When you are reading one text, all your body and experiences are working together to make you understand the text and give it a meaning. The reading process is an experience of the body. We cannot talk about reading the text without talking about how our bodies feel the words. The reading process is a labyrinth, an arena in which the reader and the author play together the game of imagination. The author builds textual labyrinths, conceals facts, gives a way without exits, instigates the imagination, challenges the reader to expand the network of his or her imagination. The fact that the reader is established between the times of the past, present, and future, the text becomes a potential multiplier of connections.
It’s impossible to talk about Bible reading disregarding the body. Rubem Alves, a Brazilian theologian, observed: “Is there any other possible starting point?” (1985, p.32). The body is a potential of the senses. Different bodies feel different things. David Le Breton wrote:
Walking in the same forest, different individuals are sensitive to different stimuli. There is the forest of the mushroom picker, the rambler, the fugitive, or Aboriginal; the forest of the hunter, gamekeeper or poacher; the forest of lovers, vagabonds, or ornithologists; and also the forest of animals and trees, of night and day, a thousand forests in one, a thousand realities in a single mystery that remains a hidden and yields its secrets only in fragments. There’s is no true forest, only a multitude of perceptions base on one’s perspectives, expectations, and social and cultural affiliations. (LE BRETON, 2017, p. 1-2)
In the reading (or interpretation) process we should bring our bodies to the text. Hermeneutics is a methodology of interpretation, which is “concerned with problems that arise when dealing with meaningful human actions and the products of such actions, most importantly texts” (MANTZAVINOS, 2016). Hermeneutics could be compared as a toolbox that deals with interpretations of human actions, text, symbol, and art. Paul Ricoeur said that the text should be able to be presented in a sociological and psychological point of view, decontextualize in a way that allows itself to be recontextualized in a new situation (1991, p. 119). For him, this is the act of reading. Hans de Wit prefers to call this action as interpretation process: “The use of the term “interpretation process” is intended to indicate that more is at stake in reading and understanding the Bible than a simple academic interpretation. There is no reason why hermeneutics should not look at the processes involved in interpreting texts locally” (2012, p. 17).
Hans de Wit calls the process of reading with the perspective of the body as Empirical Hermeneutics.
The addition of the adjective “empirical” refers to the target group and to the descriptive dimension of this hermeneutics. It means that we are attempting to map—or at least define—the contours of how flesh-and-blood readers deal with texts. It thus concerns a form of reception criticism, no longer directed solely at the great men in the tradition (as was customary until recently), but concerning the question of how contemporary readers—primarily ordinary readers—work with texts. Empirical hermeneutics thus includes an analysis of the appropriation processes and is directed at the text in its relationship to local explanation and interpretation, and in its effect on and use by contemporary readers. Empirical hermeneutics seeks to explore the area where the behavior potential of the text becomes operational (DE WITT, 2012, p. 17)
The experience of CEBs (Comunidades Eclesias de Base) in Brazil is one of an empirical hermeneutics with Bible approach – Popular Reading of the Bible (Leitura Popular da Bíblia). Carlos Mesters, Dutch missionary based in Brazil since 1949, highlighted some points of Popular Reading of the Bible between the poor communities: 1) Bible is recognized and accepted by the people as the word of God; 2) When they are reading, the people of the communities bring their own history and problems that come from the hard reality of their life. Creates a deep connection of Bible and Life; 3) A new understanding about God: “If God was with those people in the past, then He is also with us in this struggle to liberate ourselves; 4) The Bible comes close to their daily life; 5) The interpretation is with them, not only with the priesthood ; 6) The Word of God is not only in the Bible but also in life, and that the main purpose of reading the Bible is not to interpret the Bible but to interpret life with the help of the Bible; 7) Bible enters through another door in the life of the people: not through the door of authoritarian imposition, but through the door of personal and community experience (MESTERS, 2005)
Ricoeur saw the Bible as a polyphonic and polysemic revelation: a mix of literally forms, symbolism, metaphors (1977). The Bible can be read by different lenses, it’s a fluid experience of the text. There is not only one view of the reading process but also how our contextual bodies read this polysemic and polyphonic text? As a Latin-American woman, my body bears the symbolic scars that came from colonialism, patriarchalism, and imperialism. When I read the biblical text, I bring all my past, my experiences, all my ancestors, all my liberation-feminist-queer theology, all the dreams and nightmares of being a woman in Brazil. The experience of Liberation Theology in Brazil has given me a different tool in the play of hermeneutics: class struggle. The Latin-American Feminist Theology gave to me another tool to read Bible: gender perspective of the text. The Queer Theology gave to me a different kind of tool to understand sexuality issues.
