In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Emerson Powery about biblical interpretation in the Antebellum narratives of the enslaved as they explore the following questions:
- Why did enslaved people adopt the religion of their enslavers?
- What is intertextuality?
- What was the significance of Paul for enslaved people?
- What books or passages were emphasized in slave spirituals?
- Why is resurrection not emphasized in slave narratives?
- What was the significance of the curse of Ham in the Antebellum period?
- What is proof-texting?
- Is the Bible a book of liberation?
- How is biblical interpretation a living tradition?
- How has Emerson’s study of history influenced his experience in his faith community?
- What is the power of imagination in biblical interpretation?
- How did enslaved people understand Jesus?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Emerson Powery you can share.
- “Love God, love neighbor seems to be a fundamental starting point.” @EmersonBPowery
- “If my reading of the Bible dehumanizes someone, there’s probably something wrong with my reading of the Bible.” @EmersonBPowery
- “I think the Bible cannot speak for itself, I think the Bible always has interpreters.” @EmersonBPowery
- “Communities read Scripture best when they are committed to one another and committed to others.” @EmersonBPowery
- “How does one use the Bible in relation to the other?”@EmersonBPowery
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: The Genesis of Liberation
- Book: Stony the Road We Trod
- Book: Slave Religion
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty Intro Music]
Jared: Welcome everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Today we have with us Emerson Powery, who is a Biblical Studies Professor at Messiah College and it was a very interesting conversation. We brought him in because, Pete, you had heard him before.
Pete: Yeah, he came to Eastern University a couple of years ago. He gave a talk on this topic, which we’re going to talk about in a second. And it was just very impressive and really awakening in just, ya know, listen, you hear people talk about things they know something about and you don’t know much about it at all, and it was just very impressive and I felt like I was missing out on so much. I just knew I wanted to keep talking to Emerson about this topic.
Jared: We want to be clear about the topic, so we’re putting it off because we want to talk about it a little bit – it’s biblical interpretation in the antebellum narrative of the enslaved.
Jared: And that comes from the subtitle of his book and so, let’s just talk a little bit about what that means. We’re talking about biblical interpretation, how the Bible was interpreted in the antebellum narratives of the enslaved. What’s the antebellum narratives of the enslaved?
Pete: Before the civil war.
Jared: Right. So, while they’re enslaved, there’s these narratives that historians like Emerson have been able to recover and read and see how the Bible’s being used in these letters, and he calls them narratives. I think there’s letters and other parts of texts –
Pete: Right. Well, they’re telling their story –
Pete: And from the point of view of those who were formerly enslaved. So, these stories are really being documented, let’s say, after the end of the civil war. But, it’s just a wonderful window into, really the nature of Biblical interpretation, that we’re all doing things like appropriating texts in ways that are meaningful to us, and, you know, I just thought it was a fascinating discussion when I heard him first a couple of years, and when we have this interview with him. And, the title of the book is The Genesis of Liberation, that’s the main title. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today, and we had a really enlightening time talking with Emerson about a topic he’s thought an awful lot about.
Jared: Alright, well, let’s get to it!
Emerson: I think the Bible cannot speak for itself. I think the Bible always has interpreters.
Pete: Well, if there’s no one concrete way of understanding these texts, if we’re all sort of reading these things in light of our experience, how do you ever know which side is right? And the answer might be, well, how are you treating people?
Emerson: No, I think that’s right. You know, love God, love neighbor seems to be kind of a fundamental starting point. So how does one treat one’s neighbor? How does one use the Bible in relationship to the other?
Jared: Welcome, welcome Emerson, to this episode of the podcast. It’s great to have you on!
Emerson: Great, thanks to be with you guys.
Jared: Yeah, I’m real excited about our topic for today. Before we get there thought, can you just give us a little, one or two minute spiritual biography, both your spiritual journey, but also how did you become interested in this topic, the Bible as a source of liberation, and how the Bible was received in the antebellum period, and all the things that you do now. How did you get into that? So maybe start there.
