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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Embodied and Embodying Hermeneutics of Life in the Academy: Musa W. Dube's HIV/AIDS Work

Because HIV/AIDS has interrupted our world and our lives in such radical ways, we must allow it to interrupt our scholarship radically as well. Doing so not only leads us to question our existing paradigms, it calls for the adoption of new methodologies and approaches. Even more importantly, it calls us back to the discipline of dreaming new visions in relation to our bodies, sexuality, family life, the church, and the world. But this is where the tension lies. For with HIV/AIDS, we live under the paradigm of shattered dreams. The challenge therefore is how not to allow this deadly body- and dream-shattering virus to shatter the very ability to dream of God's new creation. To put it more positively, the challenge is how to embrace HIV/AIDS not only as a threat, but to see it as a kairos, that is, as a moment of truth and a unique opportunity that forces us to dream and inhabit dreams of God's new creation.

I locate Musa Dube's work, especially her soon to be published The HIV and AIDS Bible (Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 2006), within this broad challenge. The overall effect of her work has been to force us to see that with HIV/AIDS we live under the paradigm of shattered dreams. What one finds still missing in her work, and what one hopes to see more explicitly developed in her future work, are the theological visions and dreams "from beyond" that can sustain life in a dream-shattered world. I suggest that Dube might be in a better position to provide these big dreams if she pays attention to the notion and practice of lament within the biblical tradition. The issue I am raising goes beyond Dube's work and beyond the specific case of HIV/AIDS. It involves a wider claim about the coherence and integrity of socially engaged African scholarship and how such scholarship must be shaped around the discipline and practice of lament. Before I explore this general claim, a note about Dube's work and the positive challenge it presents in terms of embodied and embodying hermeneutics of life within the academy.

Musa Dube: Embodied and Embodying Hermeneutics of Life
I focus on the work of Musa Dube for a number of reasons. First, she is a first rate scholar, one of the most prolific on the African scene. A professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Botswana, Musa Dube has published numerous academic books and essays, and she has edited several monographs.[1] Her research and writing focus on post-colonial feminist ways of reading the Bible. Another reason why Dube's work is significant is that, unlike many "post-colonialists" (for whom post-colonial critique has become the primary goal), Dube's post-colonialism is not a detached academic pursuit. Rather, her post-colonial scholarship is grounded in, and seeks to connect with, the actual struggles of African women in their search for justice and liberation. In this connection, Dube is a key voice in the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, where she has served as the chair of biblical research and publication.[2] A third and more immediate reason for focusing on the work of Musa Dube is that she has been involved actively in issues related to HIV/AIDS. In 2002-2003, she worked with the World Council of Churches (WCC) as the HIV/AIDS and Theological Consultant for churches and theological institutions in Africa, training theological lecturers and church leaders to incorporate HIV/AIDS in their programs.

What drives Musa Dube's scholarly activism is a keen awareness that with HIV/AIDS we live in world of shattered dreams. Given this fact, she has consistently noted, our scholarship as well as our church life cannot go on "as usual." Instead, both the academy and the church must become sites of struggle and critical engagement in the fight for liberation and healing in the era HIV/AIDS. Her HIV/AIDS related work and scholarship, therefore, provide a good model for African scholars as we seek to embody the embodying hermeneutics of life in the academy.

I do not know many scholars who would self-consciously describe themselves in such a hyphenated fashion as Musa Dube does: "An African post-colonial-feminist-biblical-scholar." And yet, there is something in Dube's heavily hyphenated self-description that rings true of all African scholars. To be an African is to find oneself richly hyphenated; that is to say, located within a multiplicity of marginalizing and marginalized narratives; thus, if you are a scholar, at the intersection of many disciplines in the academy. What makes Dube's work unique, fresh, and provocative is not only the verve and relentless passion with which she inhabits such a world of post-colonial hybridity, but also the commitment to engage and interrogate its limits and possibilities. In other words, for Musa Dube to be an "African post-colonial-feminist-biblical-scholar" does not constitute a combination of "scholarly interests"—for these hyphens are less of "interests" and more of destinies.

