November 21, 2013 / Theology
Contemporary art maintains a provocative fascination with the body, and in recent years several key artists have explored the body’s place in the Christian tradition to disquieting ends.
June 12, 2017
Identities are embodied horizons from which we each must confront and negotiate our shared world and specific life condition.
—Linda Martin Alcoff, Visible Identities
While teaching an introductory class on the New Testament, I called on a student to read a portion of the Gospel of John. Before jumping into the text, the student noted that I seem to get angry when my students read from what I deem unapproved translations. I waited a moment and then said, “You all have never seen me angry. I am a black women from South Jersey. You’ll know I am angry when I take off my earrings, because then I am ready to fight.” My anecdote of course highlights a relationship between context, anger, and action, but more particularly, it hints at the way angry black women have engaged in specific actions in order to make changes in society.
One such instance is the case of Bree Newsome, who scaled a thirty-foot flagpole at the South Carolina State House and took down the Confederate flag, a symbol embraced by the gunman who murdered nine black parishioners during a Bible study ten days earlier in Charleston, South Carolina.1 Reports stated that as Newsome ascended the pole, she shouted that “in the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down.” Then, as she was arrested, onlookers could hear her reciting Psalm 23.
At that particular moment in history, a self-identified black female Christian demonstrated her religious values while negotiating her world and life condition in order to remove a cultural representation that demeaned her identity. Newsome’s faith, in this sense, sought to challenge a system that often allows easy forgiveness to perpetuate racism.
Yet when black women perform acts of aggression as legitimate reactions to unequal circumstances, society often dubs them pathological, irrational, and angry.2 This has led me to wonder how other women identified as “angry” black Christians in the age of #BlackLivesMatter are trying to transform a system that receives impunity when it murders black and brown bodies. Turning to the story of Herodias in the Gospel of Mark helps me ponder my own identity and so-called anger issues.
Contrary to traditional interpretations that blame Herodias for the death and beheading of John the Baptist, I imagine Herodias in her context. I picture her as a mother raising a daughter in the midst of Roman imperial politics and violence. Reframing Herodias in this way prompts the following questions: As a woman who is close to power but still lacks power since she is a woman, what was Herodias really trying to behead? How does the Markan characterization of Herodias’s anger affect our interpretation? To that end, I argue that interpreters of the Herodias story must engage a nuanced reading of her identity and anger. By contextualizing the one-dimensional identity that the Markan writer places upon her, I see Herodias as a woman who seeks to behead male political authority over female bodies, lives, and inheritance. Just as Herodias works to navigate her world, so too must I as a black Christian woman continue to nuance my identity even as I am angry at the systematic injustice of our world.
Identity and Womanist Anger
In the opening epigraph, I invoke Linda Martin Alcoff’s definition of identity as “embodied horizons from which we each must confront and negotiate our shared world and specific life condition.”3 In placing identity within the idea of “embodied horizons,” she helpfully brings its discussion into contact with the aims of contemporary hermeneutics, which is broadly concerned with the question of human understanding.4 Alcoff uses Hans-Georg Gadamer’s concept of the “fusion of horizons” in order to show the ways in which one can only know one’s own identity through engaging with other people, texts, and works of art. Contact with an “other” forever changes a person as a result of that fusion. With regard to race and gender as visible identities, Alcoff argues against critiques of identity; she contends that identities provide us with narratives that explain the links between group historical memory and individual, contemporary experience. Identity creates unifying frames that render experiences intelligible, help people map their social world, and serve as tools for meaning-making.5
Alcoff refers to the identities imposed on people from the outside as a sort of “branding.”6 Within the cultural milieu of the United States, the branding of black women has been so pervasive that it permeates the lived experiences of black women in a tangible, violent way. Only after fully understanding the identity formation of black women can we confront the lived experiences that result from the branding that forms identity. Thus, an ethics informed by womanist scholarship, which privileges the lives and experiences of black women, is important for understanding the stereotypical identity that society has placed upon black women in general.7
One author who specifically speaks to womanist identity is Emilie Townes. In her work, Townes addresses the imposed identity of black women through an analysis of what she calls the “cultural production of evil” or the way in which white society systematically perpetuates the misery and suffering of black women by acting as if their identity to exist only occurs insofar as it is affirmed by the arbiters of the status quo. Referring to this implicit authoritarian perspective, Townes argues that white supremacy has constructed a “fantastic hegemonic imagination” wherein society identifies black women in five caricatures: Aunt Jemima, Sapphire, the Tragic Mulatta, the Welfare Queen, and Topsy.8
Placing Townes in conversation with Alcoff as I consider Mark 6:19–27 leads me to wonder whether Herodias has fallen prey to the fantastic hegemonic imagination within biblical scholarship. How should a womanist engage Herodias’s female identity and anger? Or more particularly, how should I, as a self-identified black, Christian, female scholar, engage Herodias in a way that contextualizes my own anger and what I perceive as Herodias’s anger within the biblical text?
