Reading as Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope

Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2020), 198 pages including a discussion guide, bibliography, scriptural index and index.

McCaulley provides an interesting insight into the struggles facing African American theologians today. Coming from an evangelical tradition, he quickly notes the failure of evangelicalism for those of his race. He acknowledges that most black churches accept the four pillars of evangelicalism (a born-again experience, missionary efforts, high regard for Scripture, and emphasis on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus). But, he notes, there are two unwritten pillars among most evangelicals. One is to downplay injustices of the American past. The other is to remain silent on issues of racism and systemic injustice. (10-11)

He also has a problem with progressive Christianity. He sees this movement “weaponizing” African American theologians to support their own positions. Both sides, he believes, “tokenize” Black theologians. He criticizes the evangelical movement use of black evangelical theologians to attack black progressives. While disingenuous, it keeps the evangelical movement from being labeled as racist.

McCaulley argues for an authentic African American theological voice that takes Scripture seriously while addressing the need of community. Citing examples, he notes how slaves first heard the gospel tempered and misused. They were encouraged to be happy with their lot in life. But instead, the Bible’s overarching story of a God who frees people couldn’t be tempered. From this background, African Americans developed their own churches and theological traditions.

McCaulley focuses on the teachings of Paul. Some may suggest that Paul never challenged the slave culture that existed in his time. However, McCaulley cites many places where Paul does challenge the culture even though he (or the early church) was in no position to change it. McCaulley also draws heavily on the Old Testament, especially laws concerning slavery, and the Exodus.

Five of the chapters of the book lay out ideas for a more comprehensive African American theology. One is a theology of policing. McCaulley admits the need for policing but also for it to be done in a manner that supports and not destroy the community. He tells his own story of being stopped by police in high school. He and his friends were forced out of his car and searched for no reason. Such experience is truer for those in his community than in mine. In this chapter, especially as he deals with Romans 13, he balances the way his community and the police need to deal with the fear they both feel for the other.

In another chapter, he looks at how the New Testament supports the need for protests. Blacks are not just to be submissive. They need to work for a vision that is set in the Exodus and Prophetic traditions of the Old Testament and taught by Jesus (and Paul). This is followed up with a chapter on justice.

In a chapter that critiques of many in the African American community who have abandon Christianity (seeing it as a white/European religion), McCaulley makes the case for an African American witness in Scripture. Such tradition continued in the early church which found a stronghold on the African continent. Then, in a final chapter focusing on the need of his community, he explores rage and what should be done with it.

McCaulley finds solace in Scripture. Like his ancestors, he senses that God is on the side of the oppressed. God’s desire is for freedom (real slavery as well as bondage to sin). This is the hope his community needs to move forward. It is the author’s hope that other members of his community will step up as they offer their witness to hope of the gospel. Such a witness doesn’t have to depend on white interpretations but can draw from Scripture and the experiences of his race.

This is a book that needs to be read. I image it will be helpful for those within the African American community. However, even those of us who are of others races should read it to better understand the rage felt by African Americans. Perhaps we can catch a part of their vision of a theology that encompasses all of us.

20 thoughts on “Reading as Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope”

  1. I had a African-American friend at one of my previous jobs and we got comfortable enough with each other to talk about race and religion. He was Christian but had a problem with the concept of forgiveness and how white society–mainly here in the South had never fully accepted blacks as equals. I easily saw his point, I’ve heard countless white folks say something to the effect that blacks should get over slavery and move on. They also stated that racism was dead.

    My friend’s view was that they could never just get over slavery. He had a quiet rage about the injustices his community still faced but that whites couldn’t conceive. And frankly being that these conversation took place in the 2000-2003 time frame I was ignorant as well. My general assumption at that time was that race relations here in America were peachy-keen.

    My friend didn’t exactly have a problem with forgiveness. But thought what would have to come first were whites accepting that their ancestors owning fellow humans and later oppression after the Civil War was wrong.

    Sorry for the long comment. Hopefully it made some sense.

  2. Researching antebellum times for a novel set right before the Civil War was both fascinating and horrifying. Of course I knew a bit about slavery from school, but there was so much more never covered.
    Enjoy the mountains. My parents live in the mountains of N.C. and I love visiting, enjoying the scenery, and all the wonderful places to hike.

    • Thanks, we are enjoying the mountains (and I can often look down on NC and see Pilot Mountain). Slavery was a horrible thing, made worse by some within the church who tried to defend it.

  3. What an interesting review. I didn’t know about the four pillars of evangelism–thought it was something completely different, nor the two not mentioned. I love passionate belief and passion in general so evangelism appeals but I fail pretty much every pillar. Sigh.

