As a community grounded in the integration of text, soul, and culture, we care deeply about the individual and collective discourse around the texts that have formed us. We are also well aware of the potential for harm in that discourse, particularly in relation to the biblical text, and the historical and present-day ways in which the Bible has been used to uphold systems of power and silence, subjugate, separate, or kill those who oppose those systems. Here, Dr. Angela Parker, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, invites us to join her in reclaiming the subversive, empowering narrative of the text she loves.
Before I start getting emails that point to this post’s title and say I want to stop Christian men from reading the Bible, please read me well. When I refer to “toxic Christian masculinity” I refer to a particular school of thought that sociologist Michael Kimmel highlights in his work Angry White Men. In essence, toxic Christian masculinity possesses what I identify as a number of “senses:” a sense of entitlement; a sense of victimhood; a sense of putting women, minorities, and sexualized others “back in their place;” and a sense of seeking restorative violence. As I think about how some high-profile toxic Christian men have read the biblical text in recent months, I must “gird up my own loins” to write back.
Referencing 1 Timothy 2:12, complementarian fundamental evangelical author John Piper wrote a blog wherein he answers a question from a seminary student about the validity of women teaching in seminary contexts. For Piper, since men are the only ones authorized to wear the pastoral mantle, women should not be allowed to teach men in seminary contexts. In his statements, therefore, there is no way that my call as a seminary professor (also an ordained woman in the Baptist tradition) who teaches biblical studies could possibly be ordained by God.
“As I think about how some high-profile toxic Christian men have read the biblical text in recent months, I must ‘gird up my own loins’ to write back.”
Similarly, this week, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13. In essence, Sessions argued that the Apostle Paul issues a clear and wise command that any persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution since God has ordained the people who set forth the law for the purpose of order. Order and lawful processes are good to protect the weak and lawful, according to Sessions. In his mind, therefore, there is a sense that even if children are separated from their parents when they cross the border in order to seek asylum in the U.S., the violence that these families suffer is justified because it shows a restoration of order.
These are just two examples of what I identify as toxic Christian masculinity in the headlines today.
So what am I calling us to do now, all of us who love the sacred text and have devoted our lives to the text? I call on us to “write” and “fight” back. As an African American seminary-trained female professor of the New Testament at a predominantly white progressive evangelical institution, I must state that I stand ready to fight for the love of a text that propelled me to seek an elite and privileged education in order to possess the critical thinking skills to fight for a more socially just society. Also, I am ready to fight against the toxic Christian masculinist readings that de-contextualize the biblical text while seeking to keep the arbiters of power (mostly landed, heterosexual white males) at the top of society’s hierarchy. This means that I must continue to fight for greater understanding and development of what the biblical text means for us today, while also understanding what it may have meant for its original authors. As an African American woman living in the context of the United States of America, I stand and declare that we must all be ready to fight—because my Womanist sensibilities tell me that my liberation is tied to others’ liberation.
So what can I write about Sessions’ use of Romans 13? First, I would implore all of us to return to the biblical text. If we do not return to the text, it will be used against us all. Second, I would say that it may prove helpful to engage the work of academically trained biblical scholars who do not simply gloss over difficult texts but wrestle with them. Pauline scholar Robert Jewett is correct when he states that Romans 13 must be interpreted from the view of the previous 12 chapters, not as a pericope pulled out on its own. Moreover, my good friend Wes Howard-Brook states that when we read Romans we must pay attention to Paul’s specific cultural context. That means that Paul has already “roasted” the Roman Imperial government in the first chapter of Romans. There is no way that he is advising early Jesus followers to now submit to the same authorities that he has decimated. That government, under Emperor Nero, was known for its horrific acts against early Jesus followers. In Romans 12, Paul writes that the early Jesus followers are not to be “conformed to this world.” Therefore, Romans 13 must allude to something different. I translate Romans 13:1 as follows:
Let every person be subject to the “from above powers/authorities”—for there is no power except from God, and those existing powers have been ordered by God.
In the Greek text, there is no sense of “governmental authorities” as most translations read. However, there is a sense that only true power comes from God—and we know that said power takes care of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. God’s power would not ordain the separation of children from their parents while using cages as tools of terrorization.
As a people who want to follow in the faith of Jesus the Christ, I implore us to write and fight against the inappropriate use of the biblical text. May we fight the good fight!
“Only true power comes from God—and we know that said power takes care of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.”