Reading While Black
Reviewing Esau McCaulley on African American biblical interpretation.
Black people often do not fit easily into popular Western European or North American paradigms. Widely accepted patterns of thought and being have for too long now been conceived and constructed by those who presume their particular worldviews to be normative for all. These worldviews, poisoned as they are by deeply sown assumptions of the inferiority, inability, and inadequacy of all those who do not conform neatly to the historically dominant culture’s expectations or aspirations, have a powerful influence on accepted modes of interpretation and application, biblical scholarship being no exception.
Black life and thought is polyrhythmic (using multiple rhythms simultaneously) and polyphonic (producing more than one tone at a time). Black people do not necessarily adhere to White melodies and metres, though they can if they so choose. Black people live in multiple worlds, contend with multiple realities, and negotiate multiple identities to thrive, or just survive.
Unfortunately, the majority of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, and everyday laypeople formed by the dominant modes of biblical interpretation in North America don’t know how to interpret this agile symphony, if they hear it at all. Like fish unaware of the water in which they swim, a tremendous number of White leaders and authors remain ignorant of the lenses they wear, lenses colored by an assumption of privilege accrued from the implicit and explicit racist ideology implanted centuries ago and festering still. This obliviousness invariably leads to misunderstanding when Black people do not acquiesce to White definitions and descriptions. It is a misunderstanding that can quickly give birth to contempt and dismissal, denial and even death.
Black people live in multiple worlds, contend with multiple realities, and negotiate multiple identities to thrive, or just survive.
According to Esau D. McCaulley, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, “If Black biblical interpretation is to be free to chart its own path, it is also free to reject the thoroughgoing skepticism that stands as one legacy of the European dominance of biblical studies.” His new book, Reading While Black, articulates a Black ecclesial biblical interpretation that has something to say and can speak for itself. This book is for Black people. Non-Black people, however, will learn much if they listen in on the conversation respectfully rather than intrusively and arrogantly, as Whites in particular have been known to do.
McCaulley names his own subjectivity without apology, using it to engage biblical texts and help people better understand how the texts can function redemptively. While there has been significant movement in recent years, McCaulley’s transparency is a refreshing departure from a scholarship culture that has long asserted the value of alleged objectivity. Claiming objectivity as a scholar is disingenuous. Everyone stands someplace, and where you stand informs what you see. While social location and identity inform one’s hermeneutics, it need not preclude the possibility of discerning what God is revealing. Jesus was a poor Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation. His social location, however, did not prevent him from embracing and advancing the expansive vision of God’s reign in the world.
McCaulley’s transparency from the get-go enables him to articulate experiences like being stopped multiple times by police because he was driving while Black, despite his journey as a good student, scholar, and minister. Encounters like these can be disastrous for Black people as well as informing, or deforming, in defining ways. His own testimony helps readers connect to his book through association (Black and Brown folks) or revelation (non-Black and Brown folks).
Claiming objectivity as a scholar is disingenuous. Everyone stands someplace, and where you stand informs what you see.
He explains what the Bible says, how it connects to the contexts of Black people, and offers examples of how his personal narrative has informed his thought. But McCaulley does more than share personal vignettes. He helps the reader understand his methodology. This is a critical contribution. By introducing and explaining how he knows what he knows, readers are shown how they might use this approach to better comprehend the Bible in revealing, relevant, and repairing ways.
Because he articulates significant interpretive issues in ways that thoughtful Christians can access, one need not have a biblical training from an institution of higher education to understand what he is saying. Serious biblical scholarship, however, is the ground on which this text stands. Personal examples illustrate McCaulley’s roots in the Black interpretative experience, one where preachers—the principal theologians of the Black church—tell stories to “make it plain.” This is true whether illustrating life or exegeting Scripture.
McCaulley describes three approaches in Black traditions—revolutionary/nationalistic, reformist/transformist, and conformist. He contends that all of them are present in Black churches. Progressive (revolutionary/nationalistic) and conservative (conformist) differences are normally noted in academic circles, but few embrace the latter. McCaulley situates his scholarship in a reformist/transformist approach, which he calls the Black ecclesial tradition, and asserts that this approach is found more frequently in pulpits and less often present in print. He shows an interpretative trajectory that is not captured by White American dichotomies of conservative or progressive, liberal or fundamentalist. In fact, the very interpretive approach of Reading While Black reveals how false such dichotomies are. The Black interpretative project McCaulley advances will not be defined by perspectives uninterested in the flourishing of Black people, dismissive of their full humanity, or dubious of their equal capacity as valuable contributors to theological interpretation. Instead, he leans into a dialogical method where the reader interrogates the text and the text interrogates the reader. McCaulley’s approach also reflects the holism of Black life and thought, departing from the polarities of sacred versus secular found in central strains of White American religious culture.
