Reading While Black

‘I want to make a case that […] this unapologetically Black and orthodox reading of the Bible can speak a relevant word to Black Christians today. I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition – its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the work of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith – can be embodied by those who stand at the centre of this tradition. This is a work against the cynicism of some who doubt that the Bible has something to say; it is a work contending for hope.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p6

The Rev. Canon Dr. Esau McCaulley is a New Testament scholar and Anglican priest, and currently serves as assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. His book, Reading While Black is a fantastic introduction to Black ecclesial interpretation, and is an important read, whether for Black Christians who wonder how the Bible speaks to their experience and concerns, or for white Christians, like myself, who want to get better at hearing and conveying the ways in which Scripture speaks to people whose experience and perspective differs vastly to my own.

In the opening chapter, The South Got Somethin’ to say he defines ‘Black ecclesial interpretation’ by saying,

‘I have in mind Black scholars and pastors formed by the faith found in the foundation and ongoing doctrinal commitments, sermon, public witness, and ethos of the Black church.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p4-5

McCaulley’s aim is to chart a course between the two extremes of progressivism or fundamentalism. It will not do, he argues, to be cynical about the Bible; to say either that it needs drastic revision, or that it has nothing of relevance to say to Black Christians today. Instead, he writes,

‘I propose we adopt the posture of Jacob and refuse to let go of the text until it blesses us. Stated differently, we adopt a hermeneutic of trust in which we are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly it will bring a blessing and not a curse. This means that we do the hard work of reading the text closely, attending to historical context, grammar and structure.

My claim then is that Black biblical interpretation has been and can be

– Unapologetically canonical and theological

– Socially located, in that it clearly arises out of the particular context of Black Americans

– Willing to listen to the ways in which the Scriptures themselves respond to and redirect Black issues and concerns

– Willing to exercise patience with the text trusting that a careful and sympathetic reading of the text brings a blessing

– Willing to listen to and enter into dialogue with Black and white critiques of the Bible in the hopes of achieving a better reading of the text.

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p21

The model of interpretation he proposes, then, is one in which Black believers can bring their particular questions and experiences into conversation with the Bible, and find that it has plenty to say, which will affirm, challenge and encourage them. This is not reading into the text, but wrestling with the Bible genuinely to see how it speaks to questions and concerns that have often been lost or ignored in white western preaching and theology.     

Over the chapters that follow, he applies his hermeneutic to various key questions for Black Christians today, including policing, the pursuit of justice, Black identity, Black anger, and slavery. Each chapter could have been a book-length treatment! I won’t attempt to replicate his arguments – I encourage you to read the book for yourself – but I do want to mention a few personal highlights.

The second chapter, Freedom is no fear, is a great step into a New Testament theology of policing. I have read a decent amount on Christian ethics, but haven’t come across anything close to what this chapter offers. And it is particularly poignant, given how the last year has shone a light on issues of horrific police brutality and racial injustice.

He begins in Romans 13, a common starting passage for discussions about violence, submission, and the Christian’s relationship with the state. He points out that,

‘In Romans 13:3-4 it is the state’s attitude, not the soldier/officer as a vocation that stands at the centre of Paul’s concerns. Stated differently, Paul recognises that the state has a tremendous influence on how the soldier/officer treats its citizens. Thus, if there is to be a reform it must be structural and not merely individualistic. This is grounds in a democracy for a structural advocacy on behalf of the powerless.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p35

‘Paul recognises that the soldier’s attitude towards the people who reside in the city will in large part be determined by those who give the orders. The problem, if there is one, does not reside solely in those who bear the sword, but those who direct it. In other words, Paul does not focus on individual actions, but on power structures.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p39

If God ordains rulers and authorities, then we must grapple with the question of why He allows the existence of wicked rulers. Often when we are confronted with this question, we leap from Romans 13 to answers drawn from the cross, and eschatology. These are, of course, important places to go, but McCaulley first draws his answers from the internal logic of Paul’s letter.

