The Black church has a gift for American Christianity. Are we all willing to receive it? New Testament scholar Esau McCaulley, author of “Reading While Black,” talks with Amy Julia about Black biblical interpretation, distorted views of the gospel, the importance of identity within a Christian’s story, and the Black church’s commitment to both the theological tenets of Christianity and advocating for justice.
Esau McCaulley (PhD, St. Andrews), author of “Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope,” a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, and a contributing writer for The New York Times. He is also the host of The Disrupters podcast. His publications include Sharing in the Son's Inheritance and numerous articles in outlets such as Christianity Today, The Witness, and The Washington Post. Connect with him online:
“There’s a whole story in the Bible of God liberating an entire people who are enslaved. This goes to the front of God’s resume. He says it over and over and over again, 'I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.'”
“The very practice of going to the Bible and asking God to meet us there is an exercise of hope."
"Look to the Black church in America. It has a long history of advocacy for justice along with remaining in the great tradition of things Christians will always believe."
“If our ethnicity is eschatological, if we go into the new creation as black and brown and white people, if we all come into the kingdom as our ethnic selves, then God is glorified in the salvation of each of us and each part of who we are. My blackness is not immaterial to the story of my life. I can’t tell the story of my life and what God has done in my life without talking about what it means to be Black and Christian.”
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White Picket Fences, Season 3 of Love is Stronger Than Fear, is based on my book White Picket Fences, and today we are talking about chapter 7. Check out free RESOURCES—action guide, discussion guides—that are designed to help you respond. Learn more about my writing and speaking at amyjuliabecker.com.
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Hello friends. I'm Amy, Julia Becker. And this is love is stronger than fear. A podcast about pursuing hope and healing in the midst of social division. Today, I get to talk with scholar and writer, Esau McCaulley. And as you'll hear you saw as a fascinating man, he grew up in Alabama. He's a black man who landed after a circuitous journey as a professor at Wheaton college in Wheaton, Illinois. And he's recently written a terrific book called reading while black. We'll talk a lot about the book that came out last week, and it's about what the black church has to offer the church in America more broadly.
I really appreciated this book. I really appreciated our conversation and I think I loved it so much because he tackles all the hard stuff, racism, brutality, division, rage, and he does all of that under this banner of hope in a God of faithfulness and a God who has been faithful and will be faithful through all generations. So you're in for a treat and I think you will join me in gratitude for what Esau McCaulley has to offer us. All.
1 (1m 11s):
My guest today is new Testament scholar, Esau McCaulley, who is also the author of the very recently released a book reading while black, African American biblical interpretation as an exercise in hope. And we're going to really be focused on that book today because it just came out and because I really highly recommend people digging into it as soon as possible. So welcome Esau. Thank you for being here. Thank you for having me on the podcast. So I have been reading and appreciating your essays in the New York times for a while now, you've been writing opinion pieces for them, and it was really a treat to get to read more of your work in reading while black.
1 (1m 49s):
And one of the things I want to say to any listeners who are interested in the book is that it is a scholarly work, but it's also a personal one. It's very accessible and readable. It's also, it has less than 200 pages, but the amount that you cover in those less than 200 pages is phenomenal. You've got history, you've got theology. I know you're a new Testament scholar and we get new Testament, but we also get a lot of other things. I was an African American studies minor in college. And so I took an African American religion course, actually with Al Rabideau, who you quote a couple of times and reference in the book.
1 (2m 27s):
And I've done a lot of reading and thinking in these spaces, but I thought you did a wonderful job of both introducing, but not in a surface way, a lot of different topics and bringing it very much into the present debates that are surrounding race in America, Christianity in America. So well done. Excellent job. So one of the
0 (2m 50s):
Wow that's high praise. That was that's a lot from you to process. Thank you.
1 (2m 56s):
Welcome. Thank you for writing it. One of the things though that I really loved that there is this interplay between your own story as a black man growing up in America and in the South specifically, you don't live there anymore, but that's where you started and then history and scholarship. But I wanted to just start with your story because I, if I'm reading it correctly, grew up in Alabama and you were like a decent student, but not a, like a highly motivated I'm going to go on and become a scholar student. And so I want to know how you ended up as a college professor who studies the new Testament and teaches about it and studied with Tom Wright and on and on and on.
1 (3m 37s):
So I want to know that trajectory. How did you get from like football and Alabama to the college professorship?
2 (3m 45s):
That will be the whole podcast about told the story encouragement. Yeah. This might be an encouragement at least to the people who aren't necessarily academically inclined. So I was never in the top 20 in my class in high school, you know, I was just a regular student. I mean, I was, I was decent. I was like a, B, B plus student. I didn't need to be, I didn't need to be a good student because I was, to be honest, I was a good athlete. And I had put a lot of my hope in just doing well enough to be able to qualify, to get a college scholarship. That was my like intellectual goal.
2 (4m 17s):
And so after this, I'll skip huge portions of the story after I got, after I got hurt my junior year in high school, that academic career was threatened. And so I had to say, I really need to like buckle down and get my GPA up so I can get into a school in case I don't, I don't get a scholarship until my senior year in college, senior high school. I got straight A's for the first time in my life, but then I got into college and they were some kind of discussion as to whether or not they will let me in because my grades weren't amazing.
