“The Bible is Black” Lecture Hosted at Falvey

Katie Reed, Staff Writer

On Feb. 8 and Feb. 15, Falvey Library and Campus Ministry co-sponsored a lecture series entitled “The Bible in Black,” which sought to look at the Bible from a racialized perspective, questioning the ways in which it is typically understood as objective in nature. The first session explored this concept in the Old Testament, and the second explored the New Testament, both lasting from 12 to 1 p.m. The sessions were presented by Reverend Naomi Washington-Leapheart, a Campus Ministry Ecumenical Advisor, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and Affiliate Professor in both the Africana Studies Program and the Center for Peace and Justice Education.

Washington-Leapheart approached this series with a passion and desire to have more nuanced conversations surrounding the Bible, pushing people to think more critically about the context with which we read these texts.

“I’m always trying to disrupt the idea that we come to the Bible as blank slates, or that we come to the Bible purely objectively,” Washington-Leapheart said. “We come with the fullness of our life experiences and lenses that align with our identity—our Bible itself has a context and identity. I wanted to amplify and celebrate the ways of reading the Bible Blackly, which I think are particularly relevant right now, even in Villanova’s institutional history.” 

During the lecture, Washington-Leapheart alluded to the dangers of treating the Bible as objective fact, as “[its] historical and contemporary use is fraught with bumps and a history of violence, neglect and spiritual abuse.” For example, she showed an image that reads “2000 Years Ago Jesus Ended the Debate of Which Lives Matter, He Died for All,” which neglects and disparages the Black Lives Matter movement, depicting how the Bible can be manipulated to fit a certain agenda and silence or condemn others.

One of the texts that Washington-Leapheart explored in her lecture was Genesis 22:1-19, in which Abraham takes his son, Isaac, to the mountain to be sacrificed in the name of God. She noted that this was her favorite story to disrupt, challenging the way many people are taught to accept that Abraham was justified in this action because of the relief that is felt when God spares him from doing the deed.

“We leapfrog over the horror of this tale, that Isaac was bound to the altar and must’ve known that he was the sacrifice,” Washington-Leapheart said. “Isaac would not have forgotten what it felt like to be immobilized on that altar and to see his father raise the knife. We have to slow down to appreciate the horror of the story, even if at the end we are glad that God saved the day.”

For Washington-Leapheart, slowing down means taking the time to pay close attention to the language being used in the Bible, not just skipping ahead to the miracles. She noted that every word is deliberate and must be treated as such, especially given that Biblical traditions have oral origins.

“If we are fast-forwarding through words that seem irrelevant to get to the action, to get to Jesus or God doing some miraculous thing, we will miss words that are important, and are [especially] important to the people who first heard these stories,” Washington-Leapheart said. “If we take the Bible seriously, we have to take all of the words seriously, not just the ones we memorize.”

Additionally, Washington-Leapheart discussed the idea of spiritual imagination, which is what we use to fill in the gaps we notice in the Bible, connecting our values to our imagination.

“Because the Bible leaves out so much, even if we talk about the life and work of Jesus, we only have a percentage of his life accounted for in the Bible,” Washington-Leapheart said. “We have to use our imagination when we read the Bible to fill in some of those blanks”

Regarding reading the Bible in Black and how we can address the biases of our spiritual imagination, Washington-Leapheart posed the question: “What if this is an invitation to dismantle what already exists in our imagination and construct something that feels more loving, more holy and more connected to the Gospel?”

At the end of the lecture, Washington-Leapheart posed many additional thought-provoking questions to ask ourselves when approaching the Bible. One such question was “where does the pain linger?” which she feels to be the most important. She noted that one of her theological mentors, JoAnne Terrell, an Associate Professor of Theology, Ethics and the Arts at the Chicago Theological Seminary, told her that “good theology begins where the pain is,” which has stuck with her and guides her in her thinking.

“If we can find the pain and we can figure out what good news is to those people who are in pain, then we have gotten to the core of the Gospel,” Washington-Leapheart said.

Another important question she posed to the audience was “where is the stubborn joy?”

“Where is joy trying to live in the midst of an environment that seeks to snuff it out?” Washington-Leapheart asked. “I think that’s a very Black orientation. Despite what is going on, despite the intent to snuff me out, I will still have joy. I will still figure out a way to dance, to sing, to love, to laugh.”

For the people who could not attend the lecture series, in addition to the greater community at the University, Washington-Leapheart offered some remarks regarding the implications of reading the Bible in Black.

“I would ask people to assess how they feel about the idea that you can read the Bible in Black, that there can be a racialized reading of the Bible,” she said. “If that thought is shocking or even offensive, I would invite people to ask themselves, why? Why am I invested in the ‘objectivity’ of the Bible? Why does it offend me that someone else might find it important to bring their racialized perspective to their reading of the Biblical text?”

She also mentioned the importance of being open to different approaches to reading the Bible, as there is a lot to be learned from looking at it from different perspectives, such as Black, Latinx, womanist or indigenous interpretations, encouraging everyone to be “students of these traditions.”

Washington-Leapheart “express[ed] gratitude that [she] was able to convene this space, and that it was supported and well-attended,” but she also emphasized that this is not the end of the conversation. She is open to anyone reaching out to her to continue having these critical discussions.