April 6, 2021

Reading While Black -- a book review

"Are those who disdain the church correct that the Bible isn't up to the challenge of speaking to the issues of the day? Put simply, is the Bible a friend or foe in the Black quest for justice?" Esau McCaulley, p 73.

In Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley takes a look at well-known but overlooked, underinterpreted, and misinterpreted passages. This book opened my eyes to a wealth of scripture with depth of meaning that I had been missing. Esau explains how Blacks in America do and should interpret scripture. But Whites should interpret the same way, so this is an important book for pigment challenged people to read. 

I LOVE this book! It explains and stresses the importance of "naming and protesting evil, expressing anger, and pursuing freedom and justice, but also promoting reconciliation, practicing forgiveness, and living in hope -- all aspects of proclaiming the gospel of God revealed in Jesus", as it's put in one of the reviews in the front of the book. All things that I longed to understand, expressed in a very accessible way: It's written to the Black Christian in a way that I, a White Christian, never felt offended or attacked. 

Esau walks the reader through his own struggle with common (Caucasian-European-American) Biblical interpretation, especially in light of the injustices done to Black folk over the centuries by supposed Christians. Esau observes that there is a good connection between Evangelical belief and the Black church (p 9):

• Emphasis on Scripture and the Bible as the ultimate authority.

• The belief that all people need to be born-again, the Gospel of Christ. 

• The importance of Discipleship, the lifelong process of becoming more like Christ.

"God is fundamentally a liberator." (p 17.) Through and through you can see that He liberates His people, whoever His people are. Notice all the times God liberated the Jews. Notice how Jesus liberated believers from their sins. Notice the passages on setting captives free. Notice the apostles freed from prison. Notice those freed from illness, possession, and even death. We should emphasize "God as the liberator and humankind as one family united under the rule of Christ" (p 19). "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28 ESV)

Esau addresses the fact that White Americans, in their culture, hear different messages from scripture than do Black Americans, Asian Americans, and etc. He makes the point this isn't necessarily bad unless each group keeps that message to themselves. "but if we all read the biblical text assuming that God is able to speak a coherent word to us through it, then we can discuss the meanings our varied cultures have a gleaned from the Scriptures. What I have in mind then is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ." (p 23.) I like that. We need each other to more clearly understand the truth, and enjoy the richness of the message. "The job of the scholar is to probe and press and challenge simplistic readings. It is also important to challenge simplistic readings using our own experiences that might provide insights that others who do not share those experiences might have missed." (p. 181)

An "ah-ha!" moment I had reading chapter 2 is that Romans 13 is about submission to the laws, to the state. It doesn't say what to do with corrupt or evil or mistaken or errant individual officers or officials. Submit to the office, not the wicked office holder. The authority is the governing institution, not the individual. In fact, implied in the passage is an expectation for the good behavior of the individuals in the government. I.E., don't be a terror to good works. See Luke 3 for examples pointed to tax collectors and police ("soldiers"). 

Biblical evidence does show that we are to resist evil and immorality. (Good examples are given in chapters 2 and 3.) We Christians are indeed to work for positive change. We are to strive for peace, even if to achieve it requires some unrest. But it's a fallen world and we will suffer the consequences of challenging the systems or the individuals. That doesn't mean don't challenge. We have an inability to discern God's timing and God's means of righting wrongs. The author picks up this point again in chapter 3: "this does not mean that a Christian cannot protest injustice, it means that we cannot claim God's justification for violent revolution. Submission and acquiescence are two different things."

Pointedly, "Paul says that the government should not be a source of fear for the innocent. This problem of innocent fearfulness continues to plague encounters between Black persons and law enforcement." (p 35.) As Christians, white or black, we should work towards a country where Black citizens do not fear interactions with our police. They should not have to live in fear, though they still do. Nevertheless, "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." (p 38.)

A lasting problem is that the laws we have today were written over more than just decades, but over centuries during a time in which Black disenfranchisement was a common and accepted practice. Many of those laws are still on the books and many of them still tend to disenfranchise Blacks. Esau calls this institutional corporate sin. (p 39.) Christians should endeavor to ensure that the laws reflect Christian values. We should shape public opinion and hold elected officials accountable for the just treatment of all. As stated above, we need insight from multiple Christian cultures to identify bad laws and proper solutions -- we Whites can't discern that on our own.