2 (4m 49s):
And, and where I went to undergrad Swanee was a technical school. And so, I mean a, a difficult school to get into at the time, I guess it still is. And so when I got this one and I performed really well, and it was kind of like a success story, like the black kid from the inner city goes to the white college and, you know, succeeds. So that was the beginning of it. And it was there that, and it's 20 that I began to flourish a little bit academically. I was never a, like a, an amazing student maybe from like a three Oh one high school to, I could three, five in college, and then wasn't in the top 20 or anything there.
2 (5m 28s):
But I fell in love with, as you talked about history and biblical studies, would you kind of hear in, I want retail to store the book. So then I went to seminary at Gordon Conwell and there I did, once again, I did pretty well. I was kind of like maybe an, a minor student, but once again, nothing to write home about, I was not a valedictorian or any of those things. Everybody looked at me. You're amazing. So then I got married and this I'll tell you the real story, Amy, the real story.
2 (6m 0s):
So I got married to this wonderful lady and she said she wanted to be a missionary overseas. And because I have particular opinions as to what we should do, if we do global missions, I didn't want to go and be a pastor there because I thought the indigenous people can lead their congregations better. And so I said, I'll just get a PhD so I can then train people overseas. And so I went to a second school to do my graduate degree, and I would just go into, apply to kind of a re any school that would take me. They would take me for free.
2 (6m 31s):
And so I can have low debt and then begin to do, to do some graduate studies. And my, one of my, one of my professors said to me, he said, Esau, you can't just apply to like Podunk university and get your PhD. You should really tell it yourself. So it doesn't really matter if just going to be a missionary, you know, they'll take, you know, like this is me being like, you know, American, you know, snobbery, you know, a PhD from anywhere would be fine. And he said, well, if you could go anywhere in the world to study, where would you go? And I said, and the books were in front of me on the other side of the room.
2 (7m 3s):
Oh, I'd go to wherever NT Wright is teaching. And so he said, well, why don't you apply? And so I applied to the university of st. Andrews and they accepted me. And then I was, I found myself moving to Scotland to study my pH, stay for a PhD. And so during that time, me and my wife discerned that we weren't going to be called to a missionary career. And she said, well, can you try to find a job somewhere in America? And so I found a job in a school in Rochester, New York, and then from there, I came to Wheaton.
2 (7m 35s):
So I never, ever, ever, ever, ever imagined, even as late as 2015, that I would ever be teaching in an American university. And if you had told me, I'll be writing my second book at this point, imagine that either right or writing in the New York times, none of this stuff was planned.
1 (7m 53s):
Right. And to go from Alabama to Wheaton by way of Scotland was not what you meant,
2 (7m 59s):
Alabama. I skipped a portion of it. We were in Japan at the time. My wife was in the Navy. And so I was, we were living in Japan and I was flying back to the United States to finish my second master's degree. And then we went to Florida for like eight to 10 months while she finished up your religious commitment, then it was Japan. So it's like Japan by way of Florida by way of Scotland by way of New York, by way of Wheaton, if you want to get the whole story, correct.
1 (8m 24s):
Well, I love it. And I did want to just start there because I think that's so fascinating. And I do think it's really encouraging actually, as a reminder, that our destinies are not fixed, right. And that our GPA in high school does not determine our, not just our intellectual ability, but our ability to contribute to conversation and to learning and to what other people have to gain from what we've learned. So, thanks for sharing that with us.
2 (8m 53s):
It really, at the heart of it is that like the, the things that, that I was forced to study were the things they weren't for me. And I just wasn't interested in them. You know, I cared about like what was happening in my community. And so much of the stuff that I was reading and writing was seeing the relevant, and I'm the kind of person where if it doesn't seem relevant, then I kind of check out. And so the further I went along in education, the more focused I was able to become on doing what I actually wanted to do. And so by the time I got to the place where I could do what I actually wanted to do, I thrived and that even extends beyond like into graduate school.
2 (9m 30s):
So I'm very proud of my first books. I don't want to like, but it's a book that I had to write to get a PhD. So in that sense, I was having to follow somebody else's rules reading while black was it's mine and where I felt like I could finally be myself as a writer and all of the, kind of the, the, the rules that were put in place, they weren't designed for people like me were gone. And I could just write what I wanted to write. Yeah.
1 (9m 54s):
Well, I'm glad you wrote it. And actually I'd love to start with, as I mentioned earlier, this is not a history book, but you, in one significant portion of the book provide historical reasons to understand Christianity. And even the nation of Israel, the Israelites in the old Testament, as including people who we now would call black, right? Like North Africans, and a much more multiethnic vision of the Jewish people, as well as early Christians.
1 (10m 25s):
Then I think at least in the American church is like our common perception. Can you just walk us through some of that history and the reasons why it actually matters that we literally envision multi-ethnic communities as are the basis and foundation of the church and the faith more broadly?