The Stickiness of Reading as an “Angry” Black Woman
Traditionally, historical biblical scholarship has sought to find the objective reading of Scripture. Reader-response criticism, however, aims to take the identity of the reader more seriously. An author can write a text, but unless someone reads (or hears) the text, communication does not occur. Accordingly, meaning-making occurs between the text and the auditor/reader. Just as first-century auditors of Mark’s gospel had to make decisions about how they heard and understood the text, as a contemporary black Christian woman, I must make key decisions on how I read and understand the text.
Contrary to historical biblical scholarship, reader-response criticism stresses the idea that I, as a reader, play a central role in determining meaning. Scholars such as Wolfgang Iser maintain that in the interaction between the reader and the text, “the role prescribed by the text will be stronger but the reader’s own disposition will never disappear totally.”9 The reader’s disposition will instead serve as a frame of reference for the act of understanding and comprehending the material of the text. Put simply, Iser takes seriously the identity of the reader when that reader reads any literary text. Thus, as a black Christian womanist biblical scholar who is troubled and angered by issues in contemporary society, the anger that sticks and swirls around me also sticks and swirls around my interpretations of the biblical text.
Engaging that anger takes me to the work of Sara Ahmed. Emotions, such as anger, circulate and shape social life. Theorizing that emotions generate effects that produce “surfaces,” Ahmed finds that emotions involve the “sticking” of signs to bodies.10 Drawing on such principles, Christian womanists must recognize the accumulative potential of anger, the ways in which the sticky substance of anger can generate meaning and engage communities in the work of justice. Anger is not irrational, as the dominant society suggests, but a catalyst that can build communities that in solidarity work for the betterment and liberation of one another.
Understanding anger in this way can provide a way to read the pain behind aggressive actions.11 In the case of Newsome, I interpret the pain behind her angry action as a clarion call for continued movement against injustice. Womanist contextualization of identity in the midst of anger recognizes that anger becomes the form of “againstness” that allows us to move beyond the forms of injustice that occur in the world. As I think through womanist identity and the anger behind said identity, I propose the following hermeneutic as a way to read Herodias in Mark 6:17–19. My particular womanist hermeneutic is an interpretative method that takes seriously anger within womanist identity, thus allowing me to push back against traditional scholarship’s characterization of Herodias and the anger that she embodies within the text. Accordingly, I now move to my reading of Herodias in Mark 6:17–29 and what it means for a womanist contextualization of identity.
Mark 6:17–29 from a Womanist Perspective
Mark 6:17–29 tells the story of the imprisonment of John the Baptist by Herod. On the day of his birthday, Herod throws a party for himself and has Herodias’s daughter dance for him and his guests. The Markan narrative states that Herod is so pleased with the dance that he promises to give the daughter anything she asks for. When she seeks her mother’s advice, Herodias tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Distressed, Herod grants the wish.
Naturally, according to traditional interpretations, Herodias and her daughter are to blame for the death of John the Baptist. I propose, however, that attention to emotions and context may unpack the Herodias story in ways that traditional scholars have not engaged or noticed.
The narrative states that Herod feared John, knowing him to be righteous and holy (6:20). I believe that this fear leaps to Herodias, thus making her angry and allowing readers to see a clear manifestation of the stickiness of emotions. The transfer of emotions between Herodias and Herod creates a mood of helplessness wherein both Herod and Herodias are unable to communicate with one another. Accordingly, their communication occurs through an intermediary, Herodias’s daughter. The daughter’s body acts, in the words of Ahmed, as a surface on which the stickiness of both Herodias and Herod accumulates.
Given that Mark 6:17–29 is the only instance in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament in which one can read a conversation between a mother and daughter, I believe we must be especially attentive to the emotional stickiness that Herodias shares with her daughter and the unique relational dynamic involved. What are the contours of the violent anger that Herodias harbors within her body as a woman under the Roman imperial regime, and how does this violent anger affect her daughter and husband?12 The Greek word enecho, which connotes an active sense of hostility or holding a grudge, at verse 18 provides a clue.13
Many interpreters note that, in a colloquial sense, Herodias had it in for John the Baptist. They interpret verse 19 concretely and without much additional thought—Herodias “had a grudge against him [John the Baptist] and wanted to kill him” (Mark 6:19 NRSV). But that interpretation does not adequately convey Herodias’s experience as a woman within the unjust system of imperial society.14 Given her identity within imperial society, I understand Herodias’s unclear standing as a woman to be related to her anger: she has no control over her body nor her daughter’s body. As a woman without control who lives in an oppressive system, she must take control when she can, thus, opposing the fear that her husband has evidenced within the text.