Emerson: Okay. I grew up in a Christian home. My father is a minister, retired minister, and my parents actually came to the U.S. They came from the Caribbean and they came to the U.S. as missionaries. So, I grew up, in many ways, a missionary kid. I was born in New York. My two other brothers were born on the islands, but I was born in New York. So, I grew up in a home in which there was lots of scripture reading, lots of engagement with the Bible. My parents also worked for the American Bible Society, so they were also very ecumenical and that also shaped my own kind of engagement with the Bible as an early, in my early years. Even though my father was the Pentecostal, was the black Pentecostal representative at the American Bible Society, they had a white Pentecostal and a black Pentecostal representative at the American Bible Society, that’s probably a conversation for another day, but that meant that the way we read scripture was very much about our experience and our, how it can inform our spiritual lives daily. And I grew up in that environment and that, I’m sure had a lot to do with my own kind of, trajectory, in terms of thinking about Biblical studies as a future. I didn’t begin there. I have an associate’s degree in aviation administration, so I began off in a very different route. My two older brothers, one went into accounting and the other one went into computer science, and I was kind of headed in that direction too, but somewhere in the middle of my college years, I felt a call to go into something more directly into ministry. Although, it didn’t feel like pastoral ministry.
So, it didn’t feel like the traditional pastorate, but I went and got an undergraduate degree in biblical and religious studies and then I went to seminary and continued on this journey, wrote a master’s thesis on Moses and the fourth gospel, but was really engaged in trying to figure out how lots of different people were utilizing the Bible. So, my own journey from those early years was starting to kind of inform larger theological questions for me. And so, I continue to pursue them and went on to do a Ph.D. study in what was called at the time Christian origins, early Christian origins, and wrote a dissertation on how Jesus used scripture. I was still very much interested in the function of scripture, how scripture was functioning for different communities, and all of that led me into investigation of how early African Americans in this country engaged the text, engaged the Biblical text. There was recent discussion when I was in grad school, Cain Felder’s edited volumes Stony the Road We Trod came out, and a number of my peers and I were kind of reading that on the side while we were doing our other, more formal work. And although at the time I didn’t quite see how intertextuality and black life was going together in direct, kind of, formal/theoretical ways, when I looked back at my dissertation, I had footnotes in there about Sojourner Truth and how she says I don’t just read small things like letters, I read texts and nations, right?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Emerson: So that was kind of informing behind the scenes, that was kind of doing some work on me.
Pete: Now, Emerson, before we go on, you mentioned a word intertextuality?
Pete: Can you explain that?
Emerson: Yeah, so, I think about it simply as the way later texts interact with earlier texts. So, and that could happen in a variety of ways. So, I mean, early Christians reading from their sacred scripture, and how they might reread it in a specific kind of way. I’m just thinking, I was actually looking at a passage today in a class, we were looking at Deuteronomy 24 and then how Jesus reads it in Mark 10.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Emerson: In Deuteronomy 24, it’s talking about a male, right, giving a bill of divorcement to his wife. And it’s in a women in the Bible class, so in Mark 10 it was not just that the male could be allowed to give the bill of divorcement, but a female could be allowed to give a bill of divorcement, without going into Jesus’ own intention over divorce. You know, it’s just kind of an interesting engagement of one text inside of another text, and how that text functions there, but also how later readers engage with an older text. So, intertextuality, I know can be defined in more sophisticated, theoretical ways, but for me it’s as simple as one text getting new life in another text.
Pete: Yeah, and both of those texts are part of, let’s say, Christian scripture, right?
Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.
Pete: Because it’s within our Bible we see this relationship between texts, that’s intertextuality.
Emerson: Yeah, that’s right. That’s the way intertextuality is generally used in biblical studies, yeah.
Pete: Yeah. So okay, I mean, that brings us then, I think, to our topic, because we’re looking at the, and something you’ve written about recently, fairly recently, the way in which the Bible was used, can we say appropriated?
Pete: Or maybe reimaged or something like that –
Pete: On the part of enslaved African Americans before the Civil War. And that’s an exploration on your part on just, on hermeneutics, on interpretation, right? And on how people have used texts and why they’ve used texts the way they have, right?
Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.
Jared: Well, that bring us to something we were talking about earlier before we hit record that we thought was really interesting, which is, you know, at the very beginning when we’re talking about enslaved peoples, it’s interesting that African Americans adopted the religion and the religious texts of those who enslaved them. And just curious if you have theories or thoughts on, or studies on why that is, like what was going on that led to that? Because it seems a little counterintuitive.
