Cheryl B. Anderson is Professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. She earned her doctoral degree from Vanderbilt University and, earlier in her career, she practiced law in Washington, D.C. for nearly ten years. Her current research interests involve contextual and liberationist readings of Scripture in the age of HIV and AIDS.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
The basic motivation of my research has been to identify the ways that traditional biblical interpretations can result in various forms of violence against marginalized communities in general and African American communities in particular. Even before I became a scholar, I noticed that the dominant culture could talk about some forms of violence such as “Black on Black crime,” but that same dominant culture deliberately evaded responsibility for the systemic violence (seen in underfunded schools and both limited job and housing opportunities) that gave rise to such crime. In my work, I have wanted to make visible the kinds of violent dynamics underlying our society that are usually not acknowledged. As a biblical scholar, I have explored how systemic violence is connected to the ways in which we interpret the Bible. For example, my first book, Women, Ideology and Violence, looked at why violence against women is so prevalent in our society. When analyzing the laws concerning women in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, I found that their traditional patriarchal definitions of gender constitute a form of symbolic violence and that this traditional patriarchal notion of gender and its symbolic violence make actual physical violence against women more likely today. In order to counter such harmful consequences of biblical interpretations, we must interpret the Bible differently. My second book, Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation shows that the Bible itself gives us permission to re-interpret biblical understandings of texts to meet the needs of later historical contexts and such re-interpretations are consistent with the Protestant tradition. In more recent years, I have examined how those same traditional definitions of gender contribute to the higher rates of HIV infections in communities of African descent.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
About fifteen years ago, a friend who is a female Hebrew Bible scholar from South Africa invited me to attend a conference that was going to take place in Addis Abba, Ethiopia. It happened to be a conference of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians and, in order to attend, I had to present a paper about the HIV and AIDS pandemic in my own country. I started to do the research, and I was shocked to learn of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the African American community, and I was even more shocked by the relative silence in the media concerning the matter. In those early years, my research focused on learning about the Black churches and organizations that did have effective ministries and how they used the Bible. As an integral part of that research, I spent extensive time in South Africa where I learned from biblical scholars there how the Bible was being read in the context of HIV and AIDS. Over the years, I have continued to work on this topic, and my goal is to help our churches in the United States read the Bible in ways that help to heal our communities and prevent new infections.
As a woman of African descent, how have you navigated challenges in your academic journey?
I am a biblical scholar, and I am an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church. When I thought about this question, I realized that I have been able to navigate the challenges by remembering that my academic work is my form of ministry. Many years ago, I heard a sermon during a mentoring workshop for women of color in doctoral programs. The sermon was based on Luke 7: 36-38 and its description of the woman who brings her alabaster jar of ointment to the feet of Jesus. The preacher asked us to think of every research paper we wrote, every class we took, and every presentation we gave, as our own offering at the feet of Jesus. This message reminds me that, although I support my academic institution and my professional associations, my ultimate commitment is to God and that I am called to carry out my ministry with integrity and authenticity.
Can you share anything about a current project that you have?
Even though we have been preoccupied with the impact of Covid-19 over the past year, new HIV infections have continued to occur. Simply stated, the rate of HIV infections may have disappeared from news headlines, but it has not disappeared from our lives. As Black people, we need to recognize how social and economic disparities make us more susceptible to pandemics both now and in the future. The problem, though, is that we often hold on to conservative Christian beliefs that either ignore those systemic problems (“Social justice is not in the Bible”) or they blame disease solely on an individual’s behavior (“God is punishing you for your sin”). My current project will identify those damaging beliefs and counter them by re-reading the Bible in ways that are inclusive and holistic. As part of this project, I will bring together my articles on HIV and AIDS that were previously published in the United States and South Africa
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the intersection of race, gender and religion?
Audre Lorde’s concept of “the mythical norm,” in Sister Outsider, is foundational to my work. This concept posits that the realities and perspectives of affluent White, cisgender, heterosexual men are assumed to be the normative human experience. By the concept’s very definition then the experiences of the people of color, women, LGBTQ+ and the poor are non-normative, the Other. As a result, the struggles of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and class are not separate because each group represents an aspect of intersecting struggles to resist marginalization. In my work, I use her concept to explain how we have been taught to read the Bible: basically, we read the Bible as determined by perspectives of privileged, White, cisgender and heterosexual men and that position has become what we think of as the Christian perspective.
Equating Christian doctrines and policies with the realities of only one small segment of humanity can have very harmful consequences. For example, researchers know that HIV disproportionately affects those who are of African descent (race), women (gender), LGBTQ+ (gender identity and sexual orientation) and poor (class). However, the Church’s official positions reflect the “mythical norm” and, therefore, they do not consider the experiences of these marginalized groups who live in very different realities. As a result, the harmful effects of traditional biblical and theological positions on these groups are ignored. In essence, then, my goal is to help Black Christians read the Bible from our own realities of race, gender, sexuality and class so that our foundational resource helps us flourish on this side of the Jordan.