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African American congregation in Georgia early 20th century (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)
The Politics of Scripture

Invoking Paul’s μὴ γένοιτο and Sofia’s “Hell No” Against the Stubborn Whiteness of Biblical Scholarship

First, we must all remember our history and stop the blatant amnesia behind racial and power dynamics in our field…Women and enslaved persons were not a part of the founders’ initial understanding. The same is true for the founding identities of the Society of Biblical Literature.

I know that I have confused students on occasion when I state, “I can run the risk of reading the Bible as a White male.” In the context of a class on biblical interpretation, I often allude to the fact that White readings of the Bible can even invade my own interpretations as a self-proclaimed Womanist biblical scholar. For me, I have to make sure that I do not “drink the Kool-Aid” of White supremacist thought since I have gained access to the privilege of reading the New Testament as a career biblical scholar. And I do count reading and teaching Bible in a seminary context as a privilege since former professors told me that I would never be able to attain the status to which I have arisen. So do I “drink the Kool-Aid” and think myself “better” because of my proximity to White biblical scholarship? As the Apostle Paul would respond to any such asinine question—such as “Is Christ the servant to sin?” (Galatians 2:17)—I respond in Pauline fashion with μὴ γένοιτο/mḕ génoito, a phrase which I often translate as “not happening” or “hell, no!”

In my mind, the same phrase correlates to Sofia’s “Hell No” in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. When the mayor’s wife, Miss Millie, asks Sofia is she wants to work for her and be her maid (despite the fact that Sofia is riding in a fancy car and has a nice watch on) Sofia replies with “Hell No” and is subsequently beaten, arrested, and thrown in jail. Sofia’s story evidences how a Black woman’s fight against the privileged stance of a White woman can get her thrown in jail for “sass” even as the Black woman bucks against White privilege.

Paul’s mḕ génoito and Sofia’s “Hell No” intensify my desire to not “drink the Kool-Aid” of White supremacist thought. In recently released audio tapes of conversations with President Donald Trump and Bob Woodward, Woodward asked Trump if he ever thought about his White privilege to which Trump derogatorily replied, “You’ve really drunk the Kool-Aid,” signifying that Trump does not believe in White privilege. In responding to my friend and colleague Ekaputra Tupamahu’s essay entitled “The Stubborn Invisibility of Whiteness in Biblical Scholarship,” I argue that, just as Trump denies White privilege, the academic guild of biblical studies does the same. As an academic field, along with its members as a whole, biblical scholars must echo Paul’s mḕ génoitoand Sofia’s “Hell No” in order to defeat the invisible stubbornness of Whiteness in biblical scholarship. “White supremacy” is often described as the belief that the White race is inherently superior to other races and should control other races. White supremacy, while unstated in biblical scholarship, still abounds. Those who identify as “White” oftentimes act as the arbiters of power when it comes to biblical interpretation, guild leadership, and publishing opportunities. 

So what are the practical steps of mḕ génoito for excising the stubborn invisibility of Whiteness in biblical studies? First, we must all remember our history and stop the blatant amnesia behind racial and power dynamics in our field. The language of the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Inherent in that “simple” statement is the understanding that only “white, propertied, classed, men” were considered “men.” Women and enslaved persons were not a part of the founders’ initial understanding. The same is true for the founding identities of the Society of Biblical Literature. Established in 1880 at a time where segregation was the norm and not everyone had access to membership or the education for critical biblical scholarship, White men established what the critical investigation of the Bible would entail. Scholars must never forget that founding identity and must push against the inherent biases of “established” approaches. 

For me, as an African American Womanist scholar who recognizes my participation in the academic study of the Bible, I admit that there are evils inherent in my guild. From my observation, one of the systemic evils is its viewpoint that objective reality is a valid stance for biblical interpretation. For generations biblical scholars studied under the belief that “objective” inquiry was the prime way to do biblical scholarship. Womanist biblical scholars such as Renita Weems have already argued that there is inherent biases and limitations to the historical critical method. I would argue that the idea of objectivity is really “White objectivity.” Specifically, if I ask a question of the biblical text related to my visible identity as a Black woman, then I am asking a “wrong” question of the biblical text. Part of my own Sofia inspired “Hell No” entails asking questions that White scholars dare not ask. 