Emerson: No, I think that’s right. I think that’s, I would not say that that was the original question behind our work, but I would say that we were surprised by it as well, right? I mean, it’s one thing to, and it’s complicated. So, some formerly enslaved folks, and I’ll kind of use that, because most of the work that I was working on was working with traditionally called slave narratives. I like to refer to them as freedom narratives, because these are all written by formerly enslaved individuals who were then reflecting back on their time during human bondage. So, but some folks, when they heard “slaves obey your masters,” one particular writer by the name of Charles Ball, he talks about his grandfather. My grandfather finally heard “slaves obey your masters” enough, and finally walked away from the Christian religion altogether, and decided to return to the faith of our African gods. So, it’s complicated. Some people heard that message, “slave obey your masters,” and they decided to try to find another way to read Paul, right? So, and found, in Paul, a person, a fellow sufferer, a co-sufferer.
Pete: Uh huh.
Emerson: One that we could use, he now stands with us, right? And so, the Paul of Acts who says, God hath made, they’re all reading the King James version, right? God hath made of all nations one, made one of all nations, right? This idea from Acts 17, that’s the Paul they wanted to engage with. So, that was a way of putting in conversation with, hang on – the “slaves obey your masters” can’t be the final word. Must be something more.
Pete: So, they were capitalizing, is it fair to say they were capitalizing on the complex portrait of Paul in the New Testament itself, because Paul can sometimes sound like he’s not questioning the institution of slavery, and elsewhere he’s suffering at the hands of oppressors.
Emerson: Yeah, no –
Pete: So, you take, you sort of run with, and who hasn’t done this, right? You run with those parts that speak to you more directly.
Emerson: Yeah, the themes that you find, right, that kind of support your view.
Pete: Well, one question, just backing up from that a little bit.
Pete: I don’t know if this is even answerable, but, all, what we’re saying now assumes something that is still hard for, I think, some of us to understand, which is why that would’ve been an important argument for some enslaved peoples to make, which gets back to I guess Jared’s original question, like, why even have an interest in the religious system of people who were oppressing you? Is it, I mean, do you have an answer to that? To me, that’s a curious thing. I mean, we could just say cause they discovered that God loved them, and, you know, they went with that. But this is a foreign concept you would have to think.
Emerson: Yeah, I mean, I think that many of them were religious people, right? So, I’m not thinking here now of kind of first-generation folks who came over from Africa. They certainly came with some religious perspective. Al Raboteau and his Slave Religion book shows this. But those who were second, third, fourth generation here, and still in human bondage, the Frederick Douglass period, the Harriet Jacobs period, these folks grew up in circles, not just within the families that they serve, the white families that they serve, but they also knew other folks who were having religious ceremonies, right, in the brush harbor meeting. So, they were religious folks, and there are certainly lots of struggles. You can hear some of that in the spirituals, although we don’t wrestle with the spirituals in biblical interpretation. You could, but in the spirituals how those songs played out, right? So, there’s lot of spiritual songs about, a couple people have written on this, where there’s lots of suffering in the spirituals, and even crucifixion, Jesus, right, Jesus dying. But there’s not a lot of spirituals about resurrection, right? So, it’s kind of, so they’re religious and trying to understand what God is doing in the world, but at the same time it’s very complicated.
So, it’s an attempt to, I mean, what does one do if you’re having to develop your own theological construction, right? If the one that has been given to you doesn’t work, because it doesn’t, it’s not that it doesn’t feel right, it’s hard to begin with a God who doesn’t like me –
Emerson: That’s tough, so there’s lots of engagement, I think, through those songs, and we know they are, Frederick Douglass tells a story, not in the first narrative that he writes, or even in the second narrative he writes, but one that he writes towards the end of his life in which he found several pages the Bible that were soiled. They were just in the street. He says he just, he got ahold of them and he just cherished them, because he thought, here he got some access to the text that, yeah, his mistress had taught him to read, and by the way she taught him when he was nine years old, or seven years old, I can’t remember now which year, but it was very young. From the book of Job, that’s what he’s learning for the first time! I mean, can you imagine? The book of Job as a child, right?
