Today I attended a lecture by the distinguised historian and theologian Dr. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza at the First United Methodist Church in Phoenix. The event was titled The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire and was sponsored and promoted by AzFCT (the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology, of which I am a member) and by JAAZ (the Jesuit Alumni in Arizona).
Dr. Schüssler is one of the best known exponents of feminist theology and feminist New Testament criticism. This was her first time speaking in Arizona.
The lecture was fairly well attended; the spacious church was about half-filled. The average age of the attendees was approximately 50 years or more, by my estimation, and everyone, with the exception of myself and one more audient (a hispanic woman) was white (this fact becomes more significant below).
Her speaking style is very monotone and, like her writing, is very dense. That fact, coupled with the low volume level of the PA system and her heavy German accent caused at least one audience member to leave in frustration at not being able to understand her (I know this because she audibly complained a few times before finally leaving - I later saw her in the parking lot and smiled at her).
In the speech, she explored how the power of empire and the rhetoric of subordination have not only shaped Christian scriptures but also how they continue to shape understandings of the authority of scripture and its use in public debates today. She pointed out that although most Américans tend to see The US as a democracy, historians have always known that it is an empire.
Empire was the context of Christians in the 1st century C. E. and is still the political context of biblical interpretation today. Christian scriptures could, and can rightly, be used in the service of domination, violent exclusion, colonialist expansion and heterosexist discrimination because they have been formulated in the context of Roman imperial power. Such language of domination, subordination and control is not just historical language. Rather as Sacred Scripture it is performative language that determines Christian religious and Western cultural identity. It must be understood, made conscious and critically evaluated rather than internalized as the dictated "Word of God".
A few things that stood out for me:
Early into the lecture, she asked all those attending to turn to our neighbor and to say whether we would call ourselves a feminist or not and then to explain why or why not. When I turned to my left, no one engaged me. No one even looked at me. Likewise to my right, front and back, leaving me to wondering if my non-caucasianess made me stand out that much, if I perhaps looked too menacing somehow to this otherwise homogeneous crowd. I shrugged it off and merely jotted this occurence down in my notebook and tried my best to look unaffected by it, but the truth is that it made me feel bad, like a cypher.
Another moment that stood out for me: At the point in the lecture when Dr Schüssler suggested that not all scripture is revelation and suggested that we start with our own experience and then look at all the various hermeneutical approaches to these scriptures, to hopefully lead us to reject any scripture that endorses violence or subjugation or that promotes this rhetoric of empire . . . anyway, right at this point, I distinctly heard a gentleman behind me say, "I'm ready to go, are you?" to his wife. Apparently, he was insulted that someone would suggest the rejection of any part of scripture. I could not make out what her response was, but it seemed to me like she wanted to stay to listen to the rest of the lecture because it took another couple of minutes for him to say, "come on, let's go", more forcefully this time. She dutifully obeyed now. I smiled and thought this was a very poetic thing to have happened at this particular speech.
At one point she pointed out the effect of colonialism on the religiosity of those subjugated by empires. This is very succinctly encapsulated in Bishop Desmond Tutu's pithy saying. "When the missionaries came, they had the bible and we had the land. Now we have the bible and they have the land."
During the question and answer period after the speech, some interesting points were brought up:
One audient asked: If empires crush all those who dare to oppose them underfoot and thus ultimately seduce or coerce otherwise good people into not caring as much about justice or compassion, how do we deal with that? Tough question. I don't remember her answer, and that suggests to me that I probably didn't find it a satisfactory one. But of course, this is asking for the solution to the problem of evil in a brief Q & A exchange. Given the alotted time, no answer could suffice.
Another man asked: "how do we determine which parts of scripture should be rejected without running the risk of engaging in relativism?", to which Dr Schussler answered that ultimately we must do what she called a "dance" between the different hermeneuitics described above (i.e. experience, suspicion, evaluation, imagination, et al) going back and forth between them as we study the scriptures. If after doing this we sense that some specific passage is subversive or violent or hateful, then it is surely not revalation and we can be safe in discarding it as an extrapolation. With this I agree; if it doesn't sound like God . . . then it probably isn't of God (whatever that might ultimately be, the heathen in me adds).
Another good point made by an attendee: In the US, it seems that the fundamentalist traditionalists proclaim that the family is the most important thing of all and therefore homosexuality is evil and such marriages should be stamped out, while progressives tend to prioritize justice and preach toleration for them . . . . while the rest of the world doesn't particularly see this as a very important issue at all.