African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
Book Author: Rev. Esau McCaulley
Dr. RL Booker's Ratings
WRITING STYLE: 4/5
DID IT MOVE ME?: 5/5
(Rating: 5 highest & 1 lowest)
“It is difficult for the African American believer to look deeply into the history of Christianity and not be profoundly shaken...I too am frustrated with the way that Scripture has been used to justify the continual assault on Black bodies and souls."
As an exercise in hope, Dr. Esau McCaulley explores if God has something to say about the trauma, pain, hurt, and struggle that many Black folks have endured for centuries. I do want to say that I am in no way summarizing his entire book, which is extensive and detailed. I am only lifting up a few key highlights that stood out to me in the hopes that you will read the book in its entirety. Dr. McCaulley specifically wrote this book as a way to help Black Christians explore the origins of their faith and to see the bible through a lens of the Black experience. He sought to answer a number of questions. Four of the questions that really resonated with me are as follows:
Does the Bible provide us with the warrant to protest injustice when we encounter it?
What about slavery? Did the God of the Bible sanction what happened to us?
Does the Bible have a word to say about the creation of a just society in which Black people can flourish free of oppression?
Does the Bible speak to the issue of policing—that constant source of fear in the Black community?
I won't be addressing all of these points in this book review, which is more of a reason for you to read the book. Nonetheless, I will talk about the first two.
Protesting Injustice When We Encounter It
In Chapter 3, Dr. McCaulley explores the question, does the Bible provide us with the warrant to protest injustice when we encounter it? He draws upon the words of Black leaders who fought for full and equal citizenship in their day. He explains that during the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was so disappointed in white church leaders that he was inspired to pen his 1963 letter from a Birmingham jail where he stated:
I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders... I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
Dr. King was making it very clear that the majority of white leaders who claimed to be preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ were not just silent on the issue of justice, but intentional adversaries when it came to justice for Black folks. He further leans into the words of Fredrick Douglas who wrote What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?, which was written in 1852, thirteen years before Blacks were freed via the 13th Amendment. Douglas argued that "this country could make no claim to any form of greatness until she faced what she has done to Black and Brown bodies.” Dr. McCaulley sought to answer whether or not the bible supported Douglas' and Dr. King's assertions and if we should protest injustice when we encounter it. To answer this he leans into the political witness of the church in response to the oppressive tendencies of the state. He gives a harsh critique of what he calls "popular political theologies" which constantly tell us that we should:
Submit to the state (political leaders)
Pay your taxes
Pray for those in leadership
While he believes that there is absolutely nothing wrong with these ideals, "African American Christians who suffer and die while we are told to be patient are allowed to wonder what motivates our fellow Christians to begin with these passages”. Dr. McCaulley goes on to detail how Jesus publicly showed no deference to the political authority of King Herod (Luke 13:32), how Paul dismissed the entire social and political order because of the link between evil powers and politicians (Galatians 1:4), and how John called out Rome as only concerned with enriching itself with no regard for the well-being of its people (Revelations 18). These examples have value and speak to many issues that Black folks are still facing today. These passages, in full context, make it clear that protest is not unbiblical. Rather, it can be viewed as an actionable way to assess our human condition with respect to God's plan for our future.
What does God have to say about the Enslavement of Black Bodies?
In chapters 5, 6, and 7, Dr. McCaulley explores the enslaving of black bodies and the rage that Black folks experience due to continued oppression. He makes it very clear that "in the hands of white enslavers, the Bible was a tool of oppression." There has also been a narrative that Christianity was established for and by Europeans. Growing up in rural Arkansas, I vividly remember Black friends stating that Christianity was the "White man's religion". Because of how Christianity was used by White Christian leaders, some Black Christians believe that the Christian story is not our story. Dr. McCaulley explains that "the three major centers of early Christianity were the patriarchs of Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. Of these three only Rome is what we call Western Europe." He also states that:
“Either some Westerners have whitewashed Egyptian history by turning many of its characters into Europeans, or they have not. If they have whitewashed Egyptian history, then that whitewashing extends to the era of the early church. This means that the leading lights of early Christianity were Black and Brown folks or Egypt isn’t as African as we say it is.”
He goes on to exert that if we, "can look back to the greatness of our African past as the basis for Black identity now, then Black Christians can look to early African Christianity as their own." This was only one of many accounts where he worked to dismantle the false hierarchy of human value via biblical text. Dr. McCaulley explains that Black folks have endured centuries of harm and trauma at the hands of those who used the bible to oppress us. This has led us over the years to teach our children strategies of survival, "that often come at the cost of their childhood and basic humanity." As my mother used to always tell me, 'I am teaching you these strategies so that you make it home'. Many Black folks who have abandoned Christianity have done so due to the frustration and at times rage that we feel because of the continued denial of our humanity. Dr. McCaulley makes it clear that despite the negative ways that White Christian leaders used the bible to demonize Black and Brown folks for centuries, God did not condone the heinous treatment of Black folks in America or anywhere else in the world. Rather, God has chosen to, "enter that suffering alongside us as a friend and a redeemer."
In conclusion, Dr. McCaulley explains that this book was written to be a continuation of the conversation that we as Christians must continue to engage in. He stated that engaging in biblical scriptures and expecting an answer is an exercise in faith that, "has carried Black people through unimaginable despair toward a brighter future." As a Christian, I too have felt the despair and rage that Dr. McCaulley discusses in his book. I found this book to be very helpful in a time where we see laws and policies being passed to stop the teaching of Black history, deny the humanity of folks who do not align religiously with those in power, and a full-on attack on the voting rights of those who are most marginalized in our society. We must not give up hope and faith in the very source of power that has brought us this far. As the old Christians in my church used to sing,
we've come this far by faith,
leaning on the Lord,
trusting in His Holy word,
He's never failed me yet.
Oh Oh Oh
can't turn around,
we've come this far by faith.
Purchase Dr. McCaulley's Book Here: https://esaumccaulley.com/reading-while-black/
“The history of Black people in this country is a litany of suffering. Yet we are definitely more than this suffering. There is a thread of victory woven into the tale of despair. We are still here! Still, sometimes it’s hard to see that thread when the cloth is stained with blood.”
“It is an act of faith that has carried Black people through unimaginable despair toward a brighter 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”.
"Ethnic identity and the Christian community, a question asked and answered a generation ago must be addressed again in our day so that our people know that God glories in the distinctive gifts we all bring into the kingdom. Black pain and the anger rising from it is not going away. Therefore, the long tradition of Black reflection on our pain will continue"
Dr. McCaulley Talks about Reading While Black
Dr. Esau McCaulley
McCaulley. E. (2020). Reading While Black: African American biblical interpretation as an exercise in hope. InterVarsity Press.
Esau McCaulley. (2020, July 22). Reading while Black: African American biblical interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. [Video]. YouTube. https://esaumccaulley.com/reading-while-black/