2 (10m 45s):
Yes. The first thing I would say is like, I'm not the first person to do this. It's just interesting. And then how this information doesn't kind of permeate the public consciousness. There was a generation of African-American XGS before me. And I mentioned them, and I think the bonus check the bonus track chapter, how, like some of the people done it beforehand. Well, I tell the story of every member of NASA at the beginning of the book of Genesis. And those are the two sons of Joseph, but Joseph's has a wife who's Egyptian.
2 (11m 15s):
And so at the end of Jacob's life, Joseph brings these two brothers, his two sons to bless for, for Jacob to bless him. And what happens there is that Jacob looks at these boys and he, and he remembers, he says, listen, I remember when God appeared to me and he said, I'm going to make you the father of many nations. I'm going to make you a company of peoples different ethnic groups. He saw in the multi-ethnicity of these two boys, a fulfillment of God's promise to make the people of Israel like me into many nations.
2 (11m 50s):
And so he says for that reason, he took these two half Egypt boys and made them a part of his own, like two of the 10 tribes. So the Bible says very clearly, it's not fancy X. Jesus is not in Greek. It's not in like in Hebrew. It says the ten two of the two, well tribes were founded by half, have Jewish boys from the beginning. Israel was this multiethnic community. Also talk about how it makes the statement when the Israelites leave Egypt is there that accompany of people after the, after the place a company of people's leave with them.
2 (12m 30s):
And so the, the, the story of exited it makes it clear that it's not just Israelites that leave to go to the promised land. It's other ethnic groups from the area who, who also found themselves in Egypt. And so what I want to say from the beginning, as far back in the Bible, as you want to go, yeah, people who are black and Brown, and this is the thing that I try to point out in this book is the hypocrisy of how we define race in America. Because the segregation laws in the South state, that if you have one drop of blood, one drop of black blood you're black.
2 (13m 2s):
And so if you were one 64th black, you were black. So then the question is, if you, if you didn't take and they actually had an, I didn't get into all of this in the book, these cases where people are different ethnic descent would came to the United States and actually sued the Supreme court. I think there was an Indian man who sued the Supreme court, they'd be classified as white so that he would be somebody to discrimination. And they say, no, you don't kind of meet that candidate. So according to the laws in America, all of those people would have been, that'd be too discrimination because they would have had like some African blood in them.
2 (13m 38s):
So then when you come to the Bible, we have a higher standard. If what counts as blackness, like only the new beings count. When we think about conceptualizing, who is African in the Bible, especially when you can't have one set of standards, used to discriminate against people and another set of standards that I use to kind of court and blackness off. Because in that case, then what you do is you make everybody in the Bible, white because the standards of a character being black or Brown is so high.
2 (14m 9s):
And then in the actual lived experience of the people at the time, then any drop of black blood brought about persecution. And so I talked about like, how, if we're going to go by, and I'm not saying the American standards are the correct ones, but if we're going to function by them, let's be consistent and apply it to the world of the biblical era and in the system of conceptualizing it. And then I talk about, I go on to talk about in the new Testament, we're in the exact same way. You see black people at the orange people, African people like to say African people, origins of the Israelites story.
2 (14m 43s):
You also see African people at the origin, the Christian story with the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch and Simon of styrene Jerry's uses is cross. So at the origin of both of both of the covenant in the Christian scriptures and the Jewish and Christian scriptures, you see African peoples there. So it's not this case. We were trying to find ourselves in a story and we realized the absent and were looking for crumbs, but you can't tell the story of Christianity in the, or Judaism without Africa.
1 (15m 13s):
Well, and it's interesting. I think I remember seeing a depiction, like a medieval artistic depiction of Adam and Eve as two very Northern European figures. And thinking about it in terms of whether I'm going back to like evolutionary biology and human origins or the biblical story of literally in the physical world where Adam and Eve would have started and being like, they wouldn't have looked like Northern Europeans. I don't know exactly what they would have looked like, but my imagination has been so shaped by this like Western art tradition, whether it comes to Adam and Eve to Jesus himself where, I mean, we've talked certainly many people in recent years about the blue eyed, blonde hair, Jesus, and the problem there.
1 (15m 57s):
And I've read a couple of novels recently, one by James McBride called deacon King Kong, where there's a black Jesus in the church. And, and there's this sense of abide is my imagination gets shocked by the concept of a black or Brown Jesus of a black or Brown Adam and Eve. And it's been shaped and formed by Northern European, Western art and conceptions of whiteness. And it's really good to disrupt that so that I can envision the kingdom of God more broadly.
1 (16m 28s):
What you're doing is bringing in it. This is not just imagination. This is actually like physical physiological reality that the early church and the early Israelite community was not a monolithic was not homogenous. And I think that's really important in terms of understanding our identity as the church and as Christians and kind of who the family of God really includes.
2 (16m 54s):
One of the things that we try to do is we think that, well, as long as we get our doctrine, correct, if we say that things about justification, or we say whatever, we think these central Christian ideas are then like diversity, I think diversity is kind of an optional extra it's like, do you want the ice cream after your full meal? But if you do something like read Paul's letter to the Ephesians, Paul says this, he says, once again, you don't need to know Greek or anything else. He talks about the mystery that was hidden before all ages and the mystery.