Moreover, in Dube's work it is clear that what is at stake is not simply the destiny of this one uniquely gifted, brilliant, and exceptionally capable scholar, but the very survival of millions of others who, like her, find themselves within the post-colonial space, but who, unlike her, have neither the skills to fully grasp the machinations of a post-colonial world nor a voice to make their cries heard. Musa Dube thus speaks with, and on behalf of, a corporate identity: She writes, reads, sings, and speaks of, and on behalf of, Mamma Africa. That is why her work provides a positive model of what African scholarship should be about, namely, trying to make sense of these complex narratives that constitute our multiple social locations in a post-colonial Africa. We do not bring "scholarly interests" into the academy, we bring the hyphenated biographies of Africa. In order to preserve its inner integrity and relevance, African scholarship cannot but be deeply socially engaged.

On Being Interrupted
No doubt becoming a deeply and socially engaged scholar may, at least on the surface, appear to be a distraction and even an unwelcome interruption of one's scholarly ambitions. And yet, the type of interruption that HIV/AIDS presents is not one that allows us freedom to decide to respond or not respond. In this connection, the story of how HIV/AIDS "invaded" her work is telling, as it represents the shattering of her dreams to be an "academic" scholar. In the opening essay of The HIV and AIDS Bible, she recounts how it was, during her graduate days in the United States, that she became aware of HIV/AIDS and the deadly devastation it was dealing on the African continent. Even as she wrote poems and songs, which were later turned into albums that would raise funds for orphaned children, her vision was fixed on a career in the academy, with fellow scholars as her primary audience. However, on returning to her home country, her teaching soon went through a crisis when she realized that more than half of her students could be HIV positive. This realization began to interrogate her teaching:

As I went about with the business as usual, teaching the synoptic Gospels from a feminist, narrative, historical or redactional criticism and the like, there came a point that this academic approach began to become artificial and strange even on my tongue.[3]

Her position on the HIV/AIDS front lines impelled her to undertake a different rereading of the miracles of Jesus and to begin to ask, What is the meaning of the miracles of healing in the Synoptic Gospels? Are they still relevant? How does one propound a theology of healing where there is no healing?[4]

The HIV/AIDS context was not only beginning to change the way she taught but where she taught. By now, she was sending her students into the community with AIDS-related questionnaires (thus taking her teaching outside the academy). And she was also challenging her colleagues at the university to attend to the issue of HIV/AIDS through scholarly writing and integrating AIDS into their syllabi.

As one thing led to another, with various speaking invitations in and outside of Africa, she was asked by the WCC to serve as the African consultant on HIV/AIDS and as theological consultant. Thus, in September 2002, she took a leave of absence from her university to take on the WCC position. A key task in her position was to mobilize, equip, and challenge theological educators and church leaders in Africa to take on HIV/AIDS and to respond to it effectively. In this respect, her task involved, among other things, researching, writing, and publishing theological materials that could be used by both theological institutions and churches.[5]

HIV/AIDS had not only forced Musa Dube to read the Bible with new questions, it had also forced her to embrace a new type of scholarship, a socially engaged scholarship, or what she calls "prophetically healing scholarship."[6] As is clear from the essays in The HIV and AIDS Bible, Dube's prophetically healing scholarship, among other things:

  • Is grounded in the realization that AIDS has shattered dreams of our basic social plots and has "debunked many known truths and exposed the limitations of many scientific, economic and cultural truths/knowledge."[7]
  • Challenges the academy and scholars to face this fact and therefore to "think and design frameworks that nurture a scholarship that is socially engaged and accountable to addressing the most burning issues of our day, time, world and contexts."[8]
  • Seeks to unsettle the Christian churches to move beyond the comfortable limits of their ministry by showing that HIV/AIDS is not an event that happens outside the normal, usual pattern of the church, and to come to the realization that the "Church is HIV positive."
  • Reads the bible creatively with the marginalized, with the People Living with AIDS (PLWA), in order to allow the biblical text to breathe new life. Her reading of such texts as Mk 5:21-43 (Talitha Cum) and Lk 4:16-22: (The Spirit of the Lord is upon me) provide fresh insights into the liberating promises of the Gospel.
  • Is committed to the struggle for healing and liberation as a comprehensive struggle that involves, among others, prevention; breaking stigma and silence; provision of quality care; and addressing HIV/AIDS as an epidemic within other social epidemics, a factor that makes the marginalized groups of the world more vulnerable."[9]

