Donate to RNS

Wil Gafney, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice”

 Simran Jeet Singh: The Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney is a scholar, pastor, preacher, and activist. She’s a professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth Texas, where she teaches master’s and doctoral students in initial and advanced degree programs. She’s the author of Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction To The Women Of […]

Simran Jeet Singh:

The Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney is a scholar, pastor, preacher, and activist. She’s a professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth Texas, where she teaches master’s and doctoral students in initial and advanced degree programs. She’s the author of Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction To The Women Of The Torah And The Throne, author of Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel, and she’s the co-editor of the people’s Bible and the People’s Companion to the Bible. And if I understand correctly, she’s currently working on a women’s lectionary that’s in contract with Church House Publishing. She’s an Episcopal priest, canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth. She also a former army chaplain and congregational pastor in the AME Zion Church. And last but not least, she’s a fantastic follow on Twitter. So if you’re there you can meet her at Wil Gafney.

Thank you for watching the Religion News Service series, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice.” I’m your host, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh. And this episode is part of the second season of our series, which we filmed late in 2020. The first season, which was entitled, “Becoming Less Racist,” can be viewed on religion news.com. We thank Columbia University and Trinity University for their support in making the second season possible.

Really a pleasure to be in your company finally in a, in a face-to-face way, but how are you, how are you holding up?

Wil Gafney:

Thank you very much for having me Simran, and thank you to the community for turning up tonight. I’m doing well. It’s the end of a long day, but I am well.

Singh:

That’s great. I would love to just jump right into it and ask you about your childhood and your upbringing. And I know as scholars, we don’t often talk about these sorts of things. But I’d love to know what was your childhood and what’s, what’s your background? Like, could you share some of that with us?

Gafney:

I’m the daughter of two teachers, and that meant that I had a curriculum at home as well as a curriculum at school. And how that relates to our topic today is that my parents were concerned that my teachers at school were underestimating me and really underestimating, underestimating everyone. So, I had my own vocabulary list of words at home, and we were doing hat, sat, rat, and cat in school, and my spelling word at home was alligator. And one of the things that meant is that I received a Black history education from my childhood. My very first book that I read by myself was called She Wanted to Read, and it was the story of Mary McLeod Bethune. My first advanced was the autobiography of Frederick Douglas. So I grew up in an immediately post-secure voting rights era. My, when I was as an army chaplain, my father served and my grandfather on the other side served. So I’m a third-generation soldier, but I’m the first of those three generations to be born with the right to vote in this country. And so that was something I was very much aware of growing up.

Singh:

That’s really interesting. It’s so different from my own experience of how I grew up in. And, and especially the education piece of having an extra curriculum at home. I’m sure you didn’t, I’m sure you didn’t love that as a child that you were, that you were asked to do more work at home.

Gafney:

I didn’t. It also made for great stories. My mother’s degree is in biology and she was a science teacher. And one of the stories is that when my brother was coming, I told my mother, as six-year-olds will, that she was fat, and I got a thorough sex education lesson with models with working parts and removable organs.

Singh:

Oh, that’s hilarious. My, my wife is in the sciences as well, so I’ll have to make sure that I keep her in check there. Let me, let me ask a little bit about you or about your religious and spiritual upbringing. What did that look like for you at home?

Gafney:

I am grateful for it because it was varied. My mother’s family was Baptist. My father’s family was Methodist, but he was not attending. And my parents divorced when I was young. And so, my mother was primarily responsible for my spiritual nurture. And her focus was whatever church had a good program in terms of education and spiritual formation for young people at whatever our phase of development was. So, we were not locked into a denomination. And I didn’t grow up with the notion that this is the way, in terms of within Christianity, you know, this church versus that church.

So, I had a non-denominational church during my teen years. I was baptized in an AME Church. Of course, I would later be ordained and pastored in the AME Zion Church. I went to Catholic high school. I went to Earlham, a Quaker college. I did my PhD at Duke, which has Methodist leanings. I did my master’s at Howard, which is congregational. And so I was touched by all of these traditions. And when I was in seminary, I was involved in a project called Seminarians Interacting through the National Council of Christians and Jews, which then added a Muslim component. And so that interreligious dialogue lasted for a number of years, was deeply foundational for me.

