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Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible

by Musa W. Dube
St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000
209 pages, paper

Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View from the Margins

by Fernando F. Segovia
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2000
177 pages, paper

Reviewed by Reta Halteman Finger

“When the white man came to our country, he had the Bible and we had the land,” quotes Musa Dube, referring to an oral story traveling around sub-Saharan Africa during the decades when liberation movements swept that continent. “The white man said to us, ‘Let us pray.’ After the prayer, the white man had the land and we had the Bible.” 

This story serves as a parabolic background for Dube’s discussion of postcolonial biblical interpretation. As a black African who now teaches biblical studies at the University of Botswana, Dube is highly sensitive to the way the Bible has been used to colonize and subjugate non-Western people. She not only censures the older historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, but also finds wanting a wide range of contemporary methods, including feminist biblical interpretation. They simply do not wrestle with the imperialist attitudes implicit in the Bible, and they are often oblivious to contemporary ways the Bible has been used to dominate and subjugate entire peoples and nations. 

By and large, the members and leaders of both EEWC and the magazine Daughters of Sarah have been white, middle-class Christian feminists. It is true that we have tried to be inclusive, publishing articles and featuring workshops on womanist or mujerista theology. We have alerted ourselves and others to the plight of women in the Two-Thirds world whose needs are immediate and pressing, but so different from our own. We have demonstrated how Western practices of militarism or multi-national monopolies adversely affect the lives of such women. Yet we are still mostly middle class and Euro-American, usually unconscious of how this social location has shaped our thinking. 

Within the last few years, however, non-Western theorists are providing us with an enlarged vocabulary and descriptive methodologies to further explain the unequal power relationships between our culture and those of the majority of the world’s people.

A View from the Margins 

Click here to purchase this book from amazon.com (a portion of the purchase price will go to EEWC-CFT).Though Fernando Segovia’s book came out the same year as Dube’s, it is a collection of eight essays he already published in other essay collections, the earliest dating from 1995. A Roman Catholic Cuban Hispanic but now teaching in the U.S. at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University, Segovia’s understanding of various methods of biblical interpretation is impressive. In his first essay, he lays out the strengths and weaknesses of four interpretive paradigms. 

Historical criticism dominated Western intellectual biblical interpretation from the mid-19th century through the first three quarters of the 20th. This method focused on what the text meant in its historical context, but provided small comfort to those looking for eternal and transcendental meaning. (Hence the intense fundamentalist backlash which gathered strength during the early 20th century and today splits many denominations apart into “liberal” and “conservative” factions.) But for all its attempts to remain objective and disinterested, such interpretations reflected the Western cultural and scientific values of their creators, which tacitly encouraged further domination of non-Western peoples (11-16). 

Segovia then traces the development of literary criticism and cultural (or social-science) criticism, noting some strengths, but insisting that none of these models or sub-models interacts with real, contemporary readers. Even neo-Marxist models concentrate exclusively on socioeconomic dimensions and ignore other sociocultural aspects (29). Segovia supports what he calls a “fourth paradigm,” that of “cultural studies.” This model takes into consideration real flesh-and-blood readers of all kinds, thus making it highly ideological and sensitive to many cultural factors. 

Because his essays are theoretical and abstract, I found Decolonizing Biblical Studies hard going. Unless readers have some training in historical methods, literary criticism, and/or biblical studies, it may be overwhelming. It is clear that, though this volume is called “a view from the margins,” it is not written to those on the margins. Rather, Segovia, with one foot in a colonized culture, provides unsettling and provocative insights to those intellectuals of the dominant culture who have little understanding of the harsh realities of colonized people and how insidiously the Bible has been used against them.

Saving the Heathen 

Click here to purchase this book from amazon.com (EEWC-CFT will receive a portion of the purchase price).Musa Dube’s book, on the other hand, is eminently readable, full of examples and stories that provoke new thoughts and keep the pages turning. Her first chapter demonstrates how, since the 19th century, Western political powers and their Christian missionaries have supported each other in an imperialistic agenda to civilize “Savage Africa.” Britain, for example, saw itself “as the great agent of Christian civilization throughout the world” (5), with David Livingston as its archetypal hero. 

But Dube also criticizes the New Testament itself for being exclusivistic. The missionary Paul, for example, looks down on the Galatians’ traditional religion by calling their divine figures “beings that by nature are not gods” (Gal. 4:8-11). Thus, even in the first chapter we are confronted with uncomfortable theological issues that pierce to the heart of our understanding of the (one and only?) Christian gospel. 

Dube’s second chapter takes on Christian feminists, interacting especially with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in her efforts to expose patriarchy as well as kyriarchy (imperialism). She believes Schüssler Fiorenza’s theories go a long way toward counteracting imperialism, including enlarging the ancient NT canon in Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Commentary (Crossroad, 1994). But they are not carried through in also honoring the religious texts of the Two-Thirds world and natives of the Americas, Australia, and Canada (39). This raises a profound theological question: should Christians continue to privilege our own sacred texts and ignore those of other ethnic and religious groups? 

As an alternative to white Western Christian feminism, Dube discusses AIC — African Independent Churches — a protest movement against white-male-only leadership of missionary-founded churches. “Women have always played a central role in these churches,” she asserts, “as founders, bishops, archbishops, preachers, faith healers, prophets, and ministers” (41). Why have I never heard of this movement before? 

In Part II Dube introduces postcolonial theory and compares several key “imperializing texts.” For her intertextual analysis, Dube has chosen the Exodus story in the Hebrew Bible; the Aeneid, the classical account of the origins of the Romans; and Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, which focuses on modern imperialism in Africa. For mostly white Christian feminists like us, the choice of the Exodus story jolts, for we usually view this as a core liberation narrative. Yet Dube reminds us that this liberation leads inevitably to the conquest of Canaan. Both the Exodus and the Aeneid are tales of “entering and taking possession of distant and inhabited lands” (55). Dube is deliberate about analyzing canonical texts on a par with other cultural texts, so that we are less tempted to shield them from criticism.

