Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black is a detailed analysis and explication of the African American biblical interpretive enterprise as seen in its traditional ecclesial life and form. McCaulley highlights the deep complexities and rich historical legacies extant in the traditional Black Church that saw in the Bible a liberatory God who affirmed the inherent dignity and worth of Black people, and utilized the Scriptures as an inexhaustible resource in the fight for justice and liberation. Black ecclesial theology, or Black ecclesial interpretation, as described here, takes seriously God’s omnipotent power to deliver the oppressed from bondage, as shown in the Exodus narrative, while maintaining faith in the midst of oppression, and believing that Black suffering will not have the last word because of a collective hope in the resurrection. For McCaulley, this tradition stands in the gap for Black Christians who desire to be unapologetically Black and “orthodox” in their theology, while providing a relevant voice for the global church and world today (p. 21). He identifies five key elements of this interpretive tradition: (1) it is canonical and theological, (2) it is socially located or contextual, (3) it is willing to listen to the voice of Scripture and how the Bible might respond to and redirect Black life and concerns, (4) it is willing to be patient with the text, reading it “carefully and sympathetically in order to receive a blessing”, and finally (5) it is willing to listen and engage in critical dialogue about the Bible, listening to other ethnic communities to achieve a better reading of the Scriptures (p. 21). McCaulley argues that this model provides an alternative approach to biblical interpretation that sees the merit within the text itself, while also affirming the cultural questions every ethnic group brings to the text of Scripture, without allowing cultural particularities to define the totality of biblical interpretation (p. 22). However, this does not preclude the unique witness that Black biblical interpretation (hereafter BEI) provides for the church writ large.
McCaulley diagrams for the reader the model and method of BEI through a series of provocative topics relevant to the current moment. In six chapters, he explores the contours of issues such as protest and injustice, the Church and politics, policing and police brutality, ethnicity and Black identity, Black suffering and rage, and finally the Bible and slavery. His chapter on policing plunges directly into the struggle that many Black Americans face: “How does one encounter the police, and live?” McCaulley narrates an episode in his own life from an unexpected police stop, displaying how Black people live in a liminal space of perpetual fear and a desperate urge for unencumbered freedom. What then does the New Testament have to say about policing? McCaulley constructs his argument by offering an exegetical analysis of Romans 13:1-7 and a historical survey of Roman authorities. He suggests that in order to understand Paul’s theology of submission to the government, one must read it in light of Romans 9:17 in which Paul acknowledges God’s judgement over earthly rulers and regimes, such as Pharaoh in Egypt. A faithful reading of Paul acknowledges this nuance as God delivers Israel from slavery and links the proper worship of Yahweh to a transformed nation (Ex.3:1-22) (p. 33). Public resistance of rulers and institutions is envisaged in the ministry of Moses who resisted wicked leadership on behalf of God’s people. For McCulley, this added context of Romans 13 elucidates for the Christian the necessary process of discerning whether and when to submit or resist earthly rulership, recognizing God’s judgement and sovereignty over all earthly regimes (p. 33). Additionally, McCaulley parallels Christians in Rome to African Americans in the U.S. by overlapping experiences of subjugation to a corrupt system of police in the empire, as with Black life in America (p. 38). He suggests that to uphold a society in which Black bodies are free and not unjustly policed, we must not simply assess individual conduct of police officers, but reform power structures so that government does not reinforce a deleterious culture of policing (p. 41).
In his chapter on the Black Church and politics, he draws together a biblical vision of political theology in light of the messianic reign of Jesus and the Church’s public witness. As seen in the abolition of Fredrick Douglass, or civil disobedience of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., McCaulley links the message of justice to the very life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus, making the gospel message inescapably political (p. 55). Jesus’ very own regal status and sonship is directly tied to his care for the marginalized; the promised King of Israel, the new David, will establish justice and righteousness in the earth (p. 67). One of the more poignant reflections in this section is the commentary on the beatitudes, seeing the spiritual act of mourning as both a longing for the fullness of the Kingdom of God to be made manifest on earth, as an inherently political act.
He says, “Mourning calls on us all to recognize our complicity in the sufferings of others. We do not simply mourn the sins of the world. We mourn our own greed, lusts, and desires that allow us to exploit others…Mourning is intuition that things are not right —that more is possible. To think that more is possible is an act of political resistance in a world that wants us to believe that consumption is all there is” (p. 65).
Choosing to mourn suffering, more specifically Black suffering, in an anti-black world moves humans beyond apathy, and provides the impetus to thirst for righteousness/justice as creation awaits the culmination of God’s shalom.
Entrenched in every chapter is a steady echo to the Exodus narrative, driving home the idea that God liberates all of creation from its bondage to corruption, present in both human action and earthly systems. McCaulley refers to several biblical passages such as prophetic oracles in Isaiah, or pericopes in Luke’s gospel to reveal the metanarrative of deliverance for the oppressed, leading to God’s plan of redemption, and interweaving the text through the African American experience. He also helps the reader to see how Black people (Africans) have always been apart of the lineage of God’s people in Israel (p. 99-100). The book contains copious allusions to popular Black cultural references, highlighting figures such as Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Kirk Franklin, and Andre Benjamin of Outkast. McCaulley’s methodology stands in a tradition that demonstrates how the Bible can be seen as more than a valuable source used in the fight for justice, but rather within the Bible’s testimony and witness one discovers the power of the God of justice. He, however, resists the notion that a predetermined definition of liberation based on “present sociopolitical census” is the point of departure for BEI. Rather God’s Word brings a message of salvation, liberation, and reconciliation which shapes the theological vision for Black people (p. 73).
