problems here in the above excert. For starters Hagar is not raped. When Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham she is changing her status from ‘slave’ to ‘wife.’ This is in similar fashion to a father giving his free born daughter to her future husband. That is why Sarah is jealous in the end. Sarah was not bought as a wife because she is a free born woman- and as such she is ‘given’ freely. She could object to her father about the match. Now this is interesting because Sarah wasn’t bought since she was Abraham’s half sister. This means that the above analysis is hugely flawed. Certainly one should be very careful to read from an ancient text to the situation of negro slaves in the US before the civil war. The situations are not directly comparable.

And as Jean said the narratives are ambiguous and they are that way for a reason. They are meant to be used by being inhabited and discussed. You’re meant to take the varying perspectives of the different characters and see things from their point of view. It’s meant to engage you in other centred-ness so that you grow spiritually and in character. You know “waking a mile another ‘person’s’ moccasins.”

AJHB: Dear Lyn,

Thank you for the insightful comment. I notice that we both make inferences. For example you infer the case of “free-born” women being given by their fathers to husbands who they can object. I wonder where in ANE literature you find examples of being able to object?

And how you define free-born? Obviously you mean a woman who is not a slave — and I make this distinction between Sarah’s position and Hagar’s — but do you contend that a daughter given by her father is free to choose and does not become something like the property of her father and then her husband?

Now, you are right to say that Hagar’s status changes from slave to wife. You are reading Gen. 16:3. “So after living ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai gave her Egyptian slave to Abram as a second wife.”

It is only three verses later that Hagar’s true status is foregrounded: Gen. 16:6 ” But Abram said to Sarai, “She is your slave. You can do anything you want to her.” So Sarai was cruel to Hagar, and Hagar ran away.”

Again in Gen. 21:9, when Sarah even sees Ishmael playing, she despises it and says “Get rid of that slave woman and her son!” The verse even contains an editors note reminding the reader that Hagar is the Egyptian slave.

Her being expelled without enough sustenance to keep her son from nearly starving and needing divine intervention shows up how much status she rose to have… really very little. Even Abraham being sad at losing his son Ishmael shows little concern for the slave-wife, Hagar.

If that provides enough textual material to at least give my reading some credence, even if you still have some reservations, let us now address what your rightly pointed out as a glaring piece of missing information…

I never mentioned that Sarah, who I said was probably sold to Abraham herself, was, in fact, his half-sister!

Well, along with what I have been saying about wives being pretty much property and slaves being even more useable and dispensable, here I am clear that I am indeed reading things from a feminist perspective. That men would give their “free-born” daughters to other men, at a price, or for political-social arrangements, is precisely the opposite of freedom. And while I make it clear that I am reading behind the lines, there is nothing there for you to infer that Sarah being Abraham’s sister means that she was not sold as a commodity and purchased as one. There is certainly nothing to suggest that their proximity before hand meant that it was some sort of natural marriage in our modern terms, some romance that became sealed in covenant. Here I am urging you to read the ANE more closely.

And we don’t need to look that far into extra-biblical sources to find out that:

“A man might decide to sell his daughter as a slave. If this happens, the rules for making her free are not the same as the rules for making the men slaves free. If the master who chose her for himself is not pleased with her, then he can sell the woman back to her father. If the master broke his promise to marry her, he loses the right to sell her to other people. If the master promised to let the slave woman marry his son, he must treat her like a daughter, not like a slave.” (Ex. 21:7-9)

So you have a man selling his daughter “as a slave”. The purchaser, the master, has “promise[d] to marry her”. If he doesn’t make her a wife, he cannot sell her to anyone but back to the father, implying that if he does marry her, he could sell her. And we cannot be sentimental about the last line on “treating her like a daughter” if the first line says “a man might decide to sell his daughter”.

(If you are interested in comparative look at slavery conventions in the ANE, see https://goo.gl/K8NzPR * which also deals with some of the difference and ambiguities of slavery and other “servile conditions”)

I appreciate your “walking a mile” ideal at the end, which is precisely what I have done with Hagar, intentionally and I had hoped without pretense to an objective view of things, while noting certain ambiguities and making clear that Hagar is not a “Negro slave” but can be read in light of modern slavery in order to walk a mile, just as Jesus is not literally a Black person lynched in Arkansas — he was a 1st Century Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine — but ought be identified, in fact is identified, with all those who are hung on trees, scapegoated, oppressed, and destroyed with religious zeal. I had thought this analogy-making was pretty clear, so apologies if not.