Another active moment of mḕ génoito or a “Hell No” posture relies on the issue of identity. As a Womanist biblical scholar who engages many feminist works of interpretation, I have to hold accountable my feminist friends who are connected to White identity such as Miss Millie in The Color Purple story. Even if I collaborate with feminist biblical interpreters, that does not mean I disavow the “rights” to my work or that my service is geared toward particularly White identified feminist ends and means. My “Hell No” posture holds first that I am working for myself, my children, and my extended community since my Womanist identity embraces communitarianism. I may collaborate with but am no way in service to White feminist ideals of biblical interpretation and their reproduction.

Second, the mḕ génoito moment also means that actively engaging issues of objectivity (and its inadequacies) with other identities (LGBTIQ+, White, Black, Asian, Latinx, Pacific Islander, etc.) forces biblical scholarship to construct methodologies that are relevant both within the halls of the academy, in churches, and on the sidewalks of society where lived experiences occur. We must get out of the binary identities of Black versus White. Contending that a turn to identity can be one area that moves scholarship out of the conundrum within which we find ourselves, I argue that interrogating various identities is important to constructive processes that transform society as biblical interpretation moves away from an objective, supposedly scientific approach. 

Third, the mḕ génoito moment means pushing past color blindness language and fear of being discomforted. Color blindness is another form of amnesia. Since the United States espouses an idea of the “melting pot” that actually racialized European immigrants as “White” while eschewing remembrance of other identities, Black folks and Native Americans never had the opportunity to “blend” into the melting pot. Immigrants came in and lost their Irish or German or Italian identities and “became White” because of a lack of melanin in their skin. However, my gorgeous brown “full of melanin” skin never physically assimilated into the melting pot. My ancestors actually became the economic melting pot (through the “peculiar” institution of slavery) that built a capitalist system while our Native American friends provided the fire and the land for the melting pot. Now all of this was done in the midst of reading and interpreting biblical texts that viewed Native Americans as “Canaanites” to be extinguished while also viewing enslaved Black persons as having to “obey their masters.”   

Regarding comfort levels, as a society, we can already surmise that there is a public push by the current presidential administration to argue that White folks should not feel or experience feelings of discomfort or blame for the past. While a certain aspect of such thinking may be true, White folks still experience the privilege of a system that was built on the backs of Native Americans and enslaved Black people. For example, there are heritages and lineages even within biblical scholarship that many non-White identified students are privy. I realized this fact while a student at Duke Divinity School. I noticed that one of my classmates was the son of an already esteemed New Testament scholar. For some of my colleagues, the ability to enter into biblical scholarship becomes ingrained from birth. I, on the other hand, did not know that biblical scholarship was a viable career option. I entered Duke as a divorced mother of two children who was raised to believe that she should “obey” her husband and not seek too much for herself as an African American woman. Society, especially White privileged society, does a good job of keeping “the cookies” from the marginalized. A White identified academic guild does the same. 

The concepts of Paul’s mḕ génoito and Sofia’s “Hell No” remind us that there needs to be a re-membering of identity for our White brothers and sisters. My White colleagues, White pastors, White preachers and White friends overall must fight for their own liberation from the chains of their Whiteness. Identity as White is a constructed experience. Being White has denial and amnesia embedded within it. Re-membering White identity means engaging in social death to White privilege even in biblical scholarship so that we all can strive for the idea of collective humanity in biblical interpretation. We cannot skip steps to be a collective humanity. We all have to do the work of re-membering. Paul’s mḕ génoito and Sofia’s “Hell No” are especially helpful. 

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Invoking Paul’s μὴ γένοιτο and Sofia’s “Hell No” Against the Stubborn Whiteness of Biblical Scholarship

First, we must all remember our history and stop the blatant amnesia behind racial and power dynamics in our field…Women and enslaved persons were not a part of the founders’ initial understanding. The same is true for the founding identities of the Society of Biblical Literature.

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