“What, then, is the Church?”: A Womanist Biblical Scholar’s Response
Mitzi J. Smith, Davidson Phillips Professor of New Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary
“Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue…time has passed, and in that time the Christian world has revealed itself as morally bankrupt and politically unstable.” –James Baldwin
Unfortunately, predominantly white churches and theological schools historically, routinely, and paternalistically silence and ignore the opinion or wisdom of black people and people of color when making decisions that impact these groups. Black women’s voices especially are usually omitted from conversations about racial reparations and reconciliation. So I am happy to reflect and share my perspective as a womanist biblical scholar. A womanist privileges the experiences, artifacts, epistemologies, and wisdom of black women, the ancestors, and our communities. As a womanist, I unapologetically read biblical texts from the perspectives and experiences of black women and our communities. Some enslaved Africans rejected the ideology that claimed no matter who reads the Bible, the interpretation will be the same. When told through catechisms and sermons that God was the architect of their enslavement and commanded them to be good and submissive slaves, enslaved Africans rejected the ideology that reading the Bible was an objective, neutral endeavor. They knew that if they could read, they would understand the Bible differently from their enslavers. Also, for enslaved and free Africans and African Americans, the Bible was/is not and could not be the sole source of God’s revelation. Enslavers taught enslaved Africans that God does not reveal God’s self to black people. God revealed God’s self in the Bible, and only the white man had access to the words of God. So, as Stephen Reid argues, enslaved Africans read with the hermeneutics of suspicion, long before white feminists popularized the phrase as a method of interpretation. Like many of our ancestors, womanists read Scripture unapologetically with and through a cultural framework.
Like enslaved Africans, I read the Bible for freedom, justice, and neighbor-love. A moderate response to evil discourages neighbor-love. Neighbor-love is a divine imperative; it is the sine qua non, that demonstrates we are in good relationship with Goddess/God. The church and seminary, as institutions, and their individual constituents and members, must embody neighbor-love toward each other and all of God’s human and nonhuman creation in very concrete and particular ways. While a womanist advocates for the well-being of black women in particular, she works toward wholeness for the entire community. She is a universalist who believes all human beings should live in freedom (the antithesis of enslavement), as in “mama I’m going to Canada and I’m taking a whole lot of other folk with me. Ans: it wouldn’t be the first time.”
Slavery, Biblical Interpretation, and the Church
“What, then, is the Church?”, Dr. William Yoo asks. In response to this question, we should also ask, ‘What is the Church’s relationship to the Bible and its understanding of biblical interpretation, particularly in light of slavery? Yoo’s essay examines James Henley Thornwell’s understanding of the Church, his slavery apologetics, and the broader social context of Columbia Theological Seminary to understand how CTS “actively perpetuated racial injustice and abjectly failed to repair the sins of slavery.” The PCUSA and Thornwell, one of its leading theologians, sought a solution to the ‘problem of slavery.’ As articulated by Thornwell and other Christian slave masters, slavery was more of a problem for the white slaveowner than for the enslaved. Slaveholders refused to interpret the Bible, theologize, or engage in moral and ethical reflection that consider the voices and perspectives of the enslaved Africans; their own interests always trumped justice and freedom for all. They presumed to interpret, theologize, and do moral reflection in a way that allowed them to construct and claim to access the Scriptures as if self-interpreting and an ethical response to slavery that favored slave masters. Thornwell and others at CTS concluded that the appropriate response to slavery was “a middle way”—a path that black and white abolitionists rejected.
Dr. Yoo states that Thornwell and others concluded that the Bible supports their ‘middle way’ solution to their predicament: “Slavery, after all, had existed throughout history, with clear, direct, and numerous references to it in the biblical record…the Bible addressed slavery in cool, dispassionate, [and] didactic’ language and treated it as a hierarchical relation alongside husbands and wives, parents and children, and magistrates and subjects.” This characterization is not false. The Bible consists of testimonies of the perspectives and struggles of peoples, primarily elite survivors, some of who continued to possess enslaved persons. We cannot replicate the Bible where it fails to give testimony to the freedom, love, justice and peace of God.