2 (17m 27s):
And I want to make sure I'm clear about this. The first part, all lauds our salvation by grace, apart from anything that we do, he does all of that. When he says, you know what the plot twist in the Bible is this day that nobody saw coming this thing that is amazing. He said, the Gentiles are fellow air with the Jews to the promises. So the thing that you get when you go like Paul, and that this is the mystery of which Paul sees as a steward, it's something he has to oversee. So it's the plot twists in the Bible. The potency coming Jews and Gentiles were together as one people.
2 (17m 58s):
And so Paul thinks that there's something about our togetherness as the people of God across difference. They testify as to something about the nature of the kingdom that is inextricably lost. Like God said, we think that we said that we believe that Paul, the God, some people can say, God commissioned Paul is the apostle justification by grace. But no, he said, you're the apostle to the Gentiles because it is vital to the future of what I want to do in the world for people to see the nations gathered to me.
2 (18m 30s):
And we began to see what drew Paul, what drove Paul is spreading the gospel to the Gentiles, to the different peoples of the world has been an optional extra. And you don't even actually have to live together as long as we have the correct doctrine in communities that are far apart. And there's something about us together, I think, as lost. And when I tried to say is that that's not just something that Paul can cause it's something that you see it's far back into the Bible, as you want to go.
1 (18m 56s):
I love that. And I think it's really, really helpful and important. I'm also struck by going back though, all the way to Egypt, you wrote, God did not choose the Egyptians. He chose the enslaved. And I want to hear more about the, how, the story of the Exodus out of Egypt, this ongoing identification of both God and later Jesus with the enslaved Israelites, how that's like shaped the theological understanding of the black church in America and why that matters for all Christians, because on the one hand, God is for all people.
1 (19m 35s):
And yet there is this willingness and insistence on identifying with the poor and the oppressed. And in this case, in the enslaved, which I think, especially in, for Americans who, even American Christians who live in material prosperity and relative lack of suffering and want, I think we can miss that and miss the significance of it. So I'm just wondering if you could say more about that.
2 (20m 1s):
Yeah. I think that you're paraphrasing my quotation of James cone, James come with us and the first person to say it, but this is, this is where it comes from. He said that if God had chosen, it is the Egyptians as his chosen people, that the different kind of God would have been revealed. And so there's this strong, there's a long tradition of African American identity identification with kind of the, the Israelites story. And I think that what it does and is that the African American Christian tradition, because we, we, we initially received kind of a distorted gospel that God wants you to be content with your circumstances.
2 (20m 39s):
And that the message of the Bible is slaves submit to your masters and maybe your body and your soul will be free. And in the coming kingdom. And that was rooted kind of, you know, things like first Timothy chapter six and what the African American Christians did as a whole. They said, well, hold on, there's this whole story in the Bible of God liberating, like an entire people who are enslaved. And they said, well, this is kind of like, this is what God, this, this goes to the front of God's resume. He says it over and over and over again, I'm the Lord, your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
2 (21m 14s):
And so for the African American Christian or the African American, looking to the Bible and say, well, what kind of God was revealed there? And then as you kind of go beyond that to say, well, what does God, how does God describe himself with things like the songs and the prophets? He's the defender of orphans and widows. And when the, when the state and the powers that be don't care about them, the people have to turn to God and there's the strong confidence that God would liberate them. And so when you're an oppressed people and you ask them the question, what does God's side with me? What does God's side with the people who are abusing me?
2 (21m 48s):
Well, any viable reading of the Bible is going to say the God's side. So the people who are the people who are oppressed now, the way that that can kind of get lost is that we can separate that from what the rest of the story says. And the image that I like to use is that in the Bible, the Exodus story, it gives way to Leviticus. So you have the liberation of the people. Then you have the formation of the rituals and the practices that form them and turn them into the Holy people of God. And so the, the telos, the liberation and the Bible, isn't just for you to be free to order your own sociopolitical realities.
2 (22m 22s):
Although that's part of it, the end goal of liberation is freedom to worship the living God, to be transformed by him. And historically the African American Christian tradition has kept both those things together. Now in the region, we kept those things together. It's because our social location, the things that we experienced sent us to the Bible with a particular question, what does the Bible have to say? And what does God have to say about what is happening to us? Now, if you, if you kind of pan over and look at the white church at this time, there's a different set of priorities.
2 (22m 54s):
There isn't, there's, there's the political economic, and basically material benefit to keeping people oppressed. And so they're not going to the Bible asking, well, what does the Bible say about the weakest of these? There is a whole going through the Bible saying, well, how can I justify what I already do? And so they found in the biblical texts, they weren't disinterested. XGS their social location. As the dominant people were distorted their reading of the Bible. And so what I try to say is that sometimes your position can either help or hinder your Bible reading.
2 (23m 27s):
And if you go into the Bible with a material benefit from oppression, it's sometimes harder to see all of these passages because here's the bank. Nobody who reads the Bible. Now, I mean, I shouldn't say 99% of the people who read the Bible now read the Bible the way that the enslaved did at the time. And almost nobody still wants to hold the slave master to exit Jesus. Well then if it was so obvious, but why couldn't the people will see it at the time because their, their experiences were blinding them.
