Smile Politely

The Empire Strikes Back with the Bible

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza was born with malformed hands in Germany in 1938. The story is told that her father recognized she would not make a good farmer’s wife, so he decided instead to invest in her education, and shipped her off to school. She has subsequently become one of the most influential feminist theologians in the world, and is currently the Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity at Harvard.

She was also at The Spurlock Museum Auditorium last Thursday, as the guest speaker for the annual Marjorie Hall Thulin Lecture by the Program for the Study of Religion at the University of Illinois. The lecture gives students and the general public a chance to interact with influential theologians of our day, such as Charles Curran and Stanley Hauerwas.

As she waved her hands animatedly while answering questions about feminism and empire, I considered that even though a handicap might occasionally provide an opportunity, it is still a handicap that one has to deal with. White people may resent the occasional opportunity given to people of color, but people of color don’t stop having barriers put in front of them just because they’ve been given an opportunity. And Schussler Fiorenza didn’t become the most influential feminist theologian because her hands are malformed — she became who she is because she is smart and hard-working.

I pondered all this during the lecture because it was clear early on that I was in a bit over my head on the subject matter at hand. The topic was “Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire” and she talked about how Christian scripture was formulated during the time of the Roman Empire, and has been used in the service of empire ever since. At some point my brain became a wet sponge that was unable to absorb much of what was being said and I resigned myself to buying Schussler Fiorenza’s The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire to see what I was missing.

Luckily, a number of people from my church were also there, and a plurality of them were able to follow along and fill me in on some missing gaps. One of her main points was that when we demand “final solutions” and right answers from our holy scriptures, we can’t help but approach the world in a mode of domination over others. Having a native German use the phrase “final solution” certainly got my attention there.

She also points out how power can be wielded as a dominating force over others, or it can be a way to enable, energize, or liberate others. When “power over” is divinely sanctioned, and there is a single authoritative way to interpret or express religiosity, scripture eventually becomes a way to support empire of some kind.

She advocates for a “radical democracy” where scriptures are approached with a hermeneutics of suspicion. She sees great danger in the human temptation to require absolutes. The authority of scripture is no longer a Christian-only matter once it is used to subjugate others.

During the discussion period, a guy behind me made the claim that all isms are in the service of empire and what does she have to say to that, eh? She said it didn’t make any sense to her. After the lecture the guy grumbled to his friend that his questions are too controversial, and people avoid answering them. I enjoyed the exchange, if only to validate what a great decision I made not to go back to grad school.

Despite the density of the lecture, there was great free food afterward. My fellow Mennonite church friends and I shared our new-found shards of information while trying not to clog up the food line. We enjoyed her message of suspicion about scriptural interpretation and managed not to be tempted by empire for the rest of the evening, a task for which we were already pretty well-suited.

When it was time to close up, the hosts encouraged everyone to take the food home, because it all had to be thrown out afterward. Not all the Mennonites may have understood everything in the lecture, but we certainly understood the sin of not letting good food go to waste. So we packed up bags filled with imported cheese, fresh fruit, and chocolate covered strawberries, and headed home, feeling optimistic about our chances of not dominating others with absolutes.

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