At the heart of the problem is our view of the Bible and approaches to biblical interpretation. Christians, then and now, consider the Scriptures as the unadulterated word of God, untainted by human interaction, cultures, or ideologies and void of contradictions. If the Bible did not reflect the moderate way that Thornwell, the PCUSA and CTS adopted, but a more conservative view, then their hermeneutical conclusions implicitly rejected the biblical characterization of slavery, and instead moved the hermeneutical needle ever so slightly to the left. Thus, they soothed their consciences, as Dr. Yoo notes. This middle way safeguarded (for generations to come) their bank accounts, endowments, property holdings, inheritance, and comfortable lifestyles that the continued enslavement of Africans afforded them.
The biblical text can and did support the agendas of both pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates. In the 19th century, both, for example, deployed Paul’s letter to Philemon to support the enslavement and emancipation of enslaved Africans, respectively. Philemon can be read as a letter in which Paul implicitly advocates for the manumission of a slave named Onesimus by his putative slave master, Philemon. But because the letter does not mention manumission, it can be read as Paul returning Onesimus, an enslaved man, to his master Philemon using fictive kinship language to supposedly ameliorate any violence Philemon could inflict upon Onesimus. Paul merely advocates for ‘brotherly’ treatment of Onesimus: that he be treated ‘like a brother.’ Fictive kinship language employed by slave masters toward the enslaved did not mitigate the cruelty of the relationship: one human being owning another, the imposition of social death on the enslaved, who had no say in what constituted cruelty or brotherly treatment. Where the bible reflects a culture of enslavement or the morality and ethics of a slave society like that of the Roman Empire, the Christian interpreter, seminaries, and churches must be willing to critique the oppression in the biblical text, even when God and Jesus are characterized, explicitly or implicitly, as slave masters (see, e.g., Jdgs. 3:7–8; 1 Cor 7:22). God is a God of freedom and liberation; we see this, for example, in God’s liberation of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt and the constant plea that Israel remember the Exodus.
The complicity with slavery that we witness in biblical texts does not mean it contains nothing to contradict the middle way that Thornwell, the General Assembly of the PCUSA, and CTS chose. Yoo shows Thornwell’s hypocrisy in advocating for a middle way on the issue of slavery while “aggrieved when the denomination sought middle ground on doctrine controversies.” Further, Yoo rightly notes Thornwell’s failure to mention the “pervasive physical abuse and sexual violence that enslaved persons experienced.” I believe that Thornwell, the PCUSA and CTS disingenuously, for self-preservation, claimed to be unaware of anything in the Bible that opposes the enslavement of human beings. Why did the overwhelming majority of slaveholders, including Christian masters, go out of their way to prohibit the enslaved Africans from reading the Bible? American capitalism, then and now, needs an underclass to thrive. Even, or especially, Christian ministers were known for their cruelty towards the enslaved; their words, their sermons did not mitigate the violence. They permitted nothing to interfere with the slave society they created—its comforts and wealth. They knew that enslaved Africans would never stop fighting for their freedom, as the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion proved, as did the mundane ways Africans resisted.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, both opposed and promoted slavery while attempting to establish his own authority and the superiority of his gospel. The Galatians were exhorted to refrain from being slaves to a different gospel and to the world they left behind, but to be slaves to one another and implicitly slaves of Jesus Christ. Paul presented his personal piety as the only imitable model for the Galatian believers, among whom he declares is neither slave nor free. Paul deployed the presumed language of equality from a pre-Pauline baptism formula while simultaneously excluding Hagar. She remained, in Paul’s rhetoric in Galatians, an enslaved woman and the mother of slave children. Paul’s rhetoric must be critiqued and sometimes rejected. Enslaved Africans and African Americans had to reject oppressive sermons and Pauline writings that supported their enslavement; they secularized or de-scripturalized them, no longer regarding them as sacred texts. James Baldwin contends the following regarding Paul:
White Christians have forgotten several elementary historical details. They have forgotten that the religion that is now identified with their virtue and their power…came out of a rocky piece of ground in what is now known as the Middle East before color was invented, and that in order for the Christian church to be established, Christ had to be put to death, by Rome, and that the real architect of the Christian church was not the disreputable, sun-baked Hebrew who gave it his name but the merciless fanatical and self-righteous St. Paul.
