Reading While Black | Reflections & Notes

Esau McCaulley. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. InterVarsity Press, 2020. (198 pages)


In Christian publishing, there’s plenty of theology books. The good ones help us understand what was said by the original authors of the bible, and elucidate the history and culture of the compositional setting. However, too frequently, these books are extrapolations and recapitulations of internecine debates that live in the parochial and esoteric. They are “so heavenly minded, they’re no earthly good.”

Then there are books that push hard for a new and renewed vision of Christianity that meets our contemporary context for an innovative and “evolved” expression of faith. These books speak to the current moment and leverage the zeitgeist. But too frequently they are theologically, historically, linguistically, and culturally sloppy. At times they stretch academic credibility to fit their rhetorical agenda. At times, mere fabrications are posited.

Then there are books like Reading While Black, which meld the most critical tools of analysis with the most crucial of human experiences and state boldly that an honest dialectic between the two is where the truth lies. McCaulley does in this book what I wish all Christians would do in their lives, ignore neither history nor identity, neither scholarship nor affections, neither study nor experience. For some of us, this will be a startling wake-up call. For others, a profound heresy. And even for others, a clear affirmation of what their understanding and traditions have been saying for centuries. It is that very scope of response that evinces the grounding this book has in its commitment to the truth of the matter.

A couple inquires that I had while reading:

  1. McCaulley never really gives a full definition of “hope,” something I feel would add to the already well-established theses. I
  2. “While Black” has a negative cultural connotation, an axiom for describing the grievous ways in which Black people are treated for simply living life. I would be curious about McCaulley’s reflections on the utilization of this terminology for this book. A profound redemption, perhaps?
  3. Theology, at least in the United States, has been dominated by a eurocentric voice. “Reformed” theology is fiercely imposing in virtually all American Christian expressions. I’d be curious to ask, a) if that statement actually betrays something more profoundly unjust about our theological education in America (and/or my ignorance/experience), and/or b) if there’s a tension in valuing euro-centric scholarship as a means through which we understand “Black ecclesial interpretation.”

Ultimately, this is a compelling presentation of the good news, not just as it relates to Black people, but to the whole of humanity, the vision that the first followers of Jesus were, themselves, evolving to understand. I sense that we too, are on the cusp of embracing that same vision Jesus had for us all, and McCaulley’s work is fantastically advancing that cause.


1 The South Got Somethin’ to Say
Making Space for Black Ecclesial Interpretation

Put simply, I knew the Lord and the culture. Both engaged in an endless battle for my affections. I love hip hop because sometimes it felt as if only the rappers truly understood what it was like to experience the heady mix of danger, drama, and temptation that marked Black life in the South. … But I also loved my mother’s gospel music because it filled me with hope, and it connected me to something old and immovable. If hip hop tended toward nihilism and utilitarian ethics (the game is the game so we do what we must to survive), then my mother’s music, rooted in biblical texts and ideas, offered a vision of something bigger and wider. The struggle I speak of is not merely between two genres of music. I am referring to the struggle between Black nihilism and Black hope. I am speaking of the ways in which the Christian tradition fights for and makes room for hope in a world that tempts us toward despair. I contend that a key element in this fight for hope in our community has been the practice of Bible reading and interpretation coming out of the Black church, what I am calling Black ecclesial interpretation. (3)

The Black Christian tradition is not and has never been a monolith, but it is fair to say that the Black church tradition is largely orthodox in its theology in the sense that it holds to many of the things that all Christians have generally believed. (5)

I want to make a case that this fourth thing, this unapologetically Black and orthodox reading of the Bible can speak a relevant word to Black Christians today. I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition–its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith–can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition. This is a work against the cynicism of some who doubt that the Bible has something to say; it is a work contending for hope. (6)


Black students do not really enter in as actors. We are acted upon, our suffering functioning as examples of the evils of white fundamentalism. (8)

IF the Bible needs to be rejected to free Black Christians, then such a view seems to entail that the fundamentalists had interpreted the Bible correctly. All the things that racists had done to us, then, had strong biblical warrant. My professor’s victory felt too much like my mother’s defeat. She had always told me that the racists were the poor interpreters and that we were reading correctly when we saw in biblical texts describing the worth of all people an affirmation of Black dignity. This entire debate had been crafted and carried on without any regard for the Black testimony. I was a casualty of someone else’s war. (9)

I dropped my religion major, not because it challenged my faith with hard questions, but because it didn’t ask the right hard questions. Nonetheless, the questions raised in those classes set me on a journey that ironically enough would lead me back to the issues surrounding the Bible and its relationship to Black culture. (9)

The more time I spent among evangelicals, the more I realized that those spaces can subtly and not subtly breed a certain disdain for what they see as the “uncouthness” of Black culture. (11)

I was told that the social gospel had corrupted Black Christianity. (11)

I learned that too often alongside the four pillars of evangelicalism [Bebbington’s Quadrilateral: Conversionism, Activism, Biblicism, Crucicentrism]…there were unspoken fifth and sixth pillars. These are a general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentlemen’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and system injustice. (11)

My struggle was more than different readings of American history and issues of justice. I had difficulty with how the Bible functioned in parts of evangelicalism. (12)

I read biblical commentaries that displayed little concern for how biblical texts speak to the experiences of Black believers. When there was an attempt to provide practical applications to texts, these applications were too often designed for white middle-class Christians. Others decided not to apply the text at all. Instead scholars simply described the Jewish and Christian world of the first century. To me, it was a sign of privilege to imprison Paul and Jesus in the first century. For Paul, his Scriptures (the Old Testament) were a fire that leaped the gap and spoke a word to his ethnically mixed churches (12) about the nature of their life together. What an audacious thought! The Black pastors I knew had the same audacity to think that texts of the New Testament spoke directly to the issues facing Black Christians. They were part of a long history of Black interpreters who felt the same. Therefore, while I appreciated the doctrinal emphasis on Scripture within evangelicalism, I needed more to feel whole and complete as a Christian. I felt a strong call to dig deep into the roots of the Black Christian tradition to help me navigate the complexities of Black existence in the United States. (13)


What I am suggesting is an ongoing discussion among Black Christians where neither partner is presumed to be arguing in bad faith or merely puppeting white voices. (16)

| I am still rooting for Black theologians and biblical scholars. We need more voices not fewer, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t space for rigorous disagreement and debate about the nature, sources, and means of the Black interpretive enterprise. (16)


What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.” ― Frederick Douglass, The Life of an American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), 117.

