Cleaning Up Our Messes
By Angela N. Parker.
On January 29th Rochester police handcuffed and pepper sprayed a distressed nine year old Black girl child. Let that sink in.
While responding to a domestic call, police pepper-sprayed a child. I am a Black mama. I would be angered and horrified if my child experienced such an assault. I am also a Womanist New Testament scholar who takes seriously the experiences of Black women and girls as valid theoretical frameworks for reading biblical texts. I am also a critically thinking Black woman. I believe that had the child been White-presenting, she would not have suffered such trauma.
January 29th compels me to argue that there is much to clean up in the collective consciousness of those who police women and girls both in real life and in biblical texts. Understanding that consciousness is not merely successive thinking within the ideas and thoughts of a person, I hold that consciousness lies within the experiences of a self that is situated in a particular world and structured within particular space and time. Specifically, White supremacist consciousness is not just thinking, feeling and perceiving the doctrine that the White race is inherently superior to other races and should have control over all peoples. White consciousness actually acts White supremacy out in the operation of brain, body, AND living.1 White consciousness acted on January 29th and is the same White consciousness that ignores or uncritically debases the lives of women in the biblical text. Therefore, I interpret texts while taking seriously Katie Geneva Cannon’s statement that a Womanist consciousness2 reads the scriptures in order to struggle for human dignity, fight against White hypocrisy and struggle for justice by understanding the prophetic tradition of scriptures as a way to face formidable oppression.3 Adding to Cannon’s thought, I fight White consciousness with a counteracting Womanist consciousness.
Part of being Black and Brown in the United States entails the constant recognition that you experience gaslighting. Gaslighting occurs when spectators around an aggressive incident doubt or question the reality of said incident often while questioning the anger of the aggressed person. How many people doubted or questioned the severity of the Rochester incident? How many people told the parents of the child to “forget about it and move on”? Black and Brown members of society take note that we often experience escalated policing practices that produce more trauma. As we point out inequities in policing, we are simply trying to clean up the messes of unfair practices while asserting the value of our own humanity.
Similar issues occur within biblical interpretation. In the classroom I often engage the story of Herodias and her dancing daughter in Mark 6:17-29 from a Womanist perspective.4 Specifically, I ask how do White men “read” the bodies of women and girls? I show students how male scholars make a mess by dehumanizing both mother and daughter in interpretation. Contrasting a Womanist reading with traditional scholarship, I engage the anger of women and girls who lack recourse to resolve anger. Herodias is a mother raising a daughter among the commonplace experience of the Roman imperial political system and its inherent violence. Herodias is also a woman who has been passed from husband to husband. In the Markan text, she causes the death of John the Baptist. While contemporary sensibilities may find this story horrific, none of us are women who live in the Roman imperial context. We do not know what savvy nature Herodias had to possess to stay alive, stay clothed, or stay fed. Additionally, Herod throws a party and has Herodias’s daughter (not his own biological daughter) dance for him and his guests. The narrative states that Herod is so pleased with the dance that he promises to give her anything she asks. After seeking Herodias’s advice, the daughter asks for the head of John the Baptist.
Again, none of us are women who have been passed from one man to another in such an imperial context. Nonetheless, according to traditional interpretations, Herodias and her daughter deserve “blame” for the death of John the Baptist. Even if Herodias and her daughter should bear blame in the context of the story (and mind you, most scholars consider the story as a fabled “court tale” that lacks factuality), following some feminist biblical scholars, I believe that Herodias and her daughter suffer violence at the hands of male commentators who interpret the text.5 One violent example argues that Herodias and her daughter are sexually depraved (even though no such depravity exists in the text). Specifically, Dan Via argues that Herod’s stepdaughter, a girl of about twelve years, is “quite ready to exploit her charms publicly.”6 Such argumentation, uncritically accepted in traditional scholarship, does not address the anger of Herodias as a mother in dire circumstances. Moreover, this argument attaches sexual maturity to a child within the biblical text. If scholars dare not attach such maturity to children today, why would we do so when reading biblical texts? As readers of texts, culture, and society, we must charge one another to read critically when women and girls appear. Only then will we begin to clean up the messes of White supremacist consciousness and value the humanity of all women and children.
Angela N. Parker is the Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek at McAfee. She received her B.A. in Religion & Philosophy from Shaw University (2008), her M.T.S. from Duke Divinity School (2008-2010) and her Ph.D. in Bible, Culture, & Hermeneutics (New Testament focus) from Chicago Theological Seminary (2015). Before this position, Dr. Parker was Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology for 4 years. While at The Seattle School, Dr. Parker received the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion’s ESF New Scholar Award (2nd Place) for her article “One Womanist’s View of Racial Reconciliation in Galatians.” She teaches courses in New Testament, Greek Exegesis, the Gospel of Mark, the Corinthians Correspondence, and the Gospel of John. She is also working on a new course that engages womanist and feminist hermeneutics unto preaching.
In 2021, Dr. Parker’s book entitled If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I: Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority is slated for release by Eerdmans Publishing. In this work, Dr. Parker argues that the doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility serve as tools of White supremacist authoritarianism. In another forthcoming book entitled Bodies, Violence, & Emotions: A Womanist Study of the Gospel of Mark, Dr. Parker thinks through the issue of imperial violence and its effects on the bodies of Jesus, John the Baptizer, and the woman suffering in a flow of blood in Mark 5. This study allows Dr. Parker to engage real lived experiences of violence and emotions in contemporary society. Dr. Parker is also the author of articles entitled “Reading Mary Magdalene with Stacey Abrams,” “Feminized-Minoritized Paul? A Womanist Reading of Paul’s Body in 1 Corinthians,” and “And the Word Became. . . Gossip? Unhinging the Samaritan Woman in the Age of #MeToo.”
In addition to her teaching and research, Dr. Parker serves as co-chair for the Paul & Politics Seminar of the Society of Biblical Literature and is a committee member of SBL’s Feminist Hermeneutics of the Bible as well as a committee member of the American Academy of Religion’s Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities Committee.
- Alva Noë, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009), 10.
- Womanist consciousness is different from feminist consciousness because feminist consciousness lumps women together as one large subordinate group that suffer hardships under patriarchy. While Womanist consciousness, on the other hand, recognizes patriarchy, as stated above, Womanist consciousness also interrogates racism and classism in order to promote sisterhood and establish goals and strategies to change black women’s conditions in the world and provide for an alternate vision of the future.
- Katie Geneva Cannon, “The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness,” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Letty M. Russell (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1985), 30-40.
- See Angela N. Parker, “Can’t Stop the Feelings: “Can’t Stop the Feelings: Anger and Identity in Mark 6:17-29,” The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture, June 12, 2017, https://theotherjournal.com/2017/06/12/cant-stop-feelings-anger-identity-mark-617-29/.
- Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. But She Said : Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation. Boston : Beacon Press, 1992. 48–49; Jennifer A. Glancy, “Unveiling Masculinity: The Construction of Gender in Mark 6:17–29,” Biblical Interpretation 2, no. 1 (1994): 34–50.
- Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 130; and Dan Via, The Ethics of Mark’s Gospel in the Middle of Time (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985), 108.