2 (23m 57s):
And so what I want to say is that for the African American Christian, we've always been able to look through the Bible and see, as it relates to the question of oppression and liberation, a God who willed our freedom and our, our Ireland statement. And the last thing I'll say about this is that, like, I think this lately, they, that the slave masters knew it too, because they gave us an edited Bible. By some accounts, there's a slave Bible with 60% of the Bible taken out of it. Now the Bible supports slavery from beginning to end.
2 (24m 28s):
Why don't you take 60% out of it? That means they knew. They knew they gave the whole thing to the people unfiltered. They didn't have the possibility to kind of inspire in them a desire for freedom. So the very fact that they said we have to edit this book, shows that they saw the book itself is dangerous. And it has been dangerous for us from the beginning for us, like using it to claim who we were as people look up, because things like Genesis one 20, 60, one, 28 were made in God's image come without an exception, right?
2 (24m 58s):
It's not like black people are like everybody, except for black people are made in God's image. Right? And so those are the ways in which these texts have always for us or often for us being a source of hope. And that's what I tried to point
1 (25m 12s):
Actually. Yeah. I would love to go there to hope because the subtitle of your book, which I love, African-American biblical interpretation as an exercise in hope, it can seem on first reading of the topics in your book, right? You're talking about policing, you're talking about racism. You're talking about rage, the rage experienced and felt by many African Americans on a daily basis. Those do not appear to be hopeful topics, right? Like we wouldn't say, Oh, list all the reasons to hope policing racism, rage, but you make a case for why this is an exercise in hope.
1 (25m 45s):
And I would love for you to talk about that and spell that out. Like, why is this hopeful and how do you understand it that way? Because I think that might bring some, a sense of why engaging the hardest stuff can actually be hopeful. I think people need to hear
2 (26m 2s):
Well, I'm glad that you say that if we lived in a world where marketing, I mean, I came up with the title, so I'm not, I'm happy with it, but the heart, the heart of the, like the thesis of the book is African-American biblical interpretation. That's an exercise in hope. But if that was the title of the interview, we'll buy it. So you had to have that first title and then the sub title. And what I want it to say is the hopefulness that that emerges is not from the things that are happening themselves, right? They like policing anger, those things aren't hopeful.
2 (26m 34s):
They're depressing. Well, what I was saying is when black people were faced with trauma, they can go to God of the Bible and in him find the hope necessary to encounter those things. And so what I want to say is that the African American let's kind of go back to kind of the, the invisible institution of, of slave churches. And so they did on slavery and oppression within how do they find hope?
2 (27m 5s):
They find hope through God. And until the practice of looking in these texts for an answer, the very practice of going to the Bible and asking God to meet us, there is an exercise in hope. And so the only way that I could, I use this in my, in the book, in the, in the article that I wrote for the New York times, I think it was the first one that I wrote about the slaughter of the innocent children by Herod. And I said, there is no other world in which we for Intuit, Jesus can come.
2 (27m 36s):
There's no other world other than the world in which babies are slaughtered. So the Christian gospel has to make its way there in the world. This is not an innocent there. Isn't like a world full of all happiness that Jesus comes into and says, let's make things even better. So when you talk about finding hope, the only place to find hope was in a place where it might not exist. And so what I tried to say in this book is here are the hardest things, not the only hard things, but here are some hard things we have to deal with as Christians.
2 (28m 7s):
And how can the Bible be into that context of source of hope? One of the things I want people to understand is that when I wrote the chapter, I wrote the titles of the chapters in a summary of what I wanted to talk about, but I had no idea what the answer was. So this is not a book that has, Oh, here are my five answers to the problems facing black people. I wrote the, I wrote the topics down because I felt I couldn't write an honest book unless I addressed those things. And so the exercise and hope is not just for the reader.
2 (28m 38s):
It was for me as I wrote it. And I say like, I hope that God has something to say about slavery. When I get there. I hope that God has something to say about black rage. When I get there of that, the Bible has to say about policing when I get there, but I have to ask those questions because these are the questions that we are dealing with. And there's a way that there is a, there is a way of, as a Christian is closing yourself off from when there was questions, they're trying to go through your whole life without really pressing into them and hoping that like, it never jumps over the wall, you know, the issues and the things that bother us.
2 (29m 13s):
And I said, no, let's pull down all the walls. Let's let all of the pain and the issues and the trauma come in and hope that God speaks into it. A word of hope, because that's the only way I know how to be a Christian.
1 (29m 24s):
I wonder how much affluence. And again, an ability to protect ourselves, at least from physical experiences of suffering builds those walls, like reinforces what you were saying before of a slave using the Bible to reinforce what I'm already doing, rather than allowing it to be this prophetic and challenging word against my entire existence.
1 (29m 54s):
So, anyway, I mean, that's just what it makes me think of it. Yeah.