Pete: Oh gosh, yeah.
Emerson: So, he found these pages and he thought, I can read now. I get access on my own, I can kind of start to develop my own thinking. This is now, this is the Douglass, the later Douglass reflecting back on that. So, trying to wrestle out a theological system or a faith in God that feels and looks different than what you might be hearing on a regular basis, right? It doesn’t begin with God wants me in human bondage, he wants me enslaved; it begins with God loves me and this is, something’s wrong here. And so, Allen Callahan who wrote a book a number of years ago, different, very different, because he was looking at lots of African American sources, but he talks about the Bible as giving the early enslaved an opportunity to ask questions. So, it wasn’t just answering questions, it was giving them an opportunity to ask questions. And I find that to be very useful in my own, kind of, reading of the slave narratives. There’s lots of wrestling with scripture, so, that seemed to be just kind of part of the faith practice, part of what it meant to be a follower, part of what it meant to go out to the brush harbor, to sing these difficult songs in the middle of difficult times.
Jared: Well, when you’re talking about the spirituals, it made me think, you know, you said there’s a lot of emphasis on death and not as much on resurrection. It made me think, you know, we talk some on this podcast about how we all pick and choose from the Bible because it’s so diverse. And we can pick different starting places, like what you were saying, so do you find that in some of these freedom narratives, or in these freedom narratives, you find themes of a different starting place or what books or passages would’ve been emphasized over others and what does that kind of tell us about the faith of these folks?
Emerson: Yeah, one of the things we were actually, we never did it, but we had wanted to put kind of an index in the back of this book because we were really pleasantly surprised to see how many books of the Bible, how numerous passages that are just kind of referenced or highlighted. We went after some specific themes in our own work, but there were lots of books of the Bible that were being read and engaged. Harriet Jacobs, her critical biographer, Jean Fagan Yellin, who says that during her time, during Harriet Jacobs time when she was stuck in the garret, an attic of her grandmother’s house. For seven years she was up there. She actually ended up developing some significant leg cramps the rest of her life from this, but during that time she had no one to communicate with, but she had her Bible. Her grandmother had given her her Bible, and she just poured over those pages, and there’s lots of evidence of that in her narrative. She just has Job and Isaiah and the gospels. I’m actually working on something right now where I’m looking at Harriet Jacobs’ engagement with the Good Samaritan. I mean, just, lots of different texts that show up in her narrative. Some more subtle, some just seeming like just kind of an illusion. Other places where she’s really engaging the text more fully, and you can see it kind of play out in the narrative. So, there are lots and lots and lots of, for our work, we were trying to do a couple of things. On the one hand, I mean, it’s hard not to tell this story without thinking about how masters used Pauline language.
So, we were trying to then think about how the formerly enslaved, not only retold those stories in those settings in order to get some sense of reactions to those sermons, but also how they might’ve re-appropriated Paul and I mentioned earlier about the fellow sufferer of Paul, the Acts Paul, the Paul who sometimes we have a number of stories in the narratives where Harriet Jacobs actually tells one, but she’s not alone. Solomon Bayley tells one where they would hear a “slaves obey your masters” type sermon and the enslaved would simply hear the sermon and walk away and never come back. So just kind of a silent critique and then sometimes the narrators would tell you how the white minister would respond. There would be some reaction to it. So, there are lots of ways for engaging with Paul, but we also found that they wanted to think also about race and racial construction. So, the Genesis 9, curse of Ham myth that’s probably the dominant myth, Biblical myth, of this moment, antebellum period, there was some direction reactions to that.
Pete: Can you explain the curse of Ham for those who might not be familiar with it?
Emerson: Yeah! So, Noah and his sons and his entire family, right, they survived the flood in Genesis 9. And now Noah has had a little too much wine, and he is in, he’s drunk in the Genesis 9 narrative, and Ham, one of the children, sees his father’s nakedness. He comes out and he tells the other two brothers, Shem and Japheth, and they march in backwards with a cloth, with a garment to cover their father. They cover their father, Noah comes to, and he curses Canaan, the son of Ham. So, he doesn’t curse Ham directly, he curses Canaan and he says, well, one of the things he says is you will be, servant of servant shall you be. You will serve your brothers and their families and so, of course, there is right, in Biblical scholarship there are ways to think about that in relationship to Israel’s relationship to Canaan. For the nineteenth century context, that curse of Ham, or curse of Canaan became really crucial for thinking about, at least one rationale for why African people could be enslaved, right?