* [This is a link to Raymond Westbrook’s article, “Slave and Master in Ancient Near Eastern Law” in the Chicago-Kent Law Review, 1995: Vol. 70, Iss. 4]


From Chris n Mindi: This isn’t a fair interpretation of early patriarchy and instead excels toward an extreme point of view absent of then cultural norms. Using offensive language also detracts from any kind of value. Tamar was raped by her brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13), Dinah was raped by Shechem (Genesis 34:2) but Hagar was not taken by force. Even then in ancient culture were definitions for rape. We must be extraordinarily cautious about applying our modern standards against ancient practice where a cultural handmaiden serves as a surrogate which was not unusual. Trible’s writing has been described as “disturbing” and at other times theologically far-fetched. Even Jephthah’s daughter was a willing victim (Judges 11:30-40) despite the forgetfulness that such a sacrifice was prohibited. The Babylonian Talmud clearly resolves the issue of the vowed sacrifice being improper (b. Taanit 1:1, II.9.D), the Mishnah immediately questions the validity of making an offering without knowing what that would be (m. Ta’an. 4:2 C) and all point to the Levitical absolution of making “difficult” vows by paying a sum into the temple coffer; that is, buying your way out of a vow that cannot be upheld (cf Leviticus 27.2). Certainly culture has changed and such behaviors once acceptable aren’t so today. The message thus should not be to paint our Christian faith as a graphically horrific religion to run away from. Instead, there ought to demonstrate God’s mercy and grace, despite our depravity and idiotic choices of knocking up the handmaiden rather than trusting God when he says he’ll provide an heir.

Response by Camo: Yes ancients did have their own conceptions of rape but that doesn’t mean that we can’t apply our own tools and definitions from today to get a better understanding of the text. For example, you use the term “early patriarchy,” one that isn’t found in the texts but is helpful for illuminating them.

While some might be reluctant to call Hagar’s experience with Abraham rape, neither should they be quick to call it consensual, which assumes two parties with a relatively equal relationship of power and status. We do know that Hagar isn’t of the same status and power as Abraham, and I think it’s therefore legitimate to ask the question of rape, even if the Bible doesn’t–c.f. the conversation about David and Bathsheeba.

AJHB: Thanks Chris or Mindi, I wont give you an essay like I have in response to the comments above, as Camo has so succinctly said exactly what I would want to say but probably fail to. So, thanks Camo, as well.


From Joseph: Is this exegesis, or eisegesis? Because this interpretation seems to be more along the lines of eisegesis since, as Jean, Lyn, and Chris N Mindi stated in detail, it portrays Sarah’s “giving” of Hagar to Abraham as rape when it clearly was not, and it ignores cultural context.

AJHB: “When it clearly was not”… Interesting non-comment Joseph. Good one!


From Julie: I’ve recently taught this passage and in studying for that I learned things I did not previously know. In Mesopotamia, archeology has found several marriage contracts from the time period of Abraham. These stipulate that if the wife cannot bear children she was *required* to give a female servant to her husband to bear a child. Note that it was not the husband who would go looking for a female slave to do this, but it was the wife’s responsibility to do this. Since the text makes it clear that it was well known that Sarah was “barren” even before they left Ur, she should have provided Abraham a servant long before she actually did so.

Hagar was probably given to Sarah as a servant when she joined Pharoah’s harem. When Sarah was released to Abraham along with lots of gifts to placate Abraham and his God, apparently Hagar was part of that package. If that is the case, then it is a good decade or more before Sarah finally gives Hagar to Abraham to have a child. Thus, Hagar was well acquainted with both Sarah and Abraham, and she probably expected to be given to Abraham long before she actually was. It seems to me that Sarah really did not want to give any servant to Abraham. It also seems to me that Abraham probably wasn’t real keen on the idea either, since it was his right according to the contract to pressure her to do so. Hagar’s feelings were not considered, that is true. But this was probably not a big surprise to her. The most surprising part of this to her was probably, “NOW you’re going to do this?”

According to the marriage contracts, the husband did not make the slave his wife. He only had intercourse with her until she became pregnant and no more. She was the *wife’s* servant, not the husband’s. When Hagar became pregnant, she began to feel superior to Sarah. It is significant that there is no mention of friction between Hagar and Sarah until this.

This does not mean that cultural practice was OK. According to our modern sensibilities, it was not. God meets us where we are in order to bring us up to where he wants us to be. That modern sensibilities of even non-believers find this practice abhorant shows that God’s plan of redemption is actually working.

The way God interacts with Hagar both when she’s pregnant and later when she has been turned out with her son shows that he does care about her and Ishmael too. Hagar even names God — something no other human being does in all of Scripture (!) — and God accepts her name for him. He blesses her and her son greatly, and I believe that though she likely did not enjoy being taken by Abraham, she expected it and was probably happy with the outcome by the end of her life.

Response by Joseph: I’ve never heard of the ancient marriage contracts before, so thanks for mentioning that!

In regards to humans giving names to God, I think Hagar was the first one in Scripture who did it, but I don’t think she was the only one. For example, Abraham gives God the name “The LORD Will Provide” in Genesis 22 after God provided the ram in the bush.

Response by Julie: I got that info from John H Walton in The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis.

