In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Lisa Sharon Harper joins Pete and Jared to discuss the impact that colonization and enslavement had on Scripture and how to begin the humble business of decolonizing our faith. Together, they explore the following questions:
- If our understanding of the Gospel is not good news, then is it really the Gospel?
- Why does Lisa Sharon Harper want to throw up every time she hears someone say Imago Dei?
- What does it mean to be made in the image of God and have dominion over the world?
- How did the Hebrew understanding of sin differ from the Greek lens we are accustomed to?
- How does your understanding of the Gospel influence the platforms you are willing to stand for?
- What is the difference between dominion and domination?
- What does it mean to subjugate God’s image?
- Is the concept of reparations biblical?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Lisa Sharon Harper you can share.
- “Scripture itself does still guide me, and it is the Scripture itself that actually has saved my understanding of Christianity.” @lisasharper
- “Every single word that was written in the entirety of Scripture was written by someone who was either colonized at the time or under threat of colonization and enslavement.” @lisasharper
- “The whole Bible is really stories in the context of colonization and a story of a people struggling to release and free the image of God within them and on Earth.” @lisasharper
- “What it means to be made in the image of God is to be given the call and the capacity, all things being equal, to exercise dominion in the world, to steward the world, to serve and protect the world.” @lisasharper
- “What I’ve come to understand as the core sin of people of European descent, is not that they try to subjugate other humans, it’s that they tried to subjugate God. They went to war with God because they have only understood dominion as domination.” @lisasharper
- “Christianity was founded by Brown, colonized people in the context of colonization. What does it look like then, for us, to go about the humble business of decolonizing our faith? It looks like seeking truth. It looks like listening to truth. It looks like telling the truth.” @lisasharper
MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Organization: Freedom Road
- Book: Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World and How to Repair It All
- Book: The Very Good Gospel
- Book: Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican or Democrat
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Folks, before we get started, just a reminder, we have this amazing course coming up—“Reframing God: An Introduction to Open and Relational Theology,” taught by our good buddy Tom Oord.
Jared: Yes. And so again, it’s Tuesday nights, February 15th and 22nd and then March 1 and 8, four sessions. It’s from 8:00 to 9:30 PM ET.
Today, we’re talking about “The True Meaning of the Image of God,” and we’re talking to Lisa Sharon Harper.
Pete: Right. And she is the Founder and President, fascinating story, but she’s the founder and President of Freedom Road, which is about racial reconciliation. She’s written a bunch of books too, and the most recent one just came out within the last week or so, called Fortune, which is a look back at her own ancestry going back, I think, like 10 generations and then implications of that. So, it’s just a fascinating book. And we really recommend it to you.
Jared: This is one of those things that we’ll pull back the curtain and say the questions that we thought we were gonna cover, we didn’t cover. And I am so glad that we didn’t really get to them because what a fantastic conversation with Lisa-
Pete: And very typical, you know, we say this a lot, but we’ll say it again. One of the joys of having the podcast is we have people on who…we don’t think the same way exactly that we did before after hearing, and this is just one of those episodes. So, we think you’re gonna really like this one.
Lisa: The writer or writers of Genesis, they were writing it in the context of colonization, in the context of slavery, in the context of oppression. They were Afro-Asian people. They were Brown colonized people. And in Jesus’s time, colonized by people who believed that what it meant to be fully human was to be white, male, and able-bodied.
Pete: Well, Lisa, welcome to our podcast. It’s great to have you.
Lisa: It is so awesome to be with you guys. I’ve been hearing about this podcast for the longest time, and I’m honored to be here. Thank you.
Pete: Wonderful! And you have a special guest with you, I think too, right?
I do. If you ever hear a dog bark, I have my new dog, Babe, with me. She is fabulous.
Lisa: She is part Chihuahua and part Italian Greyhound, we think. We’re going to get the DNA done, but that’s what we think.
Lisa: And yeah, so anyway, I’m sorry that she might interrupt, but if she does, just know she’s trying to get her voice heard too.
Pete: And she deserves it, I think. That’s fine, because that’s a dog for you. So, I have a cat that’s on my head practically every time I do anything, but you can’t really hear it because they don’t bark.
Pete: No. But still, it’s the same thing. So anyway, let’s begin. And just if you can give us a little bit of your spiritual biography to help us and our listeners get to know you a little bit better.
Lisa: Well, sure. I mean, my family before, you know, going way, way back, we have Episcopal, Black Episcopal Church roots. But I didn’t grow up really going to church. We went to church once every other year on a good year kind of thing, and that was only on Easter. But then when my mom and dad divorced and we moved down to Cape May, New Jersey, to move in with the Harper family and my mom got married to Ernie Harper. It was there that I encountered white evangelical faith, and they didn’t really call themselves evangelical, but that’s what they were. And, you know, they were definitely white. That’s where I found Jesus. That’s where I started asking questions at 14 years old and asking, you know, who is God? What is prayer? How do we communicate with God?
