Review: Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (In)justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation. By Mitzi J. Smith

[1] Scriptures and their interpretations are highly influential in forming the norms of a culture. The act of scriptural interpretation has long fallen into the hands of those who hold positions of privilege and power, yielding readings that either affirm the status quo or further benefit the privileged sectors of society. Those who are less privileged have often been taught to embrace scripture in silence and to adopt a lens that accepts injustice and denies their own personal experiences and perspectives.

[2] In Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation, Mitzi J. Smith challenges such biblical interpretations, arguing that they ignore both the suffering of the people and the injustices that cause the suffering.  She warns of the danger in readings that disregard the voices of people living on the margins. A womanist biblical scholar, Smith addresses texts and contexts where women find empowerment in claiming their voices. She uses the terms “womanist sass” and “talk back” to accentuate the correlation between voice and empowerment.

[3] Mitzi J. Smith is Professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary in Detroit. She is author of The Literary Construction of the Other in the Acts of the Apostles: Charismatics, the Jews, and Women (Pickwick 2011), and coeditor of Teaching All Nations: Interrogating the Matthean Great Commission (2014).  In Womanist Sass, Smith unfolds a two-way critique that, on the one hand, confronts unjust interpretations of sacred texts, and on the other, rejects certain scriptural texts as unsalvagably oppressive. She does all of this through the prism of intersecting forces of oppression. Focusing on issues of injustice that affect African American communities, the chapters engage critically with biblical texts relevant to contemporary contexts of racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism.

[4] Smith emphasizes the importance of the reader’s personal experience in the act of critical interpretation of sacred texts. She lifts up the collective knowledge and experiences of African American communities and women of color as critical resources for womanist hermeneutics.

[5] Responding to issues of injustice that are very much alive today, Smith organizes her book around case studies that speak to specific instances of police brutality, racial stereotyping, and sexual violence. She also addresses the broader unjust systems and structures as well as oppressive hermeneutical interpretations of biblical texts that support such injustices.  For example, in chapter 2, Smith reads Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) alongside the water crisis in Flint. Jesus’ offer of the eternal water of life speaks not only to a spiritual concern, but to the physical necessity of water for abundant life.

[6] In chapter 3, Smith addresses the “Race, Gender and Politics of ‘Sass'” by reading the story of Syrophoenician woman in Mark through the contextual lens of the tragic Sandra Bland story, a pivotal moment in the Black Lives Matter movement and its witness to the mistreatment of black people by white police.  Smith affirms Bland’s courageous “talk back” as powerful language of resistance. Chapter 4 offers liberative pedagogies by placing autobiographical narrative next to the stories of the Ethiopian Eunuch and of Alexandrian Jewish man Apollos (both in Acts of Apostles).

[7] Chapter 5 reads the parable of the virgins through an inter(con)textual perspective of slave testimonies and problematic master-slave ideologies. In Chapter 6, Smith examines 2 Kings 2: 23-25 through the lens of racial stereotyping and police bias against African American males, using the politics of group positioning. In Chapter 7, Smith chooses the Apocryphal text of Susanna as she focuses her lens on violence against women of color,

[8] Throughout the book, justice is the central hermeneutical key for Smith’s interpretive mission. As she interprets and rereads the scriptures within contemporary contexts, her uncompromising focus is on divine justice. Smith’s hermeneutical approach calls for a praxis in which we not only read the texts with a lens toward divine justice, but respond with action, reconciliation and transformation.

[9] She affirms breaking silence as a language of resistance, an act of resistance. Smith claims that writing this book has been a therapeutic, if not cathartic, act of self care. Reading this book can be as well. As a feminist biblical scholar with multiple identities and cross-cultural experiences shaping my own life, I appreciated the way Smith laid out the ways that power and privilege play out differently at different intersections of race, class and gender. She brings to life the interplay between text and context in a way that engages the reader even if the reader has no experience with that context. While Womanist Sass is academic in its approach, the readership need not be limited to scholars and seminary students. Smith’s writing style is clear and the book’s format is easy to follow, so this book can be helpful for college students and people in the pews who are eager to read and interpret biblical texts from various perspectives.


Rev. Dr. Surekha Nelavala serves as pastor at two mission sites of DE-MD Synod: Global Peace Lutheran Fellowship and Beloved Community — A Multicultural Congregation.  She has a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Drew University, has authored two books, and has taught in Lutheran seminaries in India and the United States.

Surekha Nelavala

Surekha Nelavala is a Rostered leader of DE-MD Synod, ELCA, serving at Global Peace Lutheran Fellowship, a mission site and at Harmony Community Lutheran Church.