Esau McCaulley grew up immersed in the gospel, church, and Scripture. But when he attended a university that was 98% white to double major in history and religion he found himself thrust into the middle of a “hundred years’ war between white evangelicals and white mainline protestants.” (9)
McCaulley was frustrated to discover that this debate had been carried out without the witness of his tradition in the Black church. He began to look to Black theologians in the academy but discovered that they did not share the high regard for Scripture that he had experienced in his home and church. His book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope captures his attempt to identify a “fourth thing” between white progressives, white evangelicals, and African American progressives: the Black ecclesial tradition.
A fourth thing
Before we describe “African American Biblical interpretation” and how it is “an exercise in hope,” let’s define McCaulley’s conversation partners.
White progressives: McCaulley’s white progressive professors saw biblical fundamentalism as a problem. They saw the Bible as a tool in the hands of white slave-holders to oppress Black people. They had a point. But, McCaulley saw that the solution these progressive pastors offered robbed their Black students of a crucial spiritual resource.
How did the white progressive story do this?
“In this story, Black students do not really enter in as actors. We are acted upon, our suffering functioning as examples of the evils of white supremacy… But there is a second testimony possibly more important than the first. That is the testimony of Black Christians who saw in the same Bible the basis of their dignity and hope in a culture that often denied them of both. In my professor’s attempt to take the Bible away from the fundamentalists, he also robbed the Black Christians of the rock on which they stood.” (8, emphasis added)
McCaulley felt alienated from the white progressives that surrounded him. They undermined Scripture by saying that it justified slavery. McCaulley, drawing on his upbringing, saw in Scripture a source of dignity and hope for Black Christians, a tool of liberation, not oppression.
White evangelicals: McCaulley next turned to evangelicalism, again in a primarily white environment. Evangelicalism, as defined by Historian David Bebbington, has four pillars: Conversionism (the need for new birth), Activism, Biblicism (high regard for Scripture), and Crucicentrism (stress on Jesus’ sacrificial death). On these beliefs, Black Christians and white evangelicals have much in common.
However, while McCaulley felt comfortable with evangelical theology, he felt alienated from evangelicalism as a movement. He observed that along with the four pillars of evangelicalism listed above, white evangelicals held unspoken fifth and sixth pillars. “These are a general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice.” (11)
McCaulley appreciated evangelicalism’s high view of Scripture but took issue with the way that the Bible functioned. It “had been reduced to the arena on which we fought an endless war about the finer points of Paul’s doctrine of salvation” but had next to nothing to say about the suffering and struggles of his community.
Black progressives: Discontent with white progressives and white evangelicals, both of which mostly ignored Black voices, McCaulley turned to Black Christian voices within the academy. Here, however, he learned that there was a disconnect between what happened in the Academy and what happened in the Church. Because only white progressives had invested in Black pastors, the African American academy had become theologically progressive. Meanwhile, the African American Church felt stuck in the middle. COGIC pastors he talked to agreed with the theological analysis of evangelicals and the social practice of progressives but lacked an academic source for both.
The Black Ecclesial tradition:
McCaulley calls this fourth way the Black ecclesial tradition. This “ecclesial” tradition is embodied within the Black church. It carries with it both a high view of Scripture and a deep concern for justice and liberation.
A socially located reading of the Bible
We must pause for a moment and address a possible question in the reader’s mind: Why should we seek a uniquely African American interpretation of Scripture? Doesn’t Scripture have but a single interpretation, regardless of one’s culture? McCaulley frames the question like this: “The social location of enslaved persons caused them to read the Bible differently. This unabashedly located reading marked African American interpretation since. Did this social location mean Blacks rejected biblical texts that did not match their understanding of God? Did Blacks create a canon within in a canon?”
His answer to the latter question is, in part, “yes”, but in this, they were not alone. Slave-holders had the letters of Paul as their canon within a canon, specifically, the passages which they believed justified slavery. Slaves, on the other hand, emphasized the exodus, the suffering of Christ, and the liberating character of God. Both read the Bible from a social location and, in this instance, the slave reading of Scripture proved correct.
While Scripture has a single, objective meaning located in the authors’ (human and divine) intent, no one comes to the text from a purely objective perspective. We all bring with us our cultures and experiences. I saw a book in our church library called A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23. The title acknowledges that we can expect the author’s shepherding experience to yield insights not readily available to someone who has lived his entire life in an urban jungle. Likewise, we should expect that the African American experience will provide a certain perspective on Scripture not easily available to a member of the majority culture.
McCaulley does not say that African American interpretation trumps other interpretations, but that we should enter into dialogue with it. Biblical interpretation is an exercise in dialogue. The interpreter brings her questions to Scripture and, at the same time, Scripture asks questions of the interpreter. Entering into a diverse community broadens the dialogue between people of different backgrounds and social locations. Sometimes these social locations leave us with blind spots and reading in dialogue helps us overcome our otherwise anemic interpretations.
A Hermeneutic of trust
If McCaulley’s evangelical flank challenges the notion of a uniquely African American interpretation then he faces another challenge from the progressive flank: distrust of Scripture. Progressives, and what he calls “Black nihilists,” question whether Scripture can yield any fruit at all in the question for justice. Why would African Americans adopt the very religion and sacred Text used to oppress them?
In the face of this challenge, McCaulley argues that we should “adopt a hermeneutic of trust in which we are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly it will yield a blessing and not a curse.” (21) He does not call us to a naivete that buries hard questions glosses over difficult passages, but to enter into a careful, canonical, and theological reading of Scripture.
An exercise in hope
Reading Scripture in this way produces hope. “The point of the very process of engaging these Scriptures and expecting an answer is an exercise in hope.” (166) I heard McCaulley say in an interview that, while the title went through several iterations, he always included the word hope. Hope saturates Reading While Black. McCaulley finds hope in God who brings physical and spiritual liberation. He finds hope in Jesus, who entered into our suffering and forgives our sins. He finds hope in the resurrection and the coming kingdom of God.
McCaulley has much to teach us in the American church, no matter our social location. How do we read Scripture in a diverse community? What can white Christians learn specifically from the Black ecclesial tradition? How do we approach the Bible from the position of trust? How do we face the brokenness of our world with hope?