Friday, March 23, 2012

Memory and the Murder of Trayvon Martin

            It was during the mid-sixties.  Occasionally I worked for a church member who owned a gas station in west Nashville, Tennessee where I grew up.  His son was a friend of mine.  We were responsible for pumping gas, washing customers’ cars, changing wiper blades and other menial tasks.  One Saturday my friend and I were in the next bay changing the oil in a car while a notorious west Nashville local was regaling the mechanic with tales of what he would do to civil rights protestors if he got the chance.  This was, of course, at the height of the civil rights movement.  Nashville and its major African-American educational institutions, Tennessee A & I and Fisk College had been at the center of the protest. After visiting murder and mayhem on the heads of the protestors the man boasted that he had killed two black men in his time.  “Of course,” he grumbled, “that was back when it was still legal to kill a black man.”  He actually didn’t say “black man”.  He used an enduringly offensive term of diminishment and opprobrium.  I had always heard the phrase “my blood ran cold” but I did not know what it meant until that moment.

            This is not an incident I willingly recall.  But it came to mind when I heard of the murder of Trayvon.  In the south of my youth young black men could be beaten and lynched for looking at a white woman the wrong way.  They could be imprisoned for minor offenses and brutalized by prison guards.  Thousands went to their deaths at the hands of shotgun wielding “bulls” at hellholes like Louisiana’s  Angola Prison. We are naïve if we imagine that the fear and bile of those years has been drawn like poison out of our system.  When a young man is murdered and the authorities react with reasoned indifference we are reminded of those days in the South, and not only the South, when killing a black man or woman or child was legal.  And in different parts of the country it could be Mexicans or Chinese or Native Americans who were brutalized and murdered. And if a sheriff or police chief had the courage to charge a murderer, juries routinely acquitted them.

            In the giddy days after the nomination and then election of President Obama there was a great deal of loose talk about a “post racial society.”  But the vilification and misrepresentation of the President almost from day one should have put the lie to such optimistic posturing.  The attacks on President Obama have gone far beyond ordinary political differences.  To this day people doubt his religious affiliation and his citizenship—among other things.  Contrary evidence has no impact on the narrative they have constructed.  They see him as an alien, threatening presence, illegitimately occupying the Oval Office.  I do not say this to support the President’s policies or his re-election.  Those are separate matters.  I say this rather to illustrate the deep-seated antipathy to the “other” occupying the highest office in the land.  President Obama is like Trayvon Martin—he is in the “wrong neighborhood.”  I know there are many principled opponents of the President who on proper political and ideological grounds oppose his administration.  Fair enough.  In a democracy this is not only to be expected, but is required.  But his election, I contend, rather than signaling a post racial society, has stirred up some of the most fetid and ugly parts of our national identity.  This is what needs to be addressed with repentance, tears, and frank condemnation.  Too many bullets have killed too many of our children.  All of us, Democrats and Republicans, citizens of the North and the South, African American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, and white (whatever that is), need to speak truth and pursue justice.  Wendell Berry called racism America’s “hidden wound.”  Today that wound is festering openly for all to see.  God have mercy upon the family of Trayvon Martin.  God have mercy on us all.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

The Problem with Biblical Scholarship

            I have labored in the vineyards of biblical scholarship most of my adult life.  I began serious study of the Bible at a fundamentalist Bible School, moved on to a conservative Evangelical theological seminary and earned my doctorate at a major research university.  I have preached, taught and written about the Bible as the pastor of a local church, the editor of a denominational magazine, and as a seminary professor.  I have a great deal of respect for the craft and skill of many of my colleagues in biblical scholarship.  But I also have problems with the way the field has done its business.  I was reminded of my difficulties while listening to a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature’s Annual Meeting last November.  While giving a paper on the gospels a young scholar complained bitterly about the incursion of “theology” into the study and interpretation of the gospels.  This is a far from uncommon complaint.  In fact, I am convinced that it would be as shocking for many at that giant academic nerd fest we call AAR/SBL for a speaker to draw an implication as it would be for him to disrobe on the platform.

            The problem with this is that it assumes a kind of scholarly objectivity that simply doesn’t exist.  Biblical scholarship (and it is not alone) has suffered from an illusion that religious, cultural, and scientific biases can be put aside for the sake of a disinterested reading of the text.  But this is as likely as my being disinterested when the Chicago Bears are playing a football game.  The scholar complaining about the incursions of “theology” into the interpretation of the text did nothing so much as indicate the depth of his naiveté.  Marilynne Robinson, in a pair of essays on Moses and the Torah in her wonderful book When I Was a Child I Read Books, reminds us that a good deal of 19th century biblical scholarship was corrupted by (particularly) German nationalism, (mostly) atheistic rationalism, and pervasive anti-Semitism.  The popular division of the Pentateuch into documents JEDP by Julius Wellhausen, for example, was not rooted in scientific objectivity or literary expertise but in specious developmental views of the idea of God in ancient Judaism that amounted, in the end, to a denigration of Judaism itself.  Similarly, the atomistic approach to the historicity of sayings and incidents in the Gospels has very little either historically or literarily to recommend it.  All too often what is deemed “historical” is what is either congenial to the author or embarrassing to his or her opponents.  Modern Biblical scholarship has, in other words, frequently been a tool of the critics of both traditional Judaism and traditional Christianity. 

            This is not to say there are not thoroughly Christian scholars who are doing very careful and thoughtful work on historical questions related to the biblical text.  But their researches, for example, into the Gospels are not based on simplistic and contradictory “criteria” intended to make decisions on historicity easier.  Such criteria are designed, in the end, to produce as few authentic words and actions of Jesus as possible.  The founders of the Jesus Seminar, for example, were not simply engaging in dispassionate investigation of the gospels when they used such criteria.  They were quite openly using the criteria to attack “fundamentalist” Christian readings they found uncongenial.

            Having said this, I also have little use for Evangelical scholars who, having decided on the basis of their view of the Bible that all the sayings and stories in the Bible are accurate and historical, use the tools of critical research to “prove” their historicity.  They would be more honest to acknowledge their presupposition and leave off the specious “proofs”.  This approach is as dishonest in its own way as the tendentious decisions of the Jesus Seminar.  I, for one, am not convinced that everything in the Bible has to be historically accurate for it to be the Word of God.  But that is for another blog.  Responsible scholarship acknowledges its biases, blind spots, and commitments and does not pretend a nonexistent objectivity.  It submits its views to a diverse community for correction and assessment with humility and thankfulness.  Even when it does its scholarship for the church it does it with critical integrity as well as enduring love.

John E. Phelan, Jr.