Response by Wendy: Dr Katherine Bushnell also brings this out in God’s Word To Women – it is from the Law of Hammurabi, the codes of the civilization that Abraham and family came from.

Response by Julie:  Incidentally, Walton also says that we cannot use the Hagar story to teach about “getting ahead of God” and/or “taking matters into our own hands without trusting God.” The text itself does not ever fault Abraham or Sarah for “trying to help God out,” and he points out that those who say that Ishmael’s birth caused a lot of problems (for example: the Arab-Israeli mess we have today) that God would rather have not happened are wrong. For 13 years God allowed everyone involved to believe that Ishmael was the promised son. Abraham loved him and doted on him, and Sarah probably also rejoiced. According to the culture, Ishmael was legally her son. Of course everyone knew his bio mother was Hagar, but legally, he was Sarah’s son. That’s how that worked back then. Sarah only came out against him after she had Isaac, and then did not take action against Ishmael until Isaac was weaned — that is, old enough that people could be reasonably sure he was going to survive into adulthood (had survived the infant stage when illnesses were so deadly).

The fact is, that Sarah obviously had not wanted to provide a maidservant to her husband, or she would have done so years before. Only after God specified that the heir was to be from Abraham’s body (and not adopted) and she knew she had gone through menopause did she give Hagar to Abraham. She didn’t want to do it. Abraham probably didn’t want to do it. Hagar probably didn’t want to do it. All three of them were being obedient to what they thought was “right” at the time. I think that’s why God blessed all three of them. For some, like Hagar, the blessings may have taken awhile, but they came. She and Ishmael actually did really well after they were cast out. He became wealthy and his 12 sons became tribal chiefs.

Emotional healing had also taken place. I cannot imagine how terrible it must have been to have been treated like the Son of the Promise for 13 to 15 years only to be cast out later. But 70 or so years later we see Ishmael return to help Isaac bury Abraham. Since bodies had to be buried within 24 hours or so because of the heat, he had to have receive word that Abraham’s death was pending for him to get there in time. There is no mention of contention between Isaac and Ishmael. I see great healing must have taken place. I imagine Hagar made her peace with the situation too.

AJHB: This is by far my favourite response, Julie. Thank you. Your reading of this story is compelling and takes into account many of the bits that are tricky for us to understand today. You also don’t try to defend or make obsolete the difficulties with a cliche of “well it was written at a certain time”, rather you look at the certain time in order to probe even more deeply into the dynamics of the story, the plot, the people, the real relationships, and what God might be up to in the midst of it. Thank you!

These comments were from the Facebook group, Biblical Christian Egalitarians. Interestingly, the off-shoot group, CBE-Voices of Color reshared my post saying: “This is so worthy of being shared and discussed.”

CBE - Voices of Colour

What do you think of the appraisals from Jean, Lyn, Chris n Mindi, Joseph, and Julie? What about Camo? Let me know in the comments. And remember to join us at Conversation about Religion! on Facebook, where the hard topics are never shied away from.

Matthew 1:1-17 … Decolonising a Genealogy

It was the conversations of some FaceBook friends that finally provoked me to do what I kept intending to do, to write about the Bible instead of around it all the time. To get back to the oldest task of the theologian, implicit in the name: to discern the Word(s) of God. I must admit, it has been several years even where I have failed to, or rather, chosen not to read and study the book(s) that give life in a unique and central way to the People of the Book(s), us who call ourselves either Christians or Jesus followers. I have been wanting to come back to that Biblical world which we call home and from where we get our particular home truths, that world which is at once so foreign, especially to me now after years away and apart from its wisdom and wonder. The task of starting with the rather uninspiring “Genealogy” that begins Matthew’s gospel is kind of appropriate: I am after all, returning to look at the traditions of my own ancestors, my own spiritual genealogy and lineage, the beliefs and practices from whom I have inherited so much of my own self.

The first FaceBook conversation frustrated me. The second inspired me. But the fact that there were two seemed synchronous and a sign to jump back into the strange texture of the texts we call the Bible. The brilliant New Testament scholar, Michael Bird, was responsible for the first.

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[Image: Screenshot of Facebook Status, dated August 13, saying “White Christians should remember that they worship a brown-skinned Aramaic-speaking Palestinian man seated at the right hand of the Father.” 250+ likes. 36 shares. 30+ comments]

The Australian scholar’s post came in the wake of the violence that went viral from the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia and joined a fair outcry from thousands around the world at the disgusting images of White Nationalism, and for Christians the misuse of Christian imagery and rhetoric that continues to accompany White Supremacist movements in the West.