It is clear that McCaulley hermeneutically engages the text of the Bible while addressing interlocutors within both the white Evangelical and Mainline world, and thinkers within the Black secular tradition and Black progressive Christian tradition (p. 166). For McCaulley then, BEI serves as an apologetic for persons who may have a love for the Scriptures, but do not see the Bible as a paradigmatic source for thinking about liberation, political action, or police brutality, and for others who perhaps see the Bible as one of many religious documents that only exacerbate hierarchical systems of oppression in both the Church and the world. Additionally, Reading While Black speaks to those within the Black community who may have even jettisoned the possibility of hope altogether, and have capitulated to a throughgoing nihilism, positing that blackness will be synonymous with nonbeing, in perpetuity.
Since the book centers around biblical interpretation, it does not, for example, provide a blueprint for how Black people may politically organize protest within a congregation, or hold elected officials accountable in a liberal democracy. Nor does it recommend economic policies and tactics that will ameliorate poverty for the disenfranchised and disinherited. It does, however, provide a framework by which Black Christians have traditionally approached the text of Scripture to help them think generativity in political advocacy, and how the enslavement and subjugation of Black people is antithetical to the intention of God. Rather Black worth, dignity, and liberation is tied to God’s action in Christ. The themes in the book do beg certain questions regarding Black identity and suffering. Can any system of policing promote the public good, beyond a flawed, “good cop-bad cop” distinction that will truly aid in the protection and flourishing of Black and brown bodies? If Black people are in the future, and true image bearers of God, what is liberation’s telos for McCaulley, and how might the Bible’s witness of a liberation move to a hope tangible, beyond a compensatory and eschatological freedom, and to a enfleshed and enacted freedom, as the Word became flesh? Additionally, one must ask to what audience does McCaulley write and speak? He contends that Reading While Black is “for us” (p. 41) (Black Christians), yet it can be said that much of his biblical reflection is not only a response to white hegemony in biblical interpretation, but is also occupied with the proverbial “white gaze”, as he seeks to make the Black experience and Black church’s theology intelligible to an outside world. McCaulley’s argument functions more as an apologetic against prevailing white interpretations of Scripture, and displaying how the pursuit of Black liberation is commensurate with the gospel message, more than helping Black people catalyze movement towards liberation on Black terms.*
Black Christians have always found a way to flourish (whether pietistic or liberationist) in a white world. As J. Deotis Roberts states, Black theology reflects upon the Black religious experience to provide “meaning and protest” and to move beyond victimhood and “transmute suffering into victory” (Roberts, J. Deotis. A Black Political Theology, 2005. p. 60). For this reason, Black people continue to live within a resilient paradox of priestly and prophetic; between pessimism and hope; between injustice and justice; between liberation and reconciliation. The Scriptures and Black Church tradition has no doubt been indelible to this paradox, and thus the tradition will always and forever remain, as McCaulley describes, “Aquemini” (p. 4).
*McCaulley endeavors to showcase a tradition in print, what has been apparent in the Black pulpit all along, yet what receives little attention from the mainstream Christian world (p. 183). Albeit a potentially helpful effort, Black Christian faith that is inculcated in the traditional Black Church knows itself well, and so I ask to whom does he hope to make this tradition most tenable? For example, he spends an exuberant amount of time reworking texts such as Romans 13, which is consistently levied by white Christians to silence Black dissent, justify the moral purity of government by God’s sovereignty, and further call Black Christians to pray, obey, and submit to governmental leadership rather than aim for social and political resistance. He provides an explanation that Black Christians are not advocating for “anarchy” and do “acknowledge the potential goods of government” (p. 41). Why anticipate a response that Black folk desire social and political disorder as they call out injustice, if not that policing and “law and order” is a racialized phenomena that assumes the worst intention of Black and brown people, and that white readers will reinforce this racist trope? Elements of this same posture can also be seen clearly in his chapter on the Bible and Black Rage. Additionally, the majority of the McCaulley’s references to the ongoing development of Black theology and biblical interpretation is addressed in the final chapter, the Bonus Track. It is there where he more readily engages the wider biblical and theological scholarship within the spectrum of Black interpretation: reformist, radical, womanist, etc. If this is for Black Christians, one can only wonder why there is so little engagement with these texts if the goal is to highlight the reformist ecclesial tradition present in the Black Church, and to generate a larger dialogue. Perhaps it is the hermeneutical presupposition in the reformist tradition, which privileges outside voices to influence socially located and contextual maxims, that makes it difficult to discern when McCaulley’s speech toward Black people is authentically towards our community. But all in all, the influence of white gaze is readily apparent throughout the book