Pete: It was a proof text, right?
Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.
Pete: For pro-slavery people and let’s say, a very creative appropriation of that text.
Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.
Pete: Because it really has absolutely nothing to do with this, but again, it’s a way to hook an existing belief into a sacred text.
Emerson: Right, and in the nineteenth century context, it would fit in well. I mean, not just in terms of the pro-slavery argument, but the idea that lots of people, even those not thinking about slavery directly, although it’s hard to imagine people who weren’t. But in the nineteenth century, lots of identification conversations were going on, right? As people groups and migration and the movement of ethnic groups was happening, lots of folks were reading the Bible or listening to the Bible and they were finding potential proofs for these identification markers, right? So, and they were using, yeah, there were lots of proof texts in this way. So, it would have fit quite naturally in that sense. Ah! That might explain it, right? Because lots of people are digging up stuff in the nineteenth century to think about identifying markers like that.
[Producers group endorsement]
Pete: Yeah, and this, I mean, I don’t want to introduce more terminology than we need to –
Pete: But what we are talking about here is how communities receive this Biblical text and what they do with it.
Pete: Right? And that’s just a fascinating thing because I think we all do that on some level. We engage the text based on what we already believe and what we know to be “true,”-
Pete: And we find hooks. I mean, maybe, I don’t know how you feel about this Emerson, but maybe a contemporary example of that is finding immigration reform in the Bible.
Emerson: Yeah, no, I think that’s a good one. I think there are several that one can find and when folks think about the present political moment and then they go to the Bible with that question, right, that’s all of a sudden, it’s interesting. It’s really interesting kind of interpretations that happen. Exegesis just –
Pete: To say the least.
Pete: I guess, of course, in the period of time we’re talking about now, there is dehumanization happening.
Emerson: Right, that’s right.
Pete: Systemic dehumanization. So that might be, ya know, well, cause the question. You get this, I get this all the time. Well if there’s no one concrete way of understanding these texts, if we’re all sort of, like, reading these things in light of our experience, how do you ever know which side is right?
Pete: And the answer might be, well, how are you treating people?
Pete: That’s sort of the first thing to go to.
Emerson: No, I think that’s right. You know, love God, love neighbor seems to be kind of a fundamental starting point, so how does one treat ones neighbor? How does one, how does one use the Bible in relationship to the other, right? And so, if my reading of the Bible dehumanizes someone, it’s probably something wrong with my reading of the Bible.
Emerson: So, yeah.
Pete: Okay, well let me throw something at you then, and just to see how you would respond to a statement like this. The Bible is not really a book of liberation, but it can be read that way. Or would you disagree with that? The Bible is a book of liberation.
Emerson: No, yeah. I know lots of good people, people I would consider friends who would disagree with that. I don’t disagree with that. I think the Bible cannot speak for itself. I think the Bible always has interpreters. That is what complicates this, for lack of a better term, the American Bible, or any Bible in any particular culture, but this is where we are and this is, so the Bible comes to us through a variety of traditions, but it has to, we want it to now say something or at least those of us who are committed to having the Bible as a resource, as a theological resource, are committed to finding ways to allow it to speak in our contemporary moment. But part of what that means is I have to interpret it. So, it just can’t speak directly on its own.
Pete: It’s never just there.
Emerson: Right, yeah. So, I would agree with the way you put that.
Jared: Well, but, you know, just to add onto that, I think it doesn’t, you said it complicates it. I think it does complicate it, but it’s also, as you’re saying, it’s also that particular element of a text is also the opportunity for us to have it be relevant, have it be connected to our lived experience. So, it’s sort of two sides to the same coin. We can’t necessarily have it be relevant and connect to our lived experience without that, the risk of that interpretive element that it’s never just there. It’s never uninterpreted, but that’s the very act of making it alive today.