The second post was from Don Matthews, a professor of Religious Studies who focuses on Black/African Religion as it relates to the roots of Christianity. His post was a response to H. Talat Halman, another professor of Religion whose focus is on Islamic Studies. It reads:

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[Image: Screenshot of Facebook Status, dated August 20, saying “Great question. It is important on several levels. It has to do with the direct Black Egyptian/African Lineage of Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, Pharoah’s Daughter is named as one of the women from whom Jesus was descended. So, this confirms that the Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was of royal Black African ancestry. I emphasize Black African ancestry since Solomon ruled Israel when the native Black Egyptian African, not the Hyskos, Pharoahs were in power. Some early sources believe that the Queen of Sheba is a reference to Pharoah’s daughter and believe that she was the Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia. Many thanks for bringing this to my attention, my scholastic colleague and Islamic Brother! If only there were more scholars like yourself who were willing to acknowledge the historical (Josephus) Biblical and Quaranic references to the Black heritage of Jesus. Asalaam Alaikim. You have blessed my soul.”]

The first post — Bird’s — caused quite a stir, liked and unliked by many colleagues and commenters and Christians in his circle. The second was largely taken for granted. The New Testament scholar was talking to a white majority audience, predominantly Evangelical, who —  according to the majority of the replies — either protested the description of “Palestinian” by saying the obvious, the Jesus was Jewish, or by asking what the point of Jesus’s ethnicity is for his mission as God With Us.

Not so with Matthew’s post, one of a series on the deconstruction of the White Jesus. I suppose it is only White folk who don’t take for granted that Jesus and history generally are Blacker than the Western renderings that Whitewash him. And largely among White folks that a kind of colour blindness is required in all things but especially in spiritual matters. It reminds me of a quote that went something like this: White Christians follow Christ, POC Christians follow Jesus. Western theology spiritualises, deifies, and makes abstract ; Majority-World theology has its feet firmly on the ground. Christ is Other. Jesus is one of us. Whatever one highlights about the ethnicity of Jesus — Jewish, Black, Palestinian, Brown, etc. — the gospels of Matthew and of Luke saw fit to include his genealogy, albeit two contradictory versions for reason we can only make educated guesses on.

Theologians, New Testament scholars, historians, and those in literary and cultural studies fields have come up with plenty of meanings attached to the recorded lineage of Jesus of Nazareth, meanings and interpretations that diverge sharply from one another depending on the assumptions of the reader. While some have sort to prove or disprove these testimonies, others have wondered what the literature might be meaning to communicate back then and even to us today. I’m interested in the latter questions, particularly from the horizon of postcolonial, feminist, literary, empire studies, and other politically engaged reading, hence why I was provoked by Michael Bird’s and Donald Matthew’s Facebook statuses.

My first stop was, of course, the archives on this site: Bible Studies: New Testament: and scroll down to Matthew. Among the resources collected their, three stand out as relevant:

  1. Carter, Warren (New Zealand & USA): “The Gospel of Matthew” in A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings, eds. Fernando F. Segovia and R.S. Sugirtharajah. 2009: T&T Clark
  2. Duarte, Alejandro Alberto (Ceuta, Spain & Argentina): “Matthew” in Global Bible Commentary, eds. Daniel Patte, José Severino Croatto, Teresa Okure. 2004: Abingdon
  3. Ezeogu, Ernest M. (Nigeria & Canada): “The African Origin of Jesus: An Afrocentric Reading of Matthew’s Infancy Narrative (Matthew 1–2)” in Postcolonial Perspectives in African Biblical Scholarship, eds. Musa W. Dube, Andrew M. Mbuvi, and Dora Mbuwayesango. 2012: Society of Biblical Literature

Let’s see what they have to say about that family tree in Matthew 1:1-17. But first, why not open up the word itself.


The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah[b] the son of David, the son of Abraham:

Abraham was the father of Isaac,

Isaac the father of Jacob,

Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,

Perez the father of Hezron,

Hezron the father of Ram,

Ram the father of Amminadab,

Amminadab the father of Nahshon,

Nahshon the father of Salmon,

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,

Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,

Obed the father of Jesse,

and Jesse the father of King David.

David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,

Solomon the father of Rehoboam,

Rehoboam the father of Abijah,

Abijah the father of Asa,

Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,

Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,

Jehoram the father of Uzziah,

Uzziah the father of Jotham,

Jotham the father of Ahaz,

Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,

10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,

Manasseh the father of Amon,

Amon the father of Josiah,

11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah[c] and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.

12 After the exile to Babylon:

Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,

Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,

13 Zerubbabel the father of Abihud,

Abihud the father of Eliakim,

Eliakim the father of Azor,

14 Azor the father of Zadok,

Zadok the father of Akim,

Akim the father of Elihud,

15 Elihud the father of Eleazar,

Eleazar the father of Matthan,

Matthan the father of Jacob,

16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.

17 Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.


I’m sure I’m not the only one who grew up knowing this genealogy while paying it no attention, finding it of no interest, and rather wishing it wasn’t there to start the otherwise compelling narrative of Jesus ‘who is called the Messiah.’ Plus, I’ve only even heard half of those names, and only a ten or so have any meaning at all for me. Some seem completely obscure, and other seem to fade into the long and usually unread histories of the divided Israelite kingdom from the Books of 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles. There’s not much that jumps out as interesting at first glance. So I wonder what the three commentaries selected above (Carter, Duarte and Ezeogu) make of it, coming from their different angles. Let’s see what they reveal about the way politically-minded interpreters today are looking at these well worn but alien texts with fresh eyes today.