The Imperialistic Agenda of the Exodus 

For this liberationist bibliophile, Dube’s detailed deconstructing of the biblical Exodus and conquest of Canaan was sobering and painful. Though I think she overdoes it at places and I want to tell her that the actual historical movement into Canaan wasn’t as bloody as some texts make out, that is not her point. The power of both of these ancient tales is their mythic qualities, as they provide justification for continuing imperialism. Without the Aeneid, the Romans may never have achieved worldwide domination. Heart of Darkness describes colonialism in Africa in pitiless detail. And today in Israel we see the crushing oppression of Palestinians as Israeli settlers convince themselves that God wants Jews to take over Palestinian land. Indeed, there may be no place on earth today where colonialism is so blatant. As one Jewish critic put it in a recent video documentary, “Anywhere else in the world this occupation would be called ‘ethnic cleansing'” (Behind the Mirage, April 2002). 

Dube’s feminist analysis in this section centers around Rahab, whom she sees as a colonized woman whose characterization “is loaded with colonizing ideologies” (77). As a prostitute, Rahab is a woman of little value in her own culture. Only when she betrays her own people and sides with the enemy does she become a hero. 

Part III is entitled, “A Postcolonial Feminist Reading of Matthew 15:21-28.” This is the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman who begged him to exorcise the demon from her daughter. I found this section the most engaging, since it is a text and a Gospel that I have previously worked with. Consequently, however, I also had more interpretive disagreements with the author here!

Matthew and the Roman Empire 

Dube first critiques Matthew for not resisting the imperial occupation of Rome. Rather, he focuses on the antagonism between various Jewish groups within Israel. Indeed, the Jewish Christians, whom Matthew regards as the exclusive owners of God’s truth, are given an imperialistic agenda similar to that of the Romans: the climax of this Gospel is the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) to go out and make more disciples just like themselves! 

One of the results of colonization, asserts Dube, is to set different groups of colonized people against each other, so that they come to hate and destroy each other rather than uniting to resist their common oppressor. Certainly first century Palestine represented this reality, as Sadducees cooperated with Romans in order to retain power and wealth while exploiting their own people. Zealots then fought both Sadducean priests and Rome. And according to Matthew, Jewish Christians and Pharisees were at each other’s throats. 

At this point, I wish I had read Warren Carter’s recent book, Matthew and Empire, which challenges Dube’s interpretation by asserting that Matthew’s Jesus is setting up a kingdom which is a definite alternative to Roman imperialism, where all are equal and brothers and sisters together. Carter’s thesis challenges long-held views that Matthew ignores Roman imperialism to instead portray an intra-Jewish struggle. [Editor’s note: Reta Halteman Finger’s review of Warren Carter’s book is here.]

Was Jesus a Colonizer? 

Dube sees the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman as an example of Jewish imperialism over the native people of the land (as well as gender domination) where Jesus calls his own people “children” and the woman and her people “dogs.” First, however, Dube discusses four white Western male readers who use varying interpretive methodologies, noting some strengths but challenging their omission of both imperial criticism and gender power relations. 

Then she takes on white Western feminist interpretations such as those of middle-class Presbyterian Janice Capel Anderson, Jewish Amy-Jill Levine, Australian Elaine Wainwright, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. The feminist interpreters do acknowledge the strength and cleverness of the Canaanite woman, but each lacks adequate analysis of the text’s imperialist agenda. Schüssler Fiorenza, for example, assumes that Jesus’ mission to Gentiles is liberating, while Dube is suspicious of the strategies, intentions, and power relations in Jesus’ mission to Gentiles. 

Dube ends her volume with descriptions of AIC women’s interpretations of this text. To me they do not seem any more convincing than the above white Western feminist interpreters, but they do approach it from different perspectives that most Western women would not think of. 

Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible is one of the more provocative books I have read in the last several years. Though I consciously view the Bible through the lenses of race, class, and gender, a postcolonial perspective has pushed me to think about these issues in greater depth. I disagree with Dube in her characterization of Matthew’s Jesus, seeing this pericope as a place where Jesus learned about racial inclusiveness (and perhaps gender inclusiveness) in a new way from this assertive and persistent woman. It is also hard to think that the Great Commission is patterned after Roman imperialism, given how tiny and politically powerless the church would have been when Matthew wrote his Gospel. 

Yet much of the history of the church — since it became Roman under Constantine — reflects domination of other peoples and suppression of their religious traditions and beliefs, often at the point of a sword. And today “Christian” America is fueled in part by such triumphalist theology of the Christian religious right. As the “Bush doctrine” advocates a National Security Strategy that arrogantly assumes that U.S. military power will make everything right in the world, the U.S. looks less and less like a people’s democracy and more and more like imperial Rome. Understanding concepts of empire and imperialism can hardly be more relevant in 2003 now that the world’s only super power has invaded Iraq and will have to deal with the aftermath. 

Though better at deconstruction than at constructive biblical interpretation, this African postcolonial feminist has much to teach all of us.

– Reta Halteman Finger

 

Reta Halteman Finger has been a member of EEWC since 1978 and presently serves on the Executive Council. She teaches New Testament at Messiah College, Grantham, PA. For many years, she served as editor ofDaughters of Sarah magazine and is co-editor (with Kari Sandhaas) of a compilation of articles from that magazine under the title, The Wisdom of Daughters: Two Decades of Christian Feminism (Innisfree Press, 2001).

 © 2003 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 26 number 4 Winter (January-March) 2003

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