Emerson: I think that’s what makes it a living tradition. Yeah, that’s right, is the ongoing attempt, our ongoing attempt to interpret. And to interpret in community, to engage one another and not just to do it on our own. That’s what helps keep us all, I think, somehow, I mean those of us who are committed to reading the Bible within community, it helps keep us all in check. So that way we can call out one another if there is a dehumanizing, because I do think that draws the line. Someone within my community has to say to me, Emerson, something’s not right about that.
Jared: Good, well maybe you can carry on that line of thinking, because that’s exactly what I was going to ask is what are the values of, I would have grown up in a tradition more in line with sort of, it’s me and Jesus and this is a personal, devotional book. And there would have been a sense of community, but it wouldn’t have been the emphasis of reading this book in community and the value that it brings, so maybe, could you say a word or two more about the value of reading in community and maybe even what does it look like to read in community? What are the actual, like, just very simplistically, what does it mean to do that?
Emerson: Yeah. I mean, and first of all, I would say, you know, I’m not opposed to people reading the Bible devotionally. I think that’s a necessary practice, but I think that’s one practice, right?
Jared: Mm hmm.
Emerson: And people need multiple practices with scripture. And a practice that I find very useful is to read it along with others. To read it with others with whom I may, I’m committed to but I may not necessarily agree with. I may not agree with them in terms of their own theological systems that they’re speaking from. I may not agree with them in terms of even their political agendas, but to read scripture in communion, in that way, puts lots of, I think, really hard questions, both to the text and maybe we can hear the text differently. We can hear the Biblical text differently in that way. And I think to make this even, maybe more simple, I think as communities read scripture best when they’re committed to one another, and committed to others, right? Committed outside of themselves, so they’re looking at others around them, and I think reading scripture in the middle of that setting will raise the kinds of issues and questions and force us into actions, so, I don’t think that should be separate from, right? So, Harriet Jacobs, she was engaged in not just reading scripture, but she was running anti-slavery reading room. She was raising money, right, at the end of the Civil War for schools in D.C. and down in South Carolina and Alexandria, Virginia, and then down in South Carolina. I’m convinced, even though she doesn’t say this explicitly in her narratives, I’ve read all of her letters. The University of North Carolina published her letters and she’s the only African American female formerly enslaved for whom we have letters, and extraordinary, extraordinary documents. We can kind of trace her history and her faith is really crucial for the things that she’s doing. Her reading of scriptural texts and her engagement with others kind of go hand in hand, so, I think if we’re reading scripture on behalf of others, for their well-being, I think that’s a good starting point.
Pete: Mmm. Well, let me, let me ask, Emerson, I want to get back into the Old Testament a little bit here. I’m thinking about what you explained earlier, the formerly enslaved people writing freedom narratives. And, you know, clearly, the Exodus story is an obvious source of, let’s say, their spiritual imagination for how they relate to their creator and how they can have hope for, you know, eventual liberation. But how, I mean, how did they handle, I mean, if we know this, something like this, but how did they handle those places in the Old Testament even in the book of Exodus where it seems like enslaved people were not really thought of as fully human.
Emerson: Yeah, well, I mean, James Pennington, who publishes his narrative in 1849, he is a prominent minister, Shiloh Presbyterian Church, pretty fairly large church in New York City at the time. He sat outside the classrooms at Yale Divinity School, they wouldn’t let him inside the classroom, and he kind of secured some theological education that way. Eventually, at the end of the 1840’s, right around the time when he’s writing, publishing his narrative, he also receives a honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in Germany.
Emerson: James Pennington is actually the one, who when Frederick Douglass escaped, he was, along with Anna Murray, he married Anna Murray. And Anna Murray was a free black woman, but she lived in Maryland with him and came north with him. James Pennington married them. James Pennington is well connected, he had one of the most popular narratives in that day in terms of just sales. He puts it this way about these passages – if we could find some Canaanites, maybe we could enslave them.
Emerson: I mean, he really found this, kind of right this way of saying, what’s happening? All of a sudden, on the one hand, people do these literal readings of biblical texts, and then they stop doing it, right? And that was, that’s one way to respond to that.