Given such rich themes, it is obvious that Musa Dube has not just squarely and creatively responded to the interruption of HIV/AIDS, but, in doing so, has also provided a good example of what a socially engaged scholarship for liberation and healing in the wake of AIDS might look like.

The Limits of an Activist ParadigmNevertheless, if Musa Dube's work depicts the urgency and possible direction of socially engaged scholarship in relation to HIV/AIDS, it also reveals the limits of any activist paradigm. Simply put, I find Dube's work too activist. What I mean by this is that while it is strong on strategies and skills for how to respond to HIV/AIDS, it is short on visions and dreams of transformation in the wake of HIV/AIDS. While it helps to display the Bible as a "formidable weapon" in the struggle for liberation and healing, it does not make sufficiently explicit its central characteristic as a journey. At the heart of this journey is God's invitation to God's people to live in the present that has been shaped, indeed transformed, by the visions of the beyond.

There is of course no doubt that the crisis of AIDS is so urgent that it calls for immediate response, which includes advocacy. Nevertheless, grounding a theology of AIDS within an activist paradigm deprives such a theology of the most radical contribution of the biblical tradition; namely, inspiring and drawing its adherents into dreams and radical visions of the beyond. The reason is that an activist paradigm is by its nature always committed to a sense of pragmatic urgency, to what is relevant to the needs and challenges at hand. In other words, even were such a paradigm to succeed (and thus be able to procure liberation and healing), there is a sense in which it would still leave us within the limits of the world as is—a world in which current models of economics, politics, and international relations have been somehow modified but not radically challenged.

To put it differently, an activist theology of advocacy can never be ambitious enough, as such a theology very easily misses the kairos that HIV/AIDS is.[10] As kairos, HIV/AIDS revealed the limits of our conceptions of the body, sexuality, and gender relations, as well as the social, political, and economic imbalances of our world. If HIV/AIDS exposes these limits of our established canons, then responding to the HIV/AIDS kairos calls for nothing short of dreaming radically new visions of human flourishing. Such a call finds ready resonance in Scripture, for dreaming of a radically new creation is what is at stake in the Bible. But this is what might easily be missed by an activist paradigm that tends to view the Bible as simply another formidable weapon in the struggle against AIDS that can be mined for usable insights and strategies in the struggle towards liberation and healing. No doubt the Bible contains many such insights, but these are secondary to the basic plot of Scripture, which is the story of a dream: God's dream for the world.

What the work of Dube (and other scholars like Itumelang Mosala and Gerald West) have helped us to see is that, as a written text, the Bible can easily legitimize or underwrite gender, imperialistic, and colonizing inequalities (thus the need for different hermeneutical skills, including post-colonial hermeneutics). Nonetheless, as a Christian, what I find most fascinating and refreshing are the ways in which the Bible's stories and narratives constantly thrust the reader back to the origins—Genesis—in order to reorient us toward a future to which everything is headed—Revelation. This future comes as a dream in which John, facing persecution and imprisoned on the island of Patmos, is nevertheless still able to see "a new heaven and a new earth coming down from heaven" (Rev 21:1).

