Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.
Summary: A study of biblical interpretation in the traditional Black church that emphasizes the conversation between the biblical text and the Black experience and how this sustains hope in the face of despair.
Esau McCaulley describes his journey from southern roots to white evangelicalism and progressive scholarship and back to the Black church tradition. He recognized that both evangelical and progressive traditions didn’t offer the wherewithal to deal with the Black experience of slavery and racism and to sustain hope amid despair. McCaulley found this by going back to the Black church, both its biblically rooted resistance to slavery and injustice, and its message of hope of liberation, not merely spiritual but in terms of bodily status.
McCaulley offers this description of biblical interpretation how one reads the Bible while Black:
- unapologetically canonical and theological.
- socially located, in that it clearly arises out of the particular context of Black Americans.
- willing to listen to the ways in which the Scriptures themselves respond to and redirect Black issues and concerns.
- willing to exercise patience with the text trusting that a careful and sympathetic reading of the text brings a blessing.
- willing to listen to and enter into dialogue with Black and white critiques of the Bible in the hopes of achieving a better reading of the text.
The next six chapters address issues facing the black community and how the tradition of Black church reading of scripture addresses each. The issues are: policing, political witness, the pursuit of justice, Black identity, Black anger, and slavery. The treatments are not exhaustive but are meant to point toward the resources of biblical interpretation open to the Black community. The concluding chapter centers on hope, which is the outcome of engaging the biblical text and looking for answers to these pressing issues. A “bonus track” goes further into the ecclesial, or church-centered aspect of this approach to biblical interpretation.
I will not go through McCaulley’s discussion of the six issues but focus on the first as an example of the approach he commends. First he begins with context, and his own experience of being stopped by police while at a gas station, as he was driving friends to a party. He then turns to Romans 13:1-2, often weaponized against the Black community. He observes how we often look at the instructions for citizens without considering the powers subject to God, and why, in Paul’s context the recipients of his letter are subjected to an evil empire by God. What the passage raises is a form of theodicy. McCaulley reads this passage canonically, setting Rome alongside Pharaoh (cf. Romans 9:17) in which God is glorified through his judgment upon wicked kings. If Moses was not sinful in his resistance to Pharaoh, then submission to authorities does not preclude calling evil by its name. Furthermore, verses 3 and 4 of Romans 13 speak to the just use of authority, to reward good and punish evil, and not the reverse. Policing that treats citizens otherwise ought to be reformed. It should not engender fear in those who do right, no matter the color of their skin. McCaulley observes then that how Paul deals with the evil Roman empire is not to refer to their evil but to talk about how just rule is exercised in a way that assures rather than arouses fear in the lives of the governed who do what is right.
I look at this and ask the question of how often have I heard the text taught in this way in the white church? Yet the implications for how those with police powers ought exercise them, as well as the obligation of submission, are both in the text. Both Pharaoh and Rome are in Romans. Yet where has this connection been made that speaks of how God judges evil empires and glorifies himself? Those whose social location is in the Black church in America see these realities in the text more readily than many of us.
I cannot read while Black. I read from a social location that makes me more aware of some aspects of scripture while missing others. What I’ve come to recognize as I’ve grown older is how much I’ve been blind to in scripture. I can only understand the whole counsel of God with the whole church. While I cannot read while Black, I can read with the Black church, to listen to their readings, always searching the text to see if these things are so. And what I find in many instances is that they are, and I had not had eyes to see. Open my eyes, Lord!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.