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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive What's Uncivil about Civil War?: A Womanist Perspective on Pedagogical Issues in Ancient Biblical Battle Texts

Tribal systems in the ancient Near East and in modern day Iraq are endemic with conflict, hatred, and complex tensions around issues of power and authority. Much of this conflict results in civil war. War is the practice of organized violence executed by institutions within states. International or global war pertains to war between the military institutions of the governments of different states. Wars within the political boundaries of a state are internal or civil wars. Civil government war occurs when a state government's military institutions fight against different political institutions within that same state's civil society. Civil society war occurs when different entities in a civil society fight each other without government intervention.[1]

Biblical civil war existed between: (1) Benjamin and Israel (Judges 20:14); (2) the houses of Saul and David (2 Samuel 3:1, 6); (3) Rehoboam and Jeroboam (1 Kings 14:30; 15:6; 2 Chronicles 12:15); (4) Asa and Baasha (1 Kings 15:16, 32); (5) Egyptians and other Egyptians (Isaiah 19:2). The Tutsis and Hutus had lived with a certain tension; after colonialist moves to divide and conquer, the tensions heightened to civil society warfare and mass genocide. In the so-called "war on terrorism" in Iraq, tribal allegiances pit Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis against each other, and currently they are also opposing the troops from the United States. Once U.S. troops withdraw, the Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis are likely to engage in both governmental and societal civil war.

My essay explores how one is able to teach, think, and discuss ancient biblical warfare texts from a Womanist perspective. Womanist biblical theology merges the study of theology and exegesis to examine and learn from biblical texts towards the empowerment of all people. Here I pose questions around pedagogical issues that arise in teaching these texts in dialogue with questions raised by the dynamics of women in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pedagogical Issues
In thinking about being a teacher-learner and researcher, I work under the rubrics of a Poetics of Power Pedagogy, which is a Radical, Revolutionary, Relevant Relationship. What emerges as rhetoric about revolutionary tactics for reforming pedagogy sometimes results in more brainstorming, more conferences, more papers, and less change and effectiveness in the classroom or office. Teaching effectiveness has as much to do with a professor's persona and passion as it does her or his preparation. Some love to teach and teach well. Others teach by default. Some teach through building community; others teach through intimidation. Upon completion of the Ph.D., few have received any technical guidance as to how to teach. Only in the last decade has the undergraduate and graduate academy turned its focus on post K-12 pedagogy. Some have mastered the subject matter, but are not able to convey that material to others in a meaningful, strategic manner. Some teachers learn to teach by trial and error. Some never learn to factor in the many vital components that affect student learning and growth in and outside the classroom, and subsequently they cannot or do not modify and improve the educational environment in a manner that is conducive or supportive for professor or facilitator and student.

Conversely, many pedagogues are compassionate and listen well. They use their poetic voices and ears as they orient their students and themselves towards new ways of seeing, hearing, and learning. Yet, few teachers have the gifts and graces of vision and ability to collaborate and delegate in a manner that can move from concept to design through successful implementation and measurable growth and change. In exploring the dynamics of being a teacher learner as a way of vocation, in general and in biblical studies focusing on war in particular, I use my Womanist, liberationist, constructive pedagogical praxis towards a poetic power pedagogy. How many university professors have submitted learning and lesson plans for their students to their deans, in lieu of xeroxed day planner syllabi?

A Womanist pedagogical theory, as the foundation of a constructive praxis, analyzes and critiques individual human and social behavior towards discerning the good, particularly analyzing the ramifications of injustice and malaise due to oppressions, moving towards change, balance, and promise. Such a liberatory pedagogy [2] engages in rigorous, analytical, critical listening to many texts, and it embraces a message of hope and transformation. This hermeneutic assumes the essential goodness of human beings and that nurture for self and community requires a commitment to justice, respect, and mutuality; thus a call for reformation. If we continue teaching the way we taught and were taught five years ago, we are in trouble. In the classroom and when reading written, oral, living texts, this vision searches for a way to champion the freedom, dignity, and justice of all people—a prelude to the praxis of morality; a prelude set not to music, but to the rhythm of words, of poetics.

In Aristotle's Poetics, his defense of the importance of poetry is a presentation of a philosophy of literature, where he puts forth both the intellectual and emotional vein of poetry. The process of creating poetry is an art of making and of creativity. The process of creating poetry involves mimesis or imitation via three differences—means, objects, and methods of imitation—through the vehicles of speech, rhythm, and melody.[3] A poetics of power pedagogy emerging from Womanist theory involves the mind and the emotions, the soul and spirit, imitating the directive of breath and blood for a human body—creating health, the antithesis of death, in the immediacy of a heart beat. Womanist pedagogy discerns the distinction between a pathology and a practice of creativity that brings life. The substance of Aristotle's Poetics[4] undergirds a Womanist philosophy of emancipatory pedagogy.

