Monday, March 29, 2021

"Reading While Black" Book Review and Reflections

After listening to Esau McCaulley on the Bible Project Podcast, I listened to his audiobook called "Reading While Black."

As a white Christian growing up in a Lutheran church, and today a member of a Baptist-based church, I enjoyed listening to McCaulley's interpretation of Biblical truths and learned a lot about the Black Christian church.

His book is about the Bible written by a Christian for Christians.

"I want to make a case that [an] unapologetically Black and orthodox reading of the Bible can speak a relevant word to Black Christians today. I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition–its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith–can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition. This is a work against the cynicism of some who doubt that the Bible has something to say; it is a work contending for hope." (page 6)

Here are a few themes that stuck out to me: the influence of our backgrounds on interpreting the Bible, the balance of seeking justice and God's timing, the political drama found in the Bible, and the Bible's stance on slavery. Below I'll share my notes on each of these. There are many more and I recommend reading/listening to Reading While Black if these sound interesting.

For many of these points, the Bible doesn't state its stance as plainly as some would like. Instead, each theme is interwoven into a grand narrative that requires study.

"I propose instead that we adopt the posture of Jacob and refuse to let go of the text until it blesses us. Stated differently, we adopt a hermeneutic of trust in which we are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly, it will bring a blessing and not a curse. This means that we do the hard work of reading the text closely, attending to historical context, grammar, and structure." (page 21)

Given that McCaulley's book is written to Christians, my reflections will also be written to someone who spent at least some time reading the Bible. If you read something here you don't get, reach out. I'd love to chat with you.

Our culture, background, education, and experiences influence what we emphasize

For example, I never thought much about the race of the 12 sons of Jacob (the start of the 12 tribes of Israel). Specifically, Jacob adopted and extended God's blessing to Joseph's two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. Both men were born of an Egyptian mother. They're half African. Therefore, Africa is rooted deeply as part of God's promise. This is a detail I never caught before.

"…there was never a biologically "pure" Israel. Israel was always multiethnic and multinational. As a Black man, when I look to the biblical story, I do not see a story of someone else in which I find my place only by some feat of imagination. Instead God's purposes include me as an irreplaceable feature along with my African ancestors. We are the first of those joined to Abraham's family in anticipation of the rest of the nations of the earth." (page 102)

I tend to pay particular attention when the name "James" comes up in the Bible since I share that name. I also key in on warnings around money and time given where I am in life. And Jessi remembers more events around women than I do.

It's not that anyone's interpretation is better or wrong. The only "wrong" way of thinking is to conclude that your interpretation is the best/only option. So, as much as you can, spend time outside your personal echo chamber. Read, listen, and talk to people from different backgrounds about the Bible. This book is a great example.

It is right to call out injustice, but we also need to submit to God's timing and plan.

McCaulley focuses on Moses for this part. Moses rightly identifies that slavery of his people is wrong. But, Moses takes matters into his own hands, murders a guard, and then needs to run away. Moses learns - 40 years later - that God agrees, but that wasn't the right timing or way to free God's people from slavery. God's way was much more comprehensive and glorious!

So, there's an interesting tension here. It is good to call out injustice, to call for change, to try to fix injustices. And at the same time, we can't hold too tightly to the outcome. We should yield to God's timing and way. Again, this is a tension because you also don't want to give up too early! You can seek clarity the way Moses did: talk to God (via prayer) and find out what he wants.

I'd also like to add that injustice comes in all different types of severity. You don't need to find "the biggest cause" to champion. God may put on your heart something that the world thinks "isn't a big deal." Don't be discouraged if someone questions, "why are you focused on X when Y - which is a bigger deal - is still happening?" God can multi-task and focus on all injustice at all times.

