The Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast

The Bible as an Imperial and Insurgent Text: A Conversation with Steed Davidson

April 19, 2023 The Leadership Center for Social Justice Season 1 Episode 10
The Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast
The Bible as an Imperial and Insurgent Text: A Conversation with Steed Davidson
Show Notes Transcript

This episode’s guest is Steed Davidson, Professor of Hebrew Bible Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary. In this episode, we are in conversation with Steed about the connections between the Bible,  empire, and liberation. Steed reflects on his work in postcolonial biblical studies and his argument that the Bible is strongly connected to empire and colonialism. However, he also shares that there continue to be insurgent readings of the Bible that can be used as a tool against imperialism and for liberation. Steed reflects on how his experiences growing up in Tobago post British colonialism shaped his worldview and his studies. 


Empire and Exile: Postcolonial Readings of the Book of Jeremiah

Writing/Reading the Bible in Postcolonial Perspectives

Islands, Islanders and the Bible: RumInations

Episode Transcription available here

Host: Ry O. Siggelkow

Producer: Adam Pfuhl

Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua

Music: Kavyesh Kaviraj

Episode Recorded on November 9th, 2022

You can find out more about the Leadership Center for Social Justice on our website and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

In Conversation with Steed Davidson

Ry Siggelkow
[00:00:01] You're listening to the podcast of the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. We seek to open a space for critical theological conversations about pressing social issues we face in our world today. Thanks for listening. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:00:28] Hello. My name is Ry Siggelkow and I am the director of the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Today, I am excited to be in conversation with Steed Davidson, a professor of Hebrew Bible Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary, in addition to serving as the dean of the faculty and vice president of Academic Affairs. Steed is the author of Empire and Exile: Postcolonial Readings of Selected Texts of the Book of Jeremiah, Writing/ Reading the Bible in a Postcolonial Perspective and a co-editor of Islands, Islanders and the Bible: RumiNations

A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Steed earned his Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York. He currently serves on the editorial boards of Biblical Interpretation and Black Theology in International Journal. Steed is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. Steed, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast today. 

Steed Davidson [00:01:42] Well, thank you very much for this invitation. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:01:46] Steed, I thought we could begin with you sharing a bit about the field you work in which is postcolonial biblical studies. Well, I know that this field of study or perhaps it is better thought of as a distinct approach to reading the Bible has a rich and complex history. My sense is that it is still not widely understood in mainstream biblical studies or perhaps theology more generally. I mean, we know that it draws on a wide range of literature that has come to fall under the banner of postcolonial studies. I think of canonical figures like Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, all come to mind right off the top of my head. But there are many other thinkers as well. And these postcolonial studies emerged in the wake of mid-twentieth century anti-colonial movements, and it highlighted the ongoing legacies and structures of colonialism. But I wonder how you would describe this distinct field, this diverse field, and how it relates to mainstream or what we might call dominant forms of biblical scholarship and why you think its critical methodologies still matter for us today. 

Steed Davidson [00:02:59] To the extent that colonialism was a task, a function, a feature of the modern world carried out by Christians, we have to be asking what role does the Bible play in that, in that history and in creating those legacies. And because we know that at best we can characterize our time as a decolonial perhaps or post-colonial, if you wish, where we are looking beyond the experiences of colonialism that have been a feature of our modern world for almost four or 500 years. Then there is relevance that any scholarship, any kind of inquiry, any kind of thinking needs to pay attention to. In terms of distinctive features, I would point out attentiveness to history and attentiveness to lived history and the history certainly of people who would not have normally written history. If you want to call it the losers, so-called, or better yet, you could do something like thinking of history from the underside or another way of intervening in history that decenters some of the kind of practices of historical writing such as the sort of great man theory ideas that center the white male perspective. So that would be one big feature of the postcolonial biblical studies where we start to interrogate what's the function and role of the Bible in these particular histories and the extent to which biblical interpretation has been shaped by those types of histories.

And the other distinctive part is something, if you want to call it that, is a little bit more constructive in the sense that if we want to hold on to the Bible as something that's useful for people who have lived those negative histories, how do we make the Bible something that's very useful and empowering moving forward? So there's also a constructive aspect  to it. Yeah, that would be the quick answer that I would give unless you want me to keep going. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:05:37] Yeah. I wonder how it fits within postcolonial studies more generally. I mean, is it a subfield of postcolonial studies? Is it drawing on that canon of literature? 