He points out that Paul has already spoken about the destruction of Pharaoh in 9:17. This was the work of God, but enacted through Moses. So by the time we come to the submission passage in chapter 13, Paul has already discussed an example of someone who did not submit to the rulers of his day, which means that either Paul considered Moses sinful (!) or he has some qualification in mind when he speaks about submission to rulers.

He argues that,

‘Paul’s words about submission to governing authorities must be read in light of four realities: (1) Paul’s use of Pharaoh in Romans as an example of God removing authorities through human agents shows that his prohibition against resistance is not absolute; (2) the wider Old Testament testifies to God’s use of human agents to take down corrupt governments; (3) in light of the first two propositions, we can affirm that God is active through human beings even when we can’t discern the exact role we play; (4) therefore, Paul’s words should be seen as more of a limit on our discernment than on God’s activities.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p31

Consequently,

‘We are allowed to discern and even condemn evil like the prophets did. We are allowed to resist like the Hebrew midwives, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Nonetheless, we cannot claim divine sanction for the proper timing and method of solving the problems we discern. Again, this does not place limits on our ability as Christians to call evil by its name, but it does obligate us to be willing to suffer the consequences of living in a fallen world. We recognise that the state has been given its responsibilities. We are not anarchists, but we do recognise that the state is in fact under God. The state has duties, and we can hold them accountable even if it means that we suffer for doing so peacefully.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p33

This leaves open the question of what effective peaceful resistance should look like in our day, and I’m eager to learn more about that. But I found his vision for a Christian theology of policing compelling:

‘We can create a society where those who are suspected of breaking the law are treated as image bearers worthy of respect. A Christian theology of policing, then, must grow out of a Christian theology of persons. This Christian theology of policing must remember that the state is only a steward or caretaker of persons. It did not create them and it does not own or define them. God is our creator, and he will have a word for those who attempt to mar the image of God in any person. We are being the Christians God called us to be when we remind the state of the limits of its power.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p40

Moving on from Romans, Dr. McCaulley looks at the gospels, focussing first on John the Baptist’s words in Luke 3:14, and then the experience of Christ himself, who bore the weight of false accusations and abuse at the hands of those who dehumanised him. He writes,  

‘The story of Jesus’ crucifixion contains the paradigmatic false accusation. When John’s Gospel recounts Pilate’s unintentionally profound words, “Behold the man” it speaks to Jesus as the one true human who came to restore us all. At the same time, John makes it clear that even as an innocent person condemned to die Jesus is in fact a person. This is the Black claim on the conscience of those who police us. See us as persons worthy of respect in every instance. Jesus’ treatment by the soldiers strikes us as egregious because he was innocent of the charges (Matt 27:27-30) but do the guilty deserve beatings and mockery? Matthew 27:27-30 speaks to how a corrupt system can distort the souls of those charged with functioning in a broken system. John calls on those in that system to rise above the temptation to dehumanize and act with integrity.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p44

Chapters 3 and 4 look at the political witness of the early church, and the pursuit of justice, and both were full of great insights. I particularly appreciated how McCaulley demonstrated the limitations of political theologies based solely in Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2, which leave Christians with the only duties of submitting to the state, paying taxes and praying for societal leaders. These duties aren’t wrong, but they are not the full witness of the church. And as he shows, with reference to 1 Timothy 1 and 2,

‘In the passage immediately preceding Paul’s call to pray for leaders he critiques an established practice of the empire as wicked and indicative of ungodly behaviour. Prayer for leaders and criticism of their practices are not mutually exclusive ideas. Both have biblical warrant in the same letter.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p53

I appreciated the discussion of the ‘present evil age’ in Galatians, in which he argued that the Messiah rescues us from spiritual powers, who are also said elsewhere in Paul’s writing to hold sway over earthly leaders and rulers. We misunderstand Paul when we either underinterpret the ‘present evil age’, seeing it only as a spiritual enslavement, or overinterpret it, assuming it is the church’s job to establish the Kingdom in full here and now.

