Review of Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley

For me, reviewing Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley is almost like reviewing six different books at once, because I had such different reactions to the different chapters. Writing this review was such a challenge that I almost gave up, but I decided that Esau McCaulley is too important an author to pass over in silence.

McCaulley is, of course, Black. As the back cover of the book explains, he is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College as well as an Anglican priest, but most people have probably first encountered him in the New York Times or the Washington Post or Christianity Today or the New Yorker. I first read about McCaulley in a July 2021 article in The Atlantic. McCaulley is intriguing because he does not fit the usual stereotypes. Obviously, being Christian, he does not write from a Muslim or a purely secular perspective. Nor can he be neatly categorized as “woke” or “anti-woke.” He takes the Bible extremely seriously, but is also recognizably different from your typical white fundamentalist or evangelical Christian.

McCaulley regards himself as being part of what he calls the Black ecclesial tradition. He says that there are many like him in the African-American Church, but that their point of view rarely appears in print. Though they agree with the statements of faith of “three of the larger Black denominations: the National Baptist Convention, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), and African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME),” they also find themselves disagreeing with many other voices in our society.

We are thrust into the middle of a battle between white progressives and white evangelicals, feeling alienated in different ways from both. When we turn our eyes to our African American progressive sisters and brothers, we nod our head in agreement on many issues. Other times we experience a strange feeling of dissonance, one of being at home and away from home. Therefore, we receive criticism from all sides for being something different, 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.

The heart of the book consists of Chapters 2 through 7, each tackling a different topic of special concern to African Americans, and examining what the Bible has to say about it. As I said earlier, I had very different reactions to different chapters, so I will go through them one by one (though not in the same order in which they appear in the book).

In Chapters 6 and 7, I was pleased to see McCaulley promoting interpretations that were similar to ones that I had arrived at myself after struggling with the biblical text a lot, and rejecting easy answers offered by others. CHAPTER 7 is about slavery. Progressives typically ignore or dismiss passages in the Bible that appear to condone slavery. Theological conservatives typically either try to draw a clear distinction between the slavery in the Bible and the chattel slavery in America, or leave the issue of slavery as an awkward unsolved exegetical problem that we fortunately can ignore because nowadays, everyone agrees that slavery is bad. Neither approach strikes me as being faithful to the text, so I was gratified to see that McCaulley courageously takes a different path. Because of his high view of the Bible, he does not allow himself to ignore the plain fact that the Bible several times mentions slavery without condemning it, and even seems to accept it as a fact of life. At the same time, he is unwilling to simply shrug his shoulders and let it go. He quotes the abolitionist James W. C. Pennington.

Does the Bible condemn slavery without 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!

In this review I cannot do justice to McCaulley’s discussion, but in essence, he treats slavery in much the same way that Jesus treated divorce. Jesus regarded laws permitting divorce as a temporary concession to the fallenness of the world, and not as condoning divorce as an unhappy but perfectly acceptable practice. Despite the Mosaic law’s seeming acceptance of divorce, Jesus taught that divorce is contrary to God’s intent for marriage. Analogously, McCaulley argues that slavery is contrary to God’s intentions for humanity, despite passages that seem to accept it. He concludes the chapter by again quoting from Pennington.

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.

I believe that McCaulley’s approach is the only credible way to argue that the Bible opposes slavery, and I wish more commentators would recognize this.

Similarly, CHAPTER 6, on the imprecatory psalms, is refreshing in its unflinching acceptance of texts that make many theologically conservative interpreters squirm with discomfort. Take, for example, the book Praying the Bible by Donald S. Whitney, which teaches something that many churches take for granted even if they do not say so explicitly, namely that we are supposed to appropriate the words of the Psalms for our own prayers. But on this view, what do we make of the imprecatory psalms? Here is what Whitney says.

I do think we can put specific sins in those passages, praying that God will smash their teeth as they attempt to devour our souls. I sometimes pray angrily that all the enemies of God born in my sinful heart will be destroyed as thoroughly as these imprecatory psalms describe. I also believe we can pray these imprecations against national sins, as I sometimes do, for example, against abortion and racism. Ultimately, as we view the Scriptures Christocentrically, we can put such psalms in the mouth of Jesus. Someday he is going to do far worse than just break the teeth in the mouth of his lifelong, unrepentant enemies. Essentially we can pray these psalms in such a way that reflects the attitude, “Lord, I am on your side and against all your enemies. I want your justice and righteousness to win the final victory over sin and rebellion against you.”

