Monday, February 01, 2021

Rev. Dr. Mitzi J Smith: Womanist Sass and Talk Back (Introduction)

Rev. Dr. Mitzi Smith, mitzijsmith.com
Twitter: @MitziJSmithPhD 

Dr. Smith is a teacher, preacher, biblical scholar, and author. She is a Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. She earned a BA in Theology from Columbia Union College; a MA in Black Studies from The Ohio State University; an MDiv from Howard University School of Divinity; and a Ph.D. in Religion (New Testament and Early Christian Studies) from Harvard University in 2006. She is the first African American female to earn a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard. 

She is the author of Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation (2018), Insights from African American Interpretation (2017), editor of I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader (2015), and co-editor of Teaching All Nations: Interrogating the Matthean Great Commission (2014)

From the summary on Goodreads and Amazon: "Womanist Sass and Talk Back is a contextual resistance text for readers interested in social (in)justice. Smith raises our consciousness about pressing contemporary social (in)justice issues that impact communities of color and the larger society. Systemic or structural oppression and injustices, police profiling and brutality, oppressive pedagogy, and gendered violence are placed in dialogue with sacred (con)texts. This book provides fresh intersectional readings of sacred (con)texts that are accessible to both scholars and nonscholars. Womanist Sass and Talk Back is for readers interested in critical interpretations of sacred (con)texts (ancient and contemporary) and in propagating the justice and love of God while engaging those (con)texts."

In this post, I am only going to summarize the introduction to this book, which I have now read three times in just a few months. The first time I read it I think I highlighted 3/4 of it!  

Dr. Smith begins by talking about how she has spent a lot of time thinking about the ways she integrates her passion for social justice with her teaching, preaching, and writing. She is well aware that many of her students and other readers of the Bible have been taught and even encouraged to suffer injustices in silence (1). Readers are taught to ignore their pain and struggles and read from a position of privilege. They have often not been allowed to question or critique the text, to wrestle with it, or with the ways God is depicted in the text (1). Smith tells us her goal is to "prioritize the oppressions and injustices that daily threaten and take the lives of the most vulnerable and to demonstrate other ways of reading that do not trick or force readers to become complicit in their own oppressions and oppression of others. (2)"

Main points:

  1. Biblical interpretation and scholarship is usually mostly concerned with "the world behind the text" (the historical context), and/or the world within the text, which is "the world the text constructs" (the literary context), and barely addresses "the world in front of the text" or "contemporary (con)texts" (2). But our contemporary context and its impact is inescapable: "it is the elephant in the room and sometimes the elephant is the room" (2). It places too great a burden on those who are most impacted by social injustice to ask them to ignore their oppressions as they read and interpret sacred texts (2).
    "When members of minoritized oppressed communities are asked and expected to treat social (in)justice issues that impact their daily lives as a postscript to authentic biblical interpretation, their voices are silenced and marginalized and are often unwittingly taught to accept the imposed silence as a sacred obligation and sacrifice that God requires." (2)
  2. Injustice in our world compels us to read the sacred "(con)texts)" in ways that embody the God who loves justice and calls us to do justice. (2). Smith says her reading perspective is "a womanist intersectional approach that privileges or prioritizes the experiences, voices, traditions, and artifacts of African American women (and their communities) as sources of knowledge production, critical reflection, and ethical conduct" (2). She echoes what others have said about Womanism seeking to "dismantle oppression in all of its forms" being especially concerned with how "bias and oppression based on race, gender, class, and/or sexuality intersect and mutually impact the lives of African American women and other people of color" (2).
  3. Biblical interpretation is "a political act" and it can be one of social justice or injustice (3). Smith writes "as an act of womanist resistance, an act of sass and talk-back to (con)texts that disturbingly re-inscribe structures of oppression and are oppressive, that invite us to be complicit in oppression, that primarily depict God as a violent male, that subordinate the other, and that embody and sacralize (the secular is elevated to the level of the sacred) androcentrism, patriarchalism, and misogyny" (3).
  4. If we ignore the biases and violence in our sacred "(con)texts" we are more likely to "internalize the oppression in (con)texts and read as oppressed people, rather than as a people who value and seek freedom for ourselves and for others. We are traumatized and we will traumatize others" (3). We traumatize ourselves and those we teach when we tell them (or allow them to believe) that "God sanctions violence" or it is God's will that they experience that violence (4). 
  5. Therefore, we need critical biblical interpretation that can help us question oppression that is "embedded in sacred texts and in society and that gets falsely attributed to God" (4). And we need to be able to find hope and courage in this process as we are reminded that God is always on the side of the oppressed and justice (4).
  6. Oftentimes readers are uncomfortable with "moral ambiguity" in the Bible (4). They prefer to think it is all crystal clear in its ethical commands and depictions of God. But "sacred narratives written and interpreted from the perspective of the winners have the power to further oppress and police the marginalized, minoritized and/or subordinated or the losers, and to persuade the latter to think and behave in ways that do not serve the interests of justice, equity, peace, and love in the earth" (5).

Works Cited

Smith, Mitzi J. Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (In)Justice, IntersectionalityEugene, OR: Cascade, 2018.


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

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