And while I was teaching my first job at a Lutheran seminary, I joined a synagogue there and I was a member of Dorshe Derekminion for 10 years and participated in the life of the congregation, preached, gave divrei Torah while still being an Episcopal priest. And I’m still embedded in that congregation. So my spiritual nurture was diverse and again, I’m very grateful for it.

Singh:

Again, very, very different from my own upbringing. And I would love to hear from you — So, so one of the challenges I think people have heard that you don’t seem to have is, is one of holding multiple truths at once. Of, of respecting people who have differing world views, especially when it comes from with inside of a tradition. And so, can you talk to us a little bit about how, how that comes to be? How, how is that possible in someone’s mind?

You know, I’ll say more directly in a, in a previous conversation, we talked a bit about religious supremacy — the idea that when we are committed to a particular way of thinking or world view, that we presume that it’s the best and that everyone else is inferior in some way. And so how do you, how were you able to manage that tension within your own mind?

Gafney:

So I was certainly raised with that and some of the churches that I attended absolutely teach that, but I came to understand God is bigger than our texts and our stories and our experiences. And my understanding of God is not sectarian, but it is also Christian because the idea that I have the notion of God, and as a Christian notion of God who manifested in this world as a physical incarnation is a very, is a Christian understanding of God. Even within that framework, I understand that God is not limited to our texts and our traditions.

I teach the Hebrew Bible, as you mentioned. And we spent some time in our class talking about Iron Age theology. There are times when the texts are transcendent and reveal a God who is far beyond the culture and its limitations, but there are times when the portraits of God and the text is an Iron Age warlord. And so we talk about, in my writing and in my teaching, God in the text and God beyond the text. So I had to grow into an understanding of God that was not limited by text, tradition or doctrine.

Singh:

Yeah, can you, can you talk about either I want to move into, into how that connects with race, but before we do, I’m just reflecting on my own experiences. I’m hearing you talk, and I’m, I’m remembering this process that I had of growing up in a Sikh household and, and feeling like, and, you know, pretty sincerely feeling like I was open-minded because our tradition is pluralistic, and my parents really instilled that in us that no one is better than anyone else and that there are multiple paths to enlightenment.

But although I held that dear to myself, I remember this moment when I was in college, where I started to recognize that in spite of, in spite of the fact that I believed that, I still felt like I was better than other people or that my version of practice was better than other people’s. And that was a really tough thing to grapple with for me personally. And I that’s, I think that’s why I remember it so vividly. This the, the revelation within myself that I wasn’t as open-minded or pluralistic as I had, as I told myself.

And, and I’m hearing you, I’m hearing a little touch of that, as you were saying, like there was, there was a growth process for you and I, I would love for you to speak to, what was it? If you can remember, if there’s anything specific, what was it that, that helped you open up to this idea of an expansive God that is not limited to any sect or particular community?

Gafney:

Well, it’s conversation, partners, and teachers. I remember hearing Billy Graham at the end of his life in what was probably a 60 Minutes interview where he said that, when I was young, if you asked me what heaven was like, I could give you a literal description by quoting the Book of Revelation. That’s what the Bible says. Heaven is like this. That’s what it’s like. There’s gold over here. There’s pearl on the gate. That’s it. And he says, at this point in my life, I understand that that’s a way of thinking about what heaven is, that it’s more about the relationship with God and the, the splendor of being in the presence of that. And I thought, huh, Billy Graham is not being literalist. I wasn’t a scholar then, I wasn’t using that language. But if Billy Graham said, you can think about the text differently, that’s probably all right.

Now I have lots of issues with Billy Graham now that I know his history on race, but he was a significant figure. And I remember another pastor who I knew personally preaching and saying, Jesus is the way. I know that there are other ways in the world. I can’t vouch for them. I can say, this is the way that worked for me. And that’s a subtle set of differences, but it was, it was very powerful and impactful because I had grown up hearing people preach, here’s what’s wrong with these other traditions. And he, in this case, was able to say, here’s what’s true for me, and I don’t have to degrade anyone else’s tradition. I can just say from my experience, I don’t know how that works. I know how this works.