Pete: Okay, if I were speaking to him –
Pete: I would say, okay, I get it, but also, it’s the assumption, at least in Exodus and Deuteronomy, that you can have Hebrew slaves.
Emerson: Yeah. No, I don’t think Pennington would have any problem with, not having them now, but this was something that ancient Israel did. And it wasn’t, right, by the time of Jesus, there’s still slavery going on.
Pete: Yeah, yeah.
Emerson: So, he actually writes, he gets the honorary doctorate from Heidelberg because he wrote a volume called The History of Colored People. Sometimes it shows up as The History of Negro People, but I think The History of Colored People was the original title. But, very much aware of, he starts with ancient Egypt, right? So he’s very much aware of ancient populations, ancient slavery, ancient practices; he just doesn’t think that those practices should have continued. Now, I don’t know, at least I haven’t found in Pennington’s work where he thinks it stopped, right? I don’t find, but he just thinks what happened back then in biblical days needs to remain back then, with regards to slavery anyway. God has no, this is his, I’m summarizing him, but he uses this language of the immaculate God. The immaculate God has absolutely nothing to do with human bondage, with slavery.
Pete: Mm hmm. It’s inconsistent with like, the nature of God or something, yeah.
Emerson: Completely inconsistent.
Pete: I mean, that argument was made, by origin for example, talking about violence, divine violence.
Emerson: Hmm, yeah.
Pete: There’s no way.
Emerson: Right, right.
Pete: There’s no way the creator would do this, so we’ve got to do something with this story. Again, it’s starting with spiritual experience in this sense, and saying, these things are just incompatible, and you wind up picking and choosing. And I know people say that’s like, a bad thing, but I don’t know anybody who doesn’t do that.
Emerson: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Who’s continuing to cast lots, right? I mean, there are some Mennonites who continue to cast lots, but they’re few and far between. I mean, right, but nothing said stop casting lots, so I think, right. I think, in some ways, if we had different language besides picking and choosing or selecting, it might work better, right?
Pete: Exactly. It sounds very negative to put it that way, but it’s, yeah.
Jared: What are some of the, you know, you’ve done a lot of historical work. What has been the impact of that on how you currently engage scripture in your faith community?
Emerson: For me, one of the things it does is to recognize the significant value of, we all read from a certain vantage point, and so, when I’m in my community, we have different positions. Sometimes, I’m male, so I have certain power as a male, right? There are certain powers statuses I have, and there are other times I might not, and to help people to kind of think about when they’re reading and engaging scripture out of their perspective of power. That’s one thing it’s done for me. That’s, I think that’s one of those starting points, to helping us to do as much as we can to read on behalf of the other. To read on behalf of the one who, I mean, if we can all, right, I mean obviously – if we could all be like Jesus that would be great. But I mean, but even Jesus imagining the Samaritan, right, just to imagine the other as the hero of his story, what a great, what a great hermeneutical principle! Imagine that my reading of scripture, whatever passage I’m dealing with, would be best if I placed the one who is less like me or one I cannot even conceive of as significant at the center. If I can imagine like that, then perhaps that might be a better way to conceive of God’s work in the world.
Emerson: Working for these years with the documents of the enslaved, and trying to, kind of, hear them, trying to hear them well, has made me think about my own, you know, I have a Ph.D, right? And I operate from a position of authority in my classrooms, right? Even in my church setting, right? When we –
Pete: You have authority in your classrooms? How do you pull that off?
Pete: I’m still trying to find it.
Emerson: I have to keep reminding them.
Pete: I’m going to retire.
Emerson: [Continued laughter]
Jared: With that, I mean, what I’m hearing you say, maybe I can reframe it using language that is more common for me, but is, it reminds me of what Jesus says in Matthew 7 about good trees bearing good fruit and bad trees bearing bad fruit. And basically, our reading strategy, what I hear you saying is we need to actually first adopt a Jesus ethic of, we have to have a priority or a prioritization of those without power, those who are oppressed, those in our society who are looked down upon, and our reading strategy, we have to begin with that ethical framework and assumption in order to read the Bible well, and when we don’t do that, when we read it from a place of privilege and we don’t recognize it as privilege and we use it to defend our places of privilege, we are inevitably going to find ways to do that. So the Bible doesn’t necessarily correct the ethical framework, it’s this adage that Jesus says that, you know, the bad tree, if you start with the bad tree, if you start with the bad hermeneutic or bad ethic, you can get bad fruit, but it’s bad.
