Friday, January 29, 2021

Dr. Renita Weems: “Re-Reading for Liberation: African American Women and the Bible”

Rev. Dr. Renita Weems is an Old Testament scholar. She was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in Old Testament studies and has taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Spelman College.

In her essay “Re-Reading for Liberation: African American Women and the Bible,” she talks about the significance of stories, arguing that in order to read the Bible for liberation, our interpretation must be grounded in respect for the "other", the marginalized people who are silenced, ignored, and/or trampled on by those in power (45).

Main points:

1. Dr. Weems references Kathleen O’Connor's assertion that “we are drenched in our contexts,” and talks about how our contexts both inspire and illumine our liberatory readings of the Bible, while at the same time they can hinder and blind us to the ways the Bible has been used "to silence the marginalized and to justify centuries of oppressive activity" (42).

2. We need to read the Bible in multicultural spaces, "reading with and reading across cultural borders," in order to help make us more aware of "the intellectual heritage, the political baggage, the social assumptions, and the economic worldview one brings to one’s reading" (44). This forces the interpreter to acknowledge and directly state what motivates their interpretations. On whose behalf are you interpreting? This is more than permission to own your point of view, it necessitates the interpreter be honest about their motivations. Weems says women of color "do not have the luxury of remaining content to analyze texts but must go the step further to analyze readings, readers, culture, and the worlds that frame each" (45).

3. Womanist hermeneutics of liberation start with African American women’s "will to survive and thrive as human beings and as the female half of a race of people who live a threatened existence within North American borders" (46). The interests and experiences of Black women are privileged over theory and harmful interpretations of ancient texts, even sacred ancient texts (46). Weems says, 

"The Bible cannot go unchallenged in so far as the role it has played in legitimating the dehumanization of people of African ancestry in general and the sexual exploitation of women of African ancestry in particular. It cannot be understood as some universal, transcendent, timeless force to which world readers—in the name of being pious and faithful followers—must meekly submit. It must be understood as a politically and socially drenched text invested in ordering relations between people, legitimating some viewpoints, and delegitimizing other viewpoints." (46)

4. A womanist hermeneutic of liberation shares a similar goal with feminist hermeneutics of liberation: the goal of "changing consciousness and transforming reality" (48). The point of difference or emphasis for womanist scholars is "to empower African American women as readers, as agents, and as shapers of discourse by uncovering the program and agenda of both biblical texts and dominant cultural readings.” (48)

5. A womanist biblical hermeneutics starts with the underlying idea that people have power, not texts. Meaning takes place in the encounter between the text and the reader, both of which are conditioned by their contexts. Weems says:

"Women have to reclaim their right to read and interpret sacred texts for themselves and should not have to be subject to the misogynistic, patriarchal interests of powerful male readers; and women of color have to insist upon their right to read and interpret sacred texts for themselves and should not have to defend or apologize for their interpretations to privileged women in the culture who remain ignorant to how class, race, and colonialism shape and divide us as women.” (48)

Other parts that stood out to me:

“I have always identified myself as a biblical scholar who not only traffics in the intellectual world-making enterprise of scholarship and academy. But I have also been eager to make my mark as a public intellectual, a woman in the academy who tries to make her work accessible and available to the non-specialists and grass-roots activists working for liberation in ecclesial and non-ecclesial contexts.” (43)

As you may suspect, I feel the same way, wanting to share what I am learning and make it accessible to the people who do not have the time, money, or access to go to grad school or seminary. 

This is a good point for all who are interested in helping introduce others to a hermeneutic of liberation:

“One of the most effective ways to introduce women students and interested male students to a hermeneutics of liberation is by turning their attention to stories of rape and violence in the Bible and asking them what kind of world would our world be if stories like these were normative, if we duplicated, reproduced, or transmitted them to the next generation without warning and comment?” (56).

And one last (long) excerpt: 

“Many of us who are African American women scholars in religion came into the academy as a second choice. We came to the academy of scholars of religions when we discovered as seminarians that despite our training there was no place for us thinking women of faith in the church. The church birthed us and then rejected us. We went on for our graduate degrees because it was the next best thing. And now we stand ambivalently before two audiences, belonging to neither but trying to carve out a space in the discourses of both. And why do we not walk away from the church? Why not reject the Bible? If it were an individual matter, then the choice would be a simple one, perhaps. There are many parts of myself, for example, that are post-Christian. But it is not just about our/my individual predilections. It is about our/my commitments. To leave the church would be to leave other African American women behind. To reject the Bible altogether would be to cut off my conversation with the women who birthed me and sent me off to seminary with their blessings.” (45)

"Despite the ways American Christianity was forced on our ancestors, Africans brought to this country as slaves, and despite the ways in which patriarchal Christianity has wounded women over the centuries, I remain hopelessly Judeo-Christian in my orientation. I cannot escape its influence upon me. Indeed, as a scholar committed to scholarship that serves liberation purposes my very vision of what a just, equitable, humane, and righteous world order looks like is deeply influenced by the utopian imagination and impulses of my Judeo-Christian upbringing. The place where religion proves useful in multiracial, international discussions like the one in Ascona is when it forces us back to the table to reopen the discussion, to rethink our assumptions, to reread for our collective liberation, and to give dialogue another chance." (45)

Clearly, unlike Dr. Weems, I am a white woman, but I strongly identify with what she says about how in spite of the ways patriarchal Christianity has hurt women over centuries, I also remain "hopelessly Christian in my orientation" and could not escape its influence upon me even if I tried. As Barbara Brown Taylor has written (in her book, Holy Envy), Christianity is my native language. It has been the air that I’ve breathed since birth, the water I swim in that I could not fully escape from even if I wanted to, which I don’t. Because I do believe there is liberation to be found. And all the queer kids and adults (and everyone!) need to know that God loves them and made them exactly who they are. I refuse to let toxic, traumatizing theology that is killing people be the only option people hear about. And if I have learned anything from reading all of the womanist authors I have read over the past month, it is that my freedom and liberation is bound up with theirs. As Emma Lazarus said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

Works Cited

Weems, Renita. “Re-reading for liberation: African American women and the Bible,” in I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader, edited by Mitzi J. Smith, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. 2015.


This is part of my final project for "Womanist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.":

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