Dr. Kimberly D. Russaw: …here I’m even thinking about people who could have been part of important movements. For me, whether it’s the suffrage movement, whether it’s the civil rights movement, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, Me Too, all of that. What if what we’re dealing with here in our modern context is most of our mystics go unnamed?
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you.
Dr. Kimberly D. Russaw is an associate professor of Hebrew Bible Old Testament at Pittsburg Theological Seminary. She is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature where she serves as the chair of the African American Biblical Hermeneutics Program Unit. She’s also an editorial board member of the Journal of Biblical Literature. Dr. Russaw’s many publications include Revisiting Rahab: Another Look at the Woman of Jericho, Daughters of the Hebrew Bible, and a work in the expanded edition of Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. She received her PhD in Hebrew Bible in Ancient Israel from Vanderbilt University. And she’s an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
CASSIDY HALL: Well Dr. Russaw, thank you so much for joining me today.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I am pleased as punch to share virtual space with you. It’s been a minute.
CASSIDY HALL: It has, it has. So one of the ways I love to begin the conversation, so that we’re kind of on the same page is asking you how you define words like contemplation, and mysticism, and maybe also what they mean to you, and how you see them lived out in the world today.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So this is pretty interesting because I often do not think about contemplation and mysticism, pun intended. But in anticipation of my Cassidy time, I said, well, as I think about or the way I like to frame or image contemplation and mysticism, because I do think they’re different. I think they probably rub up against each other, but I do think they’re different. To me, contemplation is a much more deliberate activity, a person decides to engage in this work. They both can have an aspect of spirituality to them, the contemplation is much more about the intentional thought and reflection. And to me, mysticism is much more involuntary. The moments of mysticism, if you will, you don’t plan for them, you don’t decide or make it part of your regular routine, it just happens to you. So perhaps, one way to think about it is a person is in the subject position when it comes to contemplation, but in the object position when it comes to mysticism. To me, mysticism carries with it much more of a sense of engagement or connection to the divine. But in a way that seems first of all, very special to you. Everybody does not have mystical experience but everybody could decide to be contemplative. Also, there seems to be this element of privacy or singularity when it comes to mysticism or mystic acts; at least when I think about them in the Hebrew Bible, they most often seem to occur when nobody else is around. So I think about not just Moses experience with the burning bush, but I also think about his experience on Mount Sinai. He’s the only one there to have this encounter and there’s something different about him when the encounter is over. For the most part, the mystic that seems to happen one-on-one. I do say for the most part, because I think that what we see over in one of the Samuels, where they Saul is with the prophets, he has this frenzied engagement, and he’s with a group of prophets. So it’s more it’s not a singular or a one off or solo experience, but it is a group. Those are my thoughts.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I wonder because when we look at the Hebrew Bible those words aren’t used. So I wonder, the way we talk about things like contemplation and mysticism today makes them seem inaccessible, even by the way that we frame them with those words. Does that make sense?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I agree with you. I think there may be something to this notion of language that in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps what we are seeing termed as visions are mystic experiences. So then when we see young Samuel and Eli, and Samuel, he is supposed to be asleep, and he hears his name called and he goes to Eli and Eli says, I’m not calling your name. That, to me is a mystic experience, but the text will refer to it as a vision. We see it all the time in the prophets. Everybody’s walking around either having a vision, or talking about a vision, that may really have been a mystic experience. Even Abraham, you don’t wait to the prophets to got them over in Genesis.