The Bible contains politics, so we shouldn't be afraid to think politically.

know that politics interweaves into every fabric of our lives: Values create policies that directly change how we live, and over time, change values leading to new policies... But, for me, it also seems inconsequential to my life. How much does the President really impact my day-to-day life? It felt like zero percent this morning. I know there's an indirect influence (perhaps more so from the cumulative effects from past Presidents), but, at least for me, my daily impacts come from my immediate surroundings: my family, friends, neighbors, customers, and employees.

Said another way: I know that "politics is important," but politics feels more like watching a sporting event than as something that has a bearing on my life.

I'll even go as far as to admit that when I read the Bible I "leave politics out of it." I solely focus on what it means for my personal life and don't recognize the political drama within an event. If there is any political drama (which, I've recently realized, is a lot!) I gloss over that part, often missing out on some of the broader implications.

McCaulley gives an example from the book of 2 Samuel. King David committed adultery and later murdered the husband to cover up his crime. And when Nathan the prophet confronted him, he repented but still had to live with the consequences of his actions.

There's a lot of wonderful personal applications from this event, which we should study, but McCaulley also shows the political side:

David is a king, a great warrior, ordained by God, and known for his heart for God (implying he's given the benefit of the doubt almost all the time). David is a big deal, whereas Nathan is a court prophet. There's a wide power gap! It's like a pastor in Washington D.C. calling out the President for a crime he committed that wasn't publicly known. Even if the two had previously chatted, it wasn't like they were close friends. This is dripping with political drama with real risks! Think about it, David has already proven he's willing to murder to cover up his crime. And is it really a crime for the most powerful person in the nation? Who's going to stop him? What courage and trust Nathan displays as he stepped up to confront David! Can you also imagine the reports going throughout the nation? This is a scandal of massive proportions.

McCaulley continues by showing how much of Jesus's life includes direct political action. First, Herod the Great kills innocent children in an attempt to kill Jesus (whose family flees to Egypt, an African nation, for sanctuary). I can't even imagine how horrific it would be to be one of the families whose son was killed because of a power move.

As an adult, Jesus publically calls another political leader, Herod Antipas, a fox. This isn't just about his moral code; it's also about his political activities of causing the people's suffering.

"Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus. "(page 57)

Side note: Jesus is calling out injustice but still submitted to God's authority and the authority of the rulers. He submitted to the point of dying on a cross. This aligns with Romans 13:1-2, which says:

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment."

By the way, the following sentence assumes the rulers are just, which is why we submit. But Jesus takes it that next step: Even if they are not just, still submit. Call them out! Don't be passive! But follow the rules unless it directly contradicts God's law.

As I continue to read the Bible, I will pay closer attention to the narrative's political side and seek to let it shape my political opinions and activities.

Paul, an apostle of Jesus, does NOT condone slavery.

It's with some fear and trepidation I reflect on this next theme. I'm white, male, financially stable, a landlord, living in the U.S., happily married with amazing kids, college-educated, right-handed, etc. I'm pretty sure I check most "privileged" boxes. Who am I to comment on slavery? Furthermore, it's highly likely that I benefit today - right now - from systematic injustice and I'm not even aware of it.

So be it. May God use my privilege to bless others. May God put the words of people like McCaulley in front of me to help me better understand other's experiences and stir my heart to want to bless and help others even more. In this case, it starts with learning what the Bible says about slavery. Let's jump in to see what McCaulley and the Bible say on the subject.

McCaulley shared that his grandmother heard this passage preached to her multiple times by their slave masters:

"Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him." - Ephesians 6:5-9 (NIV)

Out of context, it indeed seems like Paul is saying slavery is acceptable as long as the masters aren't mean about it. McCaulley:

"On the first read, the Bible does not appear to say all that we want it to say in the way that we want the Bible to say it. And yet this is the crucial part: the Bible says more than enough. The story of Christianity does not on every page legislate slavery out of existence. Nonetheless, the Christian narrative, our core theological principles, and our ethical imperatives create a world in which slavery becomes unimaginable." (page 139)

McCaulley will explain why the Bible doesn't condone slavery, yet addresses it as a reality because of our sin and patiently shepherds people away from it. But first, I want to take a detour towards a bigger question.