    • I made a mistake. That was the four pillars of evangelicalism (I’ve just corrected it). This would be the movement that gets discussed so much in American politics these days. Personally, I think all Christians are called to evangelism, but the movement has been corrupted. It used to be that to be evangelicalism was to be Protestant, but that ship has long sailed.

  4. Jeff, you’ve written a balanced, penetrating review of an amazingly nuanced book. I’m currently working through it along with Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise. McCauley is much more personal and engaging. No finger wagging or hectoring. Sadly, Tisby hectors the white evangelical reader, his target reader, for three hundred pages with citations of how the church has failed the black community. He’s right, of course, but to keep a reader engaged an author needs to lighten up, from time to time, crack a joke or use a striking image. Tisby is dour and defiant.

    I have a suspicion these current black theologians (excluding the NYTimes best sellers such as How to be an Anti Racist and White Fragility) are slowly working their way towards a revelation: peace of mind will come to them only when they finally forgive. This may be a hard road, but if our Lord told us anything with clarity and conviction it’s this: forgive those who persecute you, forgive those who hurt you. How many times? Seventy times seven–which tells you the truth. It may be the hardest thing you will ever do and it’s an act of the will, not the heart.

    I’m so bummed out that you were moved to the mountains! You were such a bright light in our community. God bless and happy camping!
    Blessings,
    Lance Levens

    • I have not read Tisby (and at present don’t plan to). However, I highly recommend James Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” which I reviewed back in the summer.

      I am going to miss everyone in Savannah. This is an intentional “slow down” move and I hope to be able to do more writing here. But I will miss having writing groups and all the literary events that Savannah is known for. However, since leaving, I have participated in a few workshops and poetry readings from the Pat Conroy Center in Beaufort, SC. They’ve moved almost everything online!

      I hope our paths cross again. Let me know when you have a new book published!

  5. Nothing to do with your post, but I just wanted to say what a fabulous photograph your header is.
    Take care.

    All the best Jan

    • This anger is not widespread within the African American community, but I think it has led to the rise of the Black Muslim movement. At the same time, most African Americans realize that it was their churches that were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement.

  6. First of all, I’d like to thank you for your visit to my blog and for your great comment. I really appreciate it.😊😊
    Gosh, your post is a real eye opener for me. I honestly hadn’t realised that there could be any difference in how black and white people are treated within a religion. Surely, that isn’t what religion is about? I’m no expert, but I have always believed that religion is about loving our fellow man, no matter how different his outer appearance may be to our own. We are all the same inside. We are all equal in the eyes of God…
    Many thanks for this. I have learned a great deal here today.

    • While this isn’t what religion is about, it has too often been used as Karl Marx described as “the opiate of the people.” Certainly, talking to slaves about obeying masters while ignoring other teachings of the church falls into Marx’s critique. The amazing thing, to me, is that the message still gets out.

      I would contend that all religion is learned and interpreted through a cultural experience. Fundamentalists (whether Christian or Islamic or other faiths) might disagree, but we attempt to make sense of Scripture (and Holy documents) through our experiences in life. As a Christian, I believe the Holy Spirit helps us in this endeavor, which is why the slave owners attempts at controlling slaves with religion failed. God’s word has a way to get through the clutter and speaking to a situation.

    • Thank you. Too often, I’m afraid, those of us within the human race have tried to use religion to support our own desires and prejudices instead of it helping us to be better people.

  7. Like the first visitor, I’d never given any thought to the black experience with Christianity and how it would be so different from that of the white. Of course, it makes sense that there would be a difference in a country with a history of slavery and conflicting messages–those from the Bible and those from the slave owners and the state.

    What I always found interesting was how Jesus was depicted. I’ve been in the Middle East, and people there do not have blond hair and blue eyes. I’m curious as to where Jesus stopped looking like the people from Galilee and started looking like a European?

    • While I’m no art historian, I’ve always assumed that as art began to develop in Europe, we started having Jesus look more European. Another interesting theme is the depicting of Jesus in pictures when he is also seen as God and you have strong prohibition against such imagery in the first two commandments. I’ll stick to trying to describe him with words!

  8. This sounds like an interesting look into a topic I’ve never really thought about much. As you know, I’m an Episcopalian and Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, is a Black man. He has stated that his descendants were slaves and share-croppers and that his parents converted to the Episcopal Church (from Baptist) when they were allowed to drink from the same chalice as whites in racially segregated Ohio. (see his Wiki page)

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