Unsettling the Word

Biblical Experiments in Decolonization

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Steve Heinrichs
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , February
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization, editor Steve Heinrichs gathers the work of over sixty authors in an attempt to wrestle with biblical texts which have, in the past, been used as weapons of dispossession, oppression, and colonial control. Heinrichs admits in the book’s preface that the Bible is a “dangerous book, one which can fuel great harm and violence, even genocide” (x). His vision is thus to “reclaim the Bible from the dominant powers,” re-reading and re-imagining the ancient text as “a force for justice and peace in the cause of the oppressed” (xi). The biblical traditions, he suggests, can offer oppressed peoples and their allies the means of speaking truth to power; rather than affirming the normalcy of colonial, racial, and political injustice, these texts can be re-visioned in ways which unsettle and challenge such normalcy. As he insists, “The Bible has been used as a tool of colonialism, xenophobia, exclusion, and cultural genocide. It still is. But this does not have to be” (xv).

The sixty or so chapters making up this book consist of short reflections on and creative responses to particular biblical texts from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Some of the chosen texts recount narratives of oppression and violence—including divine violence—while others afford us glimpses of God’s justice, benevolence, and care for the oppressed. Contributors belong to both indigenous and settler communities, and include academics, theologians, poets, pastors, and social justice activists. Their responses to the biblical texts vary considerably in both genre and approach. We encounter poetry and prose, imagined letters sent between biblical characters, personal reflections, commentaries, and creative retellings of biblical traditions. Rarihokwats, for example, offers a poetic re-reading of Psalm 137, replacing the lament of Babylonian exiles with his own lament at the colonial erosion of indigenous land, identity, and culture (112-13). Ellen F. Davis retells the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) through the eyes of both Naboth and the prophet Elijah, with Elijah issuing a warning to contemporary world leaders about the destructive potential of industrial agriculture (76-77). Both of these authors, as well as many others, highlight the injustice and oppression encountered and lamented or challenged in the biblical texts. Other contributors, however, critique the texts themselves, exposing the violence and tyranny which often lies hidden or overlooked by biblical readers.

Thus, Derrick Jensen rephrases the divine directive in Deuteronomy 7, laying bare its unequivocal colonial violence (52-55). God carries multiple identities in Jensen’s retelling – “Empire,” “Settler Society,” “Progress,” “Priests,” and “Capitalism” – and such a God’s love for his Chosen People comes at a massive cost: the murder of indigenous peoples, the destruction of indigenous land, the disaffection and embitterment of the covenant community. Focusing on a text that is more often lauded than critiqued, Sarah Travis writes a poem from the perspective of Queen Vashti in the book of Esther, who looks at the king’s new Jewish wife with a critical eye, questioning the “justice” of her actions which save the Jews but leave so many others dead (96-97). “Is that justice?” asks Vashti. “Is anyone safe when the master’s own tools are used to dismantle the master’s house?” (97)

Like the chapters by Jensen and Travis, most contributors to this volume approach their biblical re-reading from an intersectional perspective, inviting readers to ponder issues such as colonialism, class, racism, patriarchy, and capitalism, and the ways in which these forms of oppression can converge to heighten and accentuate multiple injustices. This is one of the great strengths of the book, which accentuates that these deeply personal re-visualizations of scripture will have relevance and meaning for many different readers and reading communities. Moreover, the creative approach taken by a lot of the authors renders each chapter particularly accessible and thought-provoking. There is also a good balance between chapters which challenge the unconscionable violence of biblical texts and those which critique the historical and contemporary (mis)use of scripture as a weapon of oppression. Most importantly, the authors affirm that such challenge and critique of sacred scripture is both a valuable and valid form of exegesis, one which reclaims the redemptive or unsettling potential of biblical texts of terror. I sincerely hope that Unsettling the Word inspires similar volumes in the future, offering space for unapologetic and creative engagements with other biblical traditions. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caroline Blyth is Senior Lecturer in Religion at the University of Auckland.

Date of Review: 
December 20, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steve Heinrichs is Director of Indigenous-Settler Relations for the Mennonite Church Canada.


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