CASSIDY HALL: And I was lucky enough to take Hebrew Bible class from you and it was truly the first time I experience and was open to the Hebrew Bible and graspable way. I honestly avoided it, until your class. So it seems to me that a major part of your work and what womanist work does is it contextualizes and rebirths connecting us to our everyday lives, which is what I experienced in that class. And you wrote in Wisdom in the Garden, that “Womanist ways of reading the biblical texts are subversive, and that by and large they disrupt tightly held images of God and God’s relationship to humanity.” So my question off this is, this is really sacred work, when did you realize that this was a part of your vocation and your call?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Cassidy, I think I’m still realizing. I can tell you for sure that when I understood I had a call to ministry, and then when I understood that call was something different from traditional pulpit ministry, it never dawned on me, oh, you’re going to be doing some subversive work, and this is going to be how you going to contribute to the larger world–not really, never thought of it that way. I now understand that at the core of what I think I’m doing is I am providing people with the tools and the permission to see others differently. We start by seeing others in the text or seeing the text differently. And my hope in especially overlooked characters or over-read characters––I know what’s happening in Rahab, I’ve read that story, I’ve heard that story, I don’t need to spend a lot of time on it. That when we do that, then my hope is that, then we turn and we can see and engage others in real life that we may have read or that we may have missed or misread all along. And in that respect, that energy should create some different sort of change in the world and to the extent that it does, and yeah, that’s part of my calling.
CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Yeah. The tools and the permission that really resonates with me. And when I took from you later, African American Biblical Hermeneutics and Womanist Biblical Interpretation class, I again, was just given the tools and permission and also able to see biblical scholarship as a form of activism; kind of this disruption, and this offering of the tools and permission to myself and to others as a faith leader, to again, yes, see that in real time and see the work of biblical scholarship as a form of activism. Do you experience your work as a form of activism?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I don’t think about it as that but I absolutely have colleagues who I would classify as scholar activists. Absolutely. I’m not going to call names, they know who they are. I also have a scholar buddies, who are activist-adjacent, that they know that the work that they do is in service to those who are actively engaged in activism. I’m thinking about one who takes seriously the life-giving work of yoga, and movement and breathing. And they have decided that they’re going to dedicate some of their time to helping those who classify themselves as activists, who are actively engaged in these movements, and are burdened some if you will, that they decided that they’re going to offer their knowledge that was some of their time to sit with people and guiding them through the movement and the breathing as a way to help them go out and be better and stronger in their work of activist. Now, how do I see my work as activist? To the extent that it encourages somebody to go do that work, I’m an activist. When you read my Veils and Lap Cloths: The Great Cover Up of Bynum and the Bible in Black Churches, and you start to question well wait, how have we thought about maybe how have we been complicit in the oppression of women in the church by doing engaging in certain practices? And then you decide, I’m not going to do that anymore. And when I get the chance, I’m going to tell the people in leadership, yes, why I’m not doing it and I think we shouldn’t do it either. Then I’ve aided in the work of activism by way of myself.
CASSIDY HALL: That truth telling, tools and permission.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: And I think what makes it challenging or subversive, or risky, in some instances, is because I deal with a text that so many consider to be safe. And so many come, like you said for yourself to the work of studying or engaging this text with some real commitment one way or the other. And so part of what we do is challenge those commitments, or offer you a different way to think about the thing you’re so committed to.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Which makes me so curious as to why did you decide for the Hebrew Bible to be your area of expertise? What was the revelation for you?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I like the story. It’s just that simple. I can’t say I had a mystic moment. I can’t say in a moment of contemplation, I realized, all worked out in my head, hey, this is where you can really make it happen. No, I was a seminarian and I was taking all of my classes, and I knew that within the disciplines of Religious Studies, or religious education, the other stuff really appealed to me. So Bible seem to make sense for me. And I came to seminary by way of corporate. So in many respects, I think that what I am doing now is very similar to what I did as a brand manager. Part of what I did as a brand manager was take all of this disparate information, whether it’s consumer trends, whether it’s consumer feedback, it’s what the people down in distribution are telling me, it’s what my finance guy is telling me, it’s what my sales person is telling me, and the people over in legal are telling me, and I weave a story that compels my audience to take some sort of action. In the same way I take this disparate information because the Bronze Age first century, Mediterranean culture is disparate information for people living in the 20th century… And I try to weave a story that compels my audience to add in the classroom, my greatest not written in the syllabus objective is that the students will walk away wanting to know more.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and this love of story for you, was that inspired by anyone in particular? Or was that just something that maybe was Spirit driven?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah, it probably is some combination, because I always want to leave room for the Holy Ghost. So I don’t want to foreclose on any spiritual move that may be at play. But I think that I come from a family and from a people of storytellers. My paternal grandmother used to write poems, I met her and she was like a million years old. So here’s this little old lady, who clearly did not go to school, she would write–when we were little, she lived with us six months out of the year, and with my cousins in Alabama the other six months out of the year. We come home from school, and she will spend much of her day writing a poem and she would write on the brown paper bag. She was a quilter–this actually is my Big Mama’s quilt that I had framed. She was a quilter but she would stand up at church, she would recite her poems, her cousins and stuff would come to visit and they would still tell stories and giggle, and laugh and have a good time. So I think now that I’m sitting on the Cassidy couch, part of my love of stories comes from my early years of watching story, the life-giving story, the communal, and story be positive. Yeah.
