Rethinking Biblical Literalism for Our Own Well-being

by Elyse A. Minson I recently came across a few statistics about black women and religion that we...

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by Elyse A. Minson

I recently came across a few statistics about black women and religion that weren’t surprising, but certainly can have surprising implications. According to one poll, Black women make up the most religious group in the U.S. This is no revelation—one can rarely see a movie about “black life” that doesn’t feature some sort of “Come to Jesus moment” or a climactic scene scored with a moving gospel tune.  Another study found that 55% of black women say that they view scripture literally, and since most Black women who are religious are Christian, I experienced a record-scratching moment when I considered the harm that biblical literalism has caused and continues to cause black folk, namely black folk who are not heterosexual males.

But let’s talk about the women… the same women who fill up most of the pews in the Black church; the same women who experience a call to ministry but are told, “women are not to speak in the church” and “were any of the twelve disciples men?” (overlooking Mary Magdalene, and other women, who had to convince these men of Jesus resurrection and were the first to discover this good news); the same women who have thought-provoking ideas and when they voice them are told they are displaying a “take-over” spirit or a “Jezebel” spirit; the same women who are diminished and over-looked in the place where they give their all.  Those women. Maybe, you.

But before I do, let me say that I find it quite hard to believe that 55% of black women view scripture literally. According to biblical standards, women are property and can be given by fathers in exchange for a dowry. Women are protected in the Bible and fought for, but often as a possession of her husband. Not coveting a neighbor’s wife has less to do with honoring her or her husband, and more to do with not being down with O.P.P. That being said, I don’t think most of us view scripture literally. For all the church functions I’ve attended, I see that the people have not taken the anti-polyester and anti-pork sentiments of the Bible literally. And why not? Likely, because they do not make sense in our society and because many of us like pork and shrimp and catfish, and many of us know we are not property, but daughters of God.

So, I ask myself, why do women take literally scriptures that are used to oppress them? Why isn’t there a need to consider more fully the witness of the biblical text instead of cherry-picking to suit certain persons’ (generally those who have power and wish to maintain it) agendas? I have to admit, I only notice the Bible taken literally when it comes to (1) certain principles that it is clear are right and just (forgiveness, not murdering and being kind to the poor, etc.), and (2) in a much more dismal scenario in which women and members of the SGL (same-gender loving) community are discriminated against. Isn’t it funny that preachers rarely speak about the fat shepherds that God will punish for “fleecing the flock,” or that we hear that women should submit more than we hear husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church (he died for the church according to what the Bible literally says)? Isn’t it funny that many people will say homosexuality goes against the Bible, including those who rarely engage the Bible, without considering the context of those passages and what they should mean for us today? Why should the black church favor interpretations that harm and create a patriarchal paradigm in which only heterosexual black men, particular those who are in leadership, favor?

This is reminiscent of the way that enslavers used the Bible to try to convince enslaved blacks that they were inferior, and that slavery was actually a blessing to save their savage soul. They quoted, “slaves obey your masters,” no doubt, but the discerning enslaved black woman and man knew something was fishy about this and many clung rather to a God who liberates and loves them, rather than oppresses them in the way of their earthly persecutors. Our foreparents serve as examples to us—women, blacks, men, wives, heterosexuals, lesbians, cisgender, bisexuals, husbands, gays, transgender, and many more—to rethink what we’ve been told, and challenge oppression in whatever form it presents itself believing the God of the oppressed is with us.


Confessions of a Former Judgmental Christian: How I Retired My Gavel and Robe
Black Women Preachers Call for Equity and Justice in the Black Church
Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion

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