Steed Davidson [00:05:49] Yes, definitely. It fits within that broad movement.  That some of us are trying to create as a subfield because as you would imagine with many different types of fields of study, religion isn't always something that's picked up. Sometimes you'll get the occasional person who will pay attention to it. But the notions of sort of the cultural impacts of colonialism, the economic impact that even I would even argue those things received are shaped in many ways by biblical and religious perspectives. And several again, so-called secular scholars might miss these. Thinking that these are things that are just sort of inherent to the European culture or the culture of dominant people. 

But these cultures have been intensely shaped by christianity and religion, which is what I started out with this acceptance of the fact that the project of colonialism, particularly as we see European expansion, starts to occur around 15th,16th century, much of that is taking shape in response to the break up of Europe into nation states and Europe now in some ways trying to expand itself outside of its geographical boundaries. And there are movements that are religious movements that are animating those boundary expanding features. And religion is also giving shape to that kind of emerging capitalist impulses which involves hey, let's go find other land, let's go find other people. Religion is also framing where those places are, who are the people who are ripe for the kinds of exploitation of labor and oppression that would happen. So it's a way of now seaming into broader post-colonial studies the functions of religion and religion as an identifiable category in the development of these imperial patterns. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:08:23] You dedicate your first book, Empire and Exile: Postcolonial Readings of the Book of Jeremiah quote "To the Island of Tobago, where I first learned postcolonial reflections". And in the preface of the book, you share briefly about growing up in Tobago, a Caribbean island that, as you put it, quote, "earned the reputation of being the most fought over and exchanged island in European colonial history, changing hands some 31 times now". 

Now, Trinidad and Tobago gained its independence from Britain in 1962. And you grew up in the post-independence era when, as you say, "schools, society, church, commerce, governance, banking and others still bore the marks, literally and otherwise, of the British colonial presence". You also share about your experiences as a young person hearing noises occasioned by a black power uprising in the region, and that these background noises, as you put it, "have stayed with you and still live with you". 

Of course, Trinidad and Tobago are Caribbean islands that have produced an unusually high number of important intellectuals, including the historian Eric Williams, author of "Capitalism and Slavery", whom I know is a quite complicated political figure in Trinidad and Tobago, having been the first prime minister after independence. But it was also the home of C.L.R. James, the influential Marxist intellectual whose work, in addition to having a direct impact on anti-colonial struggles globally, significantly shaped the early formation of black studies. And also, as you argue, postcolonial studies. 

Steed, I wonder if you would be willing to share in more detail about your own experiences growing up in Tobago in the post-independence era and how these experiences have come to shape your intellectual work and scholarship in biblical studies. 

Steed Davidson [00:10:27] Yeah. Thanks for reminding me of that dedication. 

Tobago was heavily underdeveloped when I was growing up as a boy. And one of the things I recognized is how this underdevelopment was a result of British colonial policies. I think it would have been towards the end of the 18th century, early 19th century, when Tobago was hit by a hurricane and it decimated its agricultural product. And the British, basically not wanting to do investment, decided it's just easier for us not to have two colonies and to create one colony out of Trinidad and Tobago. The British had just gotten Trinidad from the Spanish and the Spanish had a fairly long history of owning Trinidad, but never really settled Trinidad as such. And much of Trinidad was basically settled by a number of Creoles, if you want to call them that, who were from different parts of French colonies. So this was the British sort of way of providing some kind of economic efficiency. But tying one small island to another, one where the development was going to be uneven. 

And so during the sort of early times when the two are administered by one governor and one legislature, Trinidad advances a whole lot more by the 20th century with the discovery of oil in Trinidad. The economic advancement just went even further. One of the other important things about 1962 is another hurricane destroys Tobago and then the newly independent government again goes, you know basically does what the British would have done was like, you know we're not pouring money into this place so that Tobago just stays fairly underdeveloped. So there's a series of under developments that were happening.

So in my childhood and youth, the figure that would have been the more imperialising figure would have been Trinidad for me, because it's the place that created this dependent relationship. And in many ways tied our hands in terms of self-determination to make it a very difficult place for advancement. So essentially, I mean, when I say underdeveloped, we didn't have opportunities beyond high school for education in Tobago, we didn't have opportunities to rise above certain positions, whether in the civil service or in companies. People would not become CEOs of companies who were resident in Tobago. We did not have facilities for sports, and there's a whole number of different things. So that sense of what is inequality and I could push it even further is the word oppression that I learned from this, from living in a country where the two parts of the country were related in ways like that. And that just sort of expanded and opened up my mind to a whole number of other things.In terms of here is what the global arrangement starts to look like and this global arrangement starts to impact my thinking. And by the impact that I am saying actually giving voice to the things that I am feeling. I could fit into the categories of thought based upon my experience as someone who was in many ways seen as a peculiar creature. 