The church and seminary will not ask ‘what does the Bible say?’ because the Bible does not ‘say’; it is interpreted, at every level, including the Greek text. The church will ask ‘who is God?’ Who or what are we in relation to God? Who are we in relation to all God’s creation? What is the Bible in relation to God (not the reverse)? We should know for certain that the Bible is not God. The ‘master’s tools’ are inscribed within its pages. And as Audre Lorde asserts “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Only God is absolutely infallible! In the early 19th to the early 20th century, the infallibility of scripture found a home in Protestantism. Protestants essentialized and highlighted the Bible’s silence, support of, and complicity with slavery, white supremacy (via the “curse of Ham”), and European colonialism, as well as its partnership with evangelical missionaries (via the so-called ”Great Commission”). Simultaneously, they claimed the infallibility of the scriptures as interpreted by Eurocentric biblical interpreters and methods, and successfully scripturalized or sacralized evil, colonization, and the enslavement of peoples of African descent.
The people of God, in and outside the church’s walls, must continually ask and revisit these questions: Who is Goddess/God? What does Goddess/God require of us? Where in and beyond the Bible do we see the Goddess/God who loves every creature that bears the image of mother Goddess? How do we reflect the image of a God who creates and gives his creation freedom and not enslavement? Goddess/God’s acts of creation are life-giving; they do not decimate or enslave God’s creation. How do our approaches to biblical interpretation, readings, theologies, policies, curriculums, rituals, and worship reflect the worst or best of our cultures? (They always reflect our cultures. And whiteness is not without culture. How does whiteness get performed?) And which cultural ideologies and values guide our interpretations and inform our God-talk and ethical practices?
Thornwell was convinced, it seems, that worship was more important than neighbor-love and justice; this is another component of a slaveholder religion. Neighbor love, as the Parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates, is a particular, concrete expression of love; it is not an articulation of an abstract idea with no application to the particularity of human experience. In her 19th century slave narrative, Linda Brent aka Harriet Jacobs understood that her slave mistress failed to practice neighbor-love by reneging on her promise to set Linda free when the mistress died. Brent wrote: “the will of my mistress was read, and we learned that she had bequeathed me to her sister’s daughter, a child of five years old. So vanished our hopes. My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.’ But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.’” In his lecture “Love and Desire,” Howard Thurman quotes a man serving a long sentence in prison because during WWI he could not engage in killing: “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a man in jail I am not free.” Thurman further asserts that, “You don’t love in general; you love in particular. … love becomes a manipulative device [like preachers who are professional prayers] and we stand back and operate it while we ourselves are detached from it and uninvolved in. Men can be professional lovers in the same way they can be professional haters. …the person manipulating [love] is really not committed to it.
What does our commitment to neighbor-love look like enfleshed? How does it manifest in society and in the world? The rhetoric of universal love (e.g., I love everybody) does not automatically translate into concrete neighbor-love. The language of love does not mean that in practice I have resolved to love individuals and peoples in their particularity, in very concrete ways, without separating the spiritual or the soul from the body. The body is the temple of God, especially the enslaved body. The pre-Pauline hymn in Philippians 2 states that Jesus emptied himself and took on the form of a doulos (an enslaved man). When the collective body in worship is more important than individual bodies, perhaps the church has been made into an idol (we might have Paul to thank for this too). In the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen, one of the seven deacons, was stoned to death, arguably, because he dared preach to his own people that God did not live in spaces or buildings made with human hands and he accused them of killing the prophets (7:48-60). The Apostle Paul was complicit, at least, in Stephen’s death and the persecution of women and men of the Jesus movement.