Frederick then posits a distinction, not so much between Black Christianity and white, but between slaveholder religion and the Christianity of Jesus and the Bible. Black Christianity historically, I would come to understand, has claimed that white slave master readings of the Bible used to undergird white degradation of Black bodies were not merely one manifestation of Christianity to be contrasted with another. Instead they said that such a reading was wrong. Enslaved Black people, even those who remained illiterate, in effect questioned white exegesis. (17)

This focus on God as liberator stood in stark contrast to the focus of the slave masters who emphasized God’s desire for a social order with white masters at the top and enslaved Black people at the bottom. But the story doesn’t stop there. Alongside the story of the God of the exodus is the God of Leviticus, who calls his people to a holiness of life. The formerly enslaved managed to celebrate both their physical liberation and their spiritual transformation, which came as a result of their encounter with the God of the Old and New Testaments. (17)

I contend that the enslaved person’s biblical interpretation, which gave birth to early Black biblical interpretation, was canonical from its inception. It placed Scripture’s dominant themes in conversation with the hopes and dreams of Black folks. It was also unabashedly theological, in that particular texts were read in light of their doctrine of God, their beliefs about humanity (anthropology) and their understanding of salvation (soteriology). (19)

I propose that dialogue, rooted in core theological principles, between the Black experience and the Bible has been the model and needs to be carried forward into our day. This means that it is laudable to engage in what Brian Blount, noted New Testament scholar, called an “academically unorthodox experiment” of asking questions of the text that grow out the reality of being Black in America. [Brian K. Blount, Then the Whisper Put on Flesh: New Testament Ethics in an African American Context (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 16.] (20)

Euro-American scholars, ministers, and lay folk…have, over the centuries, used their economic, academic, religious, and political dominance to create the illusion that the Bible, read through their experience, is the Bible read correctly. – Blount, 15.

Stated differently, everybody has been reading the Bible from their locations, but we are honest about it. (20)

But the dialogue goes both ways. If our experiences pose particular and unique questions to the Scriptures, then the Scriptures also pose unique questions to us. … For example, the theme of forgiveness and the universal kinship of humanity is both a boon and a trial for Black Christians because of the historic and ongoing oppression of Black people in this country. (20)

I propose instead that we adopt the posture of Jacob and refuse to let go of the text until it blesses us. Stated differently, we adopt a hermeneutic of trust in which we are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly it will bring a blessing and not a curse. This means that we do the hard work of reading the text closely, attending to historical context, grammar, and structure. (21)

My claim then is that Black biblical interpretation has been and can be

  • 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. (21)

What I have in mind then is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ. … African American exegesis, then, precisely because it is informed by the Black experience, has the potential to be universal when added to the chorus of believers through time and across cultures. (22)

…it is an attempt to show that the instincts and habits of Black biblical interpretation can help us use the Bible to address the issues of the day. It is an attempt to show that for Black Christians the very process of interpreting the Bible can function as an exercise in hope and connect us to the faith of (23) our ancestors. More than that, it is one attempt of one son to do justice to the faith given to him by his mother, as a representative of a tradition that has borne Black people in this country up under suffering for centuries. … It is a love letter from a somewhat wayward son of the Black church who did not appreciate its depth and power until he went searching for the truth–and found that it was at home all along. (24)

2 Freedom Is No Fear
The New Testament and a Theology of Policing

cf. “You Really Can Get Pulled Over for Driving While Black, Federal Statistics Show,” Washington Post

I will maintain that Romans 13:1-7 asserts the sovereignty of God over the state. Paul says that the state’s policing duties should never be a terror to those who are innocent. Building upon the insights on the link between the soldier and the police officer, we will turn our attention to the ministry of John the Baptist as it’s recorded in Luke’s Gospel. There we will see him calling on the soldiers/law enforcement officers to do their job with integrity. (29)


The problem is not that, according to their interpretation, Paul forbids rebelling against wicked rulers. The problem is the wicked rulers themselves. The issue, I want to suggest, is not merely exegetical; it is also philosophical. The path forward is not only found in a new exegetical insight, a new twist on a verb here or noun there. The way beyond the impasse is to pursue the logic of the text to the end. (30)

Therefore we must ask why a good God, who is sovereign over all, would allow evil rulers to come to power? Stated differently, the question is not about our submission to wicked rulers, but their very existence. The criticism of Paul, then, is theodicy in a different form. (31)

One response to the problem of evil has been to posit the cross and resurrection as God’s answer to the question. We do not worship a God who sits apart, but who enters human pain and redeems it from within. … We are given an act of love that woos us. And we know that this wooing isn’t a false promise because the resurrection proves that God is sovereign over life and death. Our focus on eschatology in any case is not unique. The nihilist is just as driven by their eschatology. It’s just that his or hers is devoid of hope: let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die. (31)

I suggest that Paul’s words about submission to governing authorities must be read in light of four realities: (1) Paul’s use of Pharoah in Romans as an example of God removing authorities through human agents shows that his prohibition against resistance is not absolute; (2) the wider Old Testament testifies to God’s use of human agents to take down corrupt governments; (3) in light of the first two propositions, we can affirm that God is active through human beings even when we can’t discern the exact role we play; (4) therefore, Paul’s words should be seen as more of a limit on our discernment than on God’s activities. (31)

I maintain, then, that we read Romans 13:1-2 as a statement about the sovereignty of God and the limits of human discernment. …we cannot claim divine sanction for the proper timing and method of solving the problems we discern. [I contend that Paul’s theology of government is not much different from what we encounter in Daniel 2:20-21, which says the following: “Blessed be the name of God from age to age, / for wisdom and power are his. / He changes times and seasons, / deposes kings and sets up kings.”] Again, this does not place limits on our ability as Christians to call evil by its name, but it does obligate us to be willing to suffer the consequences of living in a fallen world. We recognize that the state has been given its responsibilities. We are not anarchists, but we do recognize that the state is in fact under God. (33)

[via: I had qualms about the word “obligate” regarding the “willingness to suffer…” Also, true, we are not anarchists, but are we not “theocrats?”]