Chapter 5, Black and Proud: The Bible and Black Identity dismantled the misconception that Christianity is a white European religion, and showed how Black people are right at the heart of the Biblical story.  

The section on Jacob, Ephraim and Manasseh in Genesis 48 was outstanding, and one of my highlights of the whole book. McCaulley writes,

‘Meeting these two half-Egyptian, half-Jewish boys causes Jacob to recall the promise of God made to him many years prior… Jacob sees the Brown flesh and African origin of these boys as the beginning of God’s fulfilment of his promise to make Jacob a community of different nations and ethnicities, and for that reason he claims these two boys as his own. These two boys become two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Egypt and Africa are not outside of God’s people; African blood flows into Israel from the beginning as a fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

As it relates to the twelve tribes, then, there was never a biologically “pure” Israel. Israel was always multiethnic and multinational. As a Black man, when I look to the biblical story, I do not see a story of someone else in which I find my place only by some feat of imagination. Instead God’s purposes include me as an irreplaceable feature along with my African ancestors. We are the first of those joined to Abraham’s family in anticipation of the rest of the nations of the earth.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p101-102

Similarly, his unpacking of the stories of Simon of Cyrene and the Ethiopian eunuch demonstrate that Black Christians are present at, and a core part of, the Christian story at its most defining moments – the cross and the formation of the church.

Reflecting on the whole witness of Scripture, the nature of the church, and the eschatological vision of Revelation, he writes:

‘God’s vision for his people is not for the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness. Instead God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfulfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated, not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p106-107

On the great multitude of Revelation 7, he writes,

‘John mentions four aspects of this multitude. It includes people from every nation, tribe, people, and language. Each in its own way highlights diversity. These distinct peoples, cultures, and languages are eschatological, everlasting. At the end, we do not find the elimination of difference. Instead the very diversity of cultures is a manifestation of God’s glory.

God’s eschatological vision for the reconciliation of all things in his Son requires my blackness and my neighbour’s Latina identity to endure forever. Colorblindness is sub-biblical and falls short of the glory of God. What is it that unites this diversity? It is not cultural assimilation, but the fact that we worship the Lamb. This means that the gifts that our cultures have are not ends in themselves. Our distinctive cultures represent the means by which we give honor to God. He is honored through the diversity of tongues singing the same song. Therefore inasmuch as I modulate my blackness or neglect my culture, I am placing limits on the gifts that God has given me to offer to his church and kingdom. The vision of the kingdom is incomplete without Black and Brown persons worshipping alongside white persons as part of one kingdom under the rule of one king.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p116

Yes and Amen!

Chapter 6, What shall we do with this rage? The Bible and black anger, was an uncomfortable chapter to read. And appropriately so. As a privileged, white male, who has experienced little if any discrimination in my life, I often find myself shocked and turned off by the imprecatory Psalms (e.g. Psalm 109, or 137). I find the vengeful language hard to stomach, and I have difficulty in relating to the level of anger expressed in them. I can be tempted to consider their inclusion in the canon to be somewhere between awkward and irresponsible!

That I can feel that way towards such Psalms is a sign of my privilege. My squeamishness is largely due to the fact that I have never experienced anything comparable to the exiles in Babylon, who were enslaved, abused, and treated horrendously. And as Dr. McCaulley shows, such Psalms can be a brilliant tool for processing Black grief and anger. Not as the end of the process, but the beginning, understanding how these psalms fit within the story of Scripture, and Christ’s plan to overcome the present evil age, and establish justice.

He offers four points for reflection,

  1. Israel’s pain and anger as recorded in the prophets and the psalter provide a means of processing Black grief
  2. The prophets warn that the ever-spiralling cycle of violence is a dead end.
  3. The cross functions as the end of the cycle of vengeance and death and the cross is the place where God enters into our pain.
  4. The central biblical themes of the resurrection, ascension, and the final judgment are necessary in any account of Black anger and pain.