So one of the things I always remember is as a teenager, we would compete in national events in high school and more often than not, here we were, whether it's a sports team or some team. My thing was debating and music and that we would be going to the finals to Trinidad. And our counterparts in Trinidad would look at us as peculiar persons. They would be surprised that we took a flight to Trinidad. There was a sense of “we didn't know that you had access to the airplanes to come to Trinidad or that you could afford the airplanes”. So there were a bunch of questions. We were always treated as an oddity. So some of the kinds of structured oppressions that I would encounter and learn about much later on racism, sexism and so on that I already experienced in my life growing up because of the country that I grew up in and because of those relationships. A lot of that has changed. So there'll be children growing up where I grew up now, who may not get that level of experience  as I did because things have changed and happily improved quite a bit. But it was that living that then gave me thinkers like C.L.R. James and further on Frantz Fanon, in other places are Walter Rodney. Those were the kinds of people that provided analytical categories that fit with what I was experiencing. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:16:58] One of the arguments you make in your work is that the Bible has not only been an ideological tool or weapon used to justify various forms of imperialism, including and especially, of course, the history of European colonialism, but that the Bible is itself in some sense at least a product of empire. Indeed, you described the Bible as an imperial text. I wonder if you could share a bit more about this argument and its implications and why you think it is important for us to grapple with it today. 

Steed Davidson [00:17:33] So there are a number of people who prefer to say that when we have bad biblical interpretation, that what is wrong are the interpreters, that people misinterpret the text. And there is a great deal of truth to that where it's yes, you do have people doing it. But there is also one thing that we have to ask ourselves. How is it that biblical texts become possible to support enslavement of Africans, the oppression of women, the sort of exploitation and extermination of whole populations, but that the biblical text becomes so easily fitted and suited to these types of oppression. One has to ask. Maybe there is something there that actually endorses it. And of course, we will find, you know, certainly in terms of the case of enslavement that has happened. 

And so in the work that I have been doing, I keep asking myself that question and recognizing one of the things that I had to teach myself. But I think happily, it's happening, it is occurring a whole lot more, is that we have to situate the unfolding of the biblical narrative, its own development in the background of these ancient empires. And that more often than not, the fortunes of ancient Israel Judea into the Roman Empire, are impacted and affected by these major empires to the extent that the empires recognize and see this, this small dot in the map as important is not that critical for me. What I think is more critical, is how this small dot on the map is trying to survive in the midst of these empires. But part of the way in which you survive is not to be antagonistic to the empire. It is also to be in some ways deferential to the empire.And in fact, my argument tends to be that what you have is a small, weak, displaced in some ways a vulnerable group of people that have discovered imperial power is something that should be craved. And so the sort of imagination of the Bible tends to be towards imitating imperial power and in fact trying to accumulate imperial power to the extent that that is possible. It's from that perspective that I'm setting up that argument.

Now, clearly, by the time we get to the end of the Bible and see the Book of Revelation, clearly the sort of the image and imagination of what's forming as the Christian church is that it is universalistic. And by universalistic it is not just that it then takes on the whole universe, it covers the entire universe. That is an imperial posture. The aim of sort of extending oneself across an entire geographic space or inside the entire globe. I mean, that's how the Roman Empire saw itself. And that what you have is this invitation to imagine that church or imagine a God that covers the entire world, that controls the entire, that it incorporates all sorts of diversities, all people from all languages, nations, etc. They all come into this one melting pot. These are images that are derived from empire. And certainly the Roman Empire, as it saw itself.

To that extent, one of the things I think is important for us to start to see how these sort of reflections and imitations of empire are seeped within the biblical text and the biblical imagination in ways that enable Christians to basically miss what has happened these last four or 500 years, to miss what is actually happening now and to miss the kinds of colonizing tendencies that operate both say from say, from different types of  Christianity's but also in the sort of a geopolitical movements that we have to grapple with in our lifetime. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:22:28] In your work, you also discuss another interpretive trajectory of the Bible, what you call insurgent readings of the text. And so you take seriously the various ways in which the Bible has been taken up, reworked and reshaped as a weapon of criticism, we might say, against colonialism and imperialism. We might think of, for example, the place of the Exodus narrative in black struggles against slavery, particularly in what is known as the United States. But we see this elsewhere, too, of course. I mean, I think it is fair to say that wherever the Bible has been deployed by colonial and imperial regimes, we consistently see the emergence of insurgent readings and insurgent theological traditions. 