Tools: for a feminist-liberation-queer hermeneutics
Violence against women is a worldwide phenomenon, it is a specific form of gender violence that does not discriminate cultural, social, racial, geographical or religious boundaries. The victims are women of all ages, formation and social status. This type of violence is different for other forms of coercion and aggression because the cause of risk and vulnerability arises from the fact that the person is a woman. The violence takes different forms like sexual abuses, emotional or psychological harassment, economic restrictions, symbolic impositions, aggression, humiliation, and femicide (RIBA, 2017, p. 124). In many cases, the violence appears justified and encouraged by religious discourse. Valéria Vilhena’s research reports that 40% of women at women’s shelter in São Paulo, Brazil, who were victims of violence, are evangelicals (2009).
Misogyny is the hatred of women or girls, “and this includes hatred of anyone perceived to be ‘like a woman’” (WILLIASOM, 2005). Brazil has the world’s highest LGBT murder rate, and this is also a reflection of the patriarchal, sexist and misogyny society. “Homophobia and misogyny, just like racism and misogyny, are inextricably linked. They feed into each other, like the ancient image of ‘Ouroboros’, a snake eating its own tail.” (WILLIASOM, 2005). Misogyny and LGBTphobia are two faces of the same coin. Many crimes are happening in Brazil against women, black people, LGBT in name of the “family, country and God”, support by religious discourse (Christian Churches) and by a far-right extremism candidate Jair Bolsonaro and his party.
Marginalized people feel in their bodies, the sexism, racism, economic inequality, injustice, and violence. Our struggle is due to the fact that our bodies are read in society as inferior, or abnormal. Our freedom is limited by our genitalia, color, social class, sexuality. “Life and death manifest themselves through the body. Restoring the physical body to its rightful place is a fundamental part of our affirmation of a real and sensual life” (CARDOSO, 2002).
The Bible must dwell among the people, the marginalized people, not only stay in the hand of academic theologians or priesthood. And even in the Bible, we can see the oppression against the minority and the different. We must consider the time and space of the text, but also criticize the text and do new hermeneutics. Phyllis Trible said that we want to forget some texts of the Bible, because it is terrible, with so much violence and blood. The feminist theology believes that we must discuss these texts: In the name of God, many terrible things happened and still happen. Ivone Reimer, a feminist biblical scholar, highlights some important points to do a gender and popular hermeneutics in the Bible: 1) Questioning the androcentric-patriarchal lines and norms about the functions of these minorities; 2) Ask for the historical effects of the text in the construction of our identities and relationships; 3) It is necessary to break the silence about experiences of oppression and liberation/resistance lived in the relations of gender (REIMER, 2008, p. 45-46)
“It does not hurt the womb, but the soul”
A concubine, wife of low rank, perhaps slave, raged with her husband or master, abandoned him and returned to the paternal household in Judah. The term zānâ that is used in this text has many variants, could be “getting angry” or any sexual conduct seen as inappropriate for a woman, “so that having started the divorce and gone away could be what the verb means” (BACHMANN, 2008, p. 115). The Levite waited four months to fetch her, and when he arrived, he enjoyed the hospitality of the woman’s father for several days without her being included. When he finally decided to return, it was late at night. An old man offered shelter to the Levite and his concubine. Meanwhile, a group of violent men knocked on the door and asked to give them Levite. Then the old man offers his virgin daughter and the concubine in the place of the Levite in the name of patriarchal hospitality. “So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go” (Jg 19:25). In the morning the man found his concubine at the door, on the floor, and he just said: get up and let’s go. She didn’t answer, then, he put her in his donkey and went the home. “When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel” (Jg 19:29)
In 2016, a 16-year-old girl was raped by at least 30 men in a community in the West of Rio de Janeiro. The teenager went to the home of a boy whom she had been dating for three years. She remembers being at his house and waking up on Sunday in another house, in the same community, with 33 men armed with rifles and pistols. They recorded videos of the rape with their cellphones. She discovered that her images, unclothed and unconscious, were circulating on the internet. She said: “It does not hurt the womb, but the soul”.
