Monday, February 01, 2021

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas: “Marginalized People, Liberating Perspectives: A Womanist Approach to Biblical Interpretation”

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas is an African-American Episcopal priest, womanist theologian, and the inaugural Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary. She is also the Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral. She is widely published in national and international journals and other publications.  Her groundbreaking and widely taught book Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective (1999) was the first to address the issue of homophobia within the black church community.  Her book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (2015), examines the challenges of a “Stand Your Ground” culture for the black church.

Essay: “Marginalized People, Liberating Perspectives: A Womanist Approach to Biblical Interpretation” 

Thesis: We are called to listen to and learn from those on the underside of church and society (46). We need to value the perspectives of the “least of these,” the underside,” those who are marginalized and oppressed (46). When we view God from the perspective of the most marginalized people in the Bible we will more clearly see that "the God of our theologies is not necessarily the God of our lives," and that God is truly transcendent, and so cannot be contained by any theological system or "exegetical attempt to make simplistic the complexity and mystery of a transcendent God" (46). Reading in solidarity with the underside shows us more clearly what it means "for God to be a liberator with those who are most oppressed, even as they are represented in the Bible" (46). Furthermore, if our claims about God are not liberating for the marginalized and oppressed, then we must reevaluate those claims (46).

Main Points:
  1. Douglas writes as a theologian, not a biblical scholar. Even though the Bible is a significant source for Christian theology, and biblical interpretations have theological implications, the tools of the disciplines are different (44). But in the same way that our theologies tend to reflect more about the person doing them as they do about God, the same is true for our perspectives on the Bible (44). No one does theology or biblical interpretation in a vacuum - it is always informed and influenced by one's social, historical, and cultural context (44). 
    "The texts we go to, the way we read those texts, and the authority we give the Bible itself are inevitably informed by who we are as embodied beings, how we experience life socially and culturally, as well as what we perceive as the meaning and value of life" (44).
  2. This is not an "anything goes" kind of "vulgar relativism". Typically when that accusation is made it is in an attempt to end the conversation, played as a perceived trump card. This kind of mentality would suggest that "slaveholders who used the Bible to place a “sacred canopy” over chattel slavery were just as justified in their use of the Bible as were the enslaved who used the Bible to support their quest for freedom" (44). This kind of approach to the Bible "implies that it is just as appropriate to use the Bible as a weapon of terror and dehumanization as it is to use it as a source for empowerment and liberation” (44).

  3. A womanist approach to biblical interpretation starts by acknowledging the ways our society and many churches still contain "interlocking and interactive structures of domination" which are "characterized by white patriarchal privilege and undergirded by white supremacist ideologies" (44). Douglas also points out that "to be marginalized is not to be powerless... Rather, it signals a certain liberating agency that has several implications for biblical interpretation in our complicated world” (44).

  4. People who exist on the margins of society and church have an epistemological advantage, a way of knowing, "that is fundamental to creating a just society and church” (45). Those on the underside are least likely "to be deceived into thinking that certain systems and structures of domination are not inherently evil but can be mended to be more just" (45). This is in contrast to those who are still outsiders but are able to exist within those structures who might be tempted to protect whatever small amount of privilege/power they have. Because of this, the underside can more clearly see "the radical and revolutionary change required to ensure that all human beings have access to what is needed to live and to fulfill our full human potential” (45). This is similar to what Gustavo Gutiérrez suggested about there being a “preferential option for the poor” because they are perhaps better able to understand the revelation of God (45).

  5. In order to listen and learn from the underside, we must name our own points of privilege so we can even recognize "that our vantage point may indeed not be the best vantage point from which to engage the biblical witness to God" (46). This frees us to appreciate these other perspectives.

  6. Since various biblical texts "lend themselves to oppressive interpretations", we need to adopt a “hermeneutic of suspicion” as we interpret the Bible (46):
    "Inasmuch as any text or interpretation of a text diminishes the life and freedom of any people, then those texts and/or interpretations must be held under “suspicion,” critically reevaluated, and perhaps lose authority. We must fundamentally denounce any attempts to use the Bible in ways that terrorize others, such as women or gay and lesbian persons. Moreover, the perspective of “the least of these,” those who feel the “terror” of a particular text or interpretation, is the adjudicating perspective in this regard.” (46)
  7. It is imperative that we recognize the impact and consequences that our use of the Bible and our theology can have on people's lives. The Bible can be used "as a weapon of oppression or a source of liberation" (46). Therefore, we must do biblical interpretation not only with humility but also with the firm commitment "to nurture a liberating, not terrorizing, biblical tradition” (46).
Works Cited

Douglas, Kelly Brown. “Marginalized People, Liberating Perspectives: A Womanist Approach to Biblical Interpretation” in I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader. Edited by Mitzi J. Smith, Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015.


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

Key Terms in Womanist Bible Interpretation

Other essay summaries:

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