The Church as a Human Institution
Channeling Stephen, it is time we stop pretending that the church is not a human institution, even though regarded as sacred. It needs to be shook up, in the similar way that Jesus cleansed the human-constructed second temple in the Gospels. Taking church online in a pandemic is not the scourge we need. Churches and seminaries are as courageous in doing justice, including repentance and reparations, as are their leaders, scholars, stakeholders, commitments, creeds, bylaws, and rituals. Churches are as creative, holy, fallible, sexist, racist, and elitist as those entrusted to operate, speak for, interpret, construct, institute, and enforce their choices and commitments. We have a choice to do evil or to do justice. Whatever we decide, it is our choice; we cannot blame our moral choices on the oppression and oppressive depictions of God in the Bible. The God whom we relish to show up for us as individuals in theophanies of mercy, love, justice, grace, freedom, and provisions should be the God we embody in Decatur and in the world.
Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America because of white racism. Freed black people like Richard Allen started the African Methodist Episcopal Church, because of the violence of white racism that refused to accept black people as full human beings, as worthy to pray without being forced off their knees to give their second-class spaces to white people. Sharecropping, Jim and Jane Crow, voter intimidation and suppression, disenfranchisement, systemic racism, and the prison industrial complex result from the long, relentless, and intractable temper tantrums of white nationalism and racism in reaction to the emancipation and rights and privileges that black people demand and achieve. The tenacity of white Christian supremacy refuses to relinquish control over the spaces—the size, location, and value—that black people can inhabit.
Someone once said that white people in the south don’t care how close black people get as long as they don’t rise too high; that white people in the north don’t care how high black folks rise as long as they don’t live too close. But white people from the south migrate north and white people from the north move south. Few white people will allow themselves to belong to predominantly black spaces (they must be the dominant presence), even when the leadership is white. If the leadership is black, the constituency must remain predominantly white or white people will flee; white flight occurs in neighborhoods and churches. The actual or perceived loss of white dominance, particularly of the white male presence in institutions, churches or seminaries, and in bible departments cannot be abided by white racism. In the ideology of white racism, not always distinguishable but overlapping with white Christianity, the fear of the diminishing of the white male presence in leadership or constituency marks the disintegration of excellence, superiority, and white dominance and progress.
Many ecclesial institutions, including churches and theological schools, remain steeped in paternalism and racism in their disposition towards people of color, and in the ways they conduct business, develop curriculums, hire personnel, and in their (mis)treatment of black students and students of color. For Thornwell to speak of extending righteousness and mercy to enslaved Africans is the language of white supremacy. It articulates the understanding that white people are the sole source and the arbiters of righteousness and mercy and that black people have no righteousness and mercy; it must be extended to them.
Poverty and slavery will plague humankind until the eschaton, not because God ordained it, but because white racism cannot relinquish the dominance gained “with ships, guns, missionaries, Bibles, and Eurocentric biblical interpretation.” But racial bias and violence against persons of African descent, including the enactment of laws and policies, was practiced before white Christian colonists developed the ideology of racism to support the perpetual enslavement of Africans. The Bible became useful after white Christian colonists were already practicing racial bias and violence. Yes, in order to keep their slaves, their wealth, and their comfortable lifestyles that the enslavement of black bodies afforded them, slave masters struck a deal with Christian missionaries and churches to teach the enslaved how to be good, loyal, submissive slaves, even when the masters were absent. As Thornwell argued, the master is not “rebuked as a monster of cruelty and tyranny” and “the slave is nowhere exhibited as the object of peculiar compassion and sympathy’ in the Scriptures.” Matthew’s Gospel, ‘the church’s Gospel,’ is particularly guilty in this regard; I believe the author was a slave owner. The slave masters’ preachers taught the enslaved the most important thing was their soul; that if their souls were saved, they needn’t be concerned with their bodies. While some black peoples physically separated from white supremacist Christianity, building their own churches and electing their own preachers, too many maintained the slave religion that claimed the soul was more important than the body. It emerges in times like these, in a pandemic.