When we design a liberatory educational praxis, the thought behind the process, the philosophy of the process, is critical: the philosophy sculpts the environment, the subject matter, the questions of authority, and the agency of students and faculty. An emancipatory educational model must consider, for example, that although the majority of teachers through high school are women, most of the subject matter and the thought behind curriculum and theory has been shaped to match a white male Eurocentric model, which excludes women's and most non-European persons' ways of knowing, being, and histories. Women and those of non-European heritage have been invisible, and that invisibility devalues everyone. Thus, these intellectual disciplines not only exclude women and non-Europeans, but they also construct images of women and non-Europeans based on myths, thus denying the power and gifts that these persons embody. Such an exclusionary philosophy makes no room for pedagogies of care, connection, concern, and nurture. Such an exclusionary philosophy is devoid of wholeness and divides the body from the mind, the emotions and feelings from the rational, and individuals from communities. How, then, can such an exclusionary philosophy do a credible reading of a biblical civil war text? What questions are not asked, and thus limit the possible results of exegesis and literary criticism?

A philosophy of Womanist liberatory pedagogy needs to include different modes of being, feeling, thinking, sensing, and motivating, where neither the teacher nor the student relinquishes intimacy and settles for isolation; neither gives up integrating or sharing their life experiences. Emancipatory education demands that an educated person be more than simply a repository of knowledge or a talking head. Students engaged in emancipatory education must also be those who can do more than conceptualize or have strong cognitive faculties, for the practical and the theoretical. Students are not bank deposit accounts, but vital beings.[5] One can begin to glimpse the breadth and depth of student capabilities when reflecting on Paulo Freire's pedagogical paradigm.

Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed[6] involves expanding the subjectivity of human beings and not regarding humans as objects. With this subjectivity comes an understanding of education as a process by and with the oppressed, as opposed to education of, for, or to them. The practice of conscientization, the hub of Freire's hermeneutic, is the move to let the oppressed be clear about their oppressive situation and then to demonstrate how a liberatory praxis can help the oppressed transform their own current life experience of oppression. Conscientization involves an interdisciplinary study of the words needed for the training, a selection of words from the discovered vocabulary that have relevant meaning, and a literacy training that itself avoids a culture circle. Conscientization involves: (1) the structure and language system of the school; and (2) learning in the midst of changing student consciousness and sensitivity concerning taking action. The goal of conscientization is to have dialogic education as opposed to a non dialogic change that is synonymous with making a banking deposit. Dialogue is key to Freire's methodology of conscientization.[7] While Freire accepts the use of violence to create liberation, some Womanists and others find any use of violence unacceptable, except in the direct physical defense of the person or another problematic; e.g., when does a good end, in this example, liberation, justify an illicit means, the use of violence, to achieve that end? What remains helpful from Freire is the act of Conscientization: engaging in dialogue with women and men in language they live with, overcoming denial, and then using their language, their stories, and their metaphors to empower men and women to liberate themselves. Consequently, a Womanist pedagogical praxis embraces an outrageous, audacious, willful behavior as essential to health, self-expression, and self-identity.

For bell hooks, who builds her pedagogical strategy using the work of Freire and Thich Nat Hah, a Buddhist monk, engagement in progressive, emancipatory pedagogy as a vocation requires a heightened awareness on the part of the pedagogue to be present and to begin to meld the mind/body/spirit split.[8] The more that professors are embodied in the work of the classroom, the more there is potential for relationships that celebrate subjectivity and disrupt a culture, a milieu of domination and objectivity. Such is an arena of mutual respect coupled with an exposure of any and all oppression. Many "traditionalists" fear the existence of the idea that the situation in the classroom can be changed and that the traditionalists' place of power will be dismantled if they opt for progressive, emancipatory pedagogical practices. We are invited by hooks to "teach to transgress" from staid, boring, boorish pedagogies to an inclusive, invitational style of teaching and learning.[9] Note that using an emancipatory praxis involves more than shifting course content.

