Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Melissa Harris-Perry on the Intersection of Black and Gay Struggle for Justice, and Liberating Role of the Bible

Reading Dan Savage's remembrance of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, and of the role the churches played in that struggle, alongside Peter Montgomery's analysis today at Religion Dispatches of the thought of Melissa Harris-Perry is instructive.  Montgomery focuses on a keynote address that Harris-Perry recently gave to the Clergy Call conference of Human Rights Campaign.

Melissa Harris-Perry is an African-American political scientist who directs Tulane University's Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South.  Though she is not gay, she stands with LGBT people in their struggle for justice, since she believes that this struggle is the most significant struggle for justice and rights occurring in our culture today--and her faith-based commitment to human rights compels her to speak out.

Harris-Perry told those gathered for the Clergy Call conference, 

"I believe that the struggle for equal human and civil rights for lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, same-sex-loving, gender-nonconforming and queer persons is the civil rights agenda of our time." And, she said, "faith must be part of the work we’re doing."

In Harris-Perry's view, progressives relinquish the bible to conservatives at their peril.  We live in a culture that, whether we like it or not, is saturated with appeals to scriptural texts, which radically and persistently inform political thinking in the United States.  (Both Ms. Palin and Ms. Bachmann have recently reassured the public that their bible-based politics has a direct pipeline to God, as they toy with the idea of a presidential run.  Rev. Harold Camping had a whole nation and its media superstructure at his beck and call for several weeks, as he kept us on our toes with his intricate biblical calculations of when the world would end.)

And so where does Harris-Perry turn for a sound progressive reading of the bible to counter the misappropriation of biblical texts by the religious and political right?  She grounds her appeal to the scriptures in the black liberationist reading of the bible.  As she notes, people of color have experienced savage, persistent biblically based oppression for centuries in the United States.  And as they have struggled against that oppression, they have learned to read the scriptures with an ear for their real message, their liberating central themes, and not for the tortuous, highly selective exegesis of religious and political conservatives intent on using the bible as a tool of oppression.

Harris-Perry notes that her great-great-great grandmother was sold as a slave in Richmond, Virginia, in a world in which, everywhere she turned, people used the bible to tell her that she was less than human, that God had made her chattel, that she had no rights and should expect no rights.  But her own experience of herself as a human being made in God's image and loved by God caused her to center her faith, instead, on the central liberating themes of the scriptures that overturn this misappropriation of the bible to support slavery and black subordination: 

When my great-great-great-grandmother was sold on a street corner in Church Hill, Richmond, Virginia, she had never known anything but slavery. When she bore children, she expected that they would never know anything but slavery. She lived in a world where every religious person she encountered could show her chapter and verse why she was unequal, who could quote back the reasons that God wanted her in bondage, and every bit of empirical evidence around her, every bit of it, said there either is no god and if there is God does not like you very much. And she had the undaunting audacity to believe that God loved her.

And, of course, Harris-Perry is telling this story to feed the faith and hope of those who struggle for justice for LGBT people today, since those who are gay and lesbian are susceptible to the same constant bombardment of carefully selected, highly manipulated "terror texts" designed to rob LGBT people of humanity, to turn them into despised objects, and to support the denial of their human rights.  In Harris-Perry's view, LGBT people and their allies can learn something valuable from the black struggle for liberation and its use of the scriptures, as this struggle deals with the anti-gay "terror texts."  

What they can learn, in particular, is that it's more important to lift up the "countering texts of liberation" than to try constantly to combat the "terror texts" through careful exegesis that exposes their many flaws.  As Harris-Perry points out, over the course of Christian history, one form of oppression after another--all once based in appeals to the bible--has been overturned, as we recognize that we misuse the scriptures when we use them to oppress and keep people in their places: 

"There are all sorts of things that we’ve decided we no longer read in the way they were once read" she says, citing verses instructing slaves to obey their masters. People are still wrestling with Pauline claims about wives submitting themselves to their husbands. She says people who don’t live by those verses haven’t rejected them because they learned something new about the texts, but because they learned, or came to appreciate, something about the greater whole. For example, enslaved African Americans focused not on the texts telling them to obey their masters, but on the God who sent Moses to set His people free. "Black liberation theology," she has written, "emerges from this tradition of rejecting scriptural evidence of a slavery-supporting God and roots itself in a biblical interpretation of God as an advocate for the oppressed."

What Harris-Perry has to say here is extremely important, and valuable for progressives fighting for justice on many fronts in our culture.  For readers who want to know more about Melissa Harris-Perry and her work: Alternet also features her today, with an essay of hers recently published in The Nation.

Melissa Harris-Perry is well worth reading.  She first came on my radar screen when I saw her carefully and helpfully commenting on Rachel Maddow's show about the ongoing resistance to gay and lesbian rights in some sectors of the African-American community, following the prop 8 debacle.  As she pointed out, this is not the whole story, since there are many African Americans who read the scriptures as their ancestors did, to support all of those struggling for justice, human dignity, and rights, and it is the latter with whom LGBT people need to build stronger ties of solidarity.

I'm happy to see her work receiving the attention it deserves.

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