McCaulley is not willing to accept spiritualized readings of the Bible. He situates biblical texts in their contexts and proceeds to demonstrate the intertextuality of the biblical text and the life texts of Black Americans. This helps Black people both interpret and be interpreted by the Epistle to the Romans, for example, as they see how Christians in that time were vulnerable to economic exploitation and violent aggression by Roman soldiers who had “policing” functions. In another instance, McCaulley tackles the biblical call to pray for leaders. American Christians have traditionally asserted that citizens should pray for those in political authority so that we may lead “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2). McCaulley argues that while there is nothing wrong with praying for leaders, there is more to be said. He notes, “The problem here again is not the call to pray, but its interpretation within a context dedicated to limited Black political expression.” He raises the question that is obvious to thinking Black people: What do we do when the political apparatus is working to limit freedom and flourishing? McCaulley informs us that “prayer for leaders and criticism of their practices are not mutually exclusive ideas.” This kind of thorough exegesis will help to free Christians—both Black and White—from the weaponization of Scripture in service of racial oppression.
While Reading While Black provides a guide for reading and understanding the biblical text constructively for Black people, it does not provide an exhaustive case-by-case rebuttal to all the places where a Eurocentric, paternalistic hermeneutic has misinterpreted the Bible. Indeed, the misuses of biblical scholarship are too many to catalogue in a single volume. Still, McCaulley shows sufficient evidence of the Bible’s life-offering wisdom in contrast to the mishandling of biblical texts that undergirded or provided cover for the violations and violence inflicted on Black Americans. The book says, for example, that “Paul is often seen as the patron saint of the establishment, but this can only be maintained by paying attention to select portions of his corpus. A holistic reading of Paul shows that he is willing to critique authorities with vigour when necessary.” McCaulley introduces a reading approach that denies racist interpretations and applications to get to what the Bible is trying to teach us with all its life-giving relevance.
While social location and identity inform one’s hermeneutics, it need not preclude the possibility of discerning what God is revealing.
It is notable that McCaulley does not avoid passages that have been used to support slavery by Christians who have been conditioned to read the Bible with racist lenses. Referring to Onesimus, for example, McCaulley shows how Paul undercuts slavery, redefines the relationship between an enslaver and enslaved because of Christ, and asks Philemon to set Onesimus free. While some racist scholarship has argued that Paul called for reconciliation rather than manumission, McCaulley draws on the testimony of eighteenth-century Black Christians to refute this interpretation. Enslaved Christians made the case to the Massachusetts House of Representatives that because enslaved people could not be spouses, parents, or children as God willed, slavery should be eradicated. McCaulley explains that those enslaved Christians surmised that “‘brotherly love’ compels Christians to consider what the institution does to their brothers and sisters in Christ.” He asserts, therefore, “that God intended to use Paul’s familial depiction of Christianity to put exactly that type of pressure on the church to redefine and abolish the institution.”
McCaulley takes specific passages, interprets them consistent with the liberative trajectory of the Bible, and reveals the truth of the Bible that has been hidden by a colonially inflected biblical interpretation to communicate something of God’s liberating will for the world. While some readers may be impatient with his method and still want more examples of deconstruction and reconstruction, McCaulley demonstrates sufficiently that “the Old and New Testaments, even the letters of Paul, provide us with the theological resources to dismantle slavery.”
McCaulley is a patient teacher who seeks to help readers see from various angles—personal and communal, individual and structural, valuing and critiquing, biblical text and human narrative, historical setting and contemporary circumstance, deconstructing racist Christian oppression and responding to Black post- or non-Christian opposition, Eurocentric and African-American scholarship. This approach will be wearisome for some, but the illumination from his scholarship leads to important answers to complex questions.
The Black interpretative project McCaulley advances will not be defined by perspectives uninterested in the flourishing of Black people, dismissive of their full humanity, or dubious of their equal capacity as valuable contributors to theological interpretation.
Reading While Black refutes racist misinterpretations of the Bible that have weaponized texts in service to the exploitation and oppression of Black people. It also deconstructs reactionary responses to racist interpretations of Scripture that would dismiss Christianity as a “White man’s religion.” McCaulley provides an important resource for Black readers and anti-racist readers to better understand an interpretive trajectory that affirms Black people and refutes anti-Black misreadings. McCaulley asserts, “I am not claiming that the Bible outlines the policies necessary for the proper functioning of a Democratic Republic. I am saying that it outlines the basic principles and critiques of power that equip Black Christians for their life and work in these United States.”
He offers a pastoral function when, for example, he speaks of affirming identity and what to do with the rage that Black people feel because of the violence inflicted on them physically, sexually, socially, and culturally. He also offers a prophetic purpose when speaking to issues of policing, political engagement, and justice. Although a clergyperson in a predominantly White conservative Christian denomination, McCaulley embraces the Black ecclesial interpretative tradition that does not see the Bible as defective but recognizes racist interpretation as problematic, and, in the words of the African Methodist Episcopal tradition, unchristian. He declares, “The Black Christian, then, who hopes and works for a better world finds an ally in the God of Israel. . . . [God] calls us to enter into this work of actualizing the transformation he has already begun by the death and resurrection of his Son.”
Esau D. McCaulley has joined the conversation around biblical interpretation with an insightful and important voice for the church and the world. This is an essential contribution of Black ecclesial biblical interpretation, theological construction, and ministry formation.