If the resurrection is true, and the Christian stakes his or her entire existence on its truthfulness, then our peaceful witness testifies to a new and better way of being human that transcends the endless cycle of violence. (34)


…I contend that paul’s words here can be seen as a comment on the role that police officers should play in the body politic. (34) … Paul recognizes that the state has a tremendous influence on how the soldier/officer treats its citizens. Thus, if there is to be a reform it must be structural and not merely individualistic. This is grounds in a democracy for a structural advocacy on behalf of the powerless. Second, Paul says that the government should not be a source of fear for the innocent. (35)


When I refer to police officers, I have in mind, “any organized unit of men under official command whose duties involved maintaining public order and state control in a civilian setting.” [Christopher J. Furhmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration and Public Order (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012), 6.] … One of the first things [Octavian] did was transform the Roman militia into a standing (35) army. [Pat Southern, The Roman Army: A Social and Institutional History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 96-97.] … Alongside his guard, Octavian set up the vigiles, a group whose initial mandate was to prevent arson and put out fires. Their role expanded, however, to include investigating petty crimes. [Furhmann, Policing the Roman Empire, 117.] (36)

…a Roman Christian could expect to interact with the officers/soldiers (36) quite regularly. (37)

Augustus justified his rule by lauding the “peace” that he brought to the empire. In his famous Res Gestae, he relies on an ancient legend about the closing of the gate of Janus Quirinus to demonstrate the unprecedented peace he brought to Rome. (37)

Our ancestors wanted Janus Quirinus to be closed when throughout all the rule of the Roman people, by land and sea, peace had been secured through victory. Although before my birth it had been closed twice in all in recorded memory from the founding of the city, the senate voted three times in my principate that it be closed. [Augustus, Res Gestae, trans. Thomas Bushnell (n.p.: n.p., 1998), 13,

Another neglected aspect of the soldier’s role was assisting in tax collection. (37)

…the Aediles and their staff. In the days of the republic, their job was to care for the temples and some of the public works of the city. Eventually, this role expanded to include maintaining public order. They also oversaw the markets by making sure that taxes were paid and the scales at the market were just. (38)

In short, at any moment in the lives of Roman church members, they might come face to face with the state and its sword. Stated differently, the Roman Christian’s interaction with the power of the state bears some striking similarities to the potential encounters African Americans might have with the police in our day. (38)


The problem, if there is one, does not reside solely in those who bear the sword, but those who direct it. In other words, Paul does not focus on individual actions, but on power structures. (39)

[via: cf. Christ and the Powers]

What does Paul’s focus on structure mean for a Christian theology of policing? It means that the same government that created the structures has some responsibility to see those wrongs righted and injustice undone. Furthermore, if the power truly resides with the people in a democratic republic, then the Christian’s first responsibility is to make sure that those who direct the sword in our culture direct that sword in ways in keeping with our values. We can and must hold elected officials responsible for the collective actions of the agents of the state who act on our behalf. Furthermore, (39) as participants in a free society, we have the ability to shape public opinion about what crime is and how criminals should be viewed. … A Christian theology of policing, then, must grow out of a Christian theology of persons. (40)

…we must always remember that Paul’s words on submission to government come in the context of a Bible that shows God active in history to bring about his purposes. God lifts up and God tears down. To avoid that tearing down, those who have the task of government must do all in their power to construct a society in which Black persons can live and move and work freely. (41)


[John] tells them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Lk 3:14). If Romans 13:3-4 focuses on the responsibility of the state, then Luke 3:24 gives us a picture of the individual law enforcement officer’s responsibilities. (43)

Extortion involves using your power to prey on the weak. Extortion is only possible when the ex[t]orted* have no recourse. [*The copy I have has a typo, “…when the exhorted have no recourse.”] (43)

When John’s gospel recounts Pilate’s unintentionally profound words, “Behold the man,” it speaks to Jesus as the one true human who came to restore us all. At the same time, John makes it clear that even as an innocent person condemned to die Jesus is in fact a person. This is the Black claim on the conscience of those who police us. See us as persons worthy of respect in every instance. … Matthew 27:27-30 speaks to how a corrupt system can distort the souls of those charged with functioning in a broken system. (44)

Finally, John calls on those who police to be satisfied with their wages. This again points to the link between policing and money. … For John the Baptist, money can never trump justice. (44)


A Christian theology of policing, then, is a theology of freedom. (46)

A Christian theology of policing, then, looks to the state and calls it to remember its duties. It looks to the officer and demands that said officer recognize the tremendous responsibility and potential of the work that they do. If we undertake this task of calling on the officer and the state to be what God called them to be, then maybe the hopes of Black folks as they relate to the police in this country might be fulfilled. (46)

3 Tired Feet, Rested Souls
The New Testament and the Political Witness of the Church

Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?
Galatians 4:16

cf. “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense”:

JANUARY 16, 1963

In these times of tremendous tensions, and change in cherished patterns of life in our beloved Southland, it is essential that men who occupy places of responsibility and leadership shall speak concerning their honest convictions.

We the undersigned clergymen have been chosen to carry heavy responsibility in our religious groups. We speak in a spirit of humility, and only for ourselves. We do not pretend to know all the answers, for the issues are not simple. Nevertheless, we believe our people expect and deserve leadership from us, and we speak with firm conviction for we do know the ultimate spirit in which all problems of human relations must be solved.

It is clear that a series of court decisions will soon bring about desegregation of certain schools and colleges in Alabama. Many sincere people oppose this change and are deeply troubled by it. As southerners, we understand this. We nevertheless feel that defiance is neither the right answer nor the solution. And we feel that inflammatory and rebellious statements can lead only to violence, discord, confusion, and disgrace for our beloved state.

We therefore affirm, and commend to our people:

  1. That hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions.
  2. That there may be disagreement concerning laws and social change without advocating defiance, anarchy, and subversion.
  3. That laws may be tested in courts or changed by legislatures, but not ignored by whims of individuals.
  4. That constitutions may be amended or judges impeached by proper action, but our American way of life depends upon obedience to the decisions of courts of competent jurisdiction in the meantime.
  5. That no person’s freedom is safe unless every person’s freedom is equally protected.
  6. That freedom of speech must at all costs be preserved and exercised without fear of recrimination or harassment.
  7. That every human being is created in the image of God and is entitled to respect as a fellow human being with all basic rights, privileges, and responsibilities which belong to humanity.
  8. We respectfully urge those who strongly oppose desegregation to pursue their convictions in the courts, and in the meantime peacefully to abide by the decisions of those same courts. We recognize that our problems cannot be solved in our strength or on the basis of human wisdom alone. The situation that confronts us calls for earnest prayer, for clear thought, for understanding love, and or courageous action. Thus we call on all people of goodwill to join us in seeking divine guidance as we make our appeal for law and order and common sense.

C. C. J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D.
Bishop of Alabama

Joseph A. Durick, D.D.
Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile, Birmingham

Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman
Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama

Bishop Paul Hardin
Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference

Bishop Nolan B. Harmon
Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church

George M. Murray, D.D., LL.D.
Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama

Edward V. Ramage
Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States

Earl Stallings
Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

For many Black Christians the answer to this question is self-evident. We have never had the luxury of separating our faith from political action. Due to the era into which it was born, the Black church found it necessary to protest a policy put in place by the state: slavery. When Frederick Douglass asked his famous question, “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” he didn’t simply ask a question about the United States of America. He asked a question about American Christianity. He said:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. [Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” July 5, 1852,, emphasis added.]