CASSIDY HALL: That’s beautiful. I love that you had that framed too, it’s gorgeous. In your most recent book, Revisiting Rahab, you write about Rahab as a complex character, who upends patriarchal ecosystems and disrupts. Do you think there’s a mystical nature or a kind of transcendence, perhaps?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I cannot say for sure. And here’s why I can’t say with any assurity or I can’t speak to that responsibly. And that is because the biblical writers do not provide us with any of her internal dialogue. I think that I could make that claim if there was something in the text that said, and she thought to herself, I’m going to negotiate with these fellows because I had a vision that the Israelites were coming. We don’t have anything like that. To me, Rahab is much more in the moment, in her actions, than a mystic would be.
CASSIDY HALL: And in your experience of your writing, and your scholarly work and research, what does that look like for you? Does that require a sense of contemplation or pausing or making a sacred space in order to reflect and think?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah. So I think part of my part of my process, first of all, journaling is a spiritual discipline for me. But it also, as it relates to my scholarship, sometimes I will use journaling to get me back in it, if you will. So in that way, it’s deliberate. I’m not just doing laundry and all of a sudden something comes upon me and I have an experience. No, I sit, I realize you’re not even close to what you’re supposed to be doing right now. Hold on, let me re-center. And one way I do that is by journaling. So that’s the way contemplation shows up for me. And it’s not that I end up writing a wonderful book, or wonderful article or essay in that contemplative moment, but that contemplative moment clears me, or frees me up, or clears a pathway, so that I can see clearly what I should be doing in my writing.
CASSIDY HALL: You named some earlier, but are there any other Hebrew Bible characters that you might suggest are mystics or contemplatives?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So we talked about the prophets, we talked about Abraham, absolutely people like Jacob, Israel, whatever stage of his life, we want to reference him. Either when it’s the engagement with the ladder going up to the vision, going up to heaven, or what happened. Nathan and King David story, absolutely, I think we’ve got visions going on here. So I would classify him as a mystic. Isaiah, Ezekiel, half of what they are doing––they’re saying I saw it in a vision, this came to me in a vision. Daniel and Joseph, we got to think about those two. Even in the Minor Prophets, I think we see it with Obadiah––probably my favorite minor prophet, because it’s the shortest book we’ve got going on out there. I don’t think we see much contemplative work in the Hebrew Bible, because the work of the Hebrew Bible turns on action. And the writers would not have said, oh yeah, Job sits around, and every morning Job gets up and thinks… The closest you might get is Job providing sacrifice on behalf of his children every day in the first part of the Book of Job. That’s a slippery slope. But I think that the deliberate nature of the contemplative act is antithetical to what the biblical writers were probably trying to do. There might be a way for us to say that what we see in the book of Psalms, what we see in the poetic stuff, may be a product of contemplation. But we don’t see a character contemplating. I think that music may play an important role in mysticism. This whole idea of when, and I think if you speak to musicians, and ethnomusicologists and people who teach this stuff, and research this stuff––they can talk about there’s this moment in the musical experience that could be otherworldly, transcendent, and can have this sense that you are no longer just here. It’s more than just when they say I was in the pocket––No, no. But I think when you talk to some of those people, because I think about like a Yo-Yo-Ma, I think about absolutely some of the early classical composers, when they were in it they were outside of themselves. And so I think about the work that musicians do in the biblical text, as well as in our modern context and say, there’s probably an element of mysticism there, so to that point, that may have been part of Young David and his heart that had a mystical property associated.
