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Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope [a review]

It is the middle of the year 2020, and the world is rocked by a global pandemic and a tagalong economic crisis. Many of us are stuck at home, and so when the news broke about George Floyd we did not have our usual distractions that we could occupy ourselves with: a whole country, the whole world, watched in horror while a police officer casually murdered a man in front of others. Our streets have been filled with protests, and we have in turn watched with the same horror as police brutalized protesters over and over again. White America, still stuck at home, has bought up every copy of White Fragility off the virtual shelves of Amazon to do our homework in an impromptu racial education.

It is challenging to generalize how people are feeling or what they are thinking right now, because it seems that we’re all over the map. Speaking personally, though, I will say that as a relatively racially ignorant white Christian it has felt challenging to do my homework. Why? Because on the one hand there are plenty of books about race that people are recommending to one another right now, but all of them start with the presupposition that God is not here, and even if he were, religion would still be irrelevant to the problem of racism. On the other hand, there are thousands of books published by Christian publishers in any given year, but flip a lot of them open and you would be forgiven for not realizing racism is still a live problem. Thankfully, this is not a universal rule, and I’ve been particularly pleased to see IVP making it a priority to address the subject in a meaningful way.

Esau McCaulley’s new book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope sits wonderfully between these two extremes, being a work that explicitly addresses racism, policing, political activism, and more but from the vantage point of someone who believes God has a word to say on the subject. Interestingly, McCaulley says that he feels this divide as well and expressly positions his book as something distinct from white conservative theology as well as from modern progressivism:

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.

And he articulates this way well. While he may be criticized from all sides for being this "fourth thing," he maintains an irenic tone throughout, arguing for a way of peace and justice that draws out our humanity instead of simply elevating a new people to power at the expense of another. McCaulley draws his biblical study together well when he shows that the hope for us lies not in our man-made solutions, but in the man who made us for himself:

What brings the warring parties of the world together is not the emergence of a new philosophy of government; it is not free market capitalism, communism, socialism, or democracy. It is a person: the root of Jesse. Isaiah then calls for Black people, in the midst of their pain, to begin to envision a world not defined by our anger. The Bible calls on us to develop a theological imagination within which we can see the world as community and not a collection of hostilities. It does so by giving us the vision of a person who can heal our wounds and dismantle our hostilities.

I found myself wishing that this were a longer book so that he had more space to flesh out his Black ecclesial theology and interpretive method upon more topics. At any rate, it presents a good model for us to turn toward scripture when we are warring over the question of whether to defund the police or not. By examining the more fundamental questions of what God commands police to do and whether they are fulfilling that calling well or not, we can find more clarity in the more specific questions of what to do next.

Reading While Black is a worthwhile read for Christians who want to read and reflect upon scripture from a theologically orthodox yet non-white vantage point, and I recommend it.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.