Locations of Interpretation: Scriptures and Fear in America

Ekaputra Tupamahu discusses Marlee Schwalm’s foray into the history of religion in the American Pacific WWII theater. He surfaces resonances between Post-Pearl Harbor Japanophobia and Post-9/11 Islamophobia. This is the fifth issue in our fourth volume on the Bible and Race. Read a response to this piece here. And see our first, second, and third volumes here.

I find Marlee Schwalm’s essay on the Japanese American experience during World War II and how it affects their reading of the Bible worth a serious reflection. My brief reflection here will particularly highlight two things: 1) the issue of locus of interpretation, and 2) the issue of the politics of hatred.

First, Schwam correctly describes the role of the social location of the Japanese Americans in their reading the scriptures. It is always important to remember that scriptures are, above all, texts, and texts are essentially woven (Lat. texere, to weave) in language. Because of the embeddedness of texts in language, they always require interpretation. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and literary theorist, any interpretation or reading of texts is like a conversation that requires both a speaker and a responder or listener. A listener, however, is not just a passive recipient of everything that a speaker says. The listener would receive words from the speaker and then respond in a form of appropriation. S/he will appropriate things received in their world. This process of (re)appropriation will lead to a response which every speaker would expect. Thus, in a way, reading can be understood as an act of (re)appropriation because the reader would take the message that has been appropriated in the world of the speaker and then appropriate it again in the listener’s world.

When Japanese Americans read the texts of the Bible, they will (re)appropriate those texts in the particularity of their socio-political location. This is precisely what Fernando Segovia calls a “flesh-and-blood reader” of the Bible. What often happens is, however, many male European biblical scholars think that they can speak in a universal way overlooking the particularity of their gender, socio-political, and cultural locations. It is important to note that there have been a lot of studies done to disclose how the socio-political situation in Europe influences and affects modern biblical scholarship. Thus, we all have to bring our world in the process of interpretation in order to make sense of the world that given or addressed to us. The Japanese Americans, therefore, understandably read, think, and interpret the biblical texts from the particularity of their socio-political struggle as a marginalized and oppressed group in the United States. In that location, they both make sense of and respond to the texts.

Second, the treatment of the U.S. government to the Japanese Americans is somehow similar in many ways with the social condition of many Muslim Americans today. The history Japanophobia after the Pearl Harbor is repeated in the rampant Islamophobia especially after 9/11 in the contemporary America. The propaganda that America is at war with Islam, and that we have to “name” our enemy, is perpetuated by the notion of a “clash of civilizations” a la Samuel Huntington. It consequently enhances much of the hostility against Muslim Americans. Edward Said is right that this is actually not a clash of civilization, but rather a clash of ignorance. The hateful rhetoric against Muslim Americans by many politicians today, therefore, is not only oppressive in its very nature, but also extremely dangerous. People should always remember that language is not just empty words that people throw to the air. Judith Bulter in her book, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, makes a strong case that our entire existence is embedded in language. Everything, even our own existence, is controlled and ordered by and through language. In that sense, hate speech is not hateful because it affects people’s feeling, but because it constitutes subjected beings. Japanese Americans, like George Takei, definitely understand this well and remind us that we should not repeat the same atrocities that had been done in the past. The fear of many Muslim Americans is real because their very lives and well-being are under constant threat. Let us all learn from history!

I thank Marlee Schwam for writing this insightful essay. My hope is that this essay will be a reminder to all of us that we have to keep loving our neighbors as ourselves in spite of all the hateful rhetoric of othering that we can hear on a daily basis in mass media.

ekaputra-tupamahu-headshotEkaputra Tupamahu is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Vanderbilt University. His dissertation research examines the intersectionality of the politics of language, racial-ethnic identity construction, the subjective performativity, and the colonial relations of power in the early Christian movement.


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