And so there were just little touchstones of listening to people think out loud and wrestle towards inclusion, so that by the time I was in seminary, even though I could not articulate it well, when my theology professor, the Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, said that if I’m wrong about this gospel project being a liberatory, inclusive, radical project, then I will be happy to have been wrong because I was more inclusive rather than less inclusive. So each of those little touchstones, and I’m sure there are others, but those are the ones that stand out.

Singh:

Yeah. That’s, that’s really helpful. I love that. And I, and I’d love to think about, you know, you, you’ve mentioned race, I’ve mentioned race. I’d love to think about how we connect the dots here. You know, we’ve, we’ve talked a bit about the ideas of supremacy and holding intention, our identities in relation to others without creating a hierarchy. How does this play out in the race? And, you know, that’s, that’s a super broad question. So let me, let me ask it more specifically and then we can, and then we can explore it a bit more.

How has your idea of a more expansive God, one that is not tied to a particular sect, how does that, how does it manifest itself in, in the way we think about human diversity when it comes to race? Does it, I mean, the obvious answer is like, there’s, there’s no place for racial hierarchy. And I imagine that’s what you would say. But what does that look like within somebody when you’re encountering difference, when, whether it’s on the basis of someone’s religion or, or on the basis of their racial background?

Gafney:

The notion that is in the Hebrew scriptures and therefore part of Jewish tradition and then subsequently part of Christian tradition that, that we are created, b’tselem, in the image of God is foundational. And so, whether you understand their religion or agree with it, the profound, ethical responsibility towards the dignity of the human person, and I would argue even from a non-religious viewpoint, from friends and colleagues who are humanists, that in terms of human life for people who don’t want to speak from a religious perspective, or if I was speaking in a non-sectarian fashion, human life is precious. And if we only respect it when it conforms to a certain set of standards, be it religious affiliation, ethnic or national identity, then we don’t truly respect that human person in value that life. We treat them often as an incomplete or literally unconverted life until they get on our page. That’s not a full measure of respect.

Singh:

Yeah. I, I appreciate that. It’s, it’s very similar to, to how I, how I think about it as a Sikh and our foundational teaching is, which refers to the oneness of the entire creation. And so this, this idea of a shared humanity and, and light and dignity is, is foundational to our teachings as well.

I would love to hear where this gets messy. And for me, at least, where this gets messy is in, is in dealing with people who are mistreating you or are unable to see your light or your divinity. And you know, you as a Black woman, I’m sure have had your fair share of encounters with people who treat you unfairly who failed to see your humanity. And so, what does that look like for you in a, in a moment of indignity? How do you retain or do you even try to retain that sense of somebody else’s humanity in that moment?

Gafney:

I suppose that my understanding of their humanity is deeply rooted enough that my response is generally towards the kind of engagement that reveals the ignorance, harm, inappropriateness of what they’ve said and, and puts that back in their face. Because at that point they are a fractured and damaged human being. And so, it’s not that I feel that I must educate them. I don’t take that burden off. But my primary response is to hold them accountable as an ethical subject for what they are doing and saving.

And if it’s the kind of context that’s going to devolve or there is some threat or more harm, of course, I extricate myself from that and I’m not trying to engage someone who is violent verbally, emotionally, or otherwise. But when it is whether in a truly ignorant convent or I have a new category after the last maybe 12 years, willfully ignorant, willfully ignorant comment, then I, then my response is measured, but, but I do, I do give them the benefit of the, their humanity, the benefit of the doubt by trying to engage them if that is at all possible and appropriate in the context.

Singh:

That’s great. I appreciate you walking us through that. I know it’s not, it’s not the easiest question to answer, but I’d love to hear now some examples of, of what that looks like in action. Are there situations that you can think of in which, you know, however recent, somebody calls you something, assumes something about you, says something about who you are and you feel moved to respond or not respond? Can, can you walk us through, I think for many of us what’s, what’s that like? And, and, and what do you do in a situation like that?