CASSIDY HALL: Look at you still teaching me. What are you teaching at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary? And another question I want to ask is, are you teaching again African American Biblical Hermeneutics Womanist Biblical Interpretation, because that class was the most transformative class.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Amen. There was some mystical moments or transcendent moments even in that class now that I think about it. At the heels of a conversation we had with a particular scholar, that triggered a lot of things for people that put them in a mystical place. That was fun. I am teaching a foundational Bible course there, they divide up Hebrew Bible between Genesis to Esther, I’ll teach that in the fall. And then my colleague will teach the rest of the cannon in the spring. I’m teaching two semesters of Hebrew and then I’m teaching Women in the Pentateuch. So we’ll do like a feminist spin on Genesis through Deuteronomy. And then here’s my shameless plug for the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Women’s Leadership, I will be teaching the intensive course on Womanist Biblical Interpretation for them in January.
CASSIDY HALL: You know, one of the other things that the last class that really made the Hebrew Bible come alive for me again, and African American Biblical Hermeneutics and Womanist Biblical Interpretation, the elevation that we really focused on of intersectionality, and intersectionality’s presence in the Hebrew Bible. Do you feel like the intersectionality of the Hebrew Bible is in part what allows us to connect to modern day story?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So I think a couple of things. I think that one of the reasons why the Bible, whether you understand it to be sacred text or not, is so popular, is because people are able to either find something of themselves in the text, or find something of the self or the community they want to be. And so to that extent there’s some intersectionality going on. So the world in front of the text, the reader is intersectional whether they want to admit it, or are aware of it or not. And so that when they’re looking for themselves, whether they can name it or not, they’re looking for some things that are intersectional. Most often, I think that people read very flat, but with a twist. So I’m always amazed that people read with the hero, when you know good and well, you’re part of a community that is not the hero. So everybody wants to be David, everybody, but nobody wants to be Goliath. Nobody wants to be a Philistine. Or everybody wants to be an Israelite and nobody wants to pay attention to the Canaanite. All of a sudden, everybody wants to be Rahab, but only because she ends up the hero of this. Nobody wants to be a bumbling spy, everybody reads with Rahab and wants to be this one woman in the whole city who saves her family and gets a cape because she’s a hero. And so to that extent, I think people read very flat, but really what’s going on behind there is some combination of gender going on, some combination of difference or other, some sort of community identification going on. Which when you broaden it and think about it that way, now you can bring in other groups of people who identify as something other than the normative gaze. If we say that the normative gaze is a male, cisgendered, male, hetero normative, probably elite–nobody aspires to be among the poor, everybody aspires to be among the rich, anything other than that would be considered other. There are so many people living in the year 2022, who fall into the other, more people fall into the other category than fall into the normative gaze. So I think when we give people permission, or even point them in the direction to say, have you considered this by way of Biblical studies. We also need to be honest and say that there’s elements of this step that are not life giving–I’m dealing with Judges 19–where is there something good about that? These are the stories we read over but I think it does us well, to sit with those in the same way we sit with the Deborah’s of the world, or Solomon’s of the world. We need to sit with the unnamed.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, this theme of permission and tools, it’s just so life giving.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Permission, tools and responsibility. Give people are tool and they’ll go out there and make a mess. But we also need to create some understanding of is that really responsible–Can you really get there? I like how Dr. Renita J. Weems used to say when she was at Vanderbilt: Is that what God said or is that what they say God said? I’m teaching a Bible study for a consortium of churches in Chicago now, and we’re reading Rahab. And so I was asked, we opened zoom and so one of the lady is like “yeah, she heard God speak, she heard God speak and that’s why she did so and so.” I said “ma’am, where? We all have our Bibles open, can you point us to that particular verse?” My point here is, so often we’ve read over, we’ve embellished upon, we’ve made the stories work for us, when often times, that’s not really what’s on the page. And that’s without doing any language translation, we’re just dealing with English.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, that aspect of responsibility. And I think, to your point earlier about addressing the stories of the marginalized and the non-marginalized, addressing both aspects.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: We like to get excited about King David but nobody wants to take responsibility for — Hey! that’s the dude who basically stole Uriah’s wife. But no, we got to talk about that too.
