A friend posted on Twitter the other day: “the person that relies on culture for interpretation of the Bible will never be stable.” His tweet raised for me a few larger questions that I have been thinking about recently while studying here in Barranquilla, Colombia.
As James Cone has posited, the awful violence of the cross is simply more viscerally communicated by witnessing a lynched black body than it could ever be by words from someone “sitting up in some mansion somewhere.” In the same vein, my friend Cláudio Carvalhaes has described how we will write theology very differently depending on whether we’re writing about God from a calm seminary office or from a cantankerous, clamoring refugee camp. In climates of immediacy, our theologizing necessarily takes on a sharper, more tenacious tone.
Likewise, the biblical stories hold different resonances and weights for us based specifically on our social locations. Whether we read scripture from a vantage point of privilege, a position of liminality, or, more likely, from a circumstantial matrix of both advantage and disadvantage, the word of God is alive, breathing in sync with our own breaths and cultural lenses, crackling along our scar tissue.
I know that I shiver hearing certain stories in scripture in ways that others never will. This is humbling. There are many contradictory bloodlines are bristling here, together. Always, starkly different shapes and shadows will leap out us from the biblical text depending on who and where we are.
As a member of the Japanese diaspora in the Americas, it is impossible for me to hear “Exile” without thinking of “Internment;” “Eden” without “Manzanar;” “Exodus” without the presence of divine activity in the protracted, bloody struggle for black liberation on this continent.
When I hear about the pregnant mother of God and her husband being forced to take shelter in a wooden animal shack, I immediately remember the indignities of Santa Anita Racetrack. In the call to violently divorce the indigenous peoples of Canaan from their land as recorded in the book of Joshua, I hear echoes of Prince Asaka’s orders to cleanse the city of Nanking. In Herod’s command to slaughter the innocent, I remember the burned, the scarred beyond repair or recognition after the orders were given to liquidate civilian life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I’m writing this post from the north of Colombia, where I spent the day hearing the stories of displaced and local Afro-Colombian and indigenous residents of San Basilio de Palenque and Gambote. The woman and men we met are firm and fierce believers in the power and presence of God in the midst of their circumstances of the nastiest manifestations of human violence.
I could not imagine trying to tell these communities that their histories of enslavement, displacement, liberation, slaughter, sexual violence, multiraciality, lucha, healing, and raw hope should somehow be shrugged off, that they must lay all of their cultural scars and strengths aside when reading scripture.
It is generally very difficult for Christians of color to take seriously the idea that our cultures shouldn’t let us inform how we interpret the Bible given that those who say this often believe themselves to have no cultures of their own to hinder their encounter with the biblical text. Conveniently, all of the people who take the highest pains to stress to me that our most important identity must be in Christ, not race, happen to see themselves as white.
If the sin of white conservatism’s reading of scripture is to insist that our cultural experiences don’t affect our interpretations in a meaningful way in light of the Universally Revealed Clear Teachings of the Bible, white liberalism’s great idolatry is in their very attempt to center “human experience” – by which of course they have always meant the “human experience” of white men and women. Both methods are effective ways of sterilizing the biblical text, of subjugating persons of color to the idols of white culture, costuming naked racism with religious garb.
While it’s easy for me to herald the many blunders of my country’s majority culture – civic religion, heteropatriarchy, hedonism, capitalism and individualism, meritocracy, white supremacy – I am not then saying that my own culture is the New Boss. It is a romantic endeavor to claim that nonwhite cultures never enshrine negative values. If anything, faults within our own cultural systems should warn us from the idols of ethnic supremacy.
For instance, the East Asian tradition of communion with ancestors with which I identify so deeply has strongly patriarchal elements, problems I also saw to a great extent at the indigenous and Afrodescendant communities we have been spending time with this week. Patriarchy is indeed often an ancient “cultural tradition,” but that doesn’t mean it aligns with God’s vision for gender equality.
The stubborn desire to worship our own ways over those of others is a desire entrenched in every human culture, including my own. Yet only in respecting and recognizing ours and others’ heritages will we come to recognize the ways in which only together might be able to move forward to celebrate the teachings in our backgrounds that point to things like ethnic mutuality, gender equality, and epistemological humility – even as we jettison what’s old and rotted out along the way.
We know that the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than a two-edged sword: it cuts away at cheap aspirations to pure, hermeneutical objectivity which are always undergirded by a white ontology – whether in conservative claims to cultureless-ness or liberal appeals to colorblind-in-Christ-ness.
It is not faithful, but a work of the satanic force of whiteness that asks us to ignore how our cultural ancestries inform our Christian witness. Followers of the Christian way are instead asked to bring all of ourselves to Jesus. This includes applying all of our background to scripture. In approaching the weighty darkness in which God dwells, pray that the joys, lacks, gems, and brimming absurdities of your culture might help us see and interpret God’s holy words even more clearly.