It seems to me that the recovery of insurgency and I really like that term of yours, the recovery of that as a theological intervention really stands at the heart of what is generally known as liberation theology. We might think especially of the work of James Cone and Gustavo Gutierrez, for example, as part of this tradition of insurgency, which is of course quite interventionist in its orientation to dominant imperial readings of the Bible. My sense is, however, that postcolonial biblical studies has a bit of an ambiguous relationship to liberation theology, one that is not uncritical. 

I wonder if you could share your thoughts on the relationship between what you do as someone working in postcolonial biblical scholarship and these diverse traditions of liberation theology. 

Steed Davidson [00:24:04] Yeah. So it's an interesting thing, and it is an interesting question for me to sort of rethink some of my earlier positions on this debate. And because there's a sense in which they say there were some aspects of liberation theology that postcolonial biblical criticism that were rejected and kept a distance from. And some of that may very well be what I'm describing as the insurgent. I shouldn't say "may very well be", it is actually the insurgent, the insurgent pieces in it.  

Well, the streams that, the early streams that started to flow into postcolonial biblical work tended to have a kind of notion that the system could be reformed. The system can be changed because what you had were bad actors operating the system, along with the fact that the system had lost its way. Versus what you have from a liberation theology perspective is that the thing is just wrong. Even if you had good people working it, it was just wrong. And it will continue to be wrong. Hence, insurgency as the intervention that definitely is necessary. And I want to to spend more time on the work I'm doing because I did this not well enough in the past. Attentive to how some people are engaged in this kind of insurgency with the Bible.

And I want to think of in some ways someone like Nat Turner, who has his counterpart in Jamaica called Sam Sharpe. I want to think, too, of some of the language and the works that we see in African-American spirituals. And I think that's stuff happening in other parts of the world where people saw liberated impulses in biblical narratives, in biblical teachings, and biblical saying. Impulses that were in some ways washed by a layer, a editing layer that made texts safe for imperial consumption or in some ways made the texts enabling of these middle managers in the image in ancient empires to retain a class for who in some ways always wanted to please them, please those who are above them, while also retaining some control of those who are below that. 

So I think what we have in some of these sort of historical readings of the Bible are people being quite selective and pulling out. What were the revolutionary parts? The parts that were aimed at liberation, the parts that were aiming for the uplift of the general people and rejecting the rest, the rest of it, and finding their utility in it. Not because this is one of the ways in which I think I could explain why a text that was used by both oppressed and oppressor for different purposes could still survive is precisely because how oppressed people read it was quite different. They weren't reading the same thing. They weren't accepting the same set of values. 

And so the insurgent readings that I'm pointing to is, it has to start and to begin with a predisposition to what's liberation and a predisposition to was not just the liberation of a select group of people but particularly those from the other side and those who are weak and those who are unable to to help themselves. That's that's kind of where I want to go with some of that, because I think there's a richness there and it will help some of our people get back to using the Bible for liberative purposes, not just the kind of economic aggrandizement that we see happening with a lot of people who are like, you know, sort of a very neo liberal kind of a posture with the Bible. And it's about enrichment and enrichment of oneself.

 Ry Siggelkow [00:29:01] So you're finding yourself actually more drawn toward liberationist readings these days? 

Steed Davidson [00:29:07] Yes. Yes. And I want to do so from a post-colonial perspective. Yes. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:29:11] That sounds great. Yes. 

Steed Davidson [00:29:13] Yes. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:29:14] In your short book, Writing/Reading the Bible in Postcolonial Perspective, you have quite a wide ranging discussion about how postcolonial biblical studies might function, oppositionally, and how it might contribute to broader conversations about sexuality and gender, land, identity and migration, among other important topics of inquiry. But I wanted to ask you especially about your reflections on the potential for an oppositional role in what you call postcolonial biblical eco criticism. You draw on the work of the great Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, who was from an island to the north of Trinidad and Tobago, St Lucia. You provide an analysis of his poem The Sea is History, among other poems of his, that draw on and reinterpret biblical images within a postcolonial context. I wonder if you could share a bit about your reflections on Walcott's poetry and how you see postcolonial biblical eco criticism as helping us imagine or envision what you call a more planetary future. 