I have already argued that (1) problems that many have with Romans 13:1-2 are more about theodicy than rulers; (2) Romans 9:16 and the wider Old Testament witnesses give us examples of God using humans to take down corrupt regimes; and therefore (3) Romans 13:1-7 should be read as a testimony to our inability to discern when God’s judgment will arrive. (51)

The reason we are called to pray is so that we can go about the work of being the people of God without being harassed. [James D. G. Dunn, “The Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” in 2 Corinthians-Philemon, NIB 11 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 797.] (52)

The popular misconception that Christians are called to pray and not to speak plainly about contemporary concerns fails to take seriously Paul’s own testimony in 1 Timothy about injustice. (52)

Prayer for leaders and criticism of their practices are not mutually exclusive ideas. Both have biblical warrant in the same letter. (53)


On one level, we can look at the entirety of Jesus’ ministry as an act of political resistance. (54)

Why would Herod perceive Jesus to be a threat? It certainly isn’t because Herod is particularly concerned about Jesus transgressing food or Sabbath laws. It is not because Jesus tells people that they should love God and love their neighbors. It is not because Jesus lauds the grace of God and points toward the inclusion of Gentiles. These issues wouldn’t be sufficient to rouse Herod from a nap. But something about Jesus causes the Pharisees to tell Jesus to “get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (Lk 13:31). (54)

[via: McCaulley makes two references to “Herod” on this page (45) and it is not made clear that there are actually two different Herods to who McCaulley is referring. The first, at Jesus’ birth, is Herod the Great. The second would be during Jesus’ adult ministry who is Herod Antipas.]

Herod [Antipas] saw Jesus as a (54) threat because his ministry of healing was a sign of the in-breaking reign of God. Repentance was spiritual preparation for God’s eschatological work of salvation. (55)

Rome ramped up security every Passover because Passover always threatened to rekindle the memory of God’s mighty act to save. (55)

To be called a fox in Jesus’ day meant being considered conniving and deceitful. (56)

Herod was a fox, not a king. It is not even clear that he had the ability to carry out the threat levied against Jesus. … The point here, is that fox is not simply an analysis of Herod’s limited piety. It is a description of his political activity as it (56) relates to the inevitable suffering of the people. (57)

Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus. (57)

Jesus saw his ministry as a part of a tradition of Israel’s prophets who told the truth about unfaithfulness to God that manifested itself in the oppression of the disinherited. Jesus drew on the prophets as he spoke truth to power. Therefore, those Black Christians who see in those same prophets the warrant for their own public ministry have Jesus as their support. (58)


When Paul calls the present age evil and looks to the creation of a new one, he stands in the middle of the prophetic tradition. There are two dangers in evoking this tradition. We can flatten its message or underinterpret its implications. (61)

…Paul believes that these dark powers also control earthly rulers. The economic, social, and political oppression of the people of God is nothing more than the physical manifestation of the spiritual sickness at the heart of the empire. (61)

| According to Paul, Jesus saves us from our sins, and he also calls us into a kingdom that treats its people better than the way Rome treats its citizens. When Paul calls this age evil and says that we are rescued from it, it is a statement that we are no longer bound to (61) order our lives according to the priorities, values, and aims of this age. We are free to live differently while we await the coming of the true king. Calling the social and political order evil is a political assessment as well as a theological one. (62)

Protest is not unbiblical; it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s own word and vision for the future. (62)


The question that ought to keep Christians up at night is not the political activism of Black Christians. The question should be how 1 Timothy 2:1-4 came to dominate the conversation about the Christian’s responsibility to the state. How did we manage to ignore the clearly political implications of Paul’s casual remarks about the evil age in Galatians and his wider reflections on the links between evil powers and politicians? How did John’s condemnation of Rome in Revelation fall from view? Why did Jesus’ public rebuke of Herod get lost to history? (64)


Mourning calls on all of us to recognize our complicity in the sufferings of others. We do not simply mourn the sins of the world. We mourn our own greed, lusts, and desires that allow us to exploit others. Sin is more than exploitation, but it is certainly not less. A theology of mourning never allows us the privilege of apathy. We can never put the interests of our families or our country over the suffering of the world. (65)

Biblical peacemaking is the cessation of hostilities between nations and individuals as a sign of God’s in-breaking kingdom. Peacemaking involves assessing the claims of groups in conflict and making a judgment about who is correct and who is incorrect. (68)

Peacemaking, then, cannot be separated from truth telling. The church’s witness does not involve simply denouncing the excesses of both sides and making moral equivalencies. It involves calling injustice by its name. If the church is going to be on the side of peace in the United States, then there has to be an honest accounting of what this country has done and continues to do to Black and Brown people. Moderation or the middle ground is not always the loci of (68) righteousness. … The call to be peacemakers is the call for the church to enter the messy world of politics and point toward a better way of being human. (69)

He doesn’t say establish peace by making them Christians, but make peace. Why? Because peacemaking can be evangelistic. Through our efforts to bring peace we show the world the kind of king and kingdom we represent. (69)


If Jesus could tell the Jews of his day that the leader of their country was corrupt, then why can’t we? (70)

4 Reading While Black
The Bible and the Pursuit of Justice

Black members of other religions or Black secularists who critique Christianity because of its lack of concern for justice has followed Black Christians since the beginning. … Not only must we push back on the European deconstruction of the Christian faith, we must also take seriously the claims coming from the Black critics. (72)

I did not join the Nation of Islam for a variety of reasons, even when I most despaired of a hopeful future for African Americans in this country. Why? I came to believe that we must ask questions in (72) their proper order. The fundamental question was whether or not the Christian story was true. I believed that the tomb was empty on the third day. White supremacy, even when practiced by Christians, cannot overcome the fact of the resurrection. (73)


Luke’s Gospel argues that God always intended to create an international, multiethnic community for his own glory. (75)

cf. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones & The African Methodist Episcopal Church

Luke’s writing as a Gentile to other Gentiles to tell them that they have a place in God’s kingdom is of direct relevance to Black preachers who proclaim to their congregations that they have a place in the kingdom of God as sons and daughters. (76) … We are God’s children. The United States (or any other country) has no say in determining our value. (77)



