Tuesday, May 17, 2005

How does one do Jeepney Hermeneutics?

Canaan Banana posits that the Bible is an important book of the church and that it includes liberating messages; nevertheless, there remains the sense in which, unless one embraces the Christian concept of God, one is not fully a person of God. Mary John Mananzan points out that the Bible in spite of all the reinterpretations, remains a book written from a patriarchal, dominator, imperial perspective and thus must be used to inform and not define Filipino life and struggles. How then does one do a decolonizing reading of an imperializing text? In other words, as Musa Dube puts it, “how does one read the Bible without perpetuating the self-serving paradigm of constructing one group as superior to another?” How does one do jeepney hermeneutics?

It begins with one’s view of scripture. As Daniel Patte points out in conversation, “Traditional roles of scripture are problematic, when they involve submission to the text, or more exactly, defining the authority of the text in terms of moral prescriptions or vision (ideology, religious views, etc.) that it posits or carries.” Many interpreters of Scripture begin with the theological affirmation, explicit or not, that the Bible is “God’s Word” and that it offers access to the Complete and Final Revelation of the One True God, Jesus Christ. Jeepney hermeneutics presupposes that the Bible is a “jeep,” a sword, an imperializing text – a dangerous text, as demonstrated throughout history by the many horrendous crimes committed in its name (see for instance, Susanne Scholtz, ed. Biblical Studies Alternatively: An Introductory Reader [2002]).

Imperializing texts, according to Musa Dube, take many forms and are written by a variety of people, even by the colonized, either collaborating with the dominant forces or yearning for the same power. She adds, “Regardless of who writes imperializing texts, they are characterized by literary constructions, representations, and uses that authorize taking possession of foreign spaces and peoples… Reproduction of imperial strategies of subjugation is also evident among many interpreters.” I draw heavily from Dube’s work with the following questions in explaining why many biblical texts are imperializing and why many of their interpretations are the same. (1) Does the text have an explicit stance for or against the political imperialism of its time? (2) Does it encourage travel to distant and inhabited lands and how does it justify itself? (3) How does the text construct difference: is there dialogue and liberating interdependence, or is there condemnation and replacement of all that is foreign? Is there celebration of difference authentic or mere tokenism? (4) Does the text employ representations (gender, ethnicity, sexuality, divine, etc.) to construct relationships of subordination and domination?

Next comes a proposal on how to transform a jeep into a jeepney, on how to beat a sword into a plougshare. Jeepney readings have at least three distinct characteristics, three explicit choices—textual, theological, and contextual—made by the reader. First, as far as textual choices are concerned, it involves reading texts by disregarding, setting aside, or resisting imperial rhetoric, its agents and those who mimic them (getting rid of the jeep's machine gun mount). This means privileging what Renita Weems calls “random aberrant outbursts in a world otherwise rigidly held together by its patriarchal attitudes and androcentric perspective.” This means privileging the subaltern in texts, not just the “voices from the margins” but also the “voiceless from the margins,” what Leela Gandhi describes as “the ones who disappear because we never hear them speak. They only serve as medium for competing discourses to represent their claims,” like the pais in Matthew 8:5-13 and Onesimus in Paul’s letter to Philemon. This fundamental choice, this switch of focus from center to periphery allows the marginalized in the text to “mirror” the plight of the marginalized in front of it. This is akin to Delores Williams’ argument about the power of Hagar’s story to inform and inspire the continuing struggle of many African-American women.

A second characteristic of jeepney hermeneutics involves a fundamental theological claim that the insights, stories, and answers the Bible provide (like the three-seater jeep) are not enough and may even be wrong or hurtful for the questions being asked by many communities, thus the need to create space for other texts that help inform—not define—peoples’ lives and struggles (therefore, the necessity of the sixteen, or more, passenger jeepney). Jeepney hermeneutics creates space for other voices, for Filipino “traditions, myths, legends, to harness insights, values and inspiration towards the full flowering of communities and persons” (Mananzan:176-177). Jeepney hermeneutics then takes seriously the affirmation that God and God’s activity is bigger than the Bible, bigger than Christianity, and even bigger than Jesus Christ. God did not arrive in the Philippines in 1521. God was already here. According to Mark Taylor: “The Bible, once the “sword” of the imperial spirit, will have to find its new possibilities amid many other spirits that its Christian bearers often spurned.”

Third, jeepney hermeneutics as an example of “reading like a Canaanite” (Donaldson, Weaver), “re-invading the land” (Guardiola-Saenz), re-claiming stolen spaces, and building houses (jeepneys as Filipino homes on wheels) addresses contextual issues, concrete life settings among Filipinos. “The Canaanites are, of course, the much vilified people who occupied the ‘promised land’ before the arrival of the wandering Israelites. Yet they also stand in for all peoples whose lands have been conquered and expropriated” (Donaldson: 12). Filipinos, as one of the most colonized peoples in the world (Fernandez), are modern-day Canaanites. Reading the Bible inside a jeepney simply means creating space, offering a home for Filipino “Canaanites” to think, to speak, to sing, to commune in Canaanite languages.
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