Last week, we published the first part of our interview with Kelley Nikondeha, author of CBE’s summer book club pick, Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom. We continue the conversation today and hear more about mutuality, freedom, and how readers have responded to Defiant so far.
ERV: In the first chapter of the book, you begin with a vision of mutuality that resonates strongly with us and our mission at CBE. Throughout the book, we can see women and men working together, but you focus on the stories of women as the “key to transformation.” What led you to make that choice? What do you think the Exodus women might have to teach us about “biblical manhood,” so to speak, or how women and men can work together better to bring freedom?
KN: If I heard of liberation work much in my youth, the stories always centered men as the liberators. What cracked open my imagination as I returned to Exodus was the work of the women, especially how the narrator centered them in the initial stages of the liberation narrative. Before God decides to directly act (Exod. 2:24), the twelve women had already saved Moses and eroded the empire with their defiance, unorthodox partnerships, neighborliness, and solidarity. Watching the women of Exodus practice liberation made me realize that their participation was vital for collective freedom.
Moses owed his life to the women who saved him from the watery grave of the Nile River, to the one who adopted him and parented him. Many other boys and men were similarly kept alive and nursed to health by brave women. Moses most likely learned liberation from these women, experiencing their handiwork from infancy to adulthood. I imagine the sisters of Midian modeled solidarity for him, when he found none among the Hebrew men in the brickyards. He owed life and life lessons to the twelve women—and this is what I hope for our brothers now, to recognize the contributions of women to their lives. I hope men will see women as their coworkers in liberation, ones they can count on and learn from as we enter the movement together.
The narrator of Exodus begins the story by naming the twelve sons of Jacob, the leadership structure of the clan. But then he goes on to speak of the twelve women who practiced liberation in a variety of ways—another structure of leadership at work. Eventually we see the men at work in the story, toe to toe with Pharaoh amid the ten plagues. But men and women, joined together in neighborliness, plunder Egypt. Two brothers and their sister, Miriam, led together across the Red Sea. It seems clear to me that both structures must work tongue and groove to enact freedom. We only get free together, men and women as collaborators in liberation.
ERV: One semi-personal question: Your book brought me to tears multiple times, which is not the norm for me, and I can imagine your book will also move CBE’s readers. What was the last book you read that made you cry?
KN: I cried when I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and the final chapter of Mujerista Theology by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz (as I explain in Defiant). But most recently, I cried when I read through Nobody Cries When We Die: God, Community, and Surviving to Adulthood by Patrick B. Reyes. His story of survival, vocation, and education challenged me to see my privilege in a new light and better understand my husband’s vocational journey. Thinkers who offer us needed language give us the best gifts, even if it means tear-stained pages.
ERV: Your book has been out in the world for several months now. How have readers responded?
KN: Defiant entered the world within a week of the pandemic announcement in the US, so the restrictions due to COVID-19 presented new challenges for the fledgling book. However, one of the gifts has been the ability to find other ways to connect with readers, and I’ve been delighted to Zoom into more than a dozen book groups to discuss Defiant. The response has been so encouraging, most people connecting with the Exodus women and finding a fresh challenge in the work of theological imagination I employ.
More recently, I heard readers report that that they finished Defiant amid the protests. One woman said that she supported Black Lives Matter back in the early days of Ferguson but quietly. She was unsure of how to embody her support and what might be acceptable according to the church. Then, she read Defiant with her book group. By the time people began protesting in her hometown in Texas last month, she felt empowered to join them on the streets as her expression of faithfulness to the God who sees the pain in Black communities and who is Liberator for us all. Another woman said that she read Defiant during the first week of protests in Minneapolis, and it gave her language for what she watched on the nightly news, helping her to understand the pain in her community and reflect on her social location and possible complicity in unjust structures. More than one woman spoke of the particular challenge of Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah, who wrestled with her own precarious kind of privilege. Under her father’s roof she was sometimes protected from hard truths, but also paralyzed to act when she saw injustice. This resonated with many white women who similarly find themselves in the courts of Pharaoh and needing to join Bithiah in some deep soul searching about where they stand and what they are willing to do.
A surprise has been how men have responded to Defiant. In conversations in Zoom groups and on podcast interviews, men have been learning from the women of Exodus right in stride with the women. They embrace the example of these women and share in the self-examination required for days like these. I thought men might see this biblical exploration as only relevant for women in the church, but I am glad to see that most understand the invitation is for them as well. We’ve shared in robust conversations about what liberations demands of us all. These conversations are a sign that mutuality is growing strong in the church, and this gives me hope for all our future collaborations.
Image adapted from photo by Perfecto Capucine on Unsplash