Jared: And if you start with a good foundation, a good root system, a good tree, and you read the Bible through that framework, you’re going to end up with good fruit. And so, the Bible, in some ways, can be a neutral source of what we come to it with. And that just is a, it’s an interesting thing because in my tradition, it would have been, no, you start with the Bible, and if you read it as it should be written, or read, then you come out with a good ethic, and in some ways it sounds like it’s flipped that we begin from this place of, the Jesus way of seeing the world, and that includes then, how we read the Bible. Would that be a fair way of saying that?
Emerson: Yeah, I think so. We almost, with the Genesis of Liberation book, we almost published the book without writing an excursus on Jesus. And the excursus on Jesus we wrote was because the editor said you can’t write this book – if people in the Black church get this book, they want to know about Jesus. And I thought, no, that’s right. That’s right. That’s the starting point. And that’s the starting point for the enslaved. So, in our excursus on Jesus, because we were really dealing with scriptural passages, right? Biblical passages, scriptural texts, and we thought well, I mean, I know Jesus is a kind of text, but Jesus is not really a text, but Jesus is a text! And for the enslaved, it’s, we actually called the, we titled the excursus “Jesus Christ was Sold to the Highest Bidder.” That actually comes directly out of Peter Randolph’s narrative, because for them, the starting point was yeah, you’re about to sell us and break off our families, but Jesus is on the auction block with us. He’s not with you, selling us. That’s impossible for us to conceive of Jesus that way! Right, so, it begins with Jesus. Jesus is the text. And then you go to the text next, and I think that’s right. I think the way you put that, Jared, I think that’s right.
Pete: Well, listen, wonderful. Emerson, we’re really getting to the end of this time now we have together, sorry about that.
Emerson: Oh no, wow.
Pete: Pretty powerful stuff, but anything you want to leave us with, like if you’re working on anything at the moment? I know you published this book not too long ago, and you’re probably grading things too. Or just where people can find you if they want to connect with you at all online.
Emerson: Yeah. I mean, I have a Twitter account, that’s my activity in the social media, @EmersonBPowery. And I’m actually working on a project on the Good Samaritan, thinking about the Good Samaritan through both in terms of Luke’s context in Luke 10. Luke’s the only gospel that has it, but also in later voices. So, Augustine and trying to dig deep in Augustine’s world, his conflict with the Donatists and his telling of the Good Samaritan there, and then Howard Thurman. I’m putting Howard Thurman in conversation with Augustine. Howard Thurman’s little volume Jesus and the Disinherited was carried around by Martin Luther King and his, along with his Bible, he carried Thurman’s little book. And then I’m putting a conversation with Harriet Jacobs and her reading of the Good Samaritan in conversation with a Nicaraguan community from the 1970’s, the Solentiname community that was led by Ernesto Cardenal. And they have these great, popular Bible studies and a number of engagements with the Good Samaritan, so I’m putting those in conversation as a way of then going back and thinking about Luke’s context, right? And just, how Jesus himself imagined the other as the hero of the story, so.
Pete: Yeah. Well, these ongoing conversations between the horizons of the ancient and different contemporary moments. That’s powerful stuff Emerson, we appreciate it. Thanks so much for being with us, we really had a great time, glad you had a chance to stop by virtually.
Emerson: Great. Thanks for having me on!
Jared: Absolutely, thanks so much.
Pete: See ya.
Emerson: Bye bye.
Pete: Well folks, thanks for listening to another episode of The Bible for Normal People. We hope you have a chance to check out Emerson’s book and find him on Twitter and engage him further on, to understate the matter, a very important topic.
Jared: Yeah, and while you’re online, we did just want to remind everyone that we appreciate all the support that we get on Patreon. So if you can, we would appreciate you heading there to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople. There are ways to engage in the conversation we just had as well as many others there for different levels of support, so we really appreciate everyone that makes this podcast possible, and we’ll see ya next time.
Pete: See ya!
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