Let’s start with you, Warren Carter of New Zealand and the United States, specialist in Matthew studies. Carter’s view of the genealogy of Jesus sits within his guiding framework, where Matthew’s gospel is written around 80 AD in the Roman Imperial context of Antioch, in Syria. The genealogy is not busy trying to prove the Jewishness of Jesus to Jews, as was previously taken for granted in studies of Matthew that focused on the inter-religious dispute between those who thought and did not think Jesus was the promised Messiah. The genealogy’s interest is in placing Jesus’ role in God’s history firmly in Jewish ground against the ideas, at once utilised by the gospel writer, that Rome and Caesar were God’s plan. In the Carter chapter I selected above, he can only go into this in brief, saying:

The Gospel contextualizes the significance of Matthew’s Jesus in the opening genealogy not in conventional imperial terms of wealth, power and elite status, but in relation to God’s just purposes (1.1-17). These purposes, evoked by the genealogy, were previously manifested and enacted not in the mighty Roman Empire but in the small and often subjugated (see 1.11-16) nation of Israel. As God’s anointed (Messiah, 1.1, 16-17), Jesus continues God’s promise to Abraham (not to Rome) to bless all the nations of the earth with life (Gen. 12.1-3), not just the powerful, wealthy elite and allies of Rome. (p. 79)

And he wants to say that these accounts, that situate Jesus as a Jewish and not a Roman-style Messiah, are the prelim to the also subversive account of Mary’s unconsummated birth. The whole lineage of Jesus up to conception and his first new-born cries are counter-culturally awkward and imperially skewed. Carter has space to say more on it in his Matthew and Empire, written eight years prior:

“The opening seventeen verses of the Gospel display God’s sovereign purposes at work in human history. The genealogy embraces a sweep of Israel’s history from Abraham to King David (l:2-6a), to Babylonian exile (1:11-12), to the birth of the Christ (1:17). It views this history in a Christological perspective in that the coming of Jesus is the decisive event in a history that involves a whole host of characters beginning with Abraham. The genealogy demonstrates, among other things, that God supervises human history, that God’s purposes especially run through Israel (not Rome), that God’s purposes are not always faithfully embodied by humans but they are not thereby hindered (kings, exile), and that all sorts of humans (wicked and faithful, famous and obscure, firstborn and insignificant, male and female, Jew and Gentile) are caught up in those purposes.” (p. 60)

That’ll preach! A list comes to life here and isn’t so boring after all. I wonder what the Spanish / Argentino Alejandro Alberto Duarte will reveal, coming from the context of “an Argentinean who experienced the murder of eleven close friends at the hands of the military dictatorship of the late 1970s and early 1980s of his country” (as said by Sharon Betsworth in her contribution to an edited volume from which we’ll take two more genealogical readings after).

 

 

Honouring Padre Aldo

Last night I received word from Padre Matías Camussi, parish priest of Cristo Obrero Church, in Villa Del Parque neighbourhood of Argentina’s Santa Fe city: word that the remains of the late Padre Aldo Büntig, a forerunner of liberation theology, little known outside of Latin America, even outside of Santa Fe, had been repatriated from where they had remained since his death in exile, in 1978.

“Hola Alex! Han llevado al Padre Aldo a la parroquia Jesús Resucitado! Has conseguido información sobre él? God bless you!!!”

The short message was accompanied by an article in Sante Fe’s El Litoral newpaper. It was from the article that I first learned of Bùntig’s escape to Puerto Rico, sent there by Archbishop Zazpe who had feared for the priest’s life. The El Litoral article joined the few other sources of information I had on the activist priest and intellectual. His written work, as far as I can see, has never been translated to English. A search on Amazon or even AbeBooks for his name shows how few of his untranslated works are available for purchase. It was this that sparked my immediate curiosity about why, then, Aldo Büntig’s name appeared alongside the likes of Gustavo Gutiérrez and other well known liberation theologians in Christian Smith’s The Emergence of Liberation Theology — the key English-language text on the history of the movement in Latin America.

For that reason I had contacted Father Matías in May, 2016, searching out more on the priest who had worked decades before in Alto Verde, 20 minutes drive from Matías’ own parish. I was grateful Padre Matías remembered me and brought the news to my attention. It is an opportunity to try and write again something of a short biography on Aldo Büntig, a legend of liberation theology in his own right, a local man of the people, one for whom parades are carried out in the streets of his hometown.

Aldo Büntig, 1969

“Era un chico feliz que ya daba indicios de convertirse en lo que fue: un ser excepcional, de esos que ya no se encuentran.”