The impact of and benefit from the enslavement of Africans extends from the 16th Century to the present; systemic racism (a form of genocide) continues to kill and disenfranchise African Americans. And the white race in general, as well as CTS, the PCUSA and other Christian and educational institutions survived and thrive because of slavery. White America, white Christianity, the PCUSA, and CTS owe an apology and reparations to the entire African American community that suffers the reverberations of the enslavement of Africans and practices and policies that continue to result from the pernicious and deadly ritualized temper tantrums that white Supremacy and Christian white supremacy continue to throw because of the growing presence, achievements, and freedoms of black people, as well as the insistence that black lives matter. Black people were set free without ‘a pot to piss in’ as my mother would say—not one mule and not one acre. In the hostile diaspora that is America, they were not expected to survive. Police brutality, biased justice systems, discrimination in housing, voter intimidation and disenfranchisement, separate and unequal schools, unfair exorbitant interest rates, denial of bank loans based on race, and so forth are nothing new: they all result from white racism’s tenacious fits of anger, its refusal to relinquish white male dominance, and white nationalism stemming from a lost war and way of living. Slave masters changed their clothes, but not the disposition of white superiority and/or hatred toward peoples of African descent. If white Christian America, CTS, and its constituents do not, cannot, muster enough neighbor-love to repair a share of the damage done and being done to their black brothers and sisters, in very practical ways–as it is in their power to do—it is because they do not want to. Chanequa Walker-Barnes states, “womanists reject outright the notion that reconciliation can be reduced to interpersonal relationships because we are fully aware that power structures relationship…Womanists demand reconciliation [and reparations] that confront inequalities in power, privilege, and access. Its telos is not simply the cessation of racial hostility; it is the establishment of justice and liberation for all women and men…regardless.” What inequality in the institution, the church, and the Decatur-Atlanta community does CTS have the power and wealth to help eliminate, in very particular and concrete ways, that reflect true repentance and the neighbor-love God calls us to embody and practice?
 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1993).
 See Mitzi J. Smith “‘Unbought and Unbossed’: Zilpha Elaw and Old Elizabeth and a Political Discourse of Origins,” BT 9, no. 3 (2011): 287–311.
 Stephen Breck Reid, Experience and Tradition: A Primer in Black Biblical Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991); Mitzi J. Smith, Insights from African American Biblical Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017).
 Alice Walker, “womanish,” in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1983).
 Mitzi J. Smith, “Utility, Fraternity and Reconciliation: Ancient Slavery as the Context for the Return of Onesimus,” in Onesimus Our Brother: Reading Religion, Race, and Culture in Philemon, ed. Matthew V. Johnson, et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012).
 See Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (NY: Bloomsbury, 2014).
 Baldwin, The First Next Time, 44.
 Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA: Cross, 1984), 112.
 See Vincent L. Wimbush, White Men’s Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery (NY: Oxford, 2012); Cain Hope Felder, Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990).
 Harriet Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself,” in Slave Narratives, eds. William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 743–948 (New York: Library of America), 754.
 See Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning. The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (NY: Nation, 2016).
 See Mitzi J. Smith and Lalitha Jayachitra, eds., Teaching All Nations: Interrogating the Matthean Great Commission (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).
 See 1 Cor 7:21–22.
 Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in America (New York: Verso, 2012).
 Chanequa-Walker Barnes, I Bring the Voices of My People. A Womanist Vision of Racial Reconciliation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019), 15.