Sunday, January 31, 2021

Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. "A Reflection on the Black Lives Matter Movement and Its Impact on My Scholarship"

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. is a scholar, pastor, preacher, and activist. She is a Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the author of Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and of the Throne, a commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah; Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel; and co-editor of The Peoples’ Bible and The Peoples’ Companion to the Bible

As I mentioned in my first post for this series, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Gafney speak at the Evolving Faith conference in 2018. You can listen to Gafney's talk from that conference on the Evolving Faith podcast. I highly recommend you take the time to listen to it. She gives a great definition and introduction to Womanism and Womanist biblical interpretation. She also invites the rest of us to think about what it would be like for us to do a similar kind of biblical interpretation as a sort of companion interpretation alongside Womanism.


In 2017, in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Gafney published a reflection on the Black Lives Matter Movement and its impact on her scholarship. I encourage you to read it for yourself. (It is only 4 pages.) In her reflection, she concludes that there is a significant difference in how she teaches now after the BLM movement emerged. She is even more intentional now than she was before about talking about whiteness and white supremacist culture and ideology and discussing how those elements have been at work "in the founding and shaping of the West, of America, of public and private institutions" including educational institutions and the church (207).

Main points:

  1. "Black lives matter" is a simple statement that should not even need to be stated, but it clearly does because "this statement is not universally accepted as a truthful or legitimate claim" (204).
  2. Gafney began her teaching and academic career "committed to unmasking the whiteness that is applied to the biblical text, through which it is often interpreted...and decentering the white male scholarly voice that masquerades as normative and neutral" (204). She mentions in a footnote that she has been doing this work for a long time, particularly in the representation of biblical characters in religious art and curriculum and in pop culture, and she does some of that at wilgafney.com.
  3. The murder of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, was a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement which was organized by three black queer women: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi (205). This was also a turning point for Gafney in her understanding of "the degree to which black folk are not regarded as fully-if even at all-human" (205). The quick defense for shooting an unarmed child walking in his own neighborhood based on the supposed "terror" this child's black body evoked in the grown man who shot him told Gafney (and many others) that there is "a broad acceptance of the anti-black dehumanizing bigotry of George Zimmerman" (205). Gafney says that the killing and demonization of Mike Brown on August 4, 2014, fully heightened her understanding of "the utter disregard for black lives shared broadly in this country and the implication of policing in that disregard" (205). 
  4. These horrible killings occurred and continue to occur in the public square - "the same public square in which biblical interpretation takes place" (205). Therefore the implications of all of this "must be accounted for in the work of interpreters of the biblical text who write, speak, teach, preach, and think to any degree in public" (205). Because of the public nature of so much of this work, Gafney has utilized social media. For a project to help preachers engage the biblical texts responsibly in light of the ongoing killings of black people, she used the hashtag, #what2preach, in order to "organize hermeneutical and homiletical conversations around lectionary and other texts engaging BLM, addressing its aims, its claims, and the resulting anxiety experienced by many" (205).
  5. Gafney's teaching in the age of the BLM movement is characterized by three things: "1) unmasking whiteness in biblical scholarship and interpretation, 2) asking which lives matter in the biblical text, including applying a BLM hermeneutic to the text, and 3) analyzing prophetic literature in light of the claims of BLM while analyzing BLM and its rhetoric and actions as prophetic" (206). In applying a BLM hermeneutic to the biblical text, Gafney is looking for whose lives are at risk in the text, who is subject to oppression or pushed to the margins of the text and considered disposable, especially as a result of "an intersecting element of identity" such as gender and ethnic identity (206).

Works Cited

Gafney, Wil. "A Reflection on the Black Lives Matter Movement and Its Impact on My Scholarship". Journal of Biblical Literature, vol 136, no. 1, 2017. pp 204-207.


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

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