They recorded the video, they cut her to pieces and as they raped her systematically. It was a night of nightmares. How many women are suffering from such nightmares now while I am writing? When the fascist candidate for the presidency of Brazil said to a woman “I do not rape because you do not deserve it”, a piece of our soul was cut off. When the readings, translations, and commentaries reproduce a sexism interpretation about the text of Judges, saying the concubine was an adulteress or a prostitute who “deserved to be raped,” a piece of our soul is cut off. Our soul hurts. It hurts with the cries that are thrown into silence. It hurts with the silence of crimes so terrible in the Bible and in Brazil, where the rate of femicide is the fifth largest in the world.
It is impossible to read a terrible text like this and not to remember the cases of the numerous violence against women – sexual, symbolic, physical, spiritual – that my Latin American sisters spend every day. Women as the shields of crimes committed by men: “look at this outfit”, “she provoked me”, “she betrayed me, and received what she deserved”, “she was at that party, then asked to be abused” … the victim is victimized countless times. Women as objects of the uses and misuses of the hands of men: “do this”, “your body is mine”, “where is my food?” “You are not good for nothing”.
The concubine was merely a concubine. Who cares for her life?
She is property, object, tool, and literary device. Without name, speech, or power, she has no friends to aid her in life or mourn her in death. Passing her back and forth among themselves, the men of Israel have obliterated her totally. Captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered, and scattered. In the end, she is no more than the oxen that Saul will later cut in pieces and send throughout all the territory of Israel as a call to war (I Sam. 11:7). Her life is laid down by a man (TRIBLE, 1984, p. 80-81)
The teenager in Rio de Janeiro was a merely another “poor girl in Brazil who dated the wrong guy”, “who went to a wrong party”, “who deserved this”. Who cares for her life?
We, feminist theologians, care! We fight to end the invisibility of women’s stories and their daily lives, which blends with the beauty and endurance of being a woman. We must bring life to the text, our struggles, difficulties, sufferings, and joys. When you try to silence our pain, we will scream much louder by denouncing the injustices, the crimes and the violence against our sisters.
Hermeneutic of life
Every hermeneutics supposes a positioning, a place from which one sees the reality to be interpreted. As a Brazilian woman, this is my empirical hermeneutics, with my experience in faith, social and feminist movement. When we look the text, with different methods, hypothesis, the questions that we ask to the text, the relationship and discovering with other texts, we recognize the classical reading of the Bible, made by men, doesn’t correspond with the reality of life. They want to spiritualize real things, try to give beautiful meaning or justify terrible crimes.
We should seek a hermeneutic life, the real life, which is ambiguous, complex, with difficult paths but still with small daily salvation. If theology and hermeneutics do not become contextual, it will cease to make sense of this globalized-capitalist world. The feminist hermeneutics is hermeneutics of life: “A feminist hermeneutics is not a theoretical task – to know better the real history of women – it is essentially practical because it is driven by the search for liberation in the present” (AGUIRRE, 1987, p. 166).
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RIBA, Lucía. “Transição para a monarquia ou violência machista? A recepção do crime da concubina do levita (Jz 19).” (2017)
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VILHENA, Valéria Cristina. “Pela Voz das Mulheres: uma análise da violência doméstica entre mulheres evangélicas atendidas no Núcleo de Defesa e Convivência da Mulher Casa Sofia.” (2009).