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Ferguson, Bible, and the “Long Division” of Race

Blog

22 Sep 2014
Race Matters in the Classroom
Tags: racism   |   teaching and politics   |   teaching texts

In my “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible” syllabus, a couple of sessions are reserved for the Exodus
story: its claims about liberation; the use of official “war gear” against civilians; the dread of nightfall; legislative debates; witness accounts to the sights and sounds of violence; the importance of memory, etc. “After” Ferguson, teaching this biblical story almost sounds too convenient. Yet, engaging race and racism is like solving a math equation: long division with remainders. The burden of structural racism is not just its deadly power, but also its insidious perpetuity, in spite of its irrationality; its unwanted and unsolicited obliging of its victims to justify their presence in the public space (as was the case with Trayvon Martin, Anthony Davis, and Michael Brown). In the quasi public space of the classroom, race adds double consciousness (W. E. B. Du Bois) to critical inquiry. Intellectual shades of gray that fascinate the mind and lead to complex analyses also fade into brown and black and white and yellow bodies that populate my classroom.  

Zoom in. “The ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.” So writes the political theorist, Achille Mbembe, describing what he calls necropolitics. This is what Ferguson also represented – a practice in necropolitics. The outrage over the death of Michael Brown also soon manifested itself in the form of “American soul searching:” to many pundits, the horror of excessive police brutality – in the militarized response to protesters – was shocking because it took place in an American city, not in some faraway place where, presumably, chaos would be acceptable, if not understandable. The problem with institutional racism is that it cannot be mentally exorcised to some faraway place.

Zoom out. Sample macro picture: on December 19, 2007, the finance and business journal, The
Economist
, published an essay titled, “The Bible v. the Koran: The battle of the books.” It was a market-based analysis premised on the idea that “the business of marketing the Bible and the Koran says a lot about the state of modern Christianity and Islam.” It explored how Christians and Muslims (“people of the book”) use the tools of modernity such as technology, globalization, and growing wealth to aid their goals of “spreading the word.” As I have reread the article (which I also assigned to my students), I have wondered, even shuddered at its “health report” which predicted an increase in violence at the intersections of Bible, politics, religion, ethnicity, and culture. The article ends with words that echo a biblical story: “The twigs of the burning bush are still aflame with the fire of God.”[1]

Traditional historical-critical analyses meet postcolonial analyses: When young black and brown bodies face deadly fires from the barrel of a gun – colonial or not –, then how one teaches about divine flames and burning cities and ethnic/racial identity changes. I am drawn to Du Bois’s short essays, "Of the Culture of White Folk" (1917) and "The Souls of White Folk" (1920) as I reexamine the intersections of racism and the self-legitimating claims of (colonial) violence.

Some practiced routines of communal responses to the trauma of deadly, racial animus are becoming predictable: a funeral service where the Bible is repeatedly read and referenced in search for hope and justice; a legal process that rehashes the old, old question of equality before the law and the experience of that equality – if and when it comes – as a posthumous credo to console the weary hearts of victims. How that debate is formulated locally and globally is particularly poignant when specific bodies are always seeking and asking for justice, oftentimes feeling hollow from having witnessed how justice itself is executed in dead bodies lying motionless on the streets or in coffins.

How might one teach the Bible AFTER Ferguson? Claire McGinnis has explored teaching Exodus as a “Problem Text” (2002), with emphasis on the complexity of the biblical story and on communal interpretation. Students recognize the complexity of the text and its multiple layers of ethnic discrimination, but for a number of my students, the necropolitics of Ferguson requires something more: clarity and praxis – rigorous text-critical reflection that honors embodied existence. It is almost “activist learning,” so I end up teaching around three themes: ideological construction (how the story constructs privileged and unprivileged identity in the public space); deconstruction (how the story disentangles and sometimes undermines those same identities); and reconstruction (how the story imagines alternative identities and their institutional character). It is indeed long division with remainders.

 

References

Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. “Of the Culture of White Folk,” The Journal of Race Development

            7/4 (1917), 434-447.

___. “The Souls of White Folk,” Darkwater, 1920.

The Economist 385, no. 8560 (2007): 79.

McGinnis, Claire Mathews.  “Teaching Exodus as ‘Problem Text’,” Teaching Theology and

            Religion 5/2 (2002), 71-79.  

Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.


[1] See http://www.economist.com/node/10311317.  Last accessed on August 29, 2014.

Photos-Rod Drabble

Kenneth Ngwa

About Kenneth Ngwa

Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible
Drew Theological School

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. I liked the analogy of long division with remainders. This is a complex subject that demands a well thought out answer and I think your blog begins a useful conversation in this regard. For a New
    Testament perspective, I think it would be easy to sprinkle into the class a few saying of Jesus about loving all and need for forgiveness. However, the difficulty lies in the impersonal and overarching systems that continue to make events like Ferguson happen over and over, even as the political, community and Church leaders downplay individual acts of violence against people of color. Thanks for your helpful thoughts.

  2. Thank you, Dr. Mbuvi. I too feel the frustration that bubbles up when leaders “downplay individual acts of violence against people of color.” So, I was glad to hear President Obama reference Ferguson today during his speech at the UN — a speech that was in many ways quite religious, but also pedagogical. Thanks again.

  3. Thanks for focusing pedagogical concerns on the very bodies gathered in the classroom and the embodied characters and authors (although you didn’t raise this point) of the texts used as mediums of learning. Somehow it must be possible to engage the content of the literary sources used for instruction without disembodying both their subject (the narrative) and object (reader). Beyond that, and here’s the real power of this post, we must calculate the “I” that teaches into the equation. Text + Learner + Teacher must add up to an integer (i.e., a whole self) that is indivisible from race matters in our present moment.

  4. “Engaging race and racism is like solving a math equation: long division with remainders.” The complexity stems from the ever evolving and changing variables in race and racism. While some of the variables are easily controlled, others are beyond the control of individuals and the community of people directly affected; hence, the need for patience in solving today’s race and racism equations.

  5. Dear Prof. Ngwa,
    Your comments are right on target. We would like to pretend that racism is long gone. How can we think it exists when, as we are told, the society has changed so much that now we can have a black president (Is he black by the way)? The bodies lying on the streets (Michael Brown) and the miscarriage of justice (Trayvon Martin) reminds one that we are far from sounding the victory horn. When I set out to start my teaching career this last Fall, I decided to teach the Bible from a Thematic approach. One of the themes that has been central in my classes is the theme of how the biblical texts construct ethic/racial differences. I have urged my students to see and understand that stories matter–that they determine institutions and practices that impact how we treat each other along racial lines. Ferguson, however tragic, could never have happened at the right time for my class (to be reminded of the reality of racism). I have actually assigned a group in my class to research and present on how the Ferguson incident relates to the Bible’s stories on racism. Thanks Prof. Ngwa for sharing your story. I do hope that our teaching may make a contribution to racial justice in this country.