In the book Reading While Black: African American Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, Anglican scholar Esau McCaulley writes to address two worlds: those within the Black community who want to scrap the Bible because they do not feel like it addresses their struggle and a wider audience who wants to know how African Americans largely approach the Bible. While some may view the Black church as behold to version of liberation theology, McCaulley contends 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).
McCaulley’s book takes an apologetic flair as he makes the case that the Black community should not give itself over to secularism but find hope in Jesus Christ. McCaulley seeks to demonstrate that the Bible does speak relevantly to the Black experience. Moreover, he stands against progressive Christians who want to denigrate the Bible’s status as the world of God. He writes, “If the Scriptures were fundamentally flawed and largely useless apart from mainline revision of the text, then Christianity is truly a white man’s religion” (9). Retaining the supernatural element of the Scripture, retaining the orthodoxy of the Christians is not being beholden to whiteness. Instead, giving those things up in favor of white progressive re-readings of the text is capitulating to whiteness! Black Christians can stand upon the solid rock of God’s word.
In the remaining chapters of the book, McCaulley speaks to many issues relevant to the Black community. He address a theology of policing (chapter two). McCaulley speaks for the need of rulers in the Bible to “create an atmosphere in which people are able to live without fear” (45). While Romans 13:1-2 does certainly call for submission to the governing authorities, it is not an absolute submission. Citizens unjustly treated should object to such treatment. Next, McCaulley looks at the New Testament and how it informs the political witness of the church. McCaulley points out that Black Christians “have never had the luxury of separating [their] faith from political action” (49). According to McCaulley, the church can and should advocate for political change when the government is out of step with Christian principles.
Related to politics is the question of justice: how does the church go about advocating for justice and change (chapter four)? McCaulley looks to the various texts in the OT and NT, especially in the life of Jesus, where the Lord advocates for bringing justice to the world. Of course, McCaulley knows that much of the Scriptures looking for this change presents the ideal of God’s kingdom, but that should not hold back believers from working for justice in the world.
In chapter five, McCaulley looks at the presence of Black identity in the Bible. People from Africa are in the biblical story from the outset. The sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, are included in the covenant people of Israel. Therefore, from the outset Israel was “multiethnic” (102), He also traces the diverse people of God in the New Testament as well. Next, McCaulley examines Black rage and see the resources of Scripture providing its solution. The imprecatory Psalms give voice to rage. The final judgment provides hope for ultimate justice. But it is the cross and resurrection of Jesus which balms the soul of anger (132-33). Finally, McCaulley tackles the issue of slavery in the Bible. Both creation and new creation speak to the equality of all people. Furthermore, there are elements in both testaments that the Bible does not condone slavery but actually provides the theological resources for its destruction.
McCaulley has written an excellent book, one which is extremely relevant for the racial divisions we see enflamed in America today. McCaulley’s book stands in tension with many communities, both the secular and the Christian. Progressive Christians might object to McCaulley’s insistence on Scriptural authority and orthodox theology. Conservative Christians may object to McCaulley speaking to specifically “Black” issues, instead advocating for a “colorblind” approach to tackling racial issues. Secularists might criticize McCaulley for his belief in God in the first place! What I appreciated about his book is that McCaulley acknowledged this tension throughout and attempted to speak to these diverse communities all the while point to Jesus Christ as the source of hope.
I believe that McCaulley’s book will make me a better preacher. How? As a preacher, I must be able to speak into the life situations of the audience. Hearing different perspectives and life experiences helps me to better speak to those things. The plain fact is that many Black Christians face a different set of issues from white Christians. Even among white believers there can be a large gap between the experiences of people from different classes. Therefore, reading a wide variety of perspectives helps me to empathize with a wide variety of people some of whom may be sitting in the pews or watching online while I am preaching.
A few lingering questions remain in my mind after reading his book. While I appreciate his call for Christians to be involved in politics, I don’t believe that has been a problem within the conservative Christian community. Instead, I think the problem is the exact opposite: too much political involvement. I can imagine that some conservative Christians might hear McCaulley’s invitation to be involved in politics as, “Yes, that’s what we’re doing. And you can only vote this one way because of our Christian convictions!” While we certainly should allow the Scriptures to inform our whole lives, which includes our political engagement, Christians need to often think more carefully about how to engage in politics so that they do not allow the gospel to be held captive to political ideologies.