Reading While Black, African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley

The recipient of Christianity Today’s 2021 Book of the Year award, Reading While Black, enters the Social Justice/woke debates via hermeneutics. Esau McCaulley, a Black priest in the Anglican church and professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, contends that Black Christians often approach and interpret Scripture differently from others due to their lived experience. While the statements of faith found in Black denominations are largely orthodox in theology, nonetheless Black theologians often find themselves “thrust into the middle of a battle between white progressives and white evangelicals” and not fully at home in African American progressive circles (p. 5). McCaulley recognizes and promotes a fourth “thing” he calls, “Black ecclesial interpretation (BEI).” It is this fourth thing the author wants to explain and promote (p. 5).

While acknowledging that the Word of God gets the final word, the author writes, “What makes Black interpretations Black, then, are the collective experiences, customs, and habits of Black people in this country” (p. 20). What McCaulley is suggesting is multi-cultural interpretations of Scripture: “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” (p. 22). According to him, we need the various cultural interpretations because the experiences of different cultural groups bring unique insights into the conversation, which is why African American exegesis is vital (p. 22). The goal of the book, then, is to demonstrate and embody the Black ecclesial interpretative model (p. 22). This thesis leads to both helpful insights and serious dangers. First, the insights.

McCaulley interacts with key biblical texts such as Romans 13:1-7 (pp. 28-41) from which he draws that God’s prohibition against resistance to governmental leaders is not absolute, that God uses human agents to take down corrupt governments (pp. 31-32), and that Paul is presenting in this text not a reality concerning human government but an ideal (p. 40). He insists, from this passage and others, that Christians can protest injustice – but not through violent revolution (p. 51). The author rightly confirms that Christianity is not a European construct (p. 97), that Blacks play important roles in the Old Testament as well as the New (pp. 101-112), and that ethnic identity is a good thing (p. 112). Addressing Black rage, he is too quick to place the bulk of the blame on whites (p. 120) but correctly states, “The beginning of the answer to Black anger is the knowledge that God hears and sees our pain” (p. 127), that Christ enters our suffering as a friend and redeemer (p. 130), that Christ’s act of mercy gives us resources to forgive, and that rage should be sent to the cross (p. 131).

McCaulley admits that the Bible does not legislate slavery out of existence but does makes it unimaginable (p. 139), and that God created a people who could demantle slavery: “The widespread move to abolish slavery is a Christian innovation” (pp. 141-142). While Scripture does not call for the end of slavery the Old Testament made numerous provisions to limit its sinfulness and plant seeds for it to be abolished (pp. 144-155). Paul followed suit in his letter to Philemon and in his instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24, and 1 Timothy 6:1-3 (pp.151-162).

While there is much of value mentioned above, all is not well. We can begin with unfounded and unproven accusations, and refusing to mention vast improvements regarding racism in America over the last 60 years. McCaulley accuses the government, without documentation, of crafting laws to disenfranchise Black people (p. 31), of police abuse based not on facts but experience (p. 41), and paints a picture of passive, innocent Blacks being preyed upon by government and police. However, he never addresses the violent crime, drug abuse, and family breakdown found in the Black community (pp. 42-46). He also vilifies the United States because of housing discrimination, unequal prison sentences, and abuse of Black women and, while presenting no evidence or examples, casts Blacks as victims (pp. 68-72). It is unfortunate at best that in presentations, Christian or otherwise, which discuss the very real concerns of Blacks, little is mentioned of Blacks’ responsibility. Nothing concerning how Blacks can take advantage of the vast opportunities afforded them and make significant improvements is identified. Instead, victimhood is stressed and whites are the oppressors. In this reviewer’s opinion, until some balance is found in this discussion, little progress will be made.

