Frauen Friday: Elsa Tamez

We’ve had a bit of a rocky start to our “weekly” Frauen Friday series, but I’ll get there. I’ve got the next couple of weeks planned out and I’m really looking forward to the weeks to come! I will be getting back to my language roots with next week’s featured scholar who works in Jewish Studies and has written two important books for understanding Biblical Hebrew.

If I might take a short excursion, I want to point out that though the past couple of weeks have featured scholars who have focused on feminist interpretation, the point of this series is not necessarily to focus on only feminist theologians. It just so happens that the first three women I featured were ones I’ve encountered recently while working on my own specific gender-related questions. Thus I highlighted Gaventa’s article from Galatians concerning its good news for women, though she has written on a wide variety of Pauline issues. All that to say, if you’re not particularly interested in feminist theology (though my hope is this blog might change that!) fear not, I will be casting a wider net in the future and intend to highlight scholars working in all areas of concentration.

But this Friday it’s all about Elsa: today’s featured scholar is Dr. Elsa Tamez, biblical scholar and theologian. Here’s a short bio from Wipf and Stock Publishers (it’s a little outdated, but it’s the only one I could find):

“Elsa Tamez is a Methodist and Liberation Theologian. She was born in Mexico in 1950. Prof. Tamez received her Doctor’s Degree in Theology from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. She received her Licentiate in Theology in 1979 from the Latin American Biblical Seminary, and a Licentiate in Literature and Linguistics at the National University of Costa Rica in 1986. She is a faculty member of the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica and a member of the team of researchers of the Ecumenical Department of Investigation (DEI) in Costa Rica. She is married with two children.

Among her most known publications in English are: The Bible of the Oppressed (1980), The Scandalous Message of James (1989), The Amnesty of Grace (1993), and When the Horizons Close: Rereading Ecclesiastes (2000). Her latest publication is Jesús and Courageous Women (2001). She has received several awards for her contribution to Contextual Biblical Hermeneutics.” (from WSP)

Tamez has written on both liberation theology and feminist theology, and she has done a number of re-readings from both the OT and NT. I first encountered her work last semester as I was working on my cruciform feminism paper for my Paul class; she contributed an article to Celebrating Romans: Template for Pauline Theology (a 2004 publication featuring articles on Romans from various interpretive approaches) on “Justification as Good News for Women: A Re-Reading of Romans 1-8.” Here she argues,

“[t]he actualization of God’s justice in a patriarchal society consists in the egalitarian proposal of justification by faith rather than by fulfilling the demands of traditional patriarchal culture.  It is a free gift, bestowed by grace, in a society which knows nothing of grace but rather uses merit alone to determine whether or not a person has value.  The logic of merit is the natural way our hierarchical, patriarchal society functions.  It is society’s way of judging, the ‘justice’ proper to it,” (181).

Tamez notes that God’s justice is not for women alone,

“[s]ince the justice of God is for all people… men also can acknowledge this justice and be guided by a logic contrary to the violence generated by patriarchal society.  Justification is a gift meant for all, not just for women.  The justice of God is a firm guarantee that the sinful logic of misogynist patriarchal structures is overthrown by divine grace,” (182).

She concludes,

“[t]he good news for justified men and women who embrace faith as new way of life, just like the faith of Jesus Christ, is a new awareness of being free women and men, and the realization that in faith it is possible to transform society where sin reigns in the structures opposed to woman.  By faith we affirm that, although we live in a world riddled with sinfulness and impregnated with sexism, this reality does not dominate those who are guided by the logic of grace…” (187)

Whether you agree or disagree with Tamez’s approach, I think her work is worth interacting with and I personally appreciate her perspective for what we have in common and how we differ. We are both women but we come from different parts of the world and have likely had very different experiences as women. I look forward to getting to know her work better as I continue studying how cruciformity and feminism might co-exist.

I would also recommend Struggles for Power in Early Christianity: A Study of the First Letter to Timothy.  I’ve only read the first chapter so far, but her section on chapter two of 1 Timothy offers an interesting perspective on the issue of the women teaching in Ephesus as a struggle between the wealthy and the powerful and draws a connection from her own life experience in Latin American culture. I plan to read the rest of the book once I can get a copy.

For further reading, see the lists below:

Books

Articles

A Universal Gospel

“The church’s call to be universal touches the very issues that seem to perplex the church today: the impact of liberation theology, the urgent challenge of global justice and peace, debates over pluralism in dogma and praxis, dialogue with Judaism and non-Christian religions, church government, the emergence of new forms of ministry, the role of women.  Having to struggle with such issues is a necessary consequence of belief in a universal gospel.  For by definition that gospel cannot be bottled up in one culture, one social class, or one power group.  The Bible itself would raise these issues even if contemporary Christian life did not.  The pages of the Scriptures–both Old and New Testaments–are filled with the struggles of God’s people to be faithful to his covenant, to bring justice and salvation to the poor and defenseless, to reach beyond the boundaries of Judea and Samaria, to find identity as God’s people in new times and new places.  The mission question is intrinsic to the Bible.” – Senior and Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (1983:2)

Book Review: No Longer Slaves: Galatians and African American Experience – Brad R. Braxton

Brad R. Braxton No Longer Slaves: Galatians and African American Experience (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2002).

Let me start with a little honesty, I picked this book on a whim. I was ordering several books on Galatians I “needed” to read and was a few dollars short of free shipping. This book got listed in the recommendations section, it was cheap and got me to free shipping, so I ordered it. And let me say, I am glad I did.