CASSIDY HALL: We might cancel or write it off today…
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Absolutely.
CASSIDY HALL: One more question is, are there any contemplatives or mystics, maybe in modern day or in our midst that you would name? Whether they’re scholars or activists, or the grocery store clerk?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah. So I think I have to go down the road of history. My list is not exhaustive. And here, I’m even thinking about people who could have been part of important movements in our history. So for me, whether it’s the suffrage movement, whether it’s the civil rights movement, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, Me Too, all of that. And I definitely think, let’s start with the big one. Let’s get Howard Thurman off the table. Everybody, we admit, there’s no kind of debate, he absolutely is on the list. The other person I will put on the list would be Harriet Tubman. I think about the work of Reverend James Lawson, who was the guy who taught the college students civil disobedience during the civil rights movement in Nashville. So I’m thinking about Lawson. And there may have been some moments where some of those young people whose names we’ll never know, got themselves into such or had to get themselves into such and other worldly space in order to sit in that space. That may have been part of what Lawson was up to when he was teaching. I think about the names we know in the civil rights movement. But more importantly, the ones we don’t know. All the pastors whose churches were used as staging grounds, and the prayer meetings, that they would have, all of the people, here we go, who would spontaneously lift up a hymn or a song that became part of the fuel that drove the activity. Whether it was the actual march or just the commitment to do the work behind the scenes that showed up in what we understand as the Civil Rights Movement. I think about that, the women behind the BlackLivesMatter movement. So here’s the thing. What if what we’re dealing with here in our modern times, is most of our mystics go unnamed? Because in some ways, I think about Howard Thurman, had he not had a stage like Boston? He was a professor, so he was teaching all over the place. Had he not had the stage of the professor would we have even known what he was up to? What about all the people who don’t have a stage who absolutely engage in mystical work? I wonder about artists. And here I’m thinking about the stories we hear about when Denzel Washington played Malcolm X and he tells the story about how he had the sense that Malcolm’s presence was there. So I wonder if a Spike Lee and Denzel may have a little bit of mystical to them and Ava DuVernay, all these people who have to invoke something in order to get the product out?
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah, there’s so many mystics that go unnamed and yet the live on because they’re work was focused on common good or mutual well-being or betterment of life. Yeah, to another extent, I like to think that the Spirit maybe takes over in those situations and helps to guide that prophetic call,
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Or even think about when you get together with extended family, and you hear the stories of the great, great, great, great uncle/aunt or whatever that you never knew. Some elder tells the part of the story that makes you go, you say your aunt Isabelle had dreams? And she would wake up and she would write them on sheets of paper, and then she would put those sheets of paper in your shoe for when you went to school. Wait a minute. Wait a minute, maybe? Oh.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Well, Dr. Russaw, thank you so much for joining me today.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I think that your work is important. I think that I would encourage you to keep at it. And to find ways to little by little, this is not going to be — I doubt Oprah is going to come calling. But somebody is going to sit around and go, now I get it. And it’s that one spark that can change your life that could change the world.
CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Amen. And I know and I experienced you giving that spark to so many, so I’m really grateful our paths have crossed. Thank you.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Thank you friend.
Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.