Authority, Scripture, and Social Location
Over the last couple of years, I’ve described The Book of Mormon For the Least of These to lots of people. “It’s basically a social justice readers guide to the Book of Mormon,” I say. “It helps readers understand messages of racism, sexism, socioeconomic inequality, and immigration within the Book of Mormon.” By far the most common reaction from non-Mormons is polite confusion. They stare at me, likely wondering where to begin for a follow-up question. Most Mormons are interested but also confused. They don’t know what to do with a project like this. I’m fine with the bafflement–I am, after all, the editor of a Mormon feminist magazine and I tell people exactly that when asked what kind of work I do. I’m used to the puzzled looks. But there is one reaction that actually hurts and it’s happened more than a couple times now:
“What gives you the authority to speak on these issues?”
Authority is deeply written into the Mormon psyche. We look to an external authority for guidance in everything from how many children to have to what clothes to wear. As a woman, I have rarely felt I had real authority at church, although as a white, married woman with children, I have lots of privilege. The gendered nature of authority affects our community in a multitude of ways, including how we interpret scripture: just last month, I watched a number of “Must Read Lists for Book of Mormon Scripture Study” roll out on Mormon blogs. Few, if any, of those books were written by women. Few, if any, were written by people of color.
Miguel De La Torre has written brilliantly about what happens when only people with socially-sanctioned authority get to interpret scripture:
“The interpretation of scripture can never occur apart from the identity of the one doing the interpreting. Many of us have been taught to read the Bible through the eyes of those in power, specifically through the eyes of white middle- and upper-class males. When the Bible is read from the social location of those whom society privileges, the risk exists that interpretations designed to protect their power and privilege are subconsciously or consciously constructed. Those who are the authority of society impose their views upon the text and confuse what they declare the Bible to say with what the text actually states. To counter this, autobiographical interpretations from the margins of society challenge the claim by the dominant culture that its interpretation of the text is objective and thus superior to any other reading.”
When someone asks me what authority I have, I could answer in the socially acceptable way: Fatimah and I have three graduate degrees and many years of writing and editing on issues of Mormonism between us. Fatimah is an ordained pastor, for goodness sake. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from this project, it’s that God works to upend our ideas of who has the authority and right to speak of the divine. The younger brother got the birthright. The righteous family had to flee Jerusalem and become refugees. Jesus spoke primarily to people on the margins of his society.
So I answer the question in a different way: we claim the authority we have as women. We claim the authority that comes from working in tiny cracks of time, with seven children between us and no research assistants. We claim the authority of living a lifetime in bodies that, when we speak with confidence, are asked to not be so aggressive or strident. Fatimah speaks from the authority of being a woman of color. We do not apologize for that kind of authority, because scriptural interpretations do not exist independent from the author’s social location. And I deeply believe that what our Church needs is to recognize the authority that comes from the margins. If we don’t, we will continue to miss some of the most important messages our holy texts have to offer. As De La Torre writes, if people from the same social location are always the authority on the meaning of scripture, then we will consistently end up with the same interpretations of scripture.
“Some scholars would maintain that such readings from the margins, often based on personal experiences, are unscholarly, yet those who are disenfranchized consistently employ such a strategy because it allows their marginalized voices to take center stage. Today it should be recognized that little difference really exists between the private and public voice of the biblical interpreter because all interpretations are either directly or indirectly influenced by one’s identity and social location.” (2)
More than anything else, Fatimah and I hope that The Book of Mormon for the Least of These will empower readers to engage in their own journey of scriptural interpretation, one that works for you and with you. Part of the power of sinking into scripture is that we get to let the text call to us, speak into our lives, and inspire us to be brave in our discipleship. We hope this work emboldens readers to reach for a God that calls all of us to see the oppressed and engage in the work of liberation.
The Book of Mormon for the Least of These is available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1948218232?pf_rd_p=ab873d20-a0ca-439b-ac45-cd78f07a84d8&pf_rd_r=VW7DQCZN6HHN34G00MPK.
- Miguel A. De La Torre. Reading the Bible from the Margins. New York: Orbis Books (2002) p.3.
- Ibid, p. 171.