2 (29m 56s):
I, I think, I think you're right. I think we have to be careful about motivated readings, right? So here, let me, let me give you an example. We talk about the fact that black people have been historically oppressed in this country. Let me continue to experience injustice, maybe even at the hands of police. So what is at stake if we are correct? Like if the African American Christians who've been saying this for years are correct, then implicitly, this America that we like to idealize has th th that's kind of a key pillar of kind of, some of our worldviews is like we have to deeply receive that criticism.
2 (30m 37s):
It makes sense of what it means to love this country. On the other side of that, the other thing that it means is that like, it's possible that people benefit from that. And the idea that like you might benefit from something that was bad, causes people, such a crisis that it's easier to explain the way the problem than the face. Cause then if what we're saying is true, that things have to change and the things have to change. Then it means the world isn't going to be easy. If all you have to do is be individually nice to a black person that you meet. And that's the stuff that you can incorporate into your life.
2 (31m 8s):
But there's actually systems in place that keep black people down, let them begin to think about, well, what kinds of things was I do to change that system? And so when I talk about like, what motivated readings do is that it potentially keeps us from answering the questions, honestly, because we're afraid about what it might mean as a result. I tell, I tell the story and I'll be brief. I told the story in the, I think in this book about when the Pharisees come to Jesus and they asking him questions and he said, well, I'll answer your question.
2 (31m 41s):
If you tell us, if you explained to me about John's baptism was different. God, it wasn't for man. So they have a little committee meeting and I said, well, we say from God, then Jesus was like, why didn't you listen to them? And if we say for man, then the people are going to ride because they thought the child was a prophet. And so they said, we don't know the important part about that though, is that the people who were having a little committee meeting weren't concerned with the truth, they were concerned with the implications of the answer. And once you began to say, I'm concerned with the implications to be answered instead of the truth, you're going to a really dangerous place.
2 (32m 12s):
You're going to dangerous place, where you might miss what God is trying to say to you, because what, you're not trying to hear what God is trying to say. You trying to hear the thing that upsets our lives, the least
1 (32m 21s):
Such a good word. And I'm curious how we protect against those motivated readings in our day. And I know you write about this a bit in the book for yourself, but it's certainly also going to be true for, especially I think for white Christians who right now are being rattled by and like it's, we're in a time of unrest and of questioning a lot. And we so humanly want a sense of security.
1 (32m 52s):
And I already know what it's going to tell me, rather than again, that kind of prophetic challenge. That is all, all the same hopeful because it's the word of God. And if God is love and truth and justice and beauty, well, that's what I want. Even if it disrupts my life, but at the same time in my humanity, I'm also really inclined to just try to protect my status quo. So what do you think we can do to approach the text with that degree of like openness?
2 (33m 18s):
I am, I'm not a deconstruction of deconstructionist in a sense that I think that the whole thing needs to burn down. I think it is very important for American Christians to kind of, especially white American Christians actually turn their gaze to other places because it, and I talked about this in chapter one, we can be lost in a binary between if I start King about these things, these other five or 60 illogical things might change that are, that are crucial to me. But if you look at like the global church and you say, well, look in places like Nigeria and Wanda, where they do things like this, they talk about election corruption and they talk about the Bible is God's word to us for our good.
2 (33m 59s):
And then they do community development and they care about the environment and that didn't cause the Nigerians to lose their faith. They could, they could hold these things together. If you want to close. For example, actually look to the black church in America. And that's a long history of advocacy for justice, along with remaining in the great traditional things. Christians have always believed. So it is not the case that if I start saying, I'm a guy, if I, if I, if I'm biblical, right, if I, if I am, Jesus literally says, you know, he, he gets his first sermon with, you know, the good news of the poor and the, by the setting free of the people who are bound.
2 (34m 41s):
And then after his resurrection, he gives the great commission and he says, go and teach everyone to be all the things that I've taught you. So Jesus models in this ministry, a concern for the weak and the marginalized, he preaches about it. And then he says to the car, to his disciples, we'll go until everybody to do those things. And what we've done is take the peace that Jesus says, go into the world and give everyone a plan of salvation. But that's not just what Jesus did. So what I'm saying is we think that if I only do part of what Jesus tells me to do, then that's going to keep me from losing that part.
2 (35m 16s):
Then maybe just doing that small part that would use this, told you to do is distorting that too. Maybe that's the danger. We keep thinking that the danger is if I start to care about these things, it might cause division, but the church is already divided. Black people are, are really alienated. We're already saying, because you don't care about us. We can't be a part of the community. So the danger is already here. It's not that if I, if I do this bad things might happen. We're saying the bad things are already happening to us while so many people have a small understanding of the Christian faith, the leads, the leads, the concerns of the marginalized out.
2 (35m 54s):
So what I'm saying is it's not the fact that you're safe now that you move into danger. It's the fact that we're in danger now, or we don't recognize it.
1 (36m 2s):
Yeah, I couldn't agree more. And I think about, so there's this what you've talked about in terms of like a motivated reading of scripture that can distort the gospel, but within that, this making the gospel too small. And I think that happens in a couple of different ways. One is just in the over individualizing it, right? So not saying that this isn't about personal sin and salvation, but just saying it's about so much more than that, because God is certainly about the creation of, and the redemption of the whole of it.