Those were the words uttered by Taher Elías Bude, a worker, a pen manufacturer from Santa Fe, a friend of Aldo’s: “He was a happy boy who already showed signs of becoming what he was: an exceptional being, those who are no longer found.” These words are all I know of Büntig’s life before he became a priest, when he was a child growing up in Progreso. Of his life and work as the priest at Jesùs Resucitado I have managed to get only glimpses, glimpses that are telling, however, of the character of a man committed to the wellbeing of the people, which, in the context of the Onganía regime, meant commitment despite the danger.

Along with Raúl Sufritti and Osvaldo Catena, Büntig was instrumental in creating Act 5110, establishing the ‘Social Pension Fund of the Province of Santa Fe aiming to provide social assistance by granting pensions to the elderly, disabled, homeless mothers and children.’ These are the typical areas that the activist priests like Büntig committed themselves to, concerned with the conditions of their communities: whether workers are treated fairly, whether the young can access education, whether the elderly are valued and listened to. It is these types of concrete social action alongside the sectores populares that radicalised the priests both in their Christian understanding of solidarity with the people, who are mostly poor, and in the eyes of the state who saw the dangers of popular action. To stand alongside workers during the years of the Onganía regime, which lasted from 1966 to 1970, demanded courage. Labour strikes were outlawed, and violence could be expected for those who did not comply.

It was from this context of commitment to the people in the face of military and corporate control, violence and inequality that Büntig, like so many of his generation, began to think anew on the role of the church in Latin America. The involvement on the side of the masses under dictatorial rule — in opposition to the exploitation of the ruling classes — was a move away from a civil religion which had been handed down from the time of conquest, a pacifying faith which had nothing to say to human conditions.

For Padre Büntig it meant a new analysis of popular religion was necessary: Where was faith serving liberation? Where was it serving oppression? How was religion, as popular culture, serving ambivalent cross-purposes in an Argentina facing so many sharp crises?

Those questions were being asked across Latin America. Put in the words of the poet-priest and former Sandinista revolutionary, Ernesto Cardenal:

“They told me that the Argentine priest Aldo Buntig, who was here not long ago, said that the earliest Christians celebrated their liturgy clandestinely in the catacombs but lived their lives immersed in the world. Here the Christians do the opposite: they celebrate their liturgy in public and live their lives in the catacombs. They told me that Sergio Arce, Professor of Theology at Matanzas Evangelical Seminary, said that the Christians here were like the Apostles before the Pentecost: ‘The Church shut itself in upon itself, and when the Church closes its doors the Lord is left outside the doors. The Church must serve the world, and in Cuba that means serve the new society, not sabotage it.'”

The liberationist theologians, philosophers, and sociologists like Büntig saw themselves living between the death-dealing old order and the emerging new epoch, and that in-betweenness was characterised by revolutionaries and dictators and the sharpening of difference between right and left-wing leaning social movements. Meanwhile, the church, maybe particularly in Argentina, had remained an ambivalent force: at once ubiquitous as a cultural reality for all major sectors of society — elite, middle class, and impoverished; conservative, liberal, and radical; white, black, Indigenous, and mestizo — and yet had remained in the stasis of the status quo, unable to respond to new realities. The liberationists, committed to the marginalised sectors in which the real progressive politics was manifesting itself alongside the old conservatism, would become the intellectual arm — and so sometimes elitist in itself — of those fighting for a new social reality.

Büntig’s contribution to the liberación paradigm would be his studies on what he dubbed ‘popular religion’ and ‘popular catholicism’. He would be one of the major thinkers exploring that religious-political ambivalence, if not the major figure, joined by the well-known Argentinos Lucio Gera, Juan Carlos Scannone, the world-renowned philosopher and historian Enrique Dussel — names associated with what Michael R. Candelaria calls ‘the theology of the people’ — and Fernando Boasso (a name I have just learned through Candelaria’s book on the same subject, Popular Religion and Liberation: The Dilemma of Liberation Theology, 1990). Büntig’s understanding of the catolicismo popular was characterised by his own ambivalence towards the religion expressions in Argentina among the masses. He saw “a religion of vows and the promises of pilgrimage, sacraments received endlessly, devotions given endlessly — all with social repercussions” (Jorge Delgado). At the same time, Büntig saw the anti-hierarchical sentiment of the lay religious, a positive trait during the populist Perón regime that came into power (for the second time) when he wrote in 1973:

“Mientras el pueblo es tradicionalmente católico, las jerarquías nunca han sido populares, salvo honrosas y contadas excepciones. […] El pueblo, verdadero depositario y sujeto de la liberación nacional y social, sigue identificándose con el catolicismo aunque no entienda, ni justifique, las ambigüedades de una institución eclesiástica, inserta estrechamente en la trama de los Poderes del Mundo.”

Translated:

“While the people are traditionally Catholic, hierarchies have never been popular, despite a few honourable exceptions […]
The people, the true Subject and custodian of national and social liberation, still identify with Catholicism but do not understand and will not justify the ambiguities found in a church institution bound to the ‘World Powers.'”