Chapter 3 reminds us of numerous passages in which Israel is criticized for its injustice and oppression of the poor. All the prophets and Jesus and the apostles spoke truth to power.

There are 2 interpretations of scripture made in this book that I disagree with, but I don't disagree with the author's ultimate point, so my disagreements are perhaps immaterial. First, on page 61, the author suggests that Galatians 3 is about more than spiritual enslavement. I don't see it. (But again, I refer to the point above about needing each other to understand the truth.) Galatians 1 thru 3 is about the Law and the circumcision party, Jews vs Greeks. I don't think Paul was calling for the equal political or social treatment of women, slaves, Greeks, and non-citizens. But I concur with Esau's point, which he goes on to back up with passages from Colossians. 

Secondly, on pages 65-66, Esau changes the word 'righteousness' in Matthew 5 to 'justice'. He acknowledges that he is giving his own translation, but of all the translations I use, only the NLT uses the word Justice. Look at the rest of Matthew 5 -- righteousness is meant throughout that passage, not justice. 

"Justice is making things right that are unfair in society; righteousness is doing right by people, especially the vulnerable. Justice is more about legal and systemic problems; righteousness is more about good deeds, acts of generosity toward those in need." https://www.blockislandtimes.com/affiliate-post/let-justice-and-righteousness-flow-making-things-right-and-doing-right/45390

Sure, the terms are close. Amos 5:24 and Psalm 103:6 and over three dozen other places use both of those terms together, and synonyms and parallelism are often used in Hebrew poetry to reinforce a single point. (Right?) But changing one term to the other in a chapter that only uses one of those terms consistently, and that is not Hebrew poetry, seems wrong. Nevertheless, I agree with Esau's ultimate conclusion, which he backs up with other Scripture. 

Chapter 5 is a fun read. In it, Esau destroys the lie that the Europeans and slavery brought the Gospel to the Africans. Christianity was known by black and brown people at the very beginning of Christianity. It also persisted there through history. In fact, Joseph's sons born in Egypt, Ephraim and Manasseh, were multi-ethnic, namely, African and Hebrew. There are no biologically "pure" Hebrews. They too were a mixed "race". And in Exodus 12:38, a "mixed crowd" went up with them, meaning non-Israelites. Esau shows us over and over how God intends to bless all nations; all people groups. There are many many examples in this chapter that I had NEVER noticed before. Esau goes on to explain that the promotion of "colorblindness" is sub-biblical. Colors and ethnicities will exist in eternity! What a fantastic book!

Chapter six covers the rage of the Black American and rage in the Bible. Cry out to God about injustice. Cry out for vengeance. "Sometimes we need to lament injustice and call for God to right wrongs." (p 127.) Yet, there is also forgiveness, but "excepting abuse is inappropriate for Christians. … it is appropriate for those suffering unjustly to forgive their enemies from a distance if necessary. We do not have to stay. …  the New Testament also calls on believers to help those who are suffering. … James does not say, 'Tell the orphans and the widows to put up with suffering.' He says to the Christian, 'Help them!'" (p 133.) Christians should not allow suffering to continue when we have the resources to do something about it. I got a lot out of this chapter.

I got a lot out of this book. What I appreciated the most is that the author dug into numerous passages. It wasn't a light treatment of Scripture. When logic was called for, he used it with a sound theological underpinning and correct Biblical exegesis. The Bonus Track at the end of the book puts forward his thoughts on correct Biblical interpretation. 

Skipping ahead to the conclusion of the book, the author states that he didn't set out to exhaustively and conclusively answer questions of import today to Black Christians. Rather, his aim was to answer whether the Bible is reliable and useful to Black Christians. Returning to the question presented at the top: "Are those who disdain the church correct that the Bible isn't up to the challenge of speaking to the issues of the day? Put simply, is the Bible a friend or foe in the black quest for justice?"  He answers "that the very process of engaging these Scriptures and expecting an answer is an exercise in hope. It is an act of faith that has carried Black people through unimaginable despair toward a brighter future. The Bible has been a source of comfort, but it has also been more. It has inspired action to transform circumstances. It has liberated Black bodies and souls." (p 166.) In his book, Esau McCaulley answers through an examination of the Scriptures that Black Christians definitely have reason to hope! The One True God is the God of Liberation. He is the God of Justice.