I am not the type of person to urge others to “get in touch with their emotions,” but what Whitney says here makes me wonder if he has ever felt the same kind of rage that is expressed in the imprecatory psalms, and if so, how he thinks we are supposed to deal with that rage. For those who have suffered the same kind of mistreatment that Israel did, I think the imprecatory psalms have an entirely different meaning. Here, by contrast, is what McCaulley has to say about Psalm 137.

Psalm 137 is not merely a shout of defiance. It is a prayer addressed to God. Traumatized communities must be able to tell God the truth about what they feel. We must trust that God can handle those emotions. God can listen to our cries for vengeance, and as the one sovereign over history he gets to choose how to respond. Psalm 137 does not take power from God and give it to us. It is an affirmation of his power in the midst of deep pain and estrangement.

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. God wanted Israel and us to know what human sin had done to the powerless. 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.

What theological resources does Psalm 137 give to Black rage and pain? It gives us permission to remember and feel. It allows us to bring the depth of our experiences to God. Psalm 137 makes the suffering of the traumatized a corporate reality that moves with us through history.

Once again, I believe that McCaulley’s view of these psalms is far more honest and credible than the more common view that the Psalter is simply an instructional manual—a compendium of perfect prayers that serve as training exercises for the budding prayer warrior. The Bible does not hesitate to put human imperfections on display in every other book, so why should the Psalms be any different? The presence of the imprecatory psalms in the Bible tells us that God understands our pain, and that if rage wells up inside us then it is better to bring it to God than to pretend that it does not exist.

I have started by reviewing Chapters 6 and 7 because they were the chapters that I resonated with most. But now let me turn to CHAPTER 5, which asks if Christianity is a white man’s religion. This question, of course, is an old one that has arisen all over the globe. My own grandfather, as a young man, was angry at how Europeans were treating China, and his initial rejection of Christianity was rooted in that anger. His own personal conversion story began with an evangelistic event run by a foreign missionary, which he attended with the intent of disrupting it—only to find himself captivated by the message of the gospel. So I understand why McCaulley finds this question to be an urgent one. But I must say that I have trouble sympathizing with McCaulley’s approach to answering it. To combat the notion that Christianity is a white man’s religion, McCaulley seeks to show that Africans were key players in the Bible and in early Christianity. While the examples he cites are reasonable enough, I found this move rather odd. Chinese Christians, of course, would not be able to make quite the same move even if we wanted to, but I do not think that this has ever bothered us. Christ is universal; the truth is universal. Participation in the early history of Christianity by Chinese people is surely neither necessary nor sufficient to establish the relevance of the gospel to Chinese people. Why should it be any different for Africans? In fact, in China today, the notion that the Chinese church should be entirely autonomous, and should steer clear of any foreign influence, is strongly associated with the state-sanctioned Three-Self Church, which does not permit any criticism of the Chinese government. I doubt that McCaulley would be happy with the Three-Self “answer” to the question of whether Christianity is a white man’s religion.

I was also surprised to read McCaulley’s take in CHAPTER 3 on the topic of civil disobedience. While I found myself largely agreeing with McCaulley’s justification for civil disobedience in certain circumstances, what I had trouble understanding was why he felt the need to work so hard to justify civil disobedience. Who does he feel he has to work hard to convince? After all, white evangelicals are long accustomed to the concept of civil disobedience in the context of abortion, as well as in the context of some other issues (e.g., war). Anyone who has grown up in a Bible-believing church knows about Daniel in the lion’s den and about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. What I inferred from McCaulley’s discussion is that, apparently, McCaulley has repeatedly heard from white Christians that civil disobedience is wrong in general, and not just for specific controversial political causes. I would not have been surprised to see this sentiment in a book written in the 1960s, but today? Does there remain some kind of dysfunctional dynamic at work between African-American churches and white churches that I have been oblivious to?