The popular faith expressions of the people had neither the power to promote the overthrow of the oppressive system, nor the force to keep them subsumed to that system. The people themselves were “the true Subject and custodian of national and social liberation”. The sacraments, parades, and shrines were simple part and parcel of Argentine life, but the prayers of the masses were for a better life. Would the devotions they made to popular saints, would the rosaries they repeated, would the popular pieties turn those prayers into reality? Büntig seemed to think ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and that it was the responsibility of priests and pastoral workers to better know the people, the cry of their hearts, the injustices and humiliations and the dreams of those working class masses:

“Toda sana pedagogía dice que debemos saber quién es el sujeto, conocerlo, antes de iniciar la acción evangelizadora, y el acento recae sobre este punto.

¿Conocemos nosotros al sujeto al que queremos evangelizar? Se magnifica el problema cuando descubrimos que no sólo debemos evangelizar a personas aisladas sino a comunidades, grupos de personas, con valores y cuasi culturas propias y distintas.”

I loosely translated this:

“All sound pedagogy says that we must know who the Subject is, know before starting to evangelise, and the emphasis is on this point.

Do we know the Subject to whom we evangelise? The problem magnifies as we discover that not only do we evangelise to isolated people but to communities, to groups of people with values and cultures almost distinctly their own.”

These thoughts on the starting point of pastoral-theological-pedagogical work being the life world of the people themselves is the hallmark of all contextual theologies of liberation. Gutiérrez saw “in these peoples, at once poor and Christian, there is a concrete point of departure, charged with consequences, for Church life and theological reflection” (quoted in Candelaria, 1990, p. ix). The practical work Büntig had committed to, such as the instigation of working class networks for improving living conditions, was the other side of the coin of this approach to popular culture and religion amid struggle.

The breadth and depth of Büntig’s assessment of the role of popular religiosity in the struggle for liberation and in the ongoing oppression in Argentina and Latin America was not without its detractors. Most of Büntig’s views are hidden to me in the books I do not own, in a language I do not possess, containing concepts I am a novice to. Candelaria’s book on the subject of popular religion and liberation theology is of service to us here. It is in English, for starters, is a thorough treatment of the subject, and is the major source I have found so far engaging Büntig’s line of thinking. It does so through it’s focus on two other major thinkers: the Argentine, Juan Carlos Scannone, and Juan Luis Segundo, from Uruguay. They both detract from Büntig (and from each other) on certain key points, agreeing on others, and providing unique insights into the dilemma of liberation theologians trying to make sense of the religious life of the continent and the church which they had committed themselves to change alongside the masses.

From the threshold of birth to the threshold of death, religion pervades the popular cultural ethos. At critical junctures of human development–birth, childhood, puberty, marriage–ceremonies, festivity, and ritual reinforce human ties with the sacred. […] Everywhere Latino people march in processions, walk in pilgrimages, undertake vows, light candles, worship the Virgin Mother, supplicate saints, ward of demons and ghosts with gestures, recite creeds and formulas.” (Candelaria, 1990, p. vii, vii-viii)

Candelaria quotes the Mexico-based sociologist Pierre Bastian:

“The masses oppressed by colonization, then neo-colonialism and imperialism, have created their own cultures of silence, their own means of giving meaning to their lives and of liberating themselves in the very midst of their captivity. It is in this perspective that the religious factor takes on interest as the determining factor of the social practices of the dominated classes.”

Büntig was involved in this turn toward liberation from (and into!) the popular piety that had grown over the centuries among the poor masses: mestizo, migrant, black, indigenous in the colonial, neo-colonial and imperial matrix of the Americas. He was there at El Escorial in 1972 where the Liberation Theologians and their Spanish counterparts met to discuss the emerging theme of liberación and found themselves discussing popular religion. He was there at the establishment of the Equipo Coordinador de Investigaciones de Sociedad y Religion and edited its 6-volume series in which Dussel and Gera contributed. The Chilean theologian priest Segundo Galilea noted how the “renewed focus on people’s religion ‘has–in general terms–coincide with the emergence of the theme of liberation in social struggle for justice, and, therefore, in the pastoral theology and practice of the Church'” (Candelaria, p. xi). Galilea goes further:

“the poor and the oppressed are the subjects of our liberation endeavors and the subjects of their own form of religion; hence, folk piety is of singular importance in mobilizing the masses for the struggle of liberation” (quoted in Candelaria, p. xii).

 

 

1975, Theological Intersections and Social Movements

 

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B+W photo of James Cone, Dorothe Sölle, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Christopher Morse and Jürgen Moltmann at Union Theological Seminary some time in the 1970s. Although a different conference, these represent the major streams present at Detroit, 1975: U.S. Black Theology (Cone), European Political Theology (Sölle), Latin American Liberation Theology (Gutiérrez), U.S. Political Theology (Morse) and European Hope Theology (Moltmann).