No Longer Slaves began as a master’s thesis at University of Oxford, but is ultimately a very personal and pastoral work. Braxton, who is a New Testament scholar, engages Galatians from the perspective of African American experience – the key link coming in Paul’s line “You are no longer a slave.” In the book Braxton unites his scholarly training with his experience in “exile” at Oxford to offer an interpretation of Galatians meant to “shine a beacon of liberation upon contemporary African American experience” (xi).

Two important notes before I engage the book: First, the structure of the book is intentional (110) as it begins with experience thens moves to methodology and interpretation of scripture. Braxton states, “There is no pre-existent, essential meaning of Galatians (or any text) for African Americans that can be discovered apart from the experience of African Americans…The experience is constitutive of the meaning” (110). Second, Braxton, honoring a request of his wife, writes a book “that the rest of us can read” (xiii). In other words, he is trying to write in such a way that those outside the academy can understand, while not forsaking intellectual rigor. This is a difficult task, but one I think all academics should consider before we write.

The book is divided into three chapters:

  1. Liberation and African American Experience
  2. A Reading Strategy for Liberation
  3. Galatians and African American Experience

1. The first chapter answers two questions: “Why is liberation self-evidently necessary?” and “What does liberation mean?”

According to Braxton, liberation is necessary because “Very simply, African Americans have seen the debilitating effects of bondage upon our collective self-esteem and our ability to be productive citizens” (2). Although the institution of slavery was abolished in the 19th-century, the effects linger. African Americans need to be liberated from the effects of bondage that still oppress them in American culture.

With this in mind, Braxton defines liberation as the building of “a distinctive culture, which is both black and American” (9). For Braxton, this is personal in that brings about changes for individuals as they can accept there unique identity, but ultimately it must bring about social transformation. This transformation would free both the oppressed from being “bound by the dominant white culture’s ideology and portrayal of African Americans” (12) and the oppressor from requiring African Americans to assimilate into white culture for acceptance. In the end, acceptance or recognition is key – liberation is not overthrowing one dominant culture so that it can be replaced by another, but equal recognition of diverse cultures as legitimate.

 2. The second chapter focuses on the role scripture interpretation can play in liberating African Americans.

Braxton lays out a version of reader-response theory based upon Stanley Fish’s ideas, although not identical (28). The focus is on the reader in creating meaning as he/she encounters the text. The text itself holds no meaning apart from the readers experience (see quotes above) and Braxton acknowledges this leads to questions about scripture’s authority and inspiration. He offers his answer to these questions writing, “The Scriptures are not the word of God per se, but the Scriptures possess the potential to become the word of God as they are read faithfully and creatively under the auspices of the Holy Spirit and in light of the community’s ongoing experience” (35). Braxton knows this argument will not appease all, but affirms scripture is “a reliable place where the contemporary community gathers, hopeful for and, in fact, expectant of a word from God” (37). This chapter also identify’s Braxton’s primary interpretive community is the African American community.

3. The final chapter, over half the book, engages with eight section of Galatians [1:1-9; 2:1-10; 2:11-21; 3:1-5; 3:6-14; 3:26-29; 4:1-11; 5:13-26], each offering a general analysis of the text followed by the interpretations implications for the African American community.

Though it varies at points, Braxton’s interpretation of Galatians is in line with the New Perspective on Paul; James D. G. Dunn figures prominently in the discussion. Braxton’s pastor’s heart beats throughout the implications as interesting conclusions for the African American community, and American culture as a whole, flow in these sections. For example, in 2:1-10, Braxton finds a call for the acceptance of diverse cultures within the gospel community. He writes, “A commitment to the gospel would not, of necessity, entail a obliteration of one’s ethnic distinctiveness, yet a commitment to one’s ethnic distinctiveness would not, of necessity, obliterate the unity implied by the gospel” (69). And in 4:1-11, Braxton sees that the fullness of time has come for the elements of the world, one of which is racism, to be defeated by the cross.

In conclusion, let me offer a few strengths and weaknesses of the book.

Strengths – First of all, and sadly this is not true often enough, the book is very well written. I would say it is an easy read, but not in the sense it is unchallenging only that Braxton’s style and attention to detail make reading pleasurable. In fact, they make me want to hear him preach! Second, the first chapter is eye-opening. Braxton’s account of the need for liberation and the definition of liberation are excellent. As a white male, and someone with limited engagement with Black Liberation Theology, this chapter made me not only think about the ideas, but also to pause and consider ways I engage in oppression. His line highlighting African American experience, “the ambiguity of being stripped of one identity and never fully afforded another” (19), has stuck with me and is still forcing me to consider my own need of repentance. Finally, Braxton’s ability to relate the biblical text to contemporary experience is admirable. Although I felt that he strayed a little to far from the text at moments, the implications he draws are insightful

Weaknesses – My main disagreement stems from my concerns with his reader-response hermeneutic. While I agree that meaning lies in the encounter of the reader and the text, his insistence that all meaning comes from the reader’s experience, I believe, swings the pendulum to far in direction. His hermeneutic is what allows him to stray to far from the text, or the meaning that resides in and with the text, in some of his implications. Second, at times I felt like the goal was to be more African American than African American Christian. To the focus on being freed “to be unashamedly black” (92) in Christ, I say “Amen”, but is being fully integrated into American society the most important outcome? I tread lightly here, as I acknowledge my own limitations, but do wish there would have been more discussion on the integration of the church as the means to calling for changes in society.

Overall, I strongly encourage those interested in Galatians, interpretation, and especially those interested in using academics to influence culture to read Brad Braxton’s book.