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.