In Detroit, 1975, an event took place that would be something of a watershed moment in Christian theology. A week-long conference in August brought together ministers, activists, sociologists and theologians under the banner ‘Theology in the Americas’. The attendees and speakers represented different social and political perspectives as well as different church traditions. It would be an ecumenical, multi-ethnic affair, with participants from all parts of the Americas, South and North, Central and Caribbean, from dominant and minority communities, First World and Third World. This series is about what took place at that meeting, as well as directly before and after it, and how these groups came into conversation, competition, and collaboration over time.

This was not the first but probably the major meeting of minds in the fields of Feminist Theology, Black Theology, Political Theology and Latin American teología de la liberación (Liberation Theology). Today the insights cultivated by these different groupings are commonly talked about and practiced in concert with each other. We do not only focus on patriarchy and women’s liberation but on racism the liberation of people of colour, not only of wealth, poverty and class but on the myriad forms of oppression that affect our communities: homophobia, ableism, transphobia, xenophobia and other sins committed against people who are ‘othered’ by a dominant system.

We call it ‘intersectionality’, a term coined by critical race theorist and civil rights activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989, and described by Patricia Hill Collins as “the critical insight that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather as reciprocally constructing phenomena” and “as a knowledge project whose raison d’être lies in its attentiveness to power relations and social inequalities.” This insight was already articulated during Black Women’s struggle for representation during the Feminist movements of the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th Century. bell hooks had also brought into question the validity of sexism as the main oppression facing all women; Black women had other oppressions facing them, including from White feminists.

Already in 1975, one participant/presenter at the Theology in the Americas would describe the same dilemma in almost exactly the same language. Rosemary Radford-Ruether called it not ‘intersectionality’ but ‘interstructuring’, with the same thought in mind. As Elina Vuola reminds us, this understanding was present in Feminist Theology earlier than in Feminist theory or Gender Studies generally. But these insights were only beginning to become apparent to many of those attending the conference, and the meeting was characterised by the opposite of intersectional thinking, with each main group-perspective declaring the primacy of its own activist focus.

The Latin Americans, coming from oppressed societies, experiencing fascism and poverty in the face of corporate wealth and landowning elites insisted on class as the key rubric for understanding the plight of the poor, los pobres, to whom they were committed.

The Black North Americans, coming from an engagement with the Civil Rights and Black Power struggle against White racism, the terror of lynchings and police dogs, and the blocking of equality by White institutions, insisted that race was the key to understanding North American life and religious life.

The Feminist Theologians, who were mostly European-American, realised that common to almost all societies was the persistence of patriarchy, not only its glass ceilings but also its violence. For them gender was the aspect that would be essential for any theology of human liberation.

Political theologians, also European-American, arrived at the conferences and meetings with their own concerns, which, influenced by European figures such as Moltmann and Metz, included post-WWII democracy and democratic socialism, and the alienation and disenfranchisement among the masses. They warned against theologies that could be utilised for further violence and cautioned against following false routes.

These groups and the other groups represented — to some extent Womanist, Native American, Chicano, Latino, and Asian-American voices were heard at Detroit — would disagree on the starting point and end points of theologising based upon the challenges they faced and the solutions they could envision. Class, Race, Gender — these are commonly treated as the mainstay intersections in which people live and struggle for freedom, to which we add sexuality, (dis)ability, education access, Indigeneity, migration, and other identities and life situations seen in relation to social power in a given society.

We will proceed, then, in four sections, beginning with the Latin American perspective that arrived in Detroit with its focus on class/wealth/poverty/economic domination, and then move through the other sections until we wrap up with an intersectional view of the theologies that were brought into conversation fatefully in 1975 and the surrounding years.

What will we learn from these early debates and dialogues on such critical issues? What has the church learned since then?

This is one of the most interesting parts of 20th Century church history and the questions arising around Detroit have continued to cause a stir and renewal in the the fields of theology, biblical studies and in community-based ministry itself. The conversations have come a long way, and they had begun in fragments before the Theology in the Americas group convened their conference, but 1975 was a watershed and our starting point. Now let’s turn to what Latin American theologians brought to that important meeting.

 

Un altro mondo

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing.”

Non é solo possibile.

This blog is called “non solo possibile” (not only possible),

The title is inspired by the words of novelist and political writer Arundhati Roy.

Un altro mondo non é solo possibile …

It is about those voice disrupting the world as it is, voices of the world erupting, arriving amongst us.

These voices are theological, pastoral and political voices belonging to people and their communities, people and communities living between real danger and hope.

These are my teachers and my friends, to whom I owe a great debt and a great gratitude.

This an old blog, being remade for the purpose of sharing directly from those friends and teachers, without mediation.

I hope to let the words stand as they are. Although I may have the courage to contribute some of my own… in time.

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Thank you for visiting.

Alex Holmes-Brown