So, I spent a whole year going deep into these questions with my youth group of six people, and then also an area-wide youth group I now believe was Young Life. And it was at the end of that year, in 1983 at a Sunday evening camp church meeting, August 21st about nine o’clock at night, at the end of the hellfire, brimstone guest preacher who was there for revival, I went forward. But I went forward because one of my best friends at the time, Terry Cortez, she tapped me and said, “Would you walk forward with me?” And I would, you know, I was kind of debating should I go? I mean, I’ve already sat through a million of these. You know, I’ve done walk-a-thons for Jesus. I’ve done sing-a-thons for Jesus as a part of my youth group. I mean, I must be Christian by now.
Pete: Yes, seriously.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Lisa: Right? But then she tapped me. I said, “Okay, I’ll go.” So, we got down to the altar and she started to weep and then I started to weep, and then all the old ladies surrounded us both. So, I like to joke that I got into the Kingdom by proxy on that day.
Pete & Jared: [Laughter]
Lisa: I was just close to somebody who got in and I kind of slipped in too. But I’ll tell you what, my life literally did change.
Pete: So, that was a genuine experience?
Lisa: Oh my gosh, yes. It really was. I literally- Okay, get this guys. I was on a diet.
Sharon: I was actually on a diet. Like, I think it was even like the Diet Center diet or something like that back in the day. And I weighed myself that morning and I weighed myself that night, I was 10 pounds lighter when I came home from that revival, I was 10 pounds lighter on the scale. And I think that was spiritual weight, that the scale was registering, I checked it the next morning to make sure that scale’s not broken, and it still registered 10 pounds lighter, and I felt it too. I literally see my life as before Christ and after Christ, before Jesus and after Jesus. And now I’ve added before Brown Jesus and after Brown Jesus. As I began to understand Jesus’s context, the context of his people, it really has changed everything.
Lisa: Twenty years ago, actually, literally, well, 18 years ago, I went on a pilgrimage and that pilgrimage changed my life because it was a pilgrimage through two of the darkest stories in American history. And I was very much, you know, a Campus Crusader. I was on staff with InterVarsity. I was in Crusade in undergrad on staff with InterVarsity, pushing InterVarsity to adopt the Four Spiritual Laws in the 1990s. You know? When the bridge diagram was coming out and you had all kinds of diagrams trying to diagram the Gospel. And here we go on this pilgrimage, and I am now riding on the dirt, on the roads that my own ancestors trod. Where, according to our family story, at the time we walked the Trail of Tears and also, obviously, we were part of the enslavement of Africans in America.
And so, we were retracing those two stories, I got to the end of the summer and thought, can I go up to my ancestors? Can I go up to Leah Ballard, my third great-grandmother, who we believe was a breeder, because she had seventeen children, five of whom are just lost, because she probably had them, she’d had them, actually, before abolition at the end of the Civil War. And so, could I go up to her and could I share the Four Laws with her? And would she jump and shout for joy? Could I say to her, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, but you are sinful and therefore separated from God. But, Jesus died for the payment to pay the penalty for your sin. And so, all you need to do is pray this little prayer at the back of the little booklet and you get to go to heaven.” Could I? Could I say that to her and have her receive that as good news? And when I was really gut level, like bone honest with myself, it was, “Hell, no.” Because she would have probably looked at me and said, “Do you not see me? Do you not see me, child? Do you not see my context?”
Lisa: So, that threw me into a year of depression, literally, because you know, as an evangelical-
Pete: Your whole narrative is all kaput at that point. I mean, everything was just falling apart–your spiritual narrative, right?
Lisa: Yes, exactly. As an evangelical, your understanding of the world revolves around the Gospel. So, now my Gospel was falling apart, my understanding of the Gospel. So, how do I orient myself to the world? And I was an evangelist, I am an evangelist, that’s what I am. It’s one of my primary spiritual gifts. And so, I asked the question of God over that next year, “Well, if this isn’t the Gospel, if my understanding of the Gospel is not good news to my own family, or would not be received as good news, then is it your Gospel? Is it the Gospel?”
And that, my friends, that’s what, you know, threw me into now 18 years of swimming in Genesis and the biblical concept of shalom. So, my last book, The Very Good Gospel, came out in 2016. And that was my attempt, and I think a pretty successful one, of kind of writing it all down, like writing down what this journey has been and the aha moments and the things that have clicked as I’ve been swimming in the Scripture.
So, I do still call myself an evangelical. About a year ago, I was really shaky on it. I think, especially because of the election year and the way that it’s been politicized. But when I’m really real, the reality is that the Scripture itself does still guide me. And it is the Scripture itself that actually has saved my understanding of Christianity because the Scripture tells me that Jesus was Black, politically Black and physically Brown, that Jesus was from a people who were serially enslaved. And every single word that was written in the entirety of Scripture, was written by someone who was either colonized at the time or under threat of colonization and enslavement.
And so, except, the only people that you could actually argue that that’s not the case, and actually, and then I would have an argument back, would be David and Solomon, because they were kings, right? But they were kings of a dinky little kingdom that kept getting sacked.
Lisa: No, they were not kings of an empire like we understand today. They were not kings like that, and the whole Bible was written in the context of their kingdom getting sacked. So, you know, you got the Babylonian, you know, colonization, you have the Assyrians, you have the Romans, you know, you have Egypt. I mean, the whole Bible is really stories in the context of colonization and a story of a people struggling to release and free the image of God within them and on Earth. So, that has changed everything for me.
