African American Biblical Interpretation As An Exercise in Hope
By Esau McCaulley
I have been reading Scripture and theology since 1968—for 55 years, but I have never read a book, an essay, or even a sermon on “A Theology of Policing” until I opened chapter two of this wonderful book. Therein lies the essential genius of this book, the value of this “exercise in hope.” Professor McCaulley describes his own experience of racial profiling, complete with the disrespectful manner in which he was treated by ordinary policemen. In response, years later, this Christian theologian explored Holy Scripture in search of what he names as a theology of policing. In so doing, he took me (and he will take you) on a biblical journey I never knew was possible.
For years, I have taught my students and congregants this important truth: it is not what you affirm about the Bible that is of great significance but what you emphasize in the Bible. This book is a powerful demonstration of this fundamental rule of reading. McCaulley brings questions to the Bible that have never crossed my mind; and his answers open up ways of reading texts I have long ignored, dismissed, or simply misunderstood.
He, of course, illustrates my interpretive principle by the way he treats biblical texts that deal with slavery. Does the God of the Bible offer hope for slaves? That is his question. One by one, he reads and reflects on biblical texts that address the subject, not just the one used by southern enslavers (1 Timothy 6:1-3) but also the Torah guidelines for freeing slaves, treating slaves, and protecting slaves. More than once, he contrasts the humane approach to slavery in Hebrew culture with that found elsewhere. He asserts in several places, “This law again was without precedent in the ancient Near East or the Greco-Roman world in Jesus’ day” (149).
McCaulley gives a fresh reading to the Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus affair. He asserts that Onesimus “escaped” from his slavery; and Paul uses slavery language in describing his own condition—”I am a slave to the Lord Jesus Christ—in order to push Philemon toward a higher rationale for freeing Onesimus, for receiving him as a full and free brother in the Christian community.
I bought this book two years ago, and I started reading it this week in honor of Black History Month. (Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is next on my February reading list!—it will take a bit longer to read!)
I must say that another thing about the book intrigued me. McCaulley received his ministerial education at the well-known Evangelical seminary in Massachusetts, Gordon Conwell. He now teaches at another well-known Evangelical institution, Wheaton College in Illinois. In chapter one (“The South Got Somethin’ to Say,” a phrase taken from the American rapper, singer, actor, producer, and songwriter Andre Lauren Benjamin, or simply Andre 3000), McCaulley writes about three religious traditions that give shape to much of his world: white progressives, white evangelicals, and black progressives. He is seeking to voice “a fourth thing.”
“I am calling this fourth thing Black ecclesial theology and its method Black ecclesial interpretation. I am not proposing a new idea or method but attempting to articulate and apply a practice that already exists” (5). I am not informed enough on black church life and theology to critique his reading of history or his proposal; but I can say that his focus on the Exodus as revealing the character and purposes of God is very much needed in white Evangelicalism. Evangelicals tend to de-emphasize the entire Exodus tradition in the Bible, rushing headlong to Easter and reading Easter without reference to Exodus. It is this one-sided reading of the Bible that has equipped white Evangelicals to ignore social justice in favor of, say, personal fulfillment and eternal life.
Which means that white Evangelicals need to read this book as much and as often as any other group. They need to meditate on sentences like this: “John and Jesus’ ministry took place in the shadow of the exodus, and therefore the Black hermeneutical practice of highlighting the exodus is thereby vindicated. God did not choose the Egyptians. He chose the enslaved and this is the story evoked as Jesus begins his ministry” (90f).
Which pushes me to announce this: I will lead a weekly book club centered in my micro-church in Hendersonville, North Carolina, but open to all people, in person and on line. I will take this book and lead my people through it during Lent, beginning Wednesday February 22 and concluding Holy Week, April 5. I suspect it will change the way we celebrate Easter.
Dwight A. Moody