Such a praxis requires a subversive shift of pedagogical strategies. New ways of listening and thinking require new ways of engaging the art and science of teaching. The Aldous Huxley-like "Brave New World of Teaching" is often bombarded by internal and external critiques: students may or may not want to be mutually responsible for their learning experience, and/or faculty may not want to be vulnerable. Liberatory educational praxis also transcends the banking system of education of debits and credits, for liberatory educational praxis produces vitality and empowers students towards building a community of learning and learners. The hard work of such a praxis involves joy and difficulty, being emotionally conscious and responsible. Such an education is a process: a process of fluidity and change, and a living community of being with each other. This process of liberatory educational praxis requires the courage to see and to deal with issues of race, sex, and class; to know that gaining knowledge by collapsing these boundaries towards wholeness is not a quid pro quo of having to lose something else. Moreover, emancipatory pedagogy requires passion to love, to be inclusive, to be involved with intellectual communion, the spirit of learning.[10]

Womanist emancipatory pedagogy seeks to transform methodologies that co-opt, commodify, or make claims without carefully articulated arguments, as it includes nine components of African American life experience: spirituality, humanism, communalism, resilience, verbal and oral expressiveness, personal uniqueness and style, emotional vitality, rhythm and musicality, and realness. These nine components give witness to new possibilities in the search of justice and compassion.[11] The pedagogical ethic helps us glean techniques and strategies that will empower people to help themselves.

A Womanist hermeneutic allows for fluidity and attitude adjustments that see and celebrate the contexts and dynamics of improvisation, oral discourse, giving voice, spiritual health, emotional growth, and moral accountability.[12] Attempts to undermine the personhood of another and diminish that person's gifts and voices produce pedagogical malevolence. The job of a pedagogue is to meet students where they are and help them help themselves to bring them to where we want them, where everyone learns in the process. If, as a professor, I do not learn at least fifty percent more when I teach and facilitate the course, then I have not been listening to my students. Listening requires that, as professor, I accord students authority and power.

Womanist hermeneutics commits to the wholeness of all people and posits human capability. Womanist hermeneutics presses us to commit to the view that everyone can learn, a first act of empowerment. A critical moment in all of the processes cited above is the experience of analytical, critical listening—an experience of faith where the function of hearing is one of engagement that takes seriously the notion that others have something to say. At this point, the function of hearing says that "I need to really hear," before making an assessment, before offering a comment, in order to engage fully the glimmers of grace, the image of God in both parties. With this pedagogy as a base, how can we teach these texts in light of women at war, using the life of Rhonda Cornum as a case study?

Women at War
Cornum [13] joined the military, serving as a flight surgeon (medic to pilots). She and her fellow pilots wanted to go to war, though none of them wanted to kill any Iraqis. They were happy to blow up unoccupied tanks and trucks. Cornum, a trained pilot, also has a steeplechase jockey's license, enjoys skydiving, and has flown F-15s in Saudi Arabia. She chose to go to war early on when she selected military medical school instead of a civilian medical facility. She believed that in Saudi Arabia she could be a staff officer who would be in charge of the medics, and she believed that she could help bring back more people alive. Her biggest fear was that of failure; besides, everyone expected her to be tough. Upon arrival in Saudi Arabia in 1990, she was primed to care for the physical and emotional well-being of the soldiers. Her job as battalion flight surgeon was to fly behind the Apache attack helicopters and provide emergency medical care for shot-down pilots until they could be evacuated. The pilots and infantry personnel had been trained to do combat search and rescue and yearned to engage in such missions. These soldiers are trained to channel all their energy so that any fighting machinery can be manipulated into being "a lethal weapons system." [14]

Under fire, there is often a huge adrenaline rush. One's brain usually goes into hyperdrive, so time seems to go slower. When taking fire aboard a helicopter or plane, one may wonder if this is the end. Under fire, Cornum was not worried, but curious. Fear would encroach however, when having crashed, one could see fire, particularly near a fuselage. Most soldiers are not afraid of getting killed in a crash, but are leery of being captured by enemy troops.[15]

When her battalion was located at King Fahd airport, Saudi Arabia, they made camp on the second floor of an incomplete parking garage. One woman officer approached Cornum suggesting that the women be segregated from the men in sleeping quarters. In conversation with the executive officer, Cornum relayed the message, but felt that with the goal of maintaining cohesiveness and integrity, people should not be segregated. The women would be safer situated with the men. For the most part women were treated equally; e.g., no gender differentiation. When Cornum was scheduled to be deployed to Saudi Arabia, the question was raised, should a female flight surgeon go to Saudi Arabia? Someone phoned the Department of the Army, Washington, DC. Their response was: "We are going to war. Surely we have something bigger to worry about than the sex of the doctor. Just be happy we have one [doctor]." The troops need doctors. As of summer 2004, the number of wounded was 7,531; the number of fatalities, 1064; contractors killed or missing, 177. [16] As of mid-September, 2004, 111 soldiers from Texas have died in this latest Iraqi war. Countless thousands have died in Iraq. How do we connect the dots? To unpack this question, I pose a series of further questions.