Jared: Yeah. You mentioned some aha’s and things that clicked whenever you come to those realizations about what’s in the Scriptures and who Jesus was. Can you just, can you say a little more about what those aha’s were? What clicked and what were the implications of that? How did it shift kind of the, you said before Brown Jesus and after Brown Jesus? What changed in that moment or in that timeframe?
Lisa: The first aha was about the word ‘Shālēm’. On the first page of the Bible, the word Shālēm is the Hebrew word for the image, the image of God. And you know, we always hear Imago Dei. I’ll tell you what, I actually literally want to throw up every time I hear somebody say Imago Dei. Why?
Pete: Yeah, why?
Lisa: Because Imago Dei is Latin.
Lisa: It’s not from the Scripture. It’s actually the language of the colonizer, of Rome. Or, you know, now Rome, right? So, it’s the language of Europe, it is not the language of the oppressed ones who wrote this. And so, you know, people have done good work to try to, you know, translate. I don’t know why they would do this, though, the Latin, which we don’t speak, you know, into the Hebrew, so that we can understand the Hebrew. Let’s just go right to the Hebrew, can we do that? Can we go right to the Brown language? Let’s do that. And the Brown language Shālēm, what that means is it means representative figure, but in the context, it is actually revolutionary. Because no people group up to that point, no civilization had ever placed the image of God, inside everybody. They always only placed the image of God inside the royalty: the kings, the queens, the barrows.
So here, on the first page of the Bible, the writer or writers of Genesis, whether you believe it’s Moses who wrote the whole thing, which I don’t ascribe to, or if even if you believe that it’s the priests who were exiting the Babylonian exile, either way, they were writing it in the context of colonization, in the context of slavery, in the context of oppression. And here, in that context, they are about to exit their oppression and enter into their own rule, whether it’s, again, whether it’s the priest coming out of Babylon, or if it’s Moses about to enter into the Promised Land. They’re about to enter into their own rule. They could have grabbed power and nobody would have been the wiser, because that’s the way it was always done. They could have said, “And God said, ‘Let the priests be made in the image of God,’” nobody would have said, “Why aren’t I?” Because that’s the way it had always been done. But they didn’t. They cast power out to all.
And by power, if you know, in case you didn’t get it, they said, “and let them have dominion.” And that word dominion is the word radah and the word radah it means, it actually means not to rule, but it’s something closer than to, to steward, it means to steward. And actually, if you cut the hair, it actually means to serve and to protect the image of radah in the next chapter, chapter two, is that image of when God takes the human and places them in the middle of the Garden and says till and keep it. The word is not there, but that’s the image of dominion, exercising dominion, and what those words literally do mean are serve and protect. Isn’t that deep? So deep.
Lisa: A call to serve and protect the rest of creation.
Pete: And, you know, that’s really fascinating. And another problem with the Imago Dei language is that when I hear Christians use that it gets immediately intellectualized.
Lisa: Oh yeah.
Pete: Like, for example, you know, well we’re made in the image, what makes us in the image of God? Well, our ability to reason, you know?
Lisa: Right, which is nowhere in the text. The text does not say that.
Pete: Exactly. It doesn’t say that. That’s just it. It’s like, I guess, yeah, you’re sort of right because we reason differently than, you know, your dog does or my dog does, right? So, there is something about being human, which is different, I’d say. You know? I’d make that case. I don’t think it’s hard to make it. But that’s not what it says, that’s not the issue. And it becomes very much, I guess that’s consistent with the colonializing language?
Lisa: Oh, absolutely. But here’s the thing, I do think that that text is about what it means to be human. But I think that people have gotten it wrong. I think people have said, “Oh, it means, you know, yeah, it means we think it means whatever.” But the text itself says, “and let them have dominion,” in the same breath without breaking a beat. What it means to be made in the image of God is to be given the call and the capacity, all things being equal, to exercise dominion in the world, to steward the world, to serve and protect the world.
So, the thing is, I mean, we have created a world that has created a hierarchy of those who were, we believe, were called to exercise dominion. And that goes all the way back to Plato. It goes back to Aristotle. Plato said that there’s this thing called race and race divides the world into those who were created to do this for society and those were created to do that for society and those were created to do this for society. And race is determined by the metal that different people are made of. I just love that, that’s my favorite part, right? So, the gold people are created to do this, the copper people are created to do this.
Well, it didn’t take long, it took like 10 years for Aristotle, his acolyte, to come along and say, well, there’s this thing called hierarchy, right? And so, he actually he says, in his book on politics, he says that if a people group has been conquered, that is indication that they were created to be enslaved.
Lisa: So, when Pope Nicholas V came along, like a thousand years later, he was not referencing scripture in Genesis 1, he wasn’t talking about how all humanity is made in the image of God and therefore called to exercise stewardship of the world. He referenced Aristotle when he said, if you come across land to a family friend who is an explorer and ask for a blessing, if you come across land that is not “civilized” or Christian, then you can claim it for the throne and enslave its people. Because he believed that only the “civilized” were created to exercise stewardship of the world. That is at the heart of how we understand race now, of racial hierarchy.
