Then we reached for Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, by Esau McCaulley.
McCaulley has a good voice for reading, he does not waste words, yet somehow he manages to take time to explain. He speaks the truth in a firm, clear, and yet gracious way. He speaks from his own life and experience while also bringing to the table his roles as pastor and scholar.
The South Got Somethin’ To Say
The first chapter opens with McCaulley’s mother doing her best to raise her children in the gospel, as he puts it. Like all children, McCauley grew up in the culture and milieu of his neighborhood, of his family and school, of the people around him, the shows he watched, and the music he listened to.
He learned that evangelicalism in the United States shows a disdain for Black biblical interpretation.
“… [The] general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice.”Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 11
Later, he quotes Brian Blount, a New Testament scholar, in saying,
“Euro-American scholars, ministers, and lay folk … have, over the centuries, used their economic, academic, religious, and political dominance to create the illusion that the Bible read through their experience, is the Bible read correctly.”Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black, quoting Brian Blount, p. 20
To our impoverishment! Indeed, the South has much to say to us, and we will be enriched if we have ears to hear.
God has an ideal, yet so often, earthly models fall woefully short. We, as believers, have a commission to speak out against wrongs and injustice, and to do what has been placed within our power to foster reform. As McCaulley indicates, “submission and acquiescence are two different things” (p. 51). We are to patiently yet persistently act for a better way. Slavery was just such an issue, and every Black who was enslaved did well to not only seek their freedom, but to actively protest the evil imposed upon them.
McCauley mentions the ways Jesus demonstrated the active defense of the downtrodden and marginalized. The apostle Paul addressed slavery by encouraging enslaved people to seek their freedom, placing slave traders among those who acted “contrary to sound doctrine,” (1 Timothy 1:10), including freed slaves in his evangelism teams, and actively seeking for at least one enslaved man’s emancipation (Philemon).
“Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus.”Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 57
Isaiah is filled with messages about bearing the fruit of justice, for the poor, the destitute, the widow and orphan. Paul also spoke of the demonic forces behind the “present evil age,” such as the evil in slavery, in economic exploitation of the powerful over the powerless, and the economic, social, and political oppression we see even today.
Jesus spoke of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for the continuing desire and prayer that God would make things right. Therefore,
“… peacemaking cannot be separated from truth telling …
“Jesus does not say make peace between Christians, but make peace. He doesn’t say establish peace by making them Christians, but make peace. Why? Because peacemaking can be evangelistic. Through our efforts to bring peace we show the world the kind of King and Kingdom we represent.”Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 68, 69
Reading While Black
Every page speaks of the great value God has settled upon those whom God loves. The entire trajectory of the biblical narrative is God coming to the rescue of God’s beloved. Again and again, God has set God’s people free. In particular, the story of the Exodus resonates in the African American experience. God heard the people’s cry, burdened under cruel enslavement. God powerfully overwhelmed their oppressors, God raised them up to become a people, and God established them in lives of blessing.
It took centuries. But, as McCauley states, “a dream deferred is not a dream denied” (p. 84) Amen.
In this chapter we saw Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah as those who had this narrative as their shared history. They longed for Messiah who would bring justice and righteousness. World systems that oppose God’s reign, dehumanize people, privilege the wealthy and powerful, will be done away with.
In the next chapter, McCaulley reminds the reader of Joseph’s Egyptian wife, and their two mixed-race sons who were blessed by Jacob. Two of Israel’s twelve tribes were founded by men who were half Hebrew, half (very likely Black) Egyptian. What is more, there were many Egyptians and others who left with the Hebrew people on their trek across the wilderness (Exodus 12:38). The New Testament also includes named Black believers: the Ethiopian eunuch, Simon of Cyrene and his two sons Rufus and Alexander, and their mother who became as a mother to Paul. These are the multitudes God promised would be blessed through Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3)
What Shall We Do With This Rage?
One of the more important chapters for us begins with McCaulley’s first encounter with the ugliness of racist hate, when he was only a little boy of eight. It is a heart-wrenching tale.
Black children are taught strategies of survival that often come at the cost of their childhood or basic humanity.Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 120
For those of us who do not have to endure the constant onslaught of being made to be less-than, disdained, disadvantaged, distrusted, dishonored, this is a vital part of the book. Yes, strides have been made since the Martin Luther King days—who was assassinated for his largely peaceful protest movement. But racism persists in the United States, and abroad.
This is why, as McCaulley points out, such passages as Psalm 137 are so important, why they remain in the canon, though their content is deeply disturbing. As he says, “it is the duty of survivors to remember” (p. 125) so that better can come, and there will never be a return to the horrors of the past.
“Traumatized communities must be able to tell God the truth about what they feel ….
“The fact that Psalm 137 became a part of the biblical canon means that the suffering of the traumatized is a part of the permanent record ….
“Based on the example of Psalm 137, I contend that black Christians can and must articulate what has happened to us to God and to others as a part of the healing process ….”Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 126, 127
It is what God does with this suffering and rage that takes our breath away. From the implications of Philippians 2,
“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 Christian tradition says that the innocent ones suffered for us individually and corporately to bring us to God (Galatians 2:20, Romans 4:25) ….
“It is only by looking at our enemies through the lens of the cross that we can begin to imagine the forgiveness necessary for community ….”Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 130, 131
McCaulley follows the history of theological thought concerning slavery, citing one of the early church fathers as condemning the practice as early as the fourth century (p. 142). But, thinkers during the Age of “Enlightenment” deemed it necessary to have a class of drudges who would deal with the menial tasks of life to free the higher classes for the arts and sciences (p. 146)
An Exercise in Hope
The book concludes with thoughts on the dialogical nature of the Scriptures and the Spirit, stating,
“We have had to wrestle like Jacob until the text delivered its blessing ….
“The very process of engaging these scriptures and expecting an answer is an exercise in hope.”Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 165
I heartily recommend engaging with both the scriptures and the Spirit and this slim volume so packed with wisdom.