Zechariah and Elizabeth, then, were directly involved in making theological sense of Israel’s status as oppressed people under the thumb of the Roman Empire. They would have faced the cynicism and despair that marks the lives of the disinherited. … They would have faced the same questions that Black pastors have had to deal with for generations. Where is God? (79) Why hasn’t he saved us? Does he care about our suffering? Zechariah must have been forced to explain what Torah faithfulness meant in his context. Why keep the festivals and say the prayers if tomorrow might look much the same as yesterday? (80)

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have heard a sermon on the meaning of religion, of Christianity, to the man who stands with his back against the wall. It is urgent that my meaning be crystal clear. The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? – Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited,(3)

Zechariah and Elizabeth lived with national (Israel under the rule of Rome) and personal (no children) tragedy. In Luke’s Gospel, they represent all Israelites whose personal stories carry the brokenness of the larger corporate narrative within them. Similarly, Black suffering from injustice is not simply corporate; it is deeply personal. (81)

Zechariah and Elizabeth are, in a sense, Israel writ small. … [cf. Jer 8:20)]. It is important that Luke begins here because it situates the Jesus story in the middle of the pain of Israel, which includes the large-scale tragedy of exile and disinheritance along with the personal traumas each individual Israelite must face. In other words, Luke begins with the issue of injustice as a central concern. (81)

Zechariah and Elizabeth are the first generation of Black Christians who came to faith during slavery. Why put your faith in the God worshiped by slave owners? What good could come of it? How could its message be of use to you? The question posed by Frederick Douglass could also be found in the lament psalms of Israel: “Does a righteous God govern the universe? And for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?” [Frederick Douglass, The Life of an American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), 77-82; Milton C. Sernett, ed., African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 105.] (81)

Why would such a people who have every reason for cynicism put their faith in a God whose promises seem long delayed? The answer that Zechariah and Elizabeth provided is memory. (82)

Why did Zechariah and Elizabeth continue to trust in God? Because he was a God who frees from slavery–his fundamental character as liberator marked him out as trustworthy, even when they had yet to experience it. Black Christians who came to Christ surrounded by the false Gospel given to them by their slave masters were right to see in the exodus narrative a God worthy of their trust. The first generation of Black Christians and Zechariah’s generation share a common faith in the God revealed during the exodus. Therefore God’s decision to visit Zechariah and Elizabeth and Luke’s decision to begin his story here are in themselves vindications of Black faithfulness because we too know the longing for consolation. (82)

Zechariah and Elizabeth function in Luke’s narrative as a reminder that a dream deferred is not a dream denied. (84)


…if Black biblical interpretation is to be free to chart its own path, it is also free to reject the thoroughgoing skepticism that stands as one (85) legacy of the European dominance of biblical studies. Behind the skepticism about the virgin birth lies a whole tradition of skepticism about the nature of God’s involvement in human affairs. (86)

…we encounter Mary being asked to give the entirety of herself to give birth to a son who would change the world in ways that she could not imagine. In this very risk, this yes to God, Mary stands in for Black (and all other) Christians who are called to give the entirety of themselves, their very bodies for a future that they cannot see. Mary is the patron saint of faithful activists who give their very bodies as witnesses to God’s saving work. (86)

Mary’s imagery of the arm of the Lord and the exodus it evokes touches on that historic link between African Americans and the God of the Bible. The exodus is fundamental and in it Black Christians found a God who grants us liberation and a whole life to live before him. (89)

| What is the testimony of Mary? The testimony of Mary is that even in the shadow of the empire there is a space for hope and that sometimes in that space, God calls us from the shadows to join him in his great work of salvation and liberation. (89)


Kingship in the Bible is linked to justice. [cf. Ps 72:1-4]. According to the Psalmist, the king–who reflects God’s own justice–is on the side of the poor and the disinherited. Jesus’ kingly sonship is inseparable from God’s justice because Israel’s king cares for the poor. (90)


The question isn’t always which account of Christianity uses the Bible. The question is which does justice to as much of the biblical witness as possible. (91)

cf. Is 61:1; 58:3, 5-6

…Jesus preaches the gospel to the poor, the brokenhearted are healed, and those in bondage are set free. This shows that those whom society has declared secondary receive the place of priority in the kingdom. (82)

It is important to point out that the “gospel” preached here and elsewhere does more than affirm the value of the poor. Jesus sees them as moral agents capable of repentance. (93)


I am not claiming that the Bible outlines the policies necessary for the proper functioning of a Democratic Republic. I am saying that it outlines the basic principles and critiques of power that equip Black Christians for their life and work in these United States. (95)

5 Black and Proud
The Bible and Black Identity

I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem. [For a full defense of the black and beautiful translation, see Renita J. Weems, “The Song of Songs,” in Introduction to Wisdom Literature: Proverbs-Sirach, NIB 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 382-84.]
Song of Solomon 1:1

[via: I haven’t read Weems’ article, but there seems to be little need for a “defense” of the translation: שחורה אני ונאוה. Robert Alter’s translation reads “I am dark but desirable,…” My quibble is that this is v.5, not v.1 😉]

Historically, the claim that Christianity is European is fundamentally false. … It is a fact hiding in plain sight that the three major centers of early Christianity were the patriarchs of Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. (97)

We cannot have a pan-African account of history in which all Black and Brown people count as African in the secular account, but not the Christian one. Stated differently, if some secularists can look back to the greatness of our African past as the basis for Black identity now, then Black Christians can look to early African Christianity as their own. Therefore, it is historically inaccurate to say that Africans first heard of Christianity via slavery. The Christian story is ours too. It even stretches further back into early Christianity than (97) the three patriarchal sees of the emerging church catholic. (98)

[via: To show how out of the loop I am, this was a revelation to me, that apparently some are suggesting that “Africans first heard of Christianity via slavery.” Whaaa!?]

Nubia is an example of Christianity coming into African without any colonization. (98)


African blood floods into Israel from the beginning as a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (102)

…there was never a biologically “pure” Israel. Israel was always multiethnic and multinational. As a Black man, when I look to the biblical story, I do not see a story of someone else in which I find my place only by some feat of imagination. Instead God’s purposes include me as an irreplaceable feature along with my African ancestors. We are the first of those joined to Abraham’s family in anticipation of the rest of the nations of the earth. (102)


cf. Ps 72:1-4

He prays that the government might be a place where justice flourishes, and the afflicted can turn to the most powerful person in the country for deliverance. (104)


At the moment in which Christ is reconciling the world to himself on the cross, an African family is making its first steps toward the kingdom. (108)

This eunuch as a “despised thing” found hope in the shamed Messiah whose resurrection lifts those with imposed indignities to places of honor. This indignity was not ontological. The eunuch remained an image bearer. Christ showed the eunuch who he truly was. Christ, similarly, does not convey worth on ontologically inferior blackness. Those of African descent are image bearers in the same way as anyone else. What Christ does is liberate us to become what we are truly meant to be, redeemed and transformed citizens of the kingdom. (111)


The Negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation. … the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, “I am somebody. (Oh yeah) I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. (Go ahead) I have a rich and noble history, however painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my foreparents (That’s right), and now I’m not ashamed of that. I’m ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave.” (Yes sir) Yes [applause], yes, we must stand up and say, “I’m black (Yes sir), but I’m black and beautiful.” (Yes) This [applause], this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling (All right) by the white man’s crimes against him. (Yes) [Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go from Here?” in I Have a Dream: Speeches and Writings that Changed the World, ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 169-79. Also at The King Institute, Stanford.]

Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ – Revelation 5:5

This is relevant to the question of ethnic identity because Jesus’ vision for the climax of human history lauds the importance of ethnicity. (115)

cf. Revelation 7:9-10

These distinct peoples, cultures, and languages are eschatological, everlasting. At the end, we do not find the elimination of difference. Instead the very diversity of cultures is a manifestation of God’s glory. (116)

| God’s eschatological vision for the reconciliation of all things in his Son requires my blackness and my neighbor’s Latina identity to endure forever. Colorblindness is sub-biblical and falls short of the glory of God. What is it that unites this diversity? Is it not cultural assimilation, but the fact that we worship the Lamb. 9116)


…deeper than the historical question is the biblical one. Who owns the Christian story as it is recorded in the texts that make up the canon? I have contended that Christianity is ultimately a story about God (116) and his purposes. … The repeated claim of the New Testament is that Jesus is this king who brings these promises to fulfillment. He gathers the nations under him. We see this vision become flesh throughout the conversion of Africans: Simon and his family as well as the Ethiopian eunuch. Just as at the origin of the Israelites, at the origin of the church we find Black and Brown believers. Finally, we argued that at the end, when we finally meet our savior, we do not come to him as a faceless horde but as transformed believers from every tribe, tongue, and nation. When the Black Christian enters the community of faith, she is not entering a strange land. She is finding her way home. (117)

6 What Shall We Do with This Rage?
The Bible and Black Anger


The history of Black people in this country is a litany of suffering. Yet we are definitely more than this suffering. There is a thread of victory woven into the tale of despair. We are still here! Still, sometimes it’s hard to see that thread when the cloth is stained with blood. (121)

I want to present four Christian reflections on the issue of Black anger and suffering. First, I argue that Israel’s pain and anger as recorded in the prophets and the psalter provide a means of processing Black grief. Secondly, I contend that the prophets warn that the ever-spiraling cycle of violence is a dead end. Turning to the New Testament, I maintain that the cross functions as the end of the cycle of vengeance and death, and that the cross is a place where God enters into our pain. Finally, I suggest that the central biblical themes of the resurrection, ascension, and the final judgment are necessary in any account of Black anger and pain. (122)


The tale of this suffering can be found in Israel’s psalms of lament, especially its imprecatory psalms. (122)

cf. Ps 69:23-24; 109:7-10; 137

We will address God’s response to these psalms shortly, but first we must listen to the injustices that give rise to the anger. It is an anger born of powerlessness; it is a cry to the only one who is left to right these wrongs, God. To whom could the battered and bruised of Israel turn if not God? (123)

But to increase their sufferings still more, there now arrived those who had the charge of division of the captives…it was needful to part fathers from sons, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers…and who could finish that partition without great toil. For as often as they had placed them in one part the sons, seeing their fathers in another, rose with great energy and rushed over to them; the mothers clasped their other children in their arms, and threw themselves flat on the ground with them; receiving blows with little pity for their own flesh, if only they might not be torn from them. [Gomes Eanes de Zurara, The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, 2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1896-99), 80-81, as quoted in Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2010), 27.]

Here again we are reminded of all the ways, large and small, that Black bodies and emotions were managed. (125)

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.

[Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask,” Lyrics of Lowly Life (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1896), 167.

Psalm 137 is more than a personal memory of an oppressed people. It is a call for God to remember. (125)

Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (Ps 137:7-9 KJV)

…what kind of prayer would you expect Israel to pray after watching the murder of their children and the destruction of their families? What kinds of words of vengeance lingered in the hearts of the Black slave women and men when they found themselves at the mercy of their enslavers’ passions? (126)

The fact that Psalm 137 became a part of the biblical canon means that the suffering of the traumatized is a part of the permanent record. … By recording this in Israel’s sacred texts, God made their problems our problems. Psalm 137 calls on the gathered community to make sure that this type of trauma is never repeated. (126)

Based on the example of Psalm 137, I contend that Black Christians can and must articulate what has happened to us to God and to others as a part of the healing process. We must tell the truth. …the pain of the Black past must be carried forward and remembered as a testimony to what sin can and will do to the helpless. The beginning of the answer to Black anger is the knowledge that God hears and sees our pain. … More than that, their pain is not theirs to bear alone; it is wrapped up in the wider community’s hope for justice. (127)


The miracle of Israel’s Scriptures is not that there are calls to repay our enemies to the full. That is the stuff of human existence. The miracle of Israel’s witness is that the Old Testament could imagine something beyond blood vengeance. (127)

The Bible calls on us to develop a theological imagination within which we can see the world as a community and not a collection of hostilities. (129)


…if there is a miracle (that’s often criticized) of Black Christianity, it is that we have been profoundly influenced by the themes of forgiveness and the multiethnic community that fill the pages of the New Testament. We have found our way there by means of the cross. (129)

What is God’s first answer to Black suffering (and the wider human suffering and the rage that comes alongside it)? It is to enter that suffering alongside us as a friend and a redeemer. (130)

The Christian tradition says that the innocent one suffered for us individually and corporately to bring us to God (Gal 2:20; Rom 4:25). The profound act of mercy gives us the theological resources to forgive. We forgive because we have been forgiven. It is only by looking at our enemies through the lens of the cross that we can begin to imagine the forgiveness necessary for community. What do Black Christians do with the rage that we rightly feel? We sent it to the cross of Christ. (131)


I can forgive my enemies because I believe the resurrection happened. (134)

Belief in the resurrection requires us to believe that nothing is impossible. … If Black anger arises from the disregard of Black bodies and the failure to see us as persons, then resurrected Black and Brown bodies are God’s final affirmation of (134) our value. (135)

God’s terrible power to judge makes me long for everyone to take advantage of God’s offer of forgiveness. Christian eschatology breeds compassion. Many years into my Christian life I still feel the anger, but the cross and the reality of God’s power have changed me. I want the oppressor to repent and find healing. I want him or her to be free as well. (135)


We do not find fault with the broad center of the great Christian tradition. We lament its distortion by others and the ways in which we have failed to live up to the truths we hold dear. (136)

7 The Freedom of the Slaves
Pennington’s Triumph

Does the bible condemn slavery without any regard to circumstances or not? I, for one, desire to know. My repentance, my faith, my hope, my love, my perseverance all, all, I conceal it not, I repeat it, all turn upon this point. If I am deceived here–if the word of God does sanction slavery, I want another book, another repentance, another faith, and another hope! [Quoted in James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 27.]