Pete: Yeah, I think about ten things just clicked for me there. So yeah, that makes a tremendous amount of sense. And I think, you know, to everyone listening, I think it’s really valuable here. Let’s keep our eyes and ears open when we hear image of God language and how it’s being used, right?
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: And to tease the Hebrew as you’re doing, Lisa, is really helpful, too, in terms of, you know, what is humanity supposed to be? And you have prophets regularly commenting on how that’s not happening, right? And you have I mean, this is also getting a little bit–we’ve had Walter Brueggemann on, it has been a few years now–but about how the monarchy was a failure because you couldn’t legislate this, right? Because power corrupts pretty quickly. And, you know, what is the history of kingship and Israel, including David and Solomon, that something always goes wrong very, very quickly. And that’s why profits and kingship are coterminous. That’s when prophets started because you need it. Like okay, guys-
Jared: You need some checks and balances here.
Pete: Please. Right? So, it’s really–I just, I love what you’re saying because it brings several threads like that together.
Lisa: Well, I mean, here’s the thing is that when you put the Bible in its context, the reality that every single writer was writing in the context of oppression, the reality that there’s only one person in the entirety of Scripture, who has a speaking role, who was from Europe. I mean, think about that, that you really think that means they were not thinking about things in the same way that Europeans think about them. They just were not, because they were not European. They were Afro-Asian people, literally, they were Brown colonized people and in Jesus’ time colonized by Europe, by Rome, by people who were actually white supremacists who believed that what it meant to be fully human was to be white, male, and able-bodied. And so, what then does that say about the context that Jesus lived in?
So, you know, when we talk about the image of God when we talk about, you know, these aha moments, for me the aha moments mostly came when I began to understand the language that they were speaking in, what they would have understood about that language and the context within which they were speaking. So, image was the first thing. I think the second thing that kind of the penny that dropped was the word tov. Good, right? When you hear and that was good, it was good, it was good in the first page of the Bible, you get to the very end and it says it was very good, of course, that’s the seventh time. Seven is the number for perfection in Jewish Hebrew language. But tov literally exists between things. It is understood in the Hebrew culture to be a connector of thoughts, goodness then exists between things. It is ethical, it’s not about being perfect. It’s about love. It’s about how we treat each other.
Pete: So, relational?
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: Right? Okay, yeah.
Lisa: Yeah, it’s actually about the ties that bind us together. So, where that goodness would have existed, is it would have existed between all created things, not just in them. So, when God said, this is very good, why God was not saying, “Oh, look, that cloud I just made is very good,” or “look at that walrus is really good.” God was saying the relationship between humanity and all the rest of creation and myself and the way things work, the systems that govern are overwhelmingly good. That word very is the word me’od and it actually means radically good, it means forcefully good, abundantly good. So, that’s how things are on the first page and it’s not till we get to the Fall, and the Fall is when humanity grabs at our own peace in our own way rather than listening to and following and trusting the God who created Shalom, the God of Shalom, so then what do we get? We get the only thing we can give, which is broken Shalom.
Pete: So, you’ve got right away, the relationality aspect starts to fall apart between the Creator and humanity and then also, and between animals like Babe, right? Hi, Babe, how are you?
Lisa: I know, Babe is having her own say.
Pete: She, you know, she needs to be heard too. I don’t blame her. So, you know, between the Creator and humanity and then also, you know, the Cain and Able story between individuals, right? And then you have a situation where I don’t know what the opposite of Shalom is, but maybe, you know, it could be like the Hebrew word ra`, which is sometimes translated as evil, which we take to mean, again, we internalize that and individualize it to me like a bad quality that I have. But what if that’s also a relational kind of term, right? So it’s, I think, the way the web is being broken here, you know, and the things are not working out the way they really should.
Lisa: Yeah. How I’ve come to understand the opposite of shalom, it actually lives in that word, tov, right? T-O-V, you know, that’s obviously not how it’s spelled in the Hebrew, because in the Hebrew language they don’t use those letters. But that is basically how it’s pronounced, tov right? So, how I’ve come to understand it is that that’s what God’s–the heart of God’s concern is. When God looks around at the end of the sixth day and says, “This is very good,” God is telling us what God cares about. God does not care if we are perfect. That is not in the concern of God. God is not asking us to be perfect, only God can be perfect. Instead, God cares about our connectedness, our radical love for each other, our radical connectedness. And so, if that is true, then what is sin? We’ve come to understand sin through a Greek lens, the Greek’s project was to be perfect, was to build the perfect floor, the perfectly level floor to you know, to be perfect. And so, sin and the Greek conception then would be to be imperfect, it would be to miss the mark of perfection, as my youth group leader told me right back in as I when I was 14 years old, but that’s not how the Hebrews understood sin. Sin, for them, was anything that broke any of the relationships that God declared tov me’od on the first page.
Pete: Yeah, something that disrupts community. Yeah.
Jared: Yeah. Well, I want to, maybe if we can, bring that up to some of the present-day context that we find ourselves in because what I’m hearing too is, there are many filters through which we can read the Bible, right? So, when we’re talking about hermeneutics or how we interpret the Bible, it always depends on the lens through which we’re reading these things.