With HIV/AIDS we face a similar situation of tribulation and "persecution." The challenge is whether, like the seer John, we are still able to dream of, and see signs of, "a new heaven and a new earth" in the wake of the dream-shattering reality of HIV/AIDS. To put it more succinctly, the biblical and theological challenge, even as it involves advocacy, has to do more with the recovery of dreams and visions. That is why a biblically inspired social engagement in the era of HIV/AIDS, rather than being grounded in an activist paradigm, needs to grow out of, and be deeply connected to, a biblically inspired discipline of lament. The reason for this has to do not only with the fact that the stubbornness to dream of God's new creation in the wake of AIDS involves the discipline of sustained memory, but also with the realization that dreaming is deeply engaged commitment that requires community. Recovering the biblical tradition of lament not only helps to maintain the balance between memory, community, and the search for a transformed future, it also provides a more promising starting point for Christian social engagement in the wake of AIDS.

Lament, Memory, and Community
Modern psychology has increasingly highlighted the need for grieving as a necessary step towards healing. Such accounts might lead us to think of lament as a process of grieving that an individual or family goes through in the journey towards recovery. In the biblical tradition, however, lament is not simply a process or a stage towards recovery. It is a posture, grounded in the memory of God's promises, that makes possible the dreaming of a new future. In this context, no biblical text comes more readily to my mind than Joel 2:28:

Then, I will pour out my spirit on all the people;
your sons and daughters will prophesy;
your old men will dream dreams,
and your young men will see visions

It is helpful to realize that the context and setting for this promise is not very different from ours. The prophet is responding to a similar catastrophe and destruction. In the sections preceding this particular passage, Joel uses different images to convey the plight: a nation has invaded my land (1:16); the fires have devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flames have burned all the trees (1:19); the fields are devastated (1:9) by locust and plague (1:4)

What is particularly significant is the manner in which Joel responds to the national tragedy and devastation, namely, by calling for a period of lament: "wake up you drunkards and weep" (1:4); "be dismayed your farmers, wail your vinedressers" (1:11); "put on sackcloth and lament you priests, wail you ministers of the altar" (1:13); "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning" (2:12).

We should also notice that in contrast to our modern, individual-centered notions of grieving, for Joel lament is not an individual cry of dereliction. It is first and foremost a communal practice. The context and setting for the practice of lament is within a particular assembly. Thus, twice Joel invites the priests to "sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly" (1:14) and "to gather the people, sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged, gather the children, even the infants at the breast" (2:16). In other words, the invitation to lament is at the same time a calling into existence of a distinctive community, an assembly—the kahal Yahweh.

Another striking difference with the modern understanding, where we tend to associate lament with the grieving process, is that for Joel lament is not so much an action, even less a process of grieving towards recovery. It is more a way of facing the present crisis—a posture of attentiveness, of recalling or remembering what Yahweh has done in the past on behalf of God's people. It is a practice of communal memory. Thus for Joel to call "a solemn assembly" is to invite the community to hear again the story—not only of their origin and their unfaithfulness, but also of God's constant love and constant promise of salvation, healing, and deliverance. In other words, it is an invitation to remember hope. Thus, calling the community to remember at this critical time of crisis is not to distract it away from the crisis and what needs to be done to avert the crisis, but to help it locate the crisis at hand within the wider story of God's relationship with God's people. Thus, in inviting the people to lament, Joel seeks to relocate the people's lives into the imaginative landscape of both God's dream of the old creation and the promise of a new creation.

It is the relocation into the imaginative landscape of God's story that then allows Joel to dream of—indeed, see—a hopeful future at the intersection of a remembered past and a painful present.

HIV/AIDS, Lament, Hope, and Visions from Beyond
One can draw a number of conclusions from this brief discussion of the book of Joel. One obvious conclusion is that the devastation of HIV/AIDS calls for a recovery of a substantiative notion and discipline of lament. In this connection, what the book of Joel helps us to highlight is the fact that lament is not a cry of despair, but an affirmation of hope. To engage a discipline of lament is to face the present with hope, a hope grounded in memory. Clifton Black is right when he notes: "The spine of lament is hope; not that vacuous optimism that 'things will get better,' which in the short run is usually a lie, but the deep and irrepressible conviction, in the teeth of present evidence, that God has not severed the umbilical cord that has always bound us to the Lord."[11]