1 (36m 33s):
So us as peoples, as well as all of creation itself, but there's also, I think you talked, I think already there are these different ways in which the scriptures are applicable to all of us, right? So like we're all sinners and you'd wrote in the book about how that was actually something that the slave holders could agree with their slaves about, right? Like within safe people. Yes. We're all sinners. Okay. So you stay in your place and I'll stay in mine was kind of the way to use that. And it just struck me that if they had at the same time, been bringing up the end of Genesis one, we're all sinners and we're all created in the image of God and then bringing it forward to be a part of the body of Christ.
1 (37m 14s):
I guess you can distort that to say, therefore, you stay in your place. But I think that's part of that expansive vision. It's not just that we're all sinners, but we're also all these beloved creatures that God has good purposes for. And I was struck by this is early on in the book he wrote, I want to find out whether God saves me from my blackness or whether my blackness is a unique manifestation of the glory of God. Those are such different conceptions, right. Of who God is and what God is doing.
1 (37m 46s):
And what would it mean for us to actually be able to celebrate the glory of God in our diversity, in our, both our common humanity and our diverse cultures, experiences, gifts, and abilities.
2 (37m 60s):
This is where I pushed back as strongly as I can and against a colorblind model. And I know that, and it's like form colorblindness means we just don't judge people on the basis of their skin color. But it's often used is weaponized to use, well, whenever a black person or a person of another, you know, another ethnic group starts talking about something. Colorblind is used to like shut that conversation down. And the Bible would just isn't colorblind in the sense of it, doesn't think that ethnicity matters. And he's going to think about facts hiding in plain sight.
2 (38m 32s):
He's called Abraham, the father of many nations, many, many groups. So God is glorified in saying, look at all of the people who I could draw to myself and unite them under the worship of me. And you have the exact same thing. When you look at the end of the Bible in the book of revelation and every child with tongue and nation comes. And so if our ethnicity is eschatological, if we go into the, the new creation as black and Brown people and white people, and all of us, we all come into the kingdom as our ethnic selves, and God is glorified in the salvation of each of us and each part of who we are.
2 (39m 11s):
So it's not there like my black, it's not, it's not immaterial to the story of my life. So the only way I could talk about what, like, if there is a testimony time when we get to have been, I can't tell the story of my life and what God has done in my life without talking about what it means to me to be black and Christian. And the same thing, as I would say for women, right? They're like part of your Christian life is embodied. And so you can't tell the story of what it means to be a Christian. Other than talking about that, I would assume would be the same thing. If someone is disabled, you can't, we can't erase these things right from our story.
2 (39m 42s):
And they just talk about the Jesus part. They are part of how we walked through the world. And I said, well, I walked through the world as a black person, as a Christian. Then my blackness is unique. Manifestation of God's glory, not in opposition. It doesn't make anybody else less. It just makes, this is my story. And so, and this the same thing, if you're married, if you're single, like you either have to say, this is how I lived as a Christian, as a married person and how I glorify God in my marriage. You can't tell them much though, without that, or this is how I glorify God as a single person.
2 (40m 13s):
Well, this is how a glorify God as a single person for a season or as a married person for a season, all of these things are inextricably bound up with what God is doing in the world. And God seems to want it to be that way and that, because he seems to create us with these kinds of different experiences.
1 (40m 28s):
Yeah. I first started really getting my mind blown by this line of thinking when our daughter was born and diagnosed with down syndrome. And just asking the question of like, will she have down syndrome in heaven? Like, is this intrinsic to her identity? Or is it this distorted, you know, fallen piece of her. And I don't think I have all the answers there, but I did come to believe that who she is in this chromosomal difference that she has is actually a part of God's design. And that doesn't mean, again, that it plays itself out perfectly according to God's will or purposes.
1 (41m 3s):
But at the same time, it really challenged me to understand the differences and diversities of our experiences as a part of what God uses both to demonstrate our need and our gifts, and like how we need each other and can live in love with one another. And, and as you said, thinking about like John nine, the man born blind and Jesus saying this didn't happen because of sin. It happened to glorify God.
1 (41m 33s):
And I still don't fully understand how that all works, but I do have greater hope for that in all of our diversity than I probably did. You know, 15 years ago before penny was born,
2 (41m 44s):
I want to say this. Like I don't, I don't know about an, a Christian eschatology in the sentence of the question that you asked, but I can say this with confidence, that it's a part of her story, and it's a part of your story. So like when she gets to heaven or the new creation is probably Tom will make me say the new creation, when the new creation comes, she will tell the story of how she moved through the world and whatever state she's resurrected. She will tell the story, how she lived as a person with down syndrome.
2 (42m 16s):
And here's the problem. This doesn't mean that that story is the Bible talks, sorry. You want me to get to eschatology? Every tear is white way from our eyes. As we entered the kingdom, we, we one last time, because the things that were done to us and the things that happened to us were actually harmful and hurtful. But after that, I think that that pain becomes a testimony as we enter into the new creation. And so I am saying that the, I will tell the story of me and walking through this world as a black Christian, cause there's no other store for me to tell, right?
2 (42m 49s):
There was no color blonde story for me to tell.