If God is all-powerful, why does injustice exist, and why does God allow it?

Let's go back to Moses and the Exodus. There, God demonstrates his hatred of slavery, yet he doesn't instantly wipe it out. Why not? Why allow sin at all? Why put a tree in the garden of Eden that Adam and Eve shouldn't eat? Why not simply create perfect people living in Heaven on day 1? And to pile on a little more, as Christians, we profess four essential truths:

  1. God is fully and continually all-powerful.
  2. God is good, loving, and there is no evil in him.
  3. Evil and sin exist.
  4. Sinners are fully responsible for their sin.

So, if God is all-powerful and loving, why does injustice exist, and why does God allow it?

For a complete answer, I HIGHLY recommend chapter 5 of the book Doctrine by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Brashears. Here's my summary:

God is indeed all-powerful, and in exercising that power, he gave us the freedom to make our own choices. It started with Satan, who chose to fight God. Then Adam (and Eve) chose to trust Satan instead of God, despite God's clear warnings of the consequences. Now, God could have killed Adam on the spot. He had every right! But instead, because of God's love, he only separated himself from Adam (a type of death, but not completely blotted out). God let him physically live and find a way back to God. You and I inherited that separation and often make it worse.

Because of God's perfect justice and unwillingness to be associated with anything sinful, the only way to make it back to God is by paying the debt of our sin. Now, here's what's cool to me. Romans 5:12-21 explains that we can inherit justification through a righteous act of one person (Jesus) because we all inherited separation from one person (Adam). So, it might seem unfair that we're all called sinners and separated because of what Adam did ("it wasn't me who ate the fruit!"), but it set the precedence that we can also become righteous through one person: Jesus.

Jesus paid our debt of sins through his death on the cross. Thus, restoring our close relationship with God. It's precisely the same way as someone else paying off your mortgage for you. You're now free from that debt! All you need to do is accept the payment.

This begs the question: What's special about Jesus? How come he can pay our debt of sin?

How come Jesus can pay our debt?

If God killed us, we would deserve it, and it would pay off our debt from sin. But that's a sad ending for God and us (remember: God loves us). So, how do you satisfy the demand for justice while making it possible to still have a life with God after it's paid?

I like the mortgage analogy (shocker): how do you pay off a mortgage when you don't have enough money because you keep wasting it with bad choices? One option is to foreclose on the house, but that's no fun for the bank or you.

What if someone else, who didn't have a mortgage, was willing to let the bank foreclose on their house instead? Thus, the debt is satisfied, and you get to keep the house. Now, what if the value from that foreclosure was enough to cover the debts of all mortgages? And all people needed to do was sign a document that says, please include my house in the debt payment.

This is what Jesus did.

Jesus was born of the spirit, not a man. Therefore, he didn't have the same inherited sin and was given a chance to "not eat the proverbial fruit on the tree." Satan tempted Jesus in the same way Satan tempted Adam (and tempts us). It was round two of an epic battle!

And Jesus never gave into temptation, and therefore had no debt to pay for himself. And since he was also God (remember: born of the spirit), he had infinite grace to pay off all existing debt. So, when Jesus died on the cross (the foreclosure), Jesus paid the righteous payment for all sin (debt). But since he didn't have any debt, the payment went towards your and my debt. Thus, God can have a relationship with us again because, through Jesus, we're no longer associated with sin. This isn't just a wiping of the slate; this is entering into a Garden-of-Eden-level of relationship where God's Spirit dwells within us and gives us all the same rights and privileges of Jesus. It's amazingly good news!

And, to draw as many people to himself as possible, God continues to patiently wait for people who don't trust him yet. History is ongoing; we're still in the middle of this grand journey. In the meantime, people chose to put their trust in people/things/ideas other than God. And despite how well-intentioned it might be, it inevitably leads to corruption and injustice. One example is slavery.