Gafney:

Sure. So, people who follow me will have heard this one. When I was teaching at the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, at the beginning of that period, I was also co-teaching at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, which is not a reasonable commute, but we were working out a grant and at the Gettysburg Seminary, Gettysburg is a town that is not only renowned for the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought in part on properties now, the seminary, and there are books with Civil War blood on them in the library, but it is really a Confederate-loving town. And it’s a very hostile place. You’re just aware of it when you walk in the way that people look at you.

And when a Black trustee was added to the Board of Trustees, she was told when she came for meetings, not to book the hotel in town. So, in that context, in the chapel, as a student came to me and said, I don’t know, listen to this language carefully, I don’t know what to call Black people. I was just raised calling them the N word. And I said, clearly, you know another word, because you used the word Black before you deliberately use the N word in my face, in this sanctuary, they started to say, I don’t know. And then I turned and left because that was just not a conversation worth having. And I went through some administrative channels with that. But I was, I was very shocked by that. So that’s one.

Another, that is, that was a regularly occurring feature and I might be prominent enough in my field and in the Twitterverse that I don’t experience this, but on more than one occasion, I have been introduced or had someone introduce me as Professor of Hebrew Bible, Assistant Associate Full Professor and have someone ask do you know, Hebrew? And I’ll say, did you just ask me if I’m literate in the requirements of my discipline? Is that what you just did? So that, that happens. And in my publishing life, you mentioned the People’s Bible, which had editors who were First Nations people, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, a Latina, and a white American. And so when we said it was the People’s Bible, we were really trying to pull together interpreter voices. And we had a whole section of reading the Bible through various cultural identity constructions. So that was the project. And we had a beautiful color with multicolored tiles moving into a road, all this stuff.

And so the press I worked with, I was very pleased with that project, did a number of things. And when it came to my first book, my dissertation, Daughters of Miriam, which is a study of female prophets in ancient Israel, in ancient near East, this press that worked so well on this multicultural project sent me a mock-up of my cover with a blonde, white woman on the cover who was supposed to represent the Afro, Afro-Asiatic prophet Miriam from ancient Israel. And I sent it back and I said, you’re the same press who did that? And they were like, oh, this is coming out of this division. And I’m like, have you met me? Send that back. So I wound up designing my own cover for the book and bringing in an artist, but their default was, well, since it’s not one of those special multicultural projects, we can just go back to doing what we do, which is filtering the Bible through a white lens, because that’s what we do. So, I will leave with those three examples.

Singh:

Yeah, those are great examples. I think, I mean they’re so diverse in terms of, you know, I, I’m sitting here, I’m hating myself for asking you to walk through, I, I hate when people ask me to walk through my examples of, of those painful kinds of moments. But, and, and I, that makes me appreciate your willingness to share in the spirit of, of helping everyone understand what it’s like to be you and, and the diversity of those examples.

I mean, immediately what jumps out to me is, oh, this, this must just be the tip of the iceberg. Right? Like you must get, you must have all sorts of stories. Right? So that’s, that’s one. The second thing that when, what your comment is triggering or your stories are triggering for me is a very common frustration that I have. You know, I, I, I’m a Sikh by practice, but I teach different traditions. I’ve taught Islamic studies. I teach Buddhist history at Union Seminary now and I get that question all the time and it’s like, you know, what are you doing? Who are you qualified to be teaching this? And I get it from academics as well.

And, and the frustration here, and I assume this is true for you as well, is that if I was white and no one would ask me that question, right? It’s not, it’s not frustrating that people are asking me the question on its face, but to know the context and the assumption of who gets to teach, who can, who is considered to be an authority, who would be qualified, who would be quote, unquote objective, right? Like that’s, that’s part of the problem here. So I, I love you for surfacing that because it’s, it’s something that I deal with.