Rather than seeing the inclusion of these Psalms in the pages of Scripture as problematic, we should consider it an act of God’s kindness to us. God permitted these prayers to be canonised for the good of those who experience oppression and injustice, but He didn’t answer them in the way the Psalmist prayed them. Instead, He entered into the pain of the Psalmist, allowing the violence to be directed towards Himself at the cross.  

‘On this side of the passion and resurrection, Black anger and pain is answered personally, by the truly human one. We have found solace in the fact that God responds to Black suffering with a profound act of identification with our suffering…. What is God’s first answer to Black suffering (and the wider human suffering and the rage that comes alongside it)? It is to enter that suffering alongside us as a friend and a redeemer. The answer to Black rage is the calming words of the Word made flesh. The incarnation that comes all the way down, even unto death, has been enough for us to say yes, God, we trust you.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p130

I love this way of expressing it, even though in practice I suspect that the process of being ‘calmed by the words of the Word made flesh’ is a painful and complicated journey to walk through. It helped me to better appreciate the anger and pain that many of my friends have experienced and expressed particularly through the events of the past year. I certainly want to consider that further, and talk with friends about their experience of processing their anger, and how both I and the church help or hinder them.

Dr. McCaulley writes,

‘There are times when I look at the present and the historic suffering of my people and I feel closer to Psalm 137 than Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them”). That is fine because I am not yet fully formed into the likeness of Christ, and Psalm 137 is part of the canon for a reason. This side of the second coming there will continue to be Babylons. As long as there is a Babylon, the oppressed will weep beside its willows.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p133

I have a lot to learn, if I am to be better equipped to weep alongside my weeping brothers and sisters.

Chapter 7 address the problem of slavery in Scripture. McCaulley writes,

‘On the first read, the Bible does not appear to say all that we want it to say in the way that we want the Bible to say it. And yet this is the crucial part: the Bible says more than enough.

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p139

Reading through both the Old and New Testaments, he demonstrates that the enslavement of human beings – image bearers – was never the intention of God.

‘The Old Testament and later the New Testament create an imaginative world in which slavery becomes more and more untenable. Stated differently, God created a people who could theologically deconstruct slavery.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p142

He draws out specific points of hope from the Old Testament slavery texts, including the practice of manumitting Hebrew slaves, specific rules around the mistreatment of slaves, and the provision of sanctuary within Israel for runaway slaves. These laws for the protection of slaves were without precedent either in the Ancient Near East, or the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ day. There are two major implications from this. Firstly, Israel should in theory stand out as a nation where enslaved persons could find freedom and safety. And secondly, when texts like Isaiah 2:3 speak of the nations following the Torah of God,

‘If we take that passage seriously, if the nations were supposed to adopt the Torah, that would in effect eliminate permanent slavery (due to the six-year manumission law) in all those nations and create an ever-expanding place of refuge for enslaved people.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p148

The second half of the chapter explores some of the key passages in the New Testament, in particular 1 Timothy 6 and the letter to Philemon. Taking the witness of both the Old and New Testaments together, we see that Scripture contains the very tools needed to deconstruct the practice of slavery entirely, and that the ‘Christian’ defence of slavery from the pages of the Bible is an abomination, and runs against the very purposes and plans of God. It is a tragedy that it took so long for the church to understand and act upon this.

The books ends where it began, with an appeal to approach Scripture with a hermeneutic of trust, and an expectation of finding hopeful answers. Dr. McCaulley writes,

‘The very process of engaging these Scriptures and expecting an answer is an exercise in hope. It is an act of faith that has carried Black people through unimaginable despair toward a bright future. The Bible has been a source of comfort, but it has also been more. It has inspired action to transform circumstances. It has liberated Black bodies and souls.’

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley, p166

I found this book to be hopeful and illuminating, and I trust it will help me to be a better reader of Scripture. I hope too that it will pave the way for more Black theological voices to gain a wider hearing within the church at large, so that we may all benefit and

‘grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ’

(Ephesians 4:15)

Purchase Reading While Black by Dr. Esau McCaulley.

You may also enjoy this interview with The Bible Project and also McCaulley’s podcast The Disrupters. You can follow him on Twitter at @esaumccaulley

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