And what I keep hearing is, oftentimes we’ve inherited an individualistic framework or frame or filter through which now sin becomes individual. Peacefulness is my peacefulness. That this is a very- but that’s a very European, Western, modern way of reading the text. If we’re going to give the context, the seriousness, it deserves to understand what was originally intended. We have to filter all of this language through the social context of how the ancient world would have thought of these terms. I mean, most everything was in the context of community and relationality. And so it wasn’t, you know, I did this study once on truth in the Bible, and it surprised me realizing my own prejudice, that I assumed one way of thinking about truth and every time the Bible talks about truth, it talks about it relationally, as honesty between parties, not some abstract principle of, you know, accuracy to reality, like we do today. And so, I think that’s important because it can lead to ships passing in the night where I’ve just heard more and more Christians saying, I just don’t read the Bible the same way you do or the same way I used to. And I wonder if that relationality social context versus individuality leads to some of the conclusions that we’re kind of coming to now in our political and religious climate.
Lisa: Oh, my God. Absolutely. You know, with my very first book, Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican or Democrat, I had just come out of grad school, I took a Ph.D. level Sociology course, don’t ask me how I got into that class. But I ended up, my professor was Diane Vaughan, she discovered why the Challenger launch exploded, right? She was the sociologist who went in and figured it out. Because it didn’t have anything to do with just the material, it had to do with the sociology of the organization, right? So, the organizational sociology. So, I took this class, and so my very first book, I start with some sociological questions and I decided to kind of go into what does it mean to be evangelical sociologically? So, I decided to do a bunch of interviews and I interviewed fifty or so and faith leaders across the country and I asked them two major questions. And one question in particular was, “How does your understanding of the Gospel influence the platforms you will stand for you will stand on?” You know, politically. And by and large, if the people had an understanding of the Gospel, that included the relationality of all things and God’s desire for all things, to be in good relationship with each other, all created beings to be in good relationship, then their political platforms they would stand for were broad and they usually, always actually, included issues of race and economic justice and gender justice, and all the kind of justice, right? But if their understanding of the Gospel was that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, but you are sinful and therefore separated and Jesus died for your sin, then there was one of two things: either their understanding of the Gospel had nothing to do with their politics as Ralph Reid told me. Ralph Reed actually said, “My understanding of the Gospel has nothing to do with my politics.” Now mind you, he was one of the leaders of the Christian Coalition, right?
Come on, somebody! Right?!
So, it was like him or it was like Richard Land. So, Richard Land said that his understanding of the Gospel shaped it and that it made it about issues of family or individual sin. So, for him, it was all about abortion. That’s what led him to understand to focus on abortion because it has to do with the family. I don’t know exactly how you get to that, except for it’s about individual sin. And then also about LGBTQ issues, and so that’s how that happens. So, it’s interesting, when you look at the actual Scripture, the people who are writing it, are desperately talking about issues of relationality, but I want to also make this clear. They’re not just talking about having a black friend, you know? Treating women well. No, they’re talking in the context of slavery. In the context of being colonized. What does that mean? Having your own agency crushed. Being told by a ruling power who you are and what you can be. And it’s in that context that they are struggling to understand God and their relationship with God.
So, of course then, if you understand Jesus in that context and everything he said and did in that context, it then is going to change your politics.
You’re going to look at Matthew 25 differently. You’re not going to over-spiritualize it and say, “Oh, he’s just talking about spiritually poor.” Or Luke 4, when he actually declares, “This is why I’ve come–to free the oppressed.” You’re not gonna say it’s the spiritually oppressed. That’s not what he said. That’s not what the Scripture said. It’s not the context that they lived in. It’s not what he said.
The year he was born, 2000 people were crucified in one day by a Roman power, Roman general came through and squashed an attempted insurrection in the area where they were, in northern Galilee. So, when he said that in Luke 4, everybody in that synagogue would have a memory of those people, of their family members who died on that day, just three decades before that moment. So, when he said, “I came to free the oppressed,” do you think they would be saying, “Oh, he meant the spiritually oppressed?” Hell, no! They will be thinking of themselves.
Pete: Yeah, and I think that’s very much lost. Again, it seems like it’s too obvious thing to have to say, but the political dimension of Jesus’s ministry, you know, which we do have the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, for example, and you know, those who are under the thumb of power are the blessed. They are maybe not blessed at that moment, but God sees them.
Jared: But I feel like there’s also this, just an entirely different frame of reference. So, when I was in my early 20s, I preached a sermon, I was just kind of coming to this on my own. And of course, what you do is you just sort of project all your own stuff onto a congregation of whatever, a few thousand at the time. But I gave a sermon once where I talked about the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and then the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. And I focused on how Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.” Luke says, “Blessed are the poor,” not in spirit, just blessed are the poor. And I talked about this parallel of you know, maybe the Gospel is both for our spirit and also for the poor. And afterward, I thought it was great.
Jared: I, you know, was patting myself on the back. But no, so the thing was is what you might expect is that you would get pushback on the social piece of that, of the poor. But I think that’s what we kind of expect. But actually, the pushback was wait, wait, wait. Everyone was obsessed with this: So, what did Jesus actually say?
Jared: That was the thing. That’s what everybody took away from it, is you’re telling me that Jesus said two different things.