Gafney:

Male colleague at my, at TCU, which is where Brite Divinity School is housed, we were all going through new, new faculty training on the LMS. So, he’s sitting in the same room with me as, as a new faculty member himself. Well, I have gotten versions of that from students.

Singh:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, for, for those who are for those who are listening in and don’t have experiences like this just, just to note that this is what we’re over discussing here is, is the expectations of, of normativity who is considered to be inappropriate person to do an appropriate job, right?

Like for, for Dr. Gafney to be a Black woman teaching the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, no one would expect that. And what does that tell us about our assumptions? Right? Like what does, what does it tell us that when I walk into a classroom of Buddhist history, students, their eyebrows all go up and ask if I know if I’m the right person in the room, right? Like there’s, there’s some real assumptions baked in there and we can name them as racist. Right? These are racist assumptions based on our appearances and how we look.

Dr. Gafney, I’d love for you to talk to us a little bit about anti-Semitism given your expertise. How does anti-Semitism, based on your own experiences with anti-Black racism, how, how does anti-Semitism map on to anti-Black racism? How, where are there intersections how might they be different? What, what could you say about those, those two things together?

Gafney:

They are each the fruit of the same poisonous white supremacist trait. The white supremacist ideal is a nominally Christian ideal in much of the Western world. There’s a part of it that is Teutonic and Nordic in religious iconography and ideology. It is this centering of what is normative and that is of course a white, cis-sexual. Heterosexual, able-bodied, but, but also Christian, and the way that it deploys in my field as a scholar of religion is, I mentioned my book cover dealing with the Hebrew biblical prophet, Miriam, the en-whitenment of the biblical text — which by the way, is how we learned about the period other folks called the Enlightenment when I was at Howard Div — yes, I too am an alum of Howard university, like vice-president elect Kamala Harris and I too am a member of her sorority and I wearing the pearls tonight — you know, so we learned about this period called the Enlightenment.

For other folk, we called it the en-whitenment, in which in part, these stories are recrafted is foundational stories for the West and the characters who live in a region of the world that is the continent of Asia on one side, which extends to what people think of as the Middle East, but the middle of what, from where, from Europe’s perspective. But the Arabian Peninsula there and the African peninsula on the other side, in fact, the, the continental plates divide in the Jordan River. So, when you’re on the Israel side of the fault that runs down the, to the, the, now to the, to Lake Victoria, you’re actually on the African continental plate. They’re identifying these people as Europeans in terms of, of iconography and culture. So, there’s this whitening of the biblical texts.

When you read the New Testament translated into English, one of the things that you find is that the character’s names are de Judah-ized, right? So that you have Mary, rather than Miriam. You have James, which is a long way from Ya’akov. So once these characters become Christian, they basically become British in terms of the way that they’re named. So their Jewish identity is stripped from them, because what is white and normative is Christian. So those things interweave.

Singh:

That’s, that’s really interesting. I mean, I, I don’t, I don’t know many folks who are so well-versed, whether personally or professionally, to speak about the intersections of, of anti-Semitism and anti-racism as, as a historical and as historical phenomena. And what I love about what you just did is, I mean, you, you, you simplified it so much for us.

You said it’s white supremacy. And then there are branches and you have anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism. There are, would you say there are any, any dangers in making a one-to-one comparison? I know people often will say, well, anti-Semitism is a form of racism. And, and, you know, racism is its own construct. How would you, how would you advise us to think about the relationship between the two. Is anti-Semitism as simple as racism as we know it in America, or is there, is there something distinctive there?

Gafney:

It has, it has its own history and its own distinctiveness. And I don’t want to collapse it by saying it’s a fruit from the same tree. It allows, the metaphor allows for the fruit to be different shapes and different sizes and, you know, want to be sweet or want to be bitter. So, it doesn’t require them to be exact and perfectly paired so that they can be their own, their own thing. And of course, anti-Semitism has existed longer than what we call racism because the construction of race is relatively recent compared to anti-Jewish violence and anti-Jewish bias. Now, and even the phenomenon of anti-Blackness more broadly is more recent.