In a sense the question behind all questions for Black Christians is this one. Did God intend our freedom? (139)

On the first read, the Bible does not appear to say all that we want it to say in the way that we want the Bible to say it. And yet this is the crucial part: the Bible says more than enough. The story of Christianity does not on every page legislate slavery out of existence. Nonetheless, the Christian narrative, our core theological principles, and our ethical imperatives create a world in which slavery becomes unimaginable. (139)


The question, for Jesus, is not what the Torah allows, but what God intended. (141)

Jesus’ argument here [Matthew 19:3-8] suggests that the norms for Christian ethics are not the passages that are allowances for human sin, such as Moses’ divorce laws. What matters is what we were made to be. …when we look at the passages in the Old Testament we have to ask ourselves about their purpose. Do they present a picture of what God wanted us to be or do they seek to limit the damage arising from a broken world? (141)

I want to contend that the Old Testament and later the New Testament create an imaginative world in which slavery becomes more and more untenable. Stated differently, God created a people who could theologically deconstruct slavery. … The widespread move to abolish slavery is a Christian innovation. (142)

[via: cf. Tom Holland, Dominion, specifically pages 141-143, and Gregory of Nyssa, and Benjamin Lay.]


I argued that Jesus makes a distinction within the Torah between passages that articulate God’s purposes (creation account) and those that limit the impact of human sin (divorce laws). When he was making ethical judgments, then, Jesus did not begin with the (142) allowances and reason from there. He called people to remember their creational purposes. I argue a similar logic should be used with the Old Testament slavery laws. (143)

[via: Everyone needs a story by which they live!]

Much is attempted to be made of the fact that men in other ages have been slaveholders. … But the question is not affected by what the Bible records as matter-of-fact history, but only by what it reveals as consistent or inconsistent with the moral nature of God, what is obedient or rebellious before his throne. [James W. C. Pennington, A two years’ absence, or, A farewell sermon, preached in the Fifth Congregational Church, Nov. 2, 1845 (Hartford, CT: H. T. Wells, 1845). (143)


cf. Deut 15:12-15

Hebrew Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom says that this passage “virtually abolishes the institution of slavery.” [Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, Anchor Bible 3b (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 2214.] There is no comparable law with this scope or generosity in the ancient Near East. [Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, 2214.] (146)

There were two main causes of slavery in the ancient Near East: debt and war. … The end of war and the end of scarcity carries with it the end of slavery because slavery grows out of lack and violence. (147)

[via: I am curious with these categories, clearly connected to the biblical context. No doubt economics was a part of “modern” slavery, but it was also exploitative, and political, yes?!]

Thus far, I have argued that the character of God as revealed in the exodus narrative and the compassion that it was to inspire provides us with the imaginative tools to think theologically about a world without slavery. I then claimed that the Hebrew slave manumission laws were linked to the land promise and allowed all Israelites to maintain a share in the inheritance. Finally, I argued that the limitation of the jubilee laws to Israelites strikes us as a hard word, but that it wasn’t rooted in the same anthropological distinctions that undergirded the American slave trade. In addition, I claim that the vision for the universal application of the law among the nations carries with it universal abolition. Furthermore, in contrast to about every other society of its day, the Torah promised freedom to any enslaved person that managed to escape their masters. (149)

cf. Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27

While this passage sadly does not eliminate all forms of abuse, it does say that any injury to the slave, including the loss of a tooth, results (150) in freedom. (151)


No one in Paul’s day or in the centuries that follow ever seemed to envision the end of slavery as an institution. [The notable exception being Gregory of Nyssa. See Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 141-42.] (151)

[via: I would also add Benjamin Lay, and to some extent, Macrina, Gregory’s sister.]

Paul’s more literal identification of himself by his criminal status places his high profile in the church to the side. Apostleship was not in this case a significant marker of Paul’s rank. Philemon, therefore, hears Paul placing himself on a level comparable to that of another criminal and slave. [Lloyd A. Lewis, “Philemon,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Brian K. Blount et al. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 439.]

Oneness in Christ transforms relationships. … This idea that slaves and masters are family undermines slavery. Who would enslave a brother or a sister? (153)

Onesimus did not run away; he escaped. (156)

Our lives are embittered to us. … By our deplorable situation we are rendered incapable of shewing our obedience to Almighty God. How can a slave perform the duties of husband to a wife or a parent to his child? How can a husband leave master to work and cleave to his wife? … How can the child obey their parents in all things? There is a great number of us sencear … members of the Church of Christ. How can the master and the slave be said to fulfill the command, ‘Live in Love let brotherly love contuner [continue] and abound Beare ye one anothers Bordens’? How can the master be said to Bear my Borden when he Bears me down with they Have [heavy] chains of slavery and operson against my will and how can we fulfill oure part of duty to him whilst in this condition as we cannot searve our God as we ought in this situation. [An excerpt of an appeal by enslaved Christians to the house of representatives in Massachusetts in 1774. Quoted in Callahan, Talking Book, 34.]

I propose, then, when Paul speaks of slaves honoring their masters, he does not mean unquestioned obedience. Drawing on the prophetic tradition, he has in mind behaving in such a way that their masters are drawn to God. This included, according to the Old Testament testimony, periodic refusal to obey. This is not slavery as evangelism. Instead, it is saying that even in slavery one has some ability to live in a way that testifies to their beliefs. (161)

Paul does not go all the way and say, let’s actualize what the gospel implies. Instead he says that even in this changed circumstance we still owe them love and respect as the church begins to fully implement the realities of the gospel. (161))


It is simply false to claim that the Old and New Testaments simply baptize the institutions as they find them. Instead, the Scriptures raise tensions between the central themes of the Bible and slavery. (162)

My sentence is that slavery is condemned by the general tenor and scope of the New Testament. Its doctrines, its precepts, and all its warnings against the system. I am not bound to show that the New Testament authorizes me in such a chapter and verse to reject a slaveholder. It is sufficient for me to show what is acknowledged by my opponents, that it is murdering the poor, corrupting society, alienating the brethren, and sowing the seed of discord in the bosom of the whole church. … Let us always bear in mind of what slavery is and what the gospel is. [Pennington, Two Years Absence, 27.]