Queries and Practical Connections
A Womanist reading of biblical texts requires a hermeneutics of (1) tempered cynicism, (2) creativity, (3) courage, (4) commitment, (5) candor, (6) curiosity, and (7) the comedic. First, using Womanist emancipatory biblical method as tempered cynicism calls forth questions of suspicion: How do we read civil war texts that bring meaningful dialogue, as opposed to a mere so-called objective study? What happens if we study ancient civil war in concert with the antebellum civil war and the recent and current Iraqi war? Perhaps we can glean a better understanding of tribal ideologies, needs, and perspectives. Tribal warfare is different from global warfare, even though the United States has apparently attempted to move Middle Eastern civil wars to a global status. We do not understand Shiites and Sunnis fighting each other—like the Hatfields and McCoys, the Yankees and the Rebels. How can we connect the query of suspicion between flight surgeon Cornum and the Benjaminites in Judges 20?

Both wanted to go to war. Cornum and company want to fight for democracy, though they did not particularly want to kill Iraqis. The Benjaminites are also intentional about war. The events of Judges 19 leading up to war give us an opportunity to help students realize how messy war is, that at the level of global war, ethics often go out the door. The gang rape that happens to the unnamed secondary wife is not unlike the rape in war that is currently happening to thousands of women and children world wide. Suspicion would press us to ask what makes rape as an act of war permissible. We would also need to ask the questions of ancient Israel and of the United States, as in who is censured and who gains favor. The condemnation of particular groups and the Benjaminites for allegedly causing religious and social collapse is not unlike the same conversations around liberal groups today. These notions would press us to have conversations around the intended and unintended consequences of global, national, and personal actions in general, and in particular around war. From a pedagogical perspective, would it be useful to draw parallels between the United States and its war on terror with Iraq and the civil war with the Benjaminites and Israel? Many of our undergraduates today have little awareness of Korea, Vietnam, or the Gulf War. The war they are most familiar with is that in Iraq. How can we use the biblical text to help them think through the theological and ethical issues of war? How do we reflect constructively on an ongoing war when one of the primary reasons for the war, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, has been shown to not be the case? How do we justify war? Do we use just war theory? Do we use the categories of revenge: an eye for an eye? How do we talk about the thousands of Iraqis and American dead? How can we talk about September 11, 2001, and the United States' response as a war on terror in biblical terms?

Second, creativity invites us to explore milhamah in the context of visual imagery. For example, All's Quiet on the Western Front unmasks hand combat and the kind of pathological patriotism that fueled World War I. Saving Private Ryan, a more recent wartime epic, shows young men going to war. How effective might it be for your students to shift from a sense of statistics about violence, no more daunting than video games, to realize that all actions have intended and unintended consequences? People, soldiers and civilians alike, die in war. Creativity also affords an opportunity to compare the use of milhamah in 2 Samuel 3:1 and 3:6 ("the house of David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker") with questions of what impact the war on terror has had on the United States. War often boosts the economy. Given Vice President Cheney's connection with Halliburton and Halliburton's work in Iraq and Afghanistan, has the war made certain elite sectors of the American population wealthier, although dead American personnel now total over 1,700? Is there a conflict of interest here?

Third, courage challenges us to explore both human sensibilities and that of a God who sometimes uses war as judgment. What does it mean that this same God created both those whom God rewards and those whom God punishes in a divinely sanctioned war? Is the concept of a "just war" valid for the ancient biblical civil disturbances and for quelling modern insurgencies and tyrannical despots? How do just war concepts enable students and pedagogues to analyze an Iraqi war that is loosely cloaked in imperialistic, divine-manifest destiny language? Courage would invite us to compare the rule of David and the tension with his sons and the rule of President Bush and his twin daughters. Instead of conflict between sons, to make the text come alive, one could explore the conflict within the Bush dynasty, the rivalries between presidential son and presidential father, along with the various tensions within the presidential cabinet. We could also explore the various border skirmishes with "illegal aliens" and troopers on the Mexican/United States border and reflect on our truck economy and the impact of indigent labor. We might find out that we are not such good stewards and that those of us who subscribe to a democratic republic often fail at practicing what we preach.