So, I think it’s important not to try to equate them in every aspect because anti-Semitism also has a, a particular, a specific Christian component that is that it was doctrinal in some places in terms of how people viewed the two testaments, how people viewed Christianity as a successor religion.

When I have this conversation in congregations, I try to help people with how they feel about claims in Islam that the prophet Muhammad, spoken with all respect to him, was the final prophet and that Christian teachings didn’t quite get it right. Which is why the Qu’ran came into being and the sort of bluster and offense that Christian congregants will take to that. I said, well, that is the very same argument you’re making vis-a-vis Judaism as, as a Christian.

“Oh, it’s not the same because you know, ours is right, ours is the one.” I said, well, and then we have continuing revelation with the Jain. And so, we sort of talk about it that way, but that aspect of anti-Judaism that is, there is a level of it that has really manifested in the New Testament in some cases — it’s certainly manifested in interpretation of the New Testament, it’s manifested in the developing and flourishing of the church — and so it has this lineage that is longer than anti-Blackness and anti-racism based on when racialized codes were invented to enslave and to perpetually enslave and disenfranchise Africans.

Singh:

Yeah, I appreciate, I appreciate that. That’s, that’s really helpful to think of through, through the metaphor that you’re offering, and then, and then to trace it out a little bit more specifically within each of these two groupings of, of anti-Semitism and anti-Blackness. And I guess before, before we move into questions and, and I’ll invite other folks to, to jump in with their questions in a bit, I’d love to hear what wisdom you’ve gained along the way in dealing with the racism and the bigotry that you’ve encountered throughout your life — whether that’s you know, what we would call personal affronts, direct racism, what we might call a microaggression, what we might see as a, as an online attack. What you learned, what helps you deal with the kinds of things that you’ve experienced?

Gafney:

So, I have come to accept fully that racism is white folk business, and that it is white folk that need to dismantle white supremacy and eradicate anti-Blackness and racism. So, when I have some engagement, and it’s a person that I, that there’s a possibility of being in conversation with beyond that moment, you know, not somebody yelling something out of a car window, you know, that happens. I have a community of folks, some are my students, my former students, now colleagues, that I will send to, to engage them. I have people who will write folk emails, who will speak to them off of, off of Twitter. So, one of my learnings is it is not my job to correct or teach or instruct the racist of the world and to bring them out of the racism. That is not my job.

So, releasing that has been very powerful and very helpful for me. If someone wants to have a conversation — it’s, it’s clear by the way, questions are asked and people engage and I will discuss to a point, but I will also say, this is something you need to work out as a white person, and you need to be in conversation with white folk who are a little further along in the journey than you are.

Singh:

That’s great. I appreciate that. And I’d also ask, you know, there are folks on this call who are, who might be interested including myself in, in starting somewhere personally. And so, if there are people on this call who are, who are watching you now, who are, who are interested in anti-racism as something they can do within themselves, as a process to undertake, what advice would you have for them? Where should they start?

Gafney:

I think the, I think it’s important to start with perspectives you have that you may not know that you have. And so, this is hard because you don’t know that you have these perspectives. Analyze your risk, your, your values, your aesthetics, what is about people that, that put you off. Question your assumptions. You know, when you hear a story about some criminality or you hear a story about even a politician, what are the assumptions that you’re bringing to that conversation and the encounter? And look at the ways in which whiteness and value for the white aesthetic has been internalized.

There’s this apocryphal story that I attribute to Malcolm X, which I believe it came out of the Spike Lee movie and not out of his writings, because my graduate student assistant went looking for it and couldn’t find it textually, but it talks about a conversation that he would have had when he was incarcerated when he realized that the, our mutual English, shared English language, demonizes Blackness. Right? The black ball, and the black sheep, just black is, denotes negativity. So be aware of how language and culture have shaped you to value and de-value along color lines and then racial constructions. So, part of it is knowing what the stuff is that you have in you, what you were taught, what you inherited, what you absorbed from the culture.

Singh:

Thank you. I, I love that suggestion. And I love, I love all the insights and wisdom you’ve shared with us.