What Joel also helps us to recover is the discipline of lament not as a socially detached attitude, but as a deep form of social engagement, indeed, a powerful political practice. As such, it calls into existence and shapes a new reality of church as a wounded community, which in its woundedness lives out visions of the beyond. A theology of AIDS has to draw attention to a new reality of church, a fresh imagination of ecclesia—ecclesial communities that are at once capable of lament and that are made possible through lament. In the struggle against HIV/AIDS the church is not simply another NGO; the Bible is not simply another tool in the quest for healing. What the bible constantly does is to draw us back to a memory of "in the beginning" in order to reorient us to a future beyond—all the while calling into existence new assemblies (communities, congregations) that already live in the present transformed by those visions of the beyond.

If, through the devastation wrought by HIV/AIDS, we are able to become such a community, then we would have begun to face the moment that AIDS is. This is where one might begin to see HIV/AIDS as a kairos, even as a gift (a strange gift to be sure)—through which God is shattering our social, political, economic, and individual dreams and forcing us to live out or, rather, reassembling us into, new and fresh ecclesial imaginations that are beyond East or West, African or Western, black or white, infected or not infected.

In The HIV and AIDS Bible, Musa Dube has already pointed out to us the urgent need for new theological and biblical paradigms to confront the reality of HIV/AIDS. In doing so, she has not only provided a model of African scholarship that is both intellectually lucid and socially engaged, she has also brought us to the threshold of radically fresh engagement with HIV/AIDS. The challenge now is how to move beyond the threshold into the nitty gritty of dreams and visions able to sustain Christian life in the wake of HIV/AIDS. Our exploration here has shown that getting there requires us to recover the practice and discipline of lament. What still needs to be done is to display how and what a biblically inspired practice of lament might look like in our time. What is, nonetheless, sufficiently clear is that the recovery of such practice is not only urgent, but allows for more explicit glimpses of the dreams and visions from beyond that are able to sustain Christian life and hope in the era of shattered dreams. At any rate, it is clear to me that any Christian social engagement that is at once biblically grounded, historically relevant, intellectually compelling, and existentially hopeful—more so in the wake of HIV/AIDS—must be shaped around the notion of lament.

Emmanuel Katongole, Duke University

[1] See, for example, Post-colonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (Atlanta: Chalice Press, 2000), Other Ways of Reading: African Women and the Bible (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), Grant Me Justice: HIV/AIDS and Gender Readings of the Bible (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005), John and the Postcolonialism. Travel, Space and Power (edited with Jeffrey Staley; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2002), and The Bible in Africa: Translations, Trajectories and Trends (edited with Gerald West; Leiden: Brill, 1999)

[2] In this role, she has edited such volumes as Other Ways of Reading: African Women and the Bible (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001) and contributed to numerous other publications by the Circle.

[3] HIV and AIDS Bible, 15.

[4] HIV and AIDS Bible, 15.

[5] Out of this work grew two key books: HIV/AIDS and the Curriculum: Methods of Integrating HIV/AIDS in Theological Programs (World Council of Churches, 2003), and Africa Praying: a Handbook of HIV/AIDS Sensitive Sermons and Liturgy (World Council of Churches, 2003).

[6] HIV and AIDS Bible, 5.

[7] HIV and AIDS Bible, 21.

[8] HIV and AIDS Bible, 5.

[9] HIV and AIDS Bible, 6.

[10] Here I use the term kairos in the sense that the South African Theologians used it in their famous Kairos Document of 1986. Referring to Apartheid as a Kairos, the theologians noted, "For many Christians in South Africa, this is the Kairos, the moment of grace and opportunity, the favourable time in which God issues a challenge to decisive action." Cited by Maluleke in 'The Challenge of HIV/AIDS for Theological Education," Missionalia 29/2 (2001) 129.

[11] See C. Black, "The Persistence of Wounds," in Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square (ed. Sally A Brown and Patrick D. Miller; Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 54.

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Citation: Emmanuel Katongole, " Embodied and Embodying Hermeneutics of Life in the Academy: Musa W. Dube's HIV/AIDS Work," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2006]. Online:


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