Steed Davidson [00:30:26] This one is one of the delights of the work that I have done. I mean, just reading the poetry of Derek Walcott and seeing his attention to the landscape, to nature, to the environment and then running into the way in which he is reusing biblical imagery, biblical stories, biblical narratives. You know, several years ago, I had the pleasure of having dinner and drinks with Derek Walcott because at the time I was staying with one of his childhood friends. When I say childhood, they had known each other since they were maybe like four or five years old. And it was fantastic to hear how these two men grew up in the Methodist church. And at that time, this was before I was in graduate school and did a lot of the work that I'm doing now. At that time, it did not impact me, but the evening stayed with me. So again, picking up Walcott's poetry and seeing how he is doing biblical interpretation takes me back to that meeting and encounter knowing that this was someone who was very well schooled within the church and theological themes.

There is this other work that Walcott wrote called Omeros in which he really spent some time going through and thinking through the impact of tourism upon St Lucia. And he's doing so alongside a number of different themes, looking at the social impact, the economic impact, the environmental impact. And I think in this he is kind of imagining St Lucia from two perspectives. From the perspective of Eden and these places where he peppers it with the garden story. And then he's also looking at it from the perspective of this original myth of Greek mythology of the Iliad, and recasting the Lucians with these Greek themes. So, it's this combination of these two sorts of impulses that's there. 

But Walcott, when that poem was written, the issues of the negative impact of mass tourism upon Caribbean islands was in its infancy. It has become even more of a disastrous impact these days. For me, I think it is an important thing to talk about now. How, and in another piece I kind of looked at this, how the legacies of colonialism either legacies of the plantation, have merged into the tourism industry in negative ways, particularly upon the environment. And part of that impact is if in the plantation what you had was a mono crop culture that just depleted the soils. Now we have this this sort of old one economic model that is going to have these negative effects upon creating more solid waste than necessary that these islands have very little space and capacity to dispose of, creating more and more effluent from cruise ships and all of these kind of thing and just destroying barrier reefs and coastal erosion that you can go on and on and on. And that is on top of what's happening globally.  The kinds of other things that's happening. And surprise, surprise, here comes violent hurricanes to add to this. 

These become, for me, important points of conversation. But for us to ask ourselves now how it is we in these small islands, these small developing islands can survive in a globalized environment that is going to impact us so, so negatively and where the places where we need to start to push back in stronger ways. Now, I see some of this happening. If you can see, for instance, the more recent COP, the UN Climate Conference is the last one that was just wrapping up in Egypt, the Prime minister of Barbados. And she has kept up this theme for the last two or three conferences of attention to small islands and of course joined by several people from the Pacific. But she has some specific issues for the Caribbean that she wants to, particularly as this relates to matters of global debt, the ways within which global debts will keep incurring, regardless of the natural disasters that I experience. So she wants exceptions for natural disasters like hurricanes in order to reduce global debt. So we start to see some of that there. 

What doesn't happen often enough are voices of biblical interpreters. I'm talking with scholars. I'm talking about pastors. I'm talking about those who are involved in leading religious institutions who are actually seeing how we could now bring biblical themes to bear upon these broader movements. And in terms of resourcing people and resourcing the movements who are looking for a better outcome in terms of the environment and that these are issues that are steeped within biblical narratives, there are ways within which we can link them to our post-colonial heritages, that we can do it and also join in these other social movements that are trying their best to handle these these big, big issues that are out there. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:37:04] Well, Steed, I'm very grateful to you for taking the time to speak with me today. It's quite rare to encounter a work of biblical scholarship that engages with Frantz Fanon, not to mention Walter Rodney. And so I found your work to be innovative. It's extremely wide ranging in the scope of your reading. And I think, you know, to me, your scholarship within biblical studies is a kind of insurgent intervention, we might say, within the field that strikes me as more necessary than ever. And I really appreciate your attention not only to the field of biblical studies, but also to people on the ground. People like pastors. And with you, of course, working in a seminary, you have a stake in this as well. How people interpret the Bible in their communities, how imaginations are shaped by the text, how experiences of particular locations specifically and in your kind of influence, the perspective from the Caribbean region. How that can help to sort of re-imagine how we live in the world. And within this context of the post-colonial reality we live in, despite all the structures of colonialism that produire in a variety of forms and sometimes in complex and unexpected ways, I think. So thanks so much. 

Steed Davidson [00:38:35] Well, this has been a great delight. It's always good talking about what I have written on the other side of it. Once it's done and it's been out there in the world and other people consume it, I could say, Oh, that's what it sounded like. Or that's what I was trying to get at. But yes, this is a good experience for me being in this conversation with you and hopefully your listeners find what I'm doing interesting and helpful as well. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:39:04] Thanks so much and take good care. 

Steed Davidson [00:39:07] Thank you. 

Outro [00:39:16] Thank you for listening to the Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast. To learn more about the center and its programs, visit LCSJ or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at united_lcsj.