Turning next to the actual thesis of the book, that there exists a Black hermeneutical approach to Scripture, distinct from other ethnic groups, which stems from lived experience. What Black ecclesial interpretation looks like is best illustrated by the author’s suggested interpretation of various accounts and texts in Scripture. Where McCaulley’s Black ecclesial interpretation is used, literal/grammatical hermeneutics is replaced, or at least modified. Here is a sampling:

  • Admitting that Blacks have never separated faith from political action (p. 49), McCaulley champions this approach by infusing political activism into numerous biblical passages where it is absent. “The entirety of Jesus’ ministry [is] an act of political resistance” he writes (p. 54). By misreading Jesus’ encounter with King Herod in Luke 13, the author turns the event into a political statement by Jesus (p. 56), and apparently Christians should follow His example (p. 57).
  • McCaulley wrongly translates the word “righteous” as “justice” in Matthew 5:4-6, then builds a case for political justice based on the Beatitudes (pp. 65-67).
  • The author insists that Luke is the Gospel writer for Blacks since he is most likely a Gentile, and thus and outsider (p. 78). McCulley then claims that Luke’s message is that Blacks have a place in the kingdom (p. 78). Luke’s Gospel even begins with the issue of injustice as a central concern (p. 81); after all, God’s fundamental character is that of a liberator (p. 82).
  • Mary’s Magnificat is transformed into the hope of every Black Christian who has been mistreated by oppressors (pp. 86-87).
  • That God chose enslaved Jews to free at the Exodus, instead of the Egyptians morphs into a statement on slavery and oppression (p. 90). Nevermind that the Jews had been chosen to be God’s people centuries prior (pp. 90-91).

In addition to McCaulley’s exegesis shaped by BEI, there are several larger, errant themes laced throughout Reading While Black.

  • Confusion about the kingdom. While stopping short of claiming that Christians will bring in the kingdom (p. 61), McCaulley does write that the gospel intends to rescue us both spiritually and politically (pp. 59-62) using both Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 1:13 to support this idea. “Jesus wants us to see that His kingdom is something that is possible, at least as a foretaste, even while we wait for its full consummation” (p. 66). “Righteousness or justice then, is inescapably political. Hungering for justice is as hungering for the kingdom” (p. 67). And “biblical peacemaking is the cessation of hostilities between nations and individuals as a sign of God’s in-breaking kingdom” (p. 68). Jesus quotes Isaiah 58:1-6 concerning breaking chains of injustice as “a transformation of the structures of societies that trap people in hopelessness. Jesus has in mind the creation of a different type of world and His ministry and the kingdom He embodies involve nothing less than the creation of a new world” (p. 94). Contrary to McCaulley, while Jesus is indeed going to create a new world, it will be future. Jesus is not promising a gradual in-breaking of His kingdom now, nor did He come to provide political freedom and social justice, but rather spiritual freedom and biblical justice.
  • Through the use of BEI, McCaulley can find political freedom and social justice in almost any text, and physical freedom is equally significant to spiritual liberation. As an example, the book of Revelation is interpreted to be John’s depiction of the Roman Empire. It is an oppressive empire and thus brings God’s judgment and that is why Rome fell, not apparently because of its rejection of God (pp. 62-64).
  • Concerning hermeneutics, the author writes that, because we are not blank slates, we interpret the Bible through our own experiences, hopes, and dreams (p. 73). Thus, Blacks approach and understand the Bible differently from others. (“Womanist” biblical interpretation is also needed as well – pp. 180-181). BEI, from its origin, combined the call to end slavery with salvation (p. 171), and “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 church” (p. 171).
  • The gospel is changed – “The death of Christ is not merely a critique of the totalizing and oppressing power of the state. It is also. . . a means of reconciling God and humanity” (p. 179). This combination of political and spiritual liberation is to McCaulley “a truer and fuller gospel” (p. 84).

Reading While Black offers a moderate, well-reasoned, and useful understanding of the Black church and its hermeneutical approach to Scripture. Portions are insightful, but the work is riddled with flaws stemming from the concept that it is legitimate to interpret Scripture on the basis of experience, ethnic and historic background, or culture. To take this approach bypasses authorial intent and substitutes subjective exegesis, resulting in finding in the Bible what one wants to find. By doing so, the authority of Scripture is diluted and the authority of experience reigns supreme.

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel.

by Esau McCaulley (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2020) 198 pp., paper., $16.26