Conclusion: An Exercise in Hope

This book is not successful if it has been innovative; I have succeeded if it has reminded others of home. (164)

Our theology of public witness and protest in the field of biblical studies remains anemic. (166)

Black pain and anger rising from it is not going away. Therefore, the long tradition of Black reflection on our pain will continue. The slave question will be with us until the eschaton. Therefore we must continue to read, write, interpret, and hope until the advent of the one who will answer all our questions, or render them redundant. (167)

Bonus Track: Further Notes on the Development of Black Ecclesial Interpretation

Many recognize that Black Christianity began as a counter-interpretation. (168)

The emphasis on the Bible in evangelical circles spurred on the Black desire for literacy. (170)

We can witness at least three responses arising from the Black encounter with the Bible in this period. Some formerly enslaved people used the Bible to argue against color-based racism and slavery, a favorite text being the rendering of Acts 17:26 in the King James Version. It said that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth.” [See Olaudah Equiano, “Traditional Ibo Religion and Culture,” in African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, ed. Milton C. Sernett (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 18).] … Others seemed to internalize at least in part the negative understanding of Black worth found among white Christians. [See Jupiter Hammon, “Address to the Negroes in the S[t]ates of New York,” in African American Religious History, 34-43.] (170) … A third strand of Black interpretation contended that the Bible called for an exodus-like revolt for freedom. (171)

cf. Nat Turner

Most Black writers from this period saw in the texts of the Old and New Testament a message calling for liberation from actual slavery. This call for the end of slavery did not mean that they neglected personal salvation from sin. This call for individual and societal transformation within the context of the historic confessions of Christianity is what I came to think of as the mainstream or at least a significant strand of the Black ecclesial tradition. (171)

This bifocal appropriation of the Christian message as a power that can bring about personal and societal change is the Black Christian tradition’s gift to the American churhc. These three realities (critique, acquiescence, and rebellion) sit side by side, not so much as interpretative methods, but responses to what African Americans saw in the text. One sought to end racism and form a family rooted in our mutual recognition of the imago Dei and belief in the lordship of Christ. Another group accepted the Black plight (171) and tried to make the most of it, looking for an eschatological redemption. A third saw hope in revolution. (172)


Slaveholders were not disinterested exegetes. They put their lust for power and material wealth in front of the text and read the Bible from that perspective. (172)

On the whole these early Black Christians combined a strong affirmation of the need for personal salvation with varying levels of social action and resistance. … All Christians are a part of one story and are in varying levels of dialogue with past and present interpretations. Christian communities do not spring into existence ex nihilo. The early Black church’s reorientation of the gospel to a more holistic and faithful witness than the one on offer by slaveholders is a manifestation of this ongoing conversation about the nature of the Christian faith. (175)


…from slaves to rulers, from court officials to authors who wrote parts of the Old Testament itself, from lawgivers to prophets, black peoples and their lands and invidual black persons appear numerous times. In the veins of Hebrew-Israelite-Judahite-Jewish peoples flowed black blood. [Copher, “Black Presence in the Old Testament,” 164. For an analysis of these claims see Brown, Blackening of the Bible, 25-34.]

cf. James Cone, “Biblical Revelation and Social Existence.”

Cone rightly argues that all theology is socially located. According to Cone, this is a good thing because acknowledging social location affirms the goodness of the creation in which God has placed his people.

If God had chosen as his ‘holy nation’ the Egyptian slave master instead of the Israelite slaves a completely different kind of God would have been revealed. Thus, Israel’s election cannot be separated from her servitude and liberation. [James Cone, “Biblical Revelation,” 162.]

The hermeneutical principle for an exegesis of the scriptures is the revelation of God in Christ as the liberator of the oppressed from social oppression and to political struggle, wherein the poor recognize that their fight against poverty and injustice is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Christ. [Cone, “Biblical Revelation,” 174.]

…I agree with Cone and others’ assertion that Jesus’ crucifixion was an act of state-sponsored terror, and his resurrection does empty the state of its most prized weapon, the power of life and death. However, the death of Christ is not merely a critique of the totalizing and oppressing power of the state. It is also, according to a variety of texts right across the New Testament, a means of reconciling God and humanity. It is an act of atonement that brings about the forgiveness of sins (Rom 4:25). (179)

The term womanist comes from Alice Walker, who used the term to refer to a form of feminism that explicitly links issues of race to an appreciation of the abilities of and advocacy for the rights of Black women. … Womanist scholars critique white feminism for its failure to examine its own privilege and for its neglect of issues of race. It also critiques Black theology because it focused on racism to the exclusion of sexism and patriarchy. St. Clari, quoting Jones-Warsaw, offers the following definition. Womanist interpretation involves, “discover[ing] the significance and validity of the biblical text for Black women who today experience the ‘tridiemnsional reality’ of racism, sexism, and classism.” [Raquel St. Clair, “Womanist Biblical Interpretation,” in True to Our Native Land, 54.] (180)

…there is a difference between acknowledging the social location of interpretation and letting said location eclipse the text itself. There must be places where the Bible actually shapes Black Christian thought by telling us things taht we did not already know. (182)

A great deal of African biblical hermeneutics is a reaction or response to the perceived advancement of evangelical Christianity and fundamentalism in the African American community. [Brown, Blackening the Bible, 154-55.]

If we can affirm the fact that early Black traditionalists were influenced by their evangelical roots, we can also acknowledge the dependency of the early tradition of Black theology on the progressive turn in mainline seminaries, denominations, and universities. (182)

First, there is no one Black tradition, but at least three streams: revolutionary/nationalistic, reformist/transformist, and conformist. … Second, I noticed that there were some common tendencies among the reformist/transformist stream. I named this the Black ecclesial tradition because I think it lives on in pulpits even if it is less often in print. (183)

| I suggested that Black ecclesial interpretation is clearly socially located. …it is theological. …canonical. [and] displayed patience,… (183)

Black believers therefore have had to develop a double apologetic, answer questions posed by Black secularists and white progressives. These tools, if I have read the tradition correctly, allowed early Black believers to argue that there was a difference between true Christianity and its distortion. The habit of using these tools in their interpretation of the Bibel to discern the truth of the Christian faith from its opposite is what I am calling Black ecclesial interpretation. If this work has gone some way toward helping another generation make the same distinctions, then it has done its job. (184)

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