Forth, commitment presses us to help students make new discoveries. How might their reading of milhamah in 2 Samuel 3 or 1 Kings 15 help them gain a richer understanding of the tensions within the Davidic dynasty? Here again we could place the Davidic dynasty in contrast with the Bush dynasty and do an in-depth query on colonialism and empire building then and now. Since most of the empires in history have had meteoric rises and falls, what does the witness of Scripture and of history tell us about the future of a so-called United States empire? One could also pose the question of what impact gender has in decision making and in the development and completion of war.

Fifth, candor calls us to explore the dynamics of oppression and therefore inquire as to the socio-cultural, religious, and psychological impact of the rape and murder of the secondary wife in Judges 20. Why? Twentieth and twenty-first century civil and global wars have come to use rape as weapons of war. For example, the rapes by Arabs in the Sudan come immediately to mind. Candor would also press us to explore the growing industry of sex trafficking, particularly as it exists in connection with American military bases. What is the connection, if any, between temple prostitutes and Davidic kingdom building? Is there a parallel between sex trafficking and prostitution and corporate wealth? Is this one vehicle for money laundering? What would have been the ancient equivalent of the same?

Sixth, curiosity invites us to search these ancient biblical texts to explore questions of inclusivity, mercy, and love that beg the question as to what happened to children, women, and elders during civil wars, then and now. How would Dr. Cornum and the soldiers she helped save answer such a question? Would reading the Guantanamo Bay incidents of torture through the lens of Judges 20 prove eye opening? Can reading mad texts, both ancient and contemporary bio-texts of wounded bodies, produce any knowledge other than more madness?

Seventh, the comedic calls us to avoid taking ourselves too seriously and to grow pedagogically in diverse ways. Are pedagogues still teaching an introductory 101 class and seminar courses using the same methodologies, same texts, same syllabi they used five or ten years ago? While the texts are old, our challenge is to help ourselves and our students read them with new eyes. Our charge is to help students come to see their biases as they investigate these texts with tools that may be new to them. Using these war texts could prove quite provocative in the classroom for helping students engage in thinking critically. For example, how do they discern the differences between the political party lines, what their parents/peers believe, and, at the end of the day, what each of them believes? These are also opportunities to relate to students the difference between honoring the authority of a particular office or text and making sense out of what they believe, what they have seen, and how they can go about questioning something as fragile as their faith or belief systems, when academic rigor will often challenge these beliefs? Teaching such texts in a liberatory pedagogical fashion will stretch all teacher-learners, faculty and students, as they wrestle with ancient texts in contemporary classrooms.

In closing, what's uncivil about civil war? No war is civil in practice; it is not respectful, orderly, or pleasant. War is gory, messy, uncoordinated, and often the intended and unintended consequences are unplanned. The designation of civil war concerns a state of military strife against different institutions within that society or pertains to different tribes or groups inside the same region fighting each other. Thus, the practice of war in any guise is uncivil. On a global level, war is never ethical; it is about one having power over another and seizing control.

The best we can do is to educate in a way that we help our students and ourselves be better neighbors towards peacemakers, more informed voting citizens, and especially critical, curious, analytical, thinking scholars of written, living, and oral texts.

Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, Shaw University Divinity School,

[1] S. P. Reyna and R. E.Downs, Deadly Developments: Capitalism, States, and War (Australia: Gordon and Breach Publishers, 1999), 4.

[2] See Katie G. Cannon, Katie's Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (New York: Continuum, 1995).

[3] Aristotle, Poetics, translated by Gerald F. Else (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967, 1970), 4-16, 79.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jane Roland Martin, Changing the Educational Landscape: Philosophy, Women, and Curriculum (New York: Routledge, 1994) 36, 46, 47, 74, 78, 80, 113, 115, 210, 211, 71.

[6] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury, 1970).

[7] John Elias, Paulo Freire: Pedagogue of Liberation (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Co, 1994), 10-19.

[8] See bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[9] Ibid., 4, 6, 8, 11.

[10] Ibid., 130-165; 183, 194, 198, 205.

[11] Emilie Townes, In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality As Social Witness (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 9-13. Cannon, 134-135.

[12] Rhonda Cornum with Peter Copeland, She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992), 5; 8, 21, 23.

[13] Ibid., 8.

[14] Ibid., 10-18


Citation: Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, " What's Uncivil about Civil War?: A Womanist Perspective on Pedagogical Issues in Ancient Biblical Battle Texts," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2005]. Online:


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