What does it mean to ‘read the Bible while Black’?

Martyn Taylor writes: I first came across Esau McCaulley when I discovered his New York Times article on ‘What the Bible Has to Say about Black Anger?’ I loved the way he handled scripture and moved his readers from the Psalms of rage (Ps 137) to the wider message of biblical hope where the oppressor also finds freedom and hope through the God revealed in the scriptures (Isaiah 49).

Like many people, I have tried to read more widely around the subject of racism since the death of George Floyd. Many will have read Ben Lindsay’s We Need to Talk About Race (SPCK). Lindsay has held up a mirror to help us understand the Black experience in the context of the wider UK church and the work that we need to do in order to be more inclusive of the diversity that is God given in the church.

Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic) comes to the subject of Black experience from a different angle. McCaulley is now Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in the United States. He grew up in Alabama in the Deep South in the Baptist tradition and today he is ordained in the Anglican Church in North America. He is an opinion writer in New York Times and has written numerous articles in Christianity Today and The Washington Post.

‘The South Got Somethin’ to Say’

His first chapter is called ‘The South Got somethin’ to say.’ Here McCaulley makes a case for what he calls the Black ecclesial tradition.

This tradition of reading is canonical and theological at its core, placing its greatest hope in the character of God as it emerges from the entirety of the Biblical story. It builds on the great truths of God as creator, liberator, savior and judge. The tradition of Biblical interpretation is dialogical, clearly beginning with the concerns of Black Christians, but is willing to listen to the scriptures as God speaks back to us. We have patience with the Biblical text born of its use against us. We have had to wrestle like Jacob until the text delivered its blessing (p 165).

McCaulley’s thesis is that the birth of the Black Church in the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century led to a real experience of the God of the Bible whose goal was to set people free. This message spoke powerfully into the hearts of an oppressed people, enslaved by White masters. These masters did their best to misread and abuse passages of scripture to keep Black people enslaved, rather than see them as equals created in God’s image, equally reconciled to the Father through the Son so that the two might become one.

The abuse of scripture by those in charge of the social order and the consequent oppression and ongoing suffering of the Black community led to different responses to the Bible within the Black community itself.  Sometimes this was a reflection of the European progressive tradition where the Scriptures are subject to the prevailing ‘truth’ of the wider culture, rather than being an authoritative word from God. McCaulley highlights  the Black Progressive tradition, which rightly responds to social justice issues within the Black community, but, influenced by the White academy, looks to wider culture for answers rather than the Bible. In this tradition the scriptures are tainted by a particular view of the Apostle Paul, whereby the scriptures do nothing to tackle systemic injustice. He tells the sad story from within his own tradition of an older lady avoiding Paul because of the wrong and painful use of Pauline texts in the wider church where they have been used to maintain unjust structures.

McCaulley engages fully with these traditions, but makes the strong case for a traditional reading and understanding of the scriptures. The Black ecclesial tradition is represented in the prayers and the preaching of many Black churches in the United States and McCaulley makes a subtle point that to appropriate the White progressive academy to undermine the lived tradition of the Black church is in itself racist.

McCaulley makes a first class case for Black ecclesial tradition being firmly rooted in the historic tradition of the whole church. He is himself a brilliant expositor of the scriptures and looks at some of the following questions (p 165):

  • 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?
  • Does the Bible provide us with a warrant to protest injustice when we encounter it?
  • Does the Bible value our ethnic identity? Does God love our blackness?
  • What shall we do about the pain and rage that comes with being Black in the USA?
  • What about slavery? Did the God of the Bible sanction what happened to us?

Freedom is No Fear

I wonder how many of us have thought about a theology of policing? If we are White and middle class then it is probably a subject that we have not given much thought to. McCaulley writes powerfully of growing up in the Deep South and his constant fear as a young Black man of wanting to avoid trouble at all costs, so as not to ruin his chances of going to college on a scholarship—not easy when the police pulled him and his friends over at a petrol station for no other reason than being Black.

He carefully expounds Romans 13:1–7, which in previous generations, even in the 1960s, was used to justify the social order and respect for the authorities at the expense of the Black community. His conclusion is quite brilliant, but not one that I had ever noticed as a White man, to my shame. The goal of good government, good social order and good policing is that those who do right should not have to live in any kind of fear (v 3–4). Freedom is no fear.

It is simply wrong that the Black community live in fear of the police and a Christian view of policing will seek to address that issue head on. He also in the same chapter brilliantly uses the wider context of Romans 9 to show that God who is judge of the whole earth is quite able to deal with tyrannical rulers who abuse their rule in the oppression of those under their rule. The Israelites were set free from an oppressive regime and Pharoah was judged. Paul acknowledges both the corruption of power in a figure like Pharoah, but also casts a vision of the possibility of good and just government where people can live without fear.

