The Bible and Race in the USA: Dreaming of Ahistories

Morpheus from the Matrix, showing the red and blue pills.

In just a few short weeks, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) will be holding their joint annual meeting. Recently, the AAR took up the tradition of bandying a theme; “Revolutionary Love.” Elsewhere I’ve offered remarks on the issues it raises for the type of work that I do. Nevertheless, I’ll be speaking on two AAR panels that at least somewhat work in tandem with it. One is on “digital futures in religious studies;” the other, on “the scholar as a revolutionary social force.” In both spaces I’ll discuss the work we’ve been doing at Sowing the Seed.

Various colleagues in my field have complemented the student-scholar exchanges hosted here. Our readers have appreciated the attention given to issues of social difference. I cherish these responses and the work it has inspired elsewhere. But in the celebration of what this site has added–a field cultivated for the nurture of diverse discussions and discussants–there is the frightening temptation to subtract the first fruits of our intellectual labor–the very challenge to what counts as history or required reading.

When my students look back on all that they’ve learned on social difference, they are wont to remark that the world would be a much better place were we to simply educate the discriminating other. They presume that ignorance is the root cause of our social woes and that people just need to know better. It’s easy to point to a site–whose ratio of women to men authors is 2:1 and whose contributors come from a variety of affinity groups–and say  we simply need more of this.

The problem with “this-framing” is the failure to recognize that the matters we are speaking about–say, racialized readings of the Bible in America– are not exceptions but norms, that maybe the conflict between interpreters is because some know too well a history passed off as orthodox, one that renders any competing alternative understanding as ahistory or unworthy of discussion. To write this off as ignorance is to enjoy the illusion that we haven’t been taught to look away from the viscera upon which our most tried facades rest. It’s the freedom to be well-read and (un)knowingly selective that allows us to get away with harm. But it is too simplistic to suggest that more education is the key. There needs to be a qualitative change in what and how we educate. In the push to know more, have we overlooked the importance of wonder?

In the framework of the brick and mortar seminar, I’ve tried to challenge my Bible and Race students to deconstruct the assumed virtue of the American Dream, for even its Kingian manifestation falls prey to an argument for more education.

I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Who could disagree with King? But I do wonder to what extent the appeal to the self-evident stymies our ability to see why others must be convinced. Perhaps we’ve been taught American history so well that even the most accented allusions to “the dream” elide  prescription into description.

If this seminar is at all concerned with perfecting “the dream,” then it is one akin to those interpreted by Joseph— noting the terms on which the well-fed become hungry and the hungry, well-fed. It turns us to the more elusive Morpheus, who wakes us to the notion that our history maybe but a history, and how our commitment to maintaining that history will inevitably bring ruin. (Is it self-evident that we should ask “to whom?”) On this side of the critical turn, this scene from The Matrix becomes a startling parable for all sorts of discourses–especially the Bible, Race, and America.

The essays in this issue center on African American readings of the Bible. In their own way, they each prompt the cutting question, “What if we understood African American cultural play as the history and the canonized norms of whiteness as ahistory?” How would our picture of the Bible, race, and America have to change?

  1. Marlee Schwalm, “Nat Turner: Black Moses of America.”
  2. Amanda Robbins, “Black Christians and Donald Trump.”

Dr. Jennifer Grace Bird, author of Permission Granted: Taking the Bible into your own Hands,” pens a response called “Thoughts on the State of our Disunion.” See the first volume of the series here.

Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.

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