Back to McCaulley's thoughts.

The Bible was written in the middle of our history, where sin still exists. Slavery is a part of that sin that Paul addresses. Paul follows God's example of patience: He doesn't say, "End slavery right now because God says so." Instead, it's part of a more extensive logical reasoning that leads people to the conclusion on their own that slavery is wrong.

"I want to contend that the Old Testament and later the New Testament create an imaginative world in which slavery becomes more and more untenable. Stated differently, God created a people who could theologically deconstruct slavery. … The widespread move to abolish slavery is a Christian innovation." (page 142)

For example, it starts with the Exodus narrative and God's saving his people, including people from Africa, out of slavery. Jesus's ethics focuses on what God intended instead of what the Torah allows (the Torah, in this context, could also be seen as U.S. law). One example is divorce. The law allows for divorce, but Jesus states in Matthew 19:3-8 that it wasn't originally intended: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning."

And here we see that tension again: God has perfect justice and wants us to live a life of love for him and everyone around us (Matthew 22:34-40). Yet, the reality is that we're not there yet. And so, God patiently allows for temporary less-than-ideal scenarios, such as slavery.

And at the same time, he nudges us in the direction of righteousness. It's not just allowing slavery; it has conditions: slaves serve honorably to point their masters towards Christ, and masters treat them with respect. To truly do this makes it harder to justify slavery. If you're interested, here's another article on the topic of slavery and the New Testament.

That was the context and intention of Paul's writing.

Ideally, over time, things change. People move in the direction of righteousness, and the bar rises again as they continue to assess how they're doing vs the intention of loving God and everyone around them. Or, they move away from righteousness, and God meets them where they're at and calls them to live a little better. It's a loving, generous act of patience. It's one that God does with you and me.

I fear that today, society has little patience for this type of patient progress. We don't exercise tolerance or extend grace to people who made choices based on a different context. Instead, we look at historical decisions people made and condemn them with the harshest punishments using today's standards. Thanks be to God that he doesn't do that with us.

Instead, through examples like Paul, God shows us how to gently move people towards righteousness and celebrate the progress we're making.

And, here's the best part: God is a God of liberation, not just nudges-in-the-right-direction. In the same way that he freed the enslaved Israelites from Egypt, he frees us. Our freedom isn't based on living perfectly in this generation - or, hopefully, a more righteous future generation - but our freedom is rooted in Jesus dying for us on the cross. All we need to do is accept that we're not perfect, that Christ is God, and that he died on our behalf.

McCaulley finishes his thoughts on slavery with this:

"Black pain and anger rising from [slavery] is not going away. Therefore, the long tradition of Black reflection on our pain will continue. The slave question will be with us until the eschaton [the end of the world]. Therefore we must continue to read, write, interpret, and hope until the advent of the one who will answer all our questions, or render them redundant." (page 167)

But we can say this conclusively:

"This focus on God as liberator stood in stark contrast to the focus of the slave masters who emphasized God’s desire for a social order with white masters at the top and enslaved Black people at the bottom. But the story doesn’t stop there. Alongside the story of the God of the exodus is the God of Leviticus, who calls his people to a holiness of life. The formerly enslaved managed to celebrate both their physical liberation and their spiritual transformation, which came as a result of their encounter with the God of the Old and New Testaments." (page 17)

I know nothing of what it meant to be a slave, or even growing up Black in the U.S.. But I was once a slave to sin and today enjoy spiritual liberation and transformation. McCaulley's book helps me put the amazingness of God's accomplishment in perspective by showing what it means to people who know what it means to be physically enslaved and hated.

Final Thoughts

There's a lot more in Reading While Black. I only scratched the surface. If you're interested in a Biblically-based perspective on justice, politics, slavery, and being a Black Christian in American, I highly recommend it.

Finally, my thanks go to Vialogue for taking excellent notes for me to reference here since I listened to the audiobook version.