Lisa: They’re like, “Wait, is the Bible errant? Like, did people mess up?”
Jared: Exactly! So, I think sometimes we think we’re on the same plane, and we’re like opposed to each other. But it was like night and day of like, what? Look, we’re not even, we’re not even using the same framework here at all.
Pete: We’re there? That’s what you want to talk about?
Jared: Exactly. So, I don’t know, like, how have you seen, you know, how can we start talking about the Bible in a way that’s compelling toward this social reality where, again, my tradition was so stuck, not on how could God forgive or show mercy to the Assyrians who were barbarous in their treatment of the oppressed? Instead, we’re asking, but did God really have a whale that could swallow a man? Like, those are the questions. And so, I just, sometimes I don’t know how to talk about it, this reality in a way that it actually sinks in for people, because it’s just a totally different framework for what the Bible is and what it means for people.
Lisa: Well, I honestly think that, well, we got to the place where we are in our world, we got to January 6th, actually, because of a bad read of the Scripture. Bad hermeneutics, bottom line. Bad hermeneutics. Bad way of approaching the Scripture. We have reduced the Bible to fill in the blanks. We have reduced it, we’ve actually taken, we’ve done Bible study, not with the actual Bible, but with Bible study books, where somebody else is interpreting it through their own lens, usually in a Starbucks and then doing a fill in the blank. And now we feel smart because we filled in that blank. But what we’re not doing is we’re not actually building relationship with the Word itself, with the Scripture itself. Now, if you have a relationship with the Scripture, that’s where you begin to understand its context. That’s when you begin to bow to it. That’s when you begin to understand wow, like this thing is powerful. And it’s not always going to bend to where I want it to go and then I have to deal with what it’s actually saying.
But you see, it’s because we’ve actually, we bent it to our context that we could actually get to the moment that talked about in my next book, Fortune, in 1664 where the legislature in Maryland follows the legislature in Virginia, and they say, and they are what they call Christian and in fact, it is a Catholic colony. And they have a problem, white women are coming into the colony, usually indentured servants from Ireland, and they are falling in love and having children and getting married to enslaved black men. And the problem that they’re trying to solve for is the problem of these mixed-race kids, what’s now going to be their status? Are they going to be enslaved or are they going to be free? Are they gonna be able to be enslaved or indentured?
So, in order for them, these Catholic Christian men to solve this perceived problem, what they do is they say, “Well, we can’t have this, we’re going to now enslave any woman who marries an enslaved black man. She now becomes the property of her husband’s owner and her children become enslaved in perpetuity.” So, what does this do? This now, it benefits, of course, the white male planter class that was the legislators, they get free labor now, because of people’s love lives. And it turns out, it doesn’t take long, it took like a few years when they looked up, and they said, “Wait a minute, planters are now forcing white women to marry and have children with enslaved black men in order to get more free labor.”
So, this Catholic colony had to face what it was doing. So, you know what they did? Their solution was, and the church agreed because of bad theology, their solution was to now take the onus, the authority out of the hands of the planter to decide who was going to be enslaved and who was going to be indentured, but rather to place it in the hands of the church.
So, the Episcopal Church, which was the, you know, core church in Maryland at the time, even though it was a Catholic colony, most of the churches were Episcopal. They became the arbiters, actually, just churches in general became the arbiters of who became enslaved and who was indentured. And not very long after that, when technology increased and made it possible to bring over more people from Africa directly, not from the Caribbean, but directly from Africa, and there was an explosion of the African-American community in Maryland, that’s when the race laws became more and more stringent. Why? Because white men who were not at all connecting this Brown colonized scripture to their faith and yet claiming to be Christian, got threatened because their principal concern was power. It was the ability for them to thrive. So, what did they do? They clamp down on these race laws, they became more and more heinous. And my ancestor, Fortune, who my next book is named after, was swept up in those laws and her body absorbed their wrath. And the next ten generations absorb the repercussions of those first laws in Maryland.
Pete: Yeah, I can’t wait to read that, actually.
You know, just, can I add something, if I may, to what you said, because you started off by saying, it’s bad hermeneutics, which I completely agree with.
Lisa: Mm hmm.
Pete: And I imagine you would agree with this, too. I think beneath that is a deeper issue, which is, it’s a bad view of God.
Pete: Where God can be co-opted to basically agree with the politics of the dominant culture. And so, then the Bible becomes that thing that clearly is going to support what we think. So, that is a bad hermeneutic. But I think it’s, the deeper problem is, it’s not just I don’t recognize your Bible. I’m not sure if I recognize your God when you start talking like this.
Lisa: What I would add to that, is that I think that what I’ve come to understand as the core sin of people of European descent, is not that they try to subjugate other humans, it’s that they tried to subjugate God.
Pete: Right. Yeah. I think that’s what I’m saying.
Lisa: They went to war with God.
Pete: Yeah. Right. I don’t know if they knew they were doing that or they would ever articulate it that way, but I think others have said, that’s a core problem with all religion, that it actually tries to tame the untamable.
Lisa: I don’t agree with that.
Pete: Okay. Yeah, go ahead.