CHAPTER 2, on policing, was the chapter that I personally had the most trouble with. I understand that for many African-Americans, encounters with the police play a disproportionately large role in their lives, and so it is natural that they would want to understand what the Bible has to say on the matter. McCaulley points out a close parallel between modern police and Roman soldiers, a parallel that I agree with when pointed out, but which I admit I had never paid much attention to before. So far so good. Next, McCaulley tries to argue that “Paul does not focus on individual actions, but on power structures.” I found this claim to be somewhat dubious—it seems to me that Paul focuses on both—but I was willing to accept it provisionally. But then McCaulley tries to go further.

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 injustices 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 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.

McCaulley says much more about his “Christian theology of policing,” but the above quote already illustrates that what he calls “exegesis” is in fact bursting to the seams with all kinds of imported notions that are nowhere to be found in the text. For example, what does the Bible say about the locus of power in a democratic republic? The answer is plain: Nothing at all. (In fact, McCaulley himself more or less admits this later, on page 95: “I am not claiming that the Bible outlines the policies necessary for the proper functioning of a Democratic Republic.”) Now, I do think that it is legitimate to try to develop political and philosophical theories to try to answer questions that the Bible does not directly address, just as it is legitimate to try to develop scientific theories to understand the world around us. At the same time, I believe it is misleading to portray such extra-biblical philosophical reasoning as the product of exegesis. Because I found this chapter so confusing, I read it multiple times, trying hard to give McCaulley the benefit of the doubt, but in the end, I could not find a way to extract what he wanted from the text without blatantly imposing it as an imported presupposition from the outset. In the end, I was left with the feeling that he so desperately wanted the text to say X that he forced it to say X. It was striking to me how different Chapter 2 was from Chapters 6 and 7.

Finally, there is CHAPTER 4, whose title is the same as the title of the whole book: “Reading While Black: The Bible and the Pursuit of Justice.” Of all the chapters in the book, this chapter elicited the most admiration from me. As I read the chapter, I was reminded of the famous poem by Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

It is entirely understandable to me that people who have endured suffering for a long time and seen very little evidence of progress toward justice and restoration would become cynical and impatient. Remarkably, what McCaulley does in this chapter is to point to Elizabeth and Zechariah and Mary, and counsel patience and steadfast Messianic hope despite having had “a dream deferred” for a very long time. This is not a message that I, as an outsider, would feel entitled to preach to a community that has suffered extensively. I would be afraid of being rebuked by the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his letter from Birmingham jail.

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

I admire McCaulley’s ability to “enter into a patient dialogue [with the biblical text] trusting that the fruit of such a discussion is good for our souls” when there are so many voices in his ear preaching immediate revolution. In the “Bonus Track” at the end of the book, McCaulley devotes several pages to the theology of James Cone. While he clearly has great respect for Cone, he ultimately does not accept Cone’s approach fully.

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). Therefore, it seems fair to say that Cone picks upon the liberative aspects that marked the early Black interpretation of the Bible while possibly not giving as much attention to the conversionistic and holiness strands that were equally prominent. I tried to gather all three in the exegetical chapters in this book, while making sure that the liberative stream was influenced by Jesus’ own cruciform example.

In conclusion, despite my reservations about some chapters, I do believe that the “Black ecclesial tradition” that McCaulley presents in this book is a powerful and valuable voice in the current national conversation in the American church about justice. His “fourth way” is more compelling to me than the other three ways, and the willingness to accept what the Bible teaches even when it does not quite say what we might wish it would say (e.g., about slavery) is an important anchor. Even when I did not resonate with McCaulley’s views, I learned how someone with a different background from me understands the Bible. That in itself is a valuable experience, and exactly what one would hope for from a book entitled Reading While Black.

I will say, however, that I was concerned when someone drew my attention to a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by McCaulley entitled, What Good Friday and Easter Mean for Black Americans Like Me, in which he quotes James Cone but makes no mention of our need for repentence and regeneration, or of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for our sins. Is McCaulley drifting in the direction of James Cone? Well, perhaps I should not read too much into a single opinion piece. I do hope that McCaulley will continue to serve as a voice for the Black ecclesial tradition. That is a tradition that very much needs to be heard today.
Posted June 2022

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