A Feature Review of
Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
Reviewed by Philip Zoutendam
*** Selected as our
Best Theology Book of 2020!!!
Everybody is “reading while something,” says Esau McCaulley — “but we are honest about it” (20). The “we” that he means is evident from his book’s title: Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. And the less-forthcoming foil, at least by implication, would be many white readers of Scripture — those who tend to obscure their own location and limited perspective, assuming that theirs is the normal, default, correct lens for reading Scripture. There is no such definitive voice, says McCaulley. There is, instead, a whole chorus of readers in dialogue with Scripture, and they need each other in order to hear how Scripture is speaking back to us all, no matter our location. But especially needed, especially now, especially in America, is the Black perspective that McCaulley articulates in this book. He contends that the “instincts and habits of Black biblical interpretation,” born out of the Black experience of oppression, perseverance, and triumph, “can help us use the Bible to address the issues of the day” — and not merely address the issues, but interpret and respond to them with durable Christian hope (23).
Hope is key for McCaulley as something one brings to the text and takes from the text, and this further locates his own interpretative position within Black hermeneutics. Hopeful reading is a hallmark of what McCaulley identifies as the “Black ecclesial tradition,” whose commitment to orthodox theology (and resistance to deconstructive readings) distinguishes it from Black progressivism. But both of these traditions, McCaulley adds, are distinct from white conservativism and liberalism. They occupy an entirely different axis, making McCaulley’s school a “fourth thing” that combines zeal for justice with fidelity to traditional norms and theology (5). It produces a hermeneutic of trust takes its cues from the patriarch Jacob, who wrestled all night with the divine messenger: “[we] refuse to let go of the text until it blesses us. . . . [W]e are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly it will bring a blessing and not a curse” (21).
But with the blessing comes the wound. By inviting his white readers to grapple with Scripture from the same position as its Black readers, McCaulley is taking them by the hand and leading them to places they might not want to go. To read the Bible with McCaulley and the Black ecclesial tradition is to be acquainted with the wounds that have been inflicted by white Christians’ use of Scripture, and sometimes by Scripture itself. McCaulley characterizes Black biblical interpretation as resolutely “canonical,” meaning that it habitually interprets the part through the whole. Atomized proof-texting won’t do. You have to keep on reading to make sense of what you just read. One result of this method is that white readers will likely encounter here new passages of Scripture, as well as familiar or forgotten passages in a new light. And this will sting. It will disturb and disorient. Because, perhaps for the first time, some readers will hear words from Scripture that, taken at the “face value” taught in white Evangelical circles, no longer sound like good news.
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Take, for example, Romans 13:1-7, which is the first passage McCaulley confronts in his book. This famous Pauline imperative to “be subject to the governing authorities,” which conservative Christians often reach for first in moments of civil unrest, is hardly encouraging to the young Black man who is harassed, surveilled, and endangered — and McCaulley has his own stories to tell here — by the very authorities whom Paul says “do not bear the sword (or in our day, the gun) in vain.” Or take 1 Timothy 2:1-4, another text backing up the authorities that has likewise been “weaponized” in debates about Christian politics (51). Intercessions, and especially thanksgivings, “for kings and all who are in high positions” are a bitter pill for those whom the powers have long tried to hold in low positions. Such texts can hardly be ignored by those they have been brandished against — but neither can they be dismissed or deconstructed by those committed to the principle of canonical interpretation. And so McCaulley’s answer is to keep on reading. In these early chapters, that generally means simply zooming out, reading before and after these troubling texts to get a sense of their con-texts. Romans 13 is thus read in light of Romans 9, where Paul’s narration of the downfall of Pharaoh reveals precisely the opposite of what so many claim Paul is saying: rulers are not infallible; they are not untouchable; they are subject, like everyone else, to critique, resistance, and rebuke. This wider scope allows McCaulley to construct a more nuanced — yet clearly quite biblical — political theology that, while still forbidding violent rebellion, endorses Black protest against white oppression.
Beginning with such an incendiary issue (i.e. the question of policing and protest) might seem a provocative choice, but actually the early chapters of this book are a remarkably gentle introduction to even thornier questions of racial justice. Throughout the book McCaulley is grave, insistent, and of course critical of many standard (white) interpretations, but he is hardly confrontational towards his intended audience. In fact, he rarely even mentions white people explicitly. That they are indeed his intended audience must be inferred by this polite silence, and also by the author’s gradual movement from more basic and palatable claims — e.g. that salvation has a political dimension (Chapter 3) — into more challenging statements on the positive permanence of Black identity, even within a reconciled church (Chapter 5), and the biblical endorsement of Black rage (Chapter 6). This progression builds trust in the author, as the reader sees McCaulley’s commitment to expanding biblical meaning (rather than contracting it by discarding the troubled parts), and it also stretches the reader’s own exegetical muscles, warming them so that they’re capable of follow the more dexterous moves McCaulley employs towards the end of the book.
All of this means that the most difficult, impressive, and rewarding chapter is the last one. All of the preceding materials leads up to this, as McCaulley indicates in his introduction, because here he confronts “the question behind most of our questions, namely the relationships between the Bible and slavery” (23). Of course, it is unimaginable that anyone in McCaulley’s twenty-first century audience would condone the practice of slavery. And yet the Bible itself seems to condone it in numerous passages, in both Old and New Testaments. A white reader might simply ignore these passages; anyone reading while Black cannot. And so the genius of this chapter is that it demonstrates to many who may look and think differently than McCaulley that they will still need to read like him in order to believe what they already believe. A “face value” reading of Scripture simply won’t do for a problem this big. Only a view that takes in the whole canon, and interprets each individual movement according to the direction of the whole, can admit that Scripture “does not on every page legislate slavery out of existence” (139) — indeed, it clearly legislates its continued existence in some passages — and yet claim that the Bible, in the end, still demands that Christians reject and eradicate slavery. The key is learning to inhabit the whole “imaginative world” of Scripture, defined by God’s liberative acts in the Exodus and elsewhere, “in which slavery becomes more and more untenable.” The Bible, therefore, ultimately forms a people who can — and must — “theologically deconstruct slavery” (142).
Confronting the problems posed by Scripture, and especially by the way Scripture has been wielded against certain souls and bodies, is distressing and even dangerous. But Black Christians have always lived under danger and duress. Reading with McCaulley and the Black church — learning to “read while Black” — is therefore, in the first place, an act of solidarity. It means that you must keep on reading until the text wounds you too. But this also becomes, as the book promises, an “exercise in hope.” It reveals how you can keep on reading, keep on grappling with the enduring word of a God who “has willed our good and not our harm” (165).
Philip Zoutendam is an Episcopal priest and part of the first class of North Carolina’s Reimagining Curacies program. He currently serves as curate at St. Titus’, a historically Black parish in Durham, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Erin Risch Zoutendam.