Tag Archives: Reading while Black

The Political Protest of the Church

In my previous post, I reviewed Esau McCaulley’s approach to finding the meaning of the Scriptures through the lens of the “black ecclesial tradition.” Here we see the fruit that this approach bears when considering the political witness of the church

In chapter 3 McCaulley asks the question “What does the New Testament have to say about the political witness of the church in response to the oppressive tendencies of the state?” (50) 

McCaulley asks this question primarily concerning political protest, in particular, the long tradition of African American protest in the Civil Rights movement and today. However, this topic has relevance, to any situations where “those in authority stand in the way of us living as free Christians.” (52)

McCaulley surveys several passages in the New Testament to answer the question. We’ll look at his interpretation of three of those passages: Luke 13:31-33, Galatians 1:3-4, and Matthew 5:3-12.

Jesus and Herod: Luke 13:31-33

“At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”

Luke 13:31-33

Why was Herod trying to kill Jesus? Why did Herod see Jesus as a threat? While Herod did not fear God he understood that the populace saw Jesus’ healing ministry “as a sign of the in-breaking reign of God.” (55) He would have known that “the possibility that the advent of God’s reign through Jesus might upset his own,” (55) if not through divine power then through popular uprising.[1] 

Jesus responds by calling Herod a fox. Jesus meant this as a critique of the cunning and deceit he used to gain power. Herod used his power only to make himself appear great, not use it for the good of the people. By calling Herod a “fox” Jesus offers a “description of his political activity as it relates to the inevitable suffering of the people.” (55)

After that, Jesus refers to his prophetic identity. Jesus stands in continuity with the prophets of the Old Testament who combined a religious critique with a political one. McCaulley uses Isaiah as a case study to show that prophets “offer a criticism of Israel both for its failure to follow the one true God and for its oppression of the poor.” (57) For examples see Isaiah 5:81:4, and 1:17. Isaiah saw that failures of righteousness and justice are linked. “Israel’s oppression of the poor in his day betrayed a practical apostasy” (58) and the prophets called out both the apostasy and oppression of Israel’s rulers.

Jesus and the prophets gave a political critique to those who practiced injustice and oppression.  

Paul and the Rulers: Galatians 1:3-4

“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”

Galatians 1:3-4

McCaulley identifies the “present evil age” as the world held under the domain of spiritual powers. These “powers and authorities” (Ephesians 6:12) influence earthly rulers and their political, economic, and social policies. In Rome, this would have included “the demonic evil of slavery… and economic exploitation of the populace… both of which existed because of the policies of Roman leadership as dictated by spiritual forces.” (60)

How, then, does Jesus rescue us from this present evil age? We could interpret this passage by saying that Paul is only referring to “spiritual enslavement.” Or, we could interpret Paul as calling the church to establish God’s kingdom on earth in the present. 

In contrast to these interpretations, McCaulley says that “Jesus saves us from our sins, and he also calls us into a kingdom that treats people better than the way Rome treats its citizens.” (61). Jesus rescues us from this present evil age by freeing us to live as free people while we await his return. As free people, we may with Paul call oppressive systems in this world evil. 

McCaulley concludes from Paul: “Protest is not unbiblical; it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s word and vision for the future.” (62) The church stands as a continual truth-telling beacon, embodying the freedom of Jesus, in a dark world.

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:3-12

Finally, we turn to the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). McCaulley reflects on three: Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice[2], and blessed are the peacemakers. 

Blessed are those who mourn: Those who mourn do so because they sense that something is wrong in the world. A theology of mourning keeps us from apathy. It causes us to hunger for something better. Mourning forms the basis of our protest.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: We need to do more than mourn what is wrong with the world, but be armed with a better way. Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God gives us that better world to long for. “Hungering and thirsting for justice is nothing less than the continued longing for God to come and set things right.” (66)

Blessed are the peacemakers: Mourning over the fallenness of our world, combined with a hunger to see things set right, leads us to pursue peace, to be peacemakers. The bible gives us a robust picture of peacemaking. Peacemaking involves more than just the cessation of external conflict, it involves truth-telling, righting wrongs, and restoring relationships. Biblical peacemaking can be both corporate (ethnic/national) and personal. 

What do these reflections have to do with the church’s political witness? While the beatitudes certainly have a personal application, in the messianic context, a context in which Jesus is announcing himself as the new King with a new rule (see note 1 below), they are “unavoidably political.” In this context, “Jesus asks us to see the brokenness in society and to articulate an alternative vision for how we might live.” (66) and then to pursue that vision through peacemaking. 

Conclusion: 

McCaulley does not offer us a systematic theology of political engagement. Instead, through this collection of texts (and more that I have left out[3]), he demonstrates a pattern in Scripture that shows us that the systems of this world are corrupt (a present evil age) and that Christians have a role in identifying that corruption. He uses phrases like “bearing witness” and “articulate an alternative vision” to show that the New Testament doesn’t speak of using coercive power, but of showing a better way forward.

I believe his key points are as follows: 

  1. Christ-followers have a role to play in calling out the evil of the present age embodied in unjust rulers and systems (political protest). In so doing, we follow the examples of Jesus and the prophets
  2. Christ frees us from this present evil age and that freedom enables us to live in such a way that bears witness to his coming kingdom (church as an alternate political reality)
  3. God calls us to seek the goodness of his kingdom, not as though we can construct it, but because we hunger and thirst for the justice that comes along with Christ’s reign. We do this through telling the truth, righting wrongs, and restoring relationships (advocacy, justice, reconciliation)  

As we wait for the final coming of God’s kingdom at Christ’s return “He calls us to enter into this work of actualizing the transformation that he has already begun in the death and resurrection of his Son… [which] includes bearing witness to a different and better way of ordering our societies in a world whose default instinct is oppression.” (70)

[1] We face an interesting dilemma right off that bat. Was Jesus a political figure and did he threaten Herod’s reign? He answers this in John 18:36 saying, “my kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus is the King who, in an ultimate and eschatological sense, undermines all of the world’s kings and kingdoms. Yet, his kingship and kingdom do not derive from worldly power. Herod was right to be threatened by Jesus, but he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of that threat, just as Jesus’ disciples were right that he came to bring in a new kingdom, but fundamentally misunderstood the nature of that kingdom. 

[2] Throughout this chapter, McCaulley translates Matthew 5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” instead of the more common righteousness. I wish he had explained this move since it may distract his readers. I believe McCaulley’s translation to be valid for two reasons. First, the Greek word carries with it a sense of justice. Second, as noted in the discussion of Isaiah, Scripture closely links righteousness (personal) with justice (public, social). 

[3] Of particular note here is the book of Revelation, which stands as a critique of Roman power and oppression.

An Exercise in Hope

Introduction

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?