Womanist Sass and Talk Back

Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Intreptation

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Mitzi J. Smith
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , January
     2018.
     158 pages.
     $20.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498288866.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

People who suffer injustice are often taught to read scripture from feigned positions of power that ignore the complexities of their lived experiences. In Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation, Mitzi J. Smith challenges this form of biblical interpretation that privileges a contrived-impersonal reading of scripture. Such a reading does harm by silencing the voices of the most vulnerable in society and concealing the violence and injustice present in the sacred text itself. Smith proposes an alternative way of reading texts empowered by womanist sass that “talks back” to racism, sexism, classism and other isms, that tells the truth and breaks silence. Smith does not ask that readers put their lives aside as they read sacred texts, but that they allow the reality of living to take greater priority in the act of critical interpretation. 

Smith advocates for a fresh way of reading that exposes and condemns “oppression and violence in sacred [con]texts” to shift the social injustices that impact daily living from a postscript in our reading practices to a central component in authentic biblical interpretation (3). Using a womanist intersectional approach to reading, Smith privileges the wisdom of African American women and their communities “as sources of knowledge production, critical reflection, and ethical conduct” (2). Smith models that wisdom is found not outside of the what makes a community unique, but within it.

Smith organizes her book into six contemporary stories of injustice (e.g., Sandra Bland, police brutality, epistemology, and pedagogy), and places them in dialogue with biblical texts from the old and new testaments and the apocrypha. In chapter 2, for example, Smith brings the Flint water crisis to bear on a reading of the gospel of John. The water crisis in Flint becomes a Christian ethical starting point for analyzing the interaction between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well. When read through a womanist intersectional lens, living water is not just a spiritual reality but a human and material right needed for abundant life. Access to water is both a political and spiritual concern (18). The lack of clean water in Flint is read through scripture as an act of injustice. 

Smith does not just use scripture to critique contemporary political injustice. The method works in the inverse as well. In chapter 5, Smith tackles slavery, torture, and systemic oppression in a reading of the twenty-fifth chapter of the gospel of Matthew. By re-reading the story of the ten virgins and the bridegroom as a slave parable, Smith highlights how this sacred (con)text can be read as supporting unjust systems that “wreak havoc on the lives of the marginalized and poor and make it possible to condone and justify their victimization” (71). By re-reading the parable in light of African enslavement, Smith exposes the slave logic at work in the text. She does not attempt to redeem the text as much as she chooses to call it to account for its oppressive nature. Here, Smith reminds readers that sacred texts cannot be read “simply as authoritative or normative,” they must be interpreted in light of justice (92). Like the contemporary Flint water crisis, the ancient text of the ten slave brides is exposed as a form of injustice.

Justice is the central hermeneutical key for Smith’s interpretive mission. Whether evaluating ancient sacred stories or living contemporary contexts, Smith does so through a lens of divine justice. Ultimately, God is a God who loves justice, hates the normalization of violence, and is emotionally vulnerable with love for the oppressed. Any (con)text that is interpreted must be read in light of this commitment. Smith leaves the reader with this realization—wherever injustice is present, be it in ancient texts or in our everyday living, it must be confronted, called out, and transformed. This is the will of a God who loves justice.

The power of Smith’s contribution is in her unapologetic emphasis on the political nature of biblical interpretation. Smith removes any veil that might obscure the myth that reading sacred texts is an apolitical practice without real consequences for people’s lives. A brief historical review of the ways that the Bible has been used in support of violence, oppression, and harm proves Smith’s point with ease. 

It is not enough, however, for biblical interpretation to only produce an interest in social justice. It must result in acts of justice, acts that lead to real change. Subsequently, Smith calls readers not only to “acts of social justice (feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned)” but to change the systems that “promote the perpetual existence of poverty, hunger, prison nations and enslavement, and sickness, as opposed to equity, health, wholeness, protections, and freedom for all” (92). To read of injustice, in our sacred texts or in our lives, is to be moved to do something to dismantle it. For Smith, biblical interpretation can be an act of justice or injustice, but it is never neutral. 

Smith writes as an act of womanist resistance, as a way of saving herself and her people from disembodied reading and disempowered faith. It is deeply personal, political, and prophetic. This book is a gift for those who want and need to read sacred texts this way, but it is not a how-to guide. While Smith calls for the increased prominence of the contextual world in front of the text, she does not abandon the historical and literary world of the text in her analysis. Smith’s expertise in biblical history and interpretation undergirds her assessment of sacred texts and cannot be overlooked and may not be quickly modeled by less familiar audiences. 

For those who yearn to read sacred texts with their whole selves and to put them in dialogue with the overwhelming injustices of contemporary living, Smith provides a timely way forward with Womanist Sass and Talk Back. Scholars and practitioners alike will find great value in Smith’s contribution.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachelle R. Green is a doctoral student inn Practical Theology and Religious Education at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mitzi J. Smith is Professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary/Detroit. She is author of The Literary Construction of the Other in the Acts of the Apostles: Charismatics, the Jews, and Women (Pickwick 2011), and coeditor of Teaching All Nations: Interrogating the Matthean Great Commission(2014).

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