When Faith gets Practical: Bible and Activism in the Classroom

 Dr Mmapula Diana Kebaneilwe is Senior Lecturer of Hebrew and Old Testament studies at the University of Botswana.  She obtained her PhD in Old Testament Studies from the University of Murdoch in Perth, Australia in 2012. The title of her PhD thesis was This Courageous Woman: A socio-rhetorical Womanist Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31. Her research interests include: Women, gender and the bible, HIV and AIDS and the bible, the bible and environment.

Over my years as a womanist scholar and Bible believer, I have seen ‘faith’ and ‘activism’ treated as distinctive categories, especially in religious settings. The church, which is a powerful institution in my Botswana context, generally teaches that the Bible is authoritative and should not be questioned. It also claims a monopoly on the Bible, proposing that this Holy Scripture cannot be used for activist purposes, especially not for causes that might conflict with church teaching: for instance, advocacy   relating to non-normative gender and sexuality.

Against this background, my activism usually takes place in the classroom with students of theology. My pedagogical reading combines womanist and feminist approaches with inculturation in order to address contemporary issues. I explain to my students that womanist and feminist theories are founded on the premise that all texts are gendered and that gender is not just a matter of sexual difference but a matter of power (Fewel 1999: 269). Womanism inserts a critical race perspective into feminism, thus intersecting race, class, gender and sexuality.

Womanist and feminist theologies seek to discern, interpret and accompany humanity’s experiences of God in a way that is free of patriarchal domination, exploitation and inhumanity, whether found in human society, or inscribed in texts, ancient and modern, including in biblical texts (Aquino 1998: 89). Inculturation, on the other hand, involves the act of appropriating biblical texts in the contexts of contemporary readers, including our own contexts (West 2015: 21-31). My hermeneutical tools (feminism and womanism) give an affirmative answer to West’s question as to  whether texts have ideological grains and if they can be read against these. Inculturation allows texts to be read with the situational context of the reader (inclusive of ideological factors) in mind. The classroom in this case is viewed as a fertile ground for planting the seeds of liberating, empowering and affirmative ways of reading the Bible. But this way of engaging the Bible has not only proven activist but also controversial and unsettling. Ultimately, can faith and activism, in particular the Bible and activism, go together?

Botswana culture, like many other African cultures, is patriarchal (Oduyoye 1995; Dube 2003).  Patriarchal cultures are marked by gender inequality and by men being treated as superior and women as inferior. When this is coupled with the Bible’s androcentric tendencies, students’ mind-sets are shaped accordingly. Often patriarchal and androcentric normativity is what they bring into the classroom. Observably, students of Theology, Bible and/or Religion programmes at tertiary institutions are often from religious backgrounds and have strong faith commitments. I can personally attest to this since my love for the Bible originated from my very up-bringing, which was Christian and Bible-respecting. Ultimately, going to University meant I could feed my yearning to know more about the Bible and my religion. As a University lecturer now, I have seen students come with similar expectations, hoping to advance their quest to know more about God through the study of the Bible, understood as the divine word.

Interestingly, I have had students come to ask me, after a few lectures, whether I am a Christian. One may wonder why students ask me such a question. This, I believe, arises from the pedagogical approach in my teaching, where I read oppressive biblical texts, not taking for granted their ‘divine truth’ but using them as a tool for critical conversation and social transformation. Let me discuss one example of a text I often use to engage critically with my students: Genesis 1-2, the biblical account of creation.

Reading Genesis 1-2 with students in the course Creation and the Bible

Generally, students (especially males but also some females) contend that the male-gendered person (Adam) was created first and that out of him and for him the female-gendered person (Eve) was created. The usual trend is that Genesis 1:27, which implies that both males and females were created simultaneously, is sublimated; Genesis 2:21-23, which suggests that the male was created first takes precedence. Students often argue that in the order of creation men (as represented in Adam) are superior over women because they were created first and that women, consequently, are the weaker sex who were created out of, and for, men. They often give examples that clearly arise from their cultural and religious backgrounds and orientations. For example, the students argue that because women are inferior and weak, they are appropriately assigned domestic chores and child-rearing while men go out to do more public roles, such as working in the mines, being chiefs and political leaders. They may even quote the Tswana proverb that says ga nke di etelelwa ke managadi pele, ‘cows can never lead the head’ or ‘cows will lead the head to the  precipice’ (Bauer 2010). This is an example of an oppressive cultural belief that discriminates against women and relegates them  to the margins. The arguments usually go to the extent of suggesting that women cannot be trusted, because Eve betrayed humanity (according to many students) by disobeying the command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3). On account of this, they add, women are temptresses, weak and therefore they must be confined to the home or work as subordinates and not act as leaders, lest they lead others into trouble. Finally, there is a strong belief that humanity comes in binaries, male and female, and that heterosexuality is the norm.  The argument from the Bible is again undershored by a Tswana notion: motho ke monna kana mosadi // ‘humankind is male and female’.

Activism in the Classroom: How does it happen?

Power dynamics are clearly at play in the above interpretation. To investigate such, I ask the students to imagine that the version of creation in Genesis 2, which they suggest affirms gender inequality, does not have priority. We begin with the possibility that if the Bible is authoritative in its entirety, then Genesis 1:27 deserves equal treatment. Bearing in mind that texts are infused with gendered ideologies but that we can read them against their ideological grain and against our own cultural ideologies, we can opt to read in affirmative and liberating ways – and find biblical texts that support this. ‘He created them male and female’ (Genesis 1:27). This suggests at least two affirmative messages: that the male and female were created at the same time and (because the text does not suggest two persons at this stage) that the two sexes were possibly embodied in one person: Adam. Ultimately, this not only implies gender equality but also sexual diversity. If at this stage the divinely created person of Adam was both male and female until the separation that took place in Genesis 2, then sexuality is not just confined to male and female binaries but allows for intersex and sexualities outside of heteronormativity. Such an understanding allows for human sexuality and human sexual orientation to exceed just heterosexuality, because  diversity is the hallmark of God’s creation.

I ask the students to underscore that God created diverse things, animate and inanimate, and that he declared all of his diverse creation ‘good’ as indicated at the end of each day of creation. Who can explain the varieties of the colours we find in flowers, birds, the blue ‘balls’ of some monkeys and not others? The varieties found in all species are a pointer in the right direction if we are thinking about sexual diversities (for instance) so that to be gay or lesbian or bisexual, should be considered variegation in the order of God’s diversified creation. Certain variegations may appear rarely, but this does not imply that they are less precious, they are just not in the majority.  Minorities have equal validity and should have equivalent rights with majorities. Diversity is what makes life, life. It is the creative dynamism of God’s creation.

The class  often unsettles conservative believers but it also opens the eyes of some to the freedom of knowing that though different, we are all human, we are all beautiful. With such and more affirmative readings, I hope to challenge long-held traditions and to undo mind-sets that are limiting and disabling to those who do not conform to the majority. Like variegated leaves and flowers in plants, minorities, be it in sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, colour, or skin texture (e.g. albinism) are rare but equal and beautiful in the creator’s eyes. Who are we to discriminate that which God created and declared ‘good’ for indeed at the end of every created thing God said it is ‘good’ (Genesis 1)? Therefore, there is inherent goodness in all divinely created things, precisely in their diversities (Kebaneilwe 2015).

Written By: Dr Mmapula Diane Kebaneilwe

Image Credit: Nate Higgins @flickr


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