Black and Proud

In the chapter ‘Black and Proud’ McCaulley helps us locate the story of the Bible, not just in the Middle East, but also North Africa. God’s intention in the call of Abraham is to bless the nations. When Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh the sons of Joseph from his Egyptian wife, he includes African blood into the family of Jacob. When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, he notes that a mixed crowd go up with Israel (Ex 12:38). Together with Israel are a number of other ethnic groups which may have included Nubians (Cush) who were in relationship with Egypt.

The great hope of a messianic king who would bring hope to all the nations is powerfully symbolised at the cross as Simon of Cyrene an African carries the cross of Jesus. The ultimate mark of discipleship is first given to an African. We read of the Ethiopian eunuch, the mixed church in Antioch with Simeon called Niger and we see that Black and brown blood are encompassed in the story of the Bible.

The Freedom of the Slaves

Rich Nathan, the senior pastor of the Vineyard in Columbus Ohio, tweeted about McCaulley’s chapter on slavery:

Have you ever been troubled by what the Bible says about slavery? Reading While Black has the best brief chapter challenging a pro-slavery reading of scripture that I have ever read!

McCaulley masterfully starts his argument about slavery by referring to the questions that Jesus is asked about divorce in the gospels. He quickly establishes the principle that in order to see God’s intention for humanity we need to go back to creation. God’s law speaks into a fallen world, often recognizing the reality of what is and what needs restraining or protecting.

The first principle is that men and women were created free and equal in God’s image, given the mandate to look after creation and to enjoy its blessings. He then makes a case from the Old Testament law that slavery in Israel was never to be a permanent fixture. The Jubilee laws make that clear, even making provision for released slaves to be given a new start at the end of their six years’ service. This is unique in all the law codes of the ancient world. Indeed the law makes provision for slaves who have escaped their situation to be given a new start without being enslaved or handed back. There is the constant reminder that Israel were slaves in Egypt who had been brought to freedom, therefore they were to remember this in their treatment of others.

In more familiar texts from the New Testament, including Paul, he shows how the Bible provides theological resources to dismantle slavery. This is a point that Tom Holland makes clearly in his masterpiece Dominion.

A summary sentence from McCaulley on slavery:

I argued that since slavery was not God’s original intention, the Christian could reason from creation to liberation of the enslaved. Furthermore, we could reason back from Christian eschatology to present freedom as a foretaste’ (p 162).

What shall we do with this Rage?

I started with reference to the article McCaulley wrote for the New York Times on Black Anger. Perhaps his most powerful chapter is ‘What shall we do with this rage?’ Rebecca McLaugh tweets:

His reading of Psalm 137 is worth more than the price of the book.

I agree. I had to stop with tears in my eyes.

The God of the Bible listens to the cries of the brutally oppressed as they call out to him for justice. McCaulley earths the Psalm powerfully in Israel’s experience of exile and then seamlessly moves to the same experience of Black slaves ripped apart from their families as mother is separated from child, sibling from sibling, husband from wife, and sent off to unknown places never to see each other again.

This rage is then located in the wider picture of Old Testament hope where the God of the Bible will reach out and include even the oppressors of God’s people in the new kingdom of the Messiah, a kingdom of justice and righteousness.

Ultimately we come to Jesus who, in the words of Philippians 2, enters human experience as a slave, emptying himself of all rights, identifying with us in our weakness and suffering, experiencing injustice at the hands of the state in the most cruel terms of execution. He overcomes the brutality of the fallen systems of the world through the resurrection and brings the first fruits of the new creation to birth, the implications of which are being worked out in the world through the ongoing life of his body the Church.

Reading While Black brings brilliant insights that the whole church needs to hear. The Black ecclesial tradition is deep and rich, real and earthed. The God of the Bible is good, compassionate and longs for the liberation of all people through his son Jesus Christ. I look forward to reading more from Esau McCaulley whose writing is humble, clear and has a knack of getting through your defenses through his wonderful handling of Bible texts that have been clearly wrestled with until the blessing has come.

For those interested in digging deeper, McCaulley runs a free nine-week course ‘The Bible and Theology in Colour’ through the Nashotah House Chapter.

Revd Martyn Taylor is long time Rector of St George’s Stamford, a member of General Synod and an AFC Bournemouth fan.


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5 thoughts on “What does it mean to ‘read the Bible while Black’?”

  1. ‘The Black ecclesial tradition is deep and rich, real and earthed.’

    Is the writer using ‘Black’ to exclusively refer to Americans, or is the idea that there is one international tradition?

  2. Thanks, Martyn, for writing this review, and Paul for posting it. I’ve subsequently read it and found it very stimulating. Am now about to preach a few sermons on race issues in the light of this (and other) reading. Thanks again.

  3. Catching up on articles I saved for later reading as much as three years ago, and I came across this. Thank you so much for this – enormously helpful, and made me want to read the book. It also made me want to read, or maybe write, a companion volume: Reading the Bible while Female. I’m sure there’s mileage here!


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