Lisa: I do not agree with that. What I don’t think it’s about, first of all, I don’t think that the Scripture is trying to tame God. I think the Scripture is trying to understand the relationship between this Brown, colonized, enslaved community and the world and God. I mean, they are literally just trying to survive. They’re trying to let the image of God in them flourish.
Lisa: And that is the whole story of the Scripture. It’s this Brown community trying to flourish, and it keeps getting conquered. It keeps–how do they, how do they flourish?
And I think that Jesus came, I think, you know, if I were to go to my third great-grandmother now and say, you know, what is the Gospel, the Good News? To her, it would be that the King of the Kingdom of God, the One who created all the kin of the kin-dom of God has come, and has come to set the image of God, the Shālēm of God, free on earth and to confront the kingdoms of men that are hell-bent on crushing it.
And this is where I say that people of European descent have gone to war with God, because they have only understood dominion as domination. And it’s not something that I think is, you know, I don’t think it’s their fault, per se, right? Because people only, they do the best they can with what they know. And there was, I mean, centuries, millennia of domination, domination, domination. Empire after empire on the European continent and, you know, going back to Greece and Rome, and that’s what they learned from and emulated and every empire that came after that they were trying to emulate Rome. And what did Rome do? Rome crushed the image of God. That’s what Rome did. Rome did not serve the image, the flourishing of the image of God in anybody but the self.
So, when you at your core have that as your understanding of the purpose for your nation, your nation exists to thrive at the expense, if need be, of everybody else, then you will crush the image of God. And whether you know it or not, whether you’re doing it intentionally or not, does not matter.
Lisa: What matters is what you’re doing. You’re crushing the image of God and what the ancients would have understood about the image of the king is that the wellness of the image of the king on Earth was an indicator of whether or not that kingdom was thriving or whether there was war in that kingdom. If there were lots of images of the king everywhere and they were all well and good, that kingdom was known to be thriving. If there were images crushed or toppled or melted down, that was an indication there was war against that king happening and the kingdom.
So, what if God sees our governance, the governance of the image of God on earth and sees the ways that our governance, our policies, our laws, crush God’s image and says, “These people are at war with me, even as they claim to be for me.” I think that God looked at the belly of every slave ship and understood that this was rebellion against God. This was trying to subjugate the image of God on earth. I think that God looked at Jim Crow, and lynching, and the Japanese internment camps, and the lack of a vote for women, and LGBTQ subjugation inside the church and outside the church and says, “This is war against me, against the image of God on Earth.” The church exists–Jesus came to set the image of God free to flourish so that God’s Kingdom might flourish on earth as it is in heaven. But the church instead has been an instrument of the subjugation of God on Earth and a witness to evidence of the presence of evil on earth, especially today.
Jared: And within that history, too, I would maybe add, because I think, again, I’m trying to think of how some folks may be miss part of this, is that that subjugation can still live on in laws and policies and governmental procedures.
Jared: Again, drawing away from it doesn’t have to be an individual saying, “I now enslave you.” It can be within the laws and policies of a government that continue that subjugation.
Lisa: That’s exactly right. I mean, so like, when we think about today, we think, oh, you know, I mean, I loved when Obama became president, and everybody was saying, “Oh, we’re post-racial now.” You know, anybody who understands how race came to be in our nation, you understand that it’s a legal construct. Race is not–I mean, we call it a social construct, but actually, it is fundamentally legal. And the legal and political constructs of race have shaped our social mores and norms and ways that we move in the world. And so, if you change those, then our social ways we move in the world change as well.
So, you can see that with Brown vs. Board of Education and the forced desegregation of schools, well, eventually then you have some of the churches that were the most segregated churches are actually now multiethnic, down in the Delta in Mississippi.
I mean, in the South, you have, I think in a simple way you can put it this way: If you have a stop sign on a street, you’re going to create a culture where kids are able to play because you have cars that are not speeding by, but you take that stop sign away, that’s the structure, and now you give permission to cars to speed and you’re not going to have a lot of kids playing on that street because it’s not safe. So, you won’t have a lot of families who get to know each other and you know, play together outside. It’ll be a lot more of a closed community, a closed experience of community not connected.
So, structure impacts culture and social reality. And that’s what happened with the laws. And so if you look back at the FHA, you know, housing, the Federal Housing Authority, and the way that they set up housing laws, right? Like how land was valued back in the 1930s in 1935 when it was passed, there was a segregationist who actually was a part of the folks who put that together and he put it together in a way that immediately devalued land if one person of color lived on it, in that community. And so, of course then, that structure shapes social reality. So, what ends up happening is, you get black covenants, you get neighborhood covenants, “we are never going to sell a house to a person of color, black people can’t live here, whites only.” Why? Because people are not stupid. They want their house, their land, to be worth something. Right?
So, that was something structured by government. And then you get banks that come in on it, and you get, as a result of that, millions of dollars in value, land value, that are lost to people of African descent, people of Latino descent, Asian descent, over the course of decades. Now, it’s corrected in 1960s. They outlawed the redlining of communities and they changed the algorithm of how land is valued, but you never made up for all the millions in accumulated land value, in other words, accumulated wealth over those decades.