By tracing the impact of Herod’s fear on Herodias’s anger, I can begin to understand her actions differently. My reading, rather than blaming Herodias for her anger, allows me as a womanist reader to understand her anger. Herodias is a figure who holds violence within her body. The Markan narrative paints a picture of a woman who was easily moved from one man to another. Herodias, as with other women in the Roman imperial age, likely lacked agency in deciding whom she was to marry, as the easy transfer of women was one way men secured positions and privileges in the Roman imperial world.15 How should a woman cope with being a piece of property that could be transferred from one man to another? How could a woman navigate such a world?
Moreover, Herodias was not able to secure a place for herself within this patriarchal society because she did not bear any sons.16 Attentive interpreters of the text will consider that Herodias embodies an emotion of helplessness that is transformed into violent anger because her husband has the power to cast her aside. It is only through care, subtlety, and finesse that Herodias is able to accomplish anything during her time in the royal court. But John the Baptist seems ignorant of these realities, as he focuses only on matters of marital fidelity and seems inattentive to the canny skills required of Herodias if she is to navigate a dangerous environment.
Feminist biblical scholars have argued that both Herodias and her daughter have suffered violence at the hands of male scholars and commentators who read the Markan text.17 One violent example interprets the actions of Herodias and her daughter as related to sexual depravity. Specifically, Frank Kermode brands both Herodias and her daughter as “cruel and sexually depraved.” Dan Via, picking up on Kermode’s language, argues that Herod’s stepdaughter, a girl of about twelve years, is “apparently quite ready to exploit her charms publicly.”18 Such argumentation, which is accepted in traditional scholarship, evidences similar logic to a person concluding that a child appearing in pornographic literature has the ability and maturity to grant her consent.
Moreover, even some feminist scholars are complicit in misogynist language and interpretation when they identify Herodias and her daughter as inherently evil. For example, Susan Miller describes Herodias and her daughter as “evil counterparts” to the faithful women who follow Jesus as disciples.19 The continued classification of these women as evil without contextualization is problematic. This assessment is unfair given the imperial context in which Herodias and her daughter acted, but it also has important ramifications for women outside of the biblical text. As our recent US elections have shown, many US citizens still have issues with women in politics, and this interpretation of Herodias may very well serve as an example to some conservative Christians of the dangerous consequences when a woman engages in the political arena—the beheading of righteous men.
Clearly, the historical circumstances facing Herodias and her daughter force them to make hard choices. During the imperial age, women were viewed as little more than passive objects or the prey of men’s fancies. This insecurity is the catalyst for Herodias’s anger and her desire to have John the Baptist beheaded. Rather than being unqualified acts of evil, their violence befits their violent context. As a result, their liberation required John the Baptist’s execution.
Contextualizing Anger and Identity Today
Until the work of James Cone, much traditional theology failed to account for the nuances of identity. Cone argued that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the “revelation of God in Christ as the Liberator of the oppressed from social oppression and to political struggle.”20 If Cone is accurate in his assertion that the gospel of Jesus the Christ recognizes the political struggles and social oppressions of the disenfranchised, then the particularity of angry black women should not disassociate them from Christianity. Rather, it must be embraced as part of the black womanist Christian identity.21
Herodias displays angry emotions in the midst of violence and objectification. The contextualization of Herodias as angry, as a mother, and as a woman all point to the complexities inherent in identity. I am not advocating the beheading of a person as we read in the text, but I would advocate for the right of a woman to seek security in her marriage, to fight for the safety of her children, and to use her anger as a catalyst to fight against oppressive patriarchy and white supremacy. Accordingly, my anger as a black Christian womanist does not decrease or magically disappear because of my Christian identity. My anger remains, particularly when children are killed, when black men suffer mass incarceration at alarming rates, and when black women are abused for not fitting within the norms of a hegemonic society. No matter what, I can’t stop the feelings.
Angela Parker is assistant professor of biblical studies at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. She received her PhD from Chicago Theological Seminary and her MTS from Duke Divinity School, and she is an ordained Baptist minister. She specializes in the Gospel of Mark, contemporary hermeneutics, womanist biblical interpretation, and postcolonial theory. When taking a break from teaching and research, she enjoys time spent with her husband, Victor, as they explore the Pacific Northwest.