So, people of African descent on that land start now, like, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars now, poorer because of a law that was structured in 1930 that was never really corrected for. They never made reparations for that, right? They never repaired what was broken. Instead, they just stopped it, but they didn’t correct it. And they didn’t really even stop it, because now what we see when we see the economic downturn of 2008-2009, well they discovered that actually, you know, these subpar loans were being targeted to African-Americans making six figures, and yet you would get prime loans going to white people who were making five figures. And it’s those subprime loans that actually then exploded and cause the downturn. So, you know, eventually, it catches up with all of us. That’s the problem. When you war against God, it will come back and bite you in the ass.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Lisa: And I think that’s what’s been happening.
Pete: And it’s deep, and it’s multi-layered. And it’s, you can’t get to this through slogans or memes, there’s a lot of complexity here.
So, you know, as we bring this to an unfortunate close here, Lisa, I’m wondering if you can just leave us with, I don’t know, a projection or maybe just a way forward for evangelicalism specifically to become more of the solution than maybe it has been. And again, speaking to you as someone who identifies with evangelical, however we define it because it’s gotten all these weird definitions and that’s sort of a moving target, what is an Evangelical? But anything that you can leave us with that might be, you know, a hopeful thing to be working towards?
Lisa: Absolutely. Well, in my next book, Fortune, the book, again, traces ten generations of my family story and that’s the first two parts of the book. The last part of the book is three essays on how to repair what race broke in the world. And I’m talking to my people, I’m talking to evangelicals, but I’m also talking to people of color. I’m talking, actually, I’m talking to all of us, right?
What it will take to repair is it’ll take telling the truth. It’ll take confession. I mean that’s all truth-telling is, it’s confession. The thing is, we have what we need in the heart of our faith.
Our faith teaches us to be humble before God, to allow God to be God, to know that when we humble ourselves and confess our sins, we will be forgiven. But it is when we lack humility, when we fail to confess, we are held not just accountable, we’re always held accountable, but there, grace, there is no grace when you actually curse grace. There is no grace when you refuse it because God respects us, God respects our desires. So, when we fail to go to God for grace, God says, okay, no grace for you. So, then you got to pay up, you got to ante up.
So, I think that the call for us now is actually to humble ourselves before God, to recognize that we are not God, that it is possible that our great heroes of our faith–yes, Luther; yes, Calvin; yes, those whom we have held up as the ones who we would even maybe even some people think are the founders of Christianity, they were not.
Christianity was founded by Brown, colonized people in the context of colonization. And so, what does it look like then, for us, in the next years to go about the humble business of decolonizing our faith? It looks like seeking truth. It looks like listening to truth. It looks like telling the truth. And then it looks like repair, repair of all that the lies that we’ve been eating, the lies about human hierarchy, the lies about human belonging, who belongs the most, the lies that we’ve been eating, renouncing them, and then doing right by those who have suffered the consequences, making it right again. We have what we need in the Scripture, the Scripture gives us what we need.
We see it in Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus bilked his people. He got his riches, his wealth, based on the exploitation of his people. And all he needed was one afternoon with Jesus and he comes out and he gives reparations to his people, and some. Reparations is a biblical concept, it comes straight out of Scripture, it means to repair what our sin broke. But there are things that cannot be repaired. There are things that cannot be restored, people who have died who will not come back, and for that there needs to be forgiveness because that is the only way that we will reach the Beloved Community that Dr. King talked about in the 1960s when he called us to a kind of community that is radically knit together. Really, he’s talking about shalom, where we are all connected, we understand that the well-being of my neighbor directly impacts my own well-being and even the well-being of my enemy.
And so, the call to forgive is also a call to healing, especially for those who have suffered the brunt of bad theology. What does it look like for us to stand in our actual bodies and understand the ways that our bodies have absorbed this evil and allow God to come and touch our bodies and heal our bodies and make us well? I think only then can we get to that moment where people of European descent and those who have benefited from the subjugation of the image of God can actually humble themselves and come down off the scaffolding of human hierarchy that they erected for themselves, and they can join the community of humanity, the community of creation, as simply human. And those who have not even allowed to be seen as fully human can rise full into the image of God, the Shālēm within them, and they can be fully human, exercising stewardship of the world. That’s my prayer, my hope, and the church should be the leader of that process.
Jared: Wow. I think that’s a wonderful benediction, a powerful way to end our time together. So, thank you so much Lisa for jumping on and sharing this, both kind of understanding of the biblical scriptures, but then how it leads us to maybe a vision that we can continue to walk in and step in and take two steps forward and probably one step back and all that that entails.
So, thank you so much for laying that out for us.
Lisa: Thank you. It’s been an honor to be with you guys. And thank you for the work that you do. You’re helping us all.
Pete: Thank you.
Stephanie: That’s it for this episode of the Bible for Normal People. Before you go, we want to give a huge shout-out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, you can leave us a review or just tell others about our show. You can also head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormapeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.
Jared: Alright, I think that’s good. I don’t think we always have to say, “Well, let’s get into it.”
Jared: [Strange noises]
Okay, Dave? Don’t have my grumpy comment there in there, alright?
Pete: [Laughter, accompanied by the knowledge that Jared’s grumpy comment will indeed be “in there.”]
[End of recorded material]