1 (42m 51s):
And there is both beauty and sorrow
2 (42m 54s):
And there's beauty, there's tears, and there's joy. And that's part of the mix of these things, right? And exercise and hope. I mean, exercise is interesting because you can just say it's a, like, something that we do is a practice, but anytime you have a practice it's times where you don't want to do it, like I didn't, I didn't exercise this morning because yesterday was launch day and it was an emotionally taxing time. So I slept in, I should have gotten up and exercise even though I didn't want to. And so I think that's what it means to find hope is to do it, even when it's not easy to continually work up the muscles in that cardiovascular strength of, of spiritual hopefulness, that it's a practice, which means it's not always easy
1 (43m 37s):
And not always what we feel like. I, I want to end with asking you one more question towards the end of reading while black, you write about how the black Christian traditions gift to the American church is to appropriate the Christian message as a power that can bring about personal and societal change. And I think one of the things I've observed as a Christian growing up much more in predominantly white churches is that I find either an emphasis on personal change individual transformation that can be really freeing and beautiful or an emphasis on societal change that does not address the personal, you know, but that they have not been wed together.
1 (44m 23s):
And that's something I really do want in my own life is a continued emphasis on both personal and societal change and the power of the, in both of those areas. So I'd love to just ask you to end our time by thinking about this hope that an African American interpretive lens can offer and what the black Christian tradition has to offer the church in general, especially when it comes to this question of exercising hope. And as we look at where we are right now,
2 (44m 53s):
One of the things that if I could go back and rewrite the book, there's a couple of there's three or four quotes that I would, that would put in that I took out, but they were saying I was getting a little quote heavy, and it's the story. And it's in a, what, in a lot of ways, it's like emotionally problematic to read because it's the stories of the conversion of slaves. And you will see like the slave will say, well, I was in the field and then I had this knowledge that I'm a sinner and I need God's salvation. And it's really kind of strange to hear that cause, and then they said, and I was overjoyed as I went to the field the next day.
2 (45m 27s):
And it's a really arresting thing to hear, to feel like, well, how can you call someone who's being sinned against a center, but that's not something that we're saying about them is how they described their own life. Even in the context of slavery, they said, there's something about me that the God wants to do in me, that he could do it through the gospel. And so that, that testimony sits in the, the kind of the received the positive African-American spirituality. But at the same time, they knew this slavery wasn't God's will for them.
2 (45m 57s):
And because they were experiencing both of these things together, it began to Mark the African American Christian tradition and for a variety of reasons, which we can discuss at the end of the podcast. These two things are pulled apart, uniquely in the United States where there's the associate gospel people over here and the transformation of gospel over here. And so many of my white Christian friends can only see the world through this binary. And so they give to the Africans that the African American church offers to Christianity in the United States.
2 (46m 28s):
It's to say that binary doesn't have to be there. Are there African American churches that have that binary? Yes, they are. They're African American churches that are social action with this, with transformation. There are piloted by churches that aren't socially engaged, but there's a huge swath of the tradition. It combines both. And if people are saying, is it possible to do I want to say, it's not a hypothesis it's there. And so I don't want to say this is, this has to be via careful. I'm not saying that God caused black people to experience these things so that they will construct this kind of theology so that American white Christians can learn from it.
2 (47m 3s):
What I can say is that part of the glory of their story of the American of, of, of Christianity in America is what happened with the black church. And because of that glory, people could learn from, if they're humble, one of the problems is we have to recognize, so I'll say this, and this'll, this'll be like the good way to end it. If you're an African American Christian, you have already like receive for most part, a disillusionment with both the American church and the United States and come to the other side of that delusion and learn what forgiveness and love looks like on the other side.
2 (47m 41s):
And so we've been through the trauma that many people who are in this moment going through it, they're saying, Oh man, I wish I had this rosy picture of the church. And I have this Rose yacht picture of America. And it's more complicated if I accept this more complicated, like understanding, can I still be a Christian in some sense? And the answer to the thing that is hopeful is we will never this solution. We we've known for 200 or 400 years about this and we've practiced the faith anyway. And so if you're saying it's that way to be a Christian on the other side of that, that doesn't just mean I either retreat to the social gospel binary or I retreat to the artistic binary.
2 (48m 20s):
Is there a way forward that maintains kind of the historic things that Christians will always believe then there isn't, there's literally an example of sitting right in front of our face, which has significant significant segments of the black church. And if you, and then the other thing is if you go international, which the book doesn't do you see the same thing and the rest of the global Christianity, the truth of the false hood of Christianity is not reside only in a portion of the North American experience, but in the global reality of who God is and what he's done in the world.
2 (48m 50s):
And we have a local example of it here and the black church in the United States. Thank you
1 (48m 55s):
For that encouragement. That's certainly what I want my own participation in that global reality to just increasingly understand is how those two, what have been two very divorced aspects of an experience. I want them to be brought together to this sense of like personal and social healing transformation and change.
2 (49m 18s):
The one thing that I want to say to people, and I want to make this clear because people who aren't used to reading stuff like my book, we hear it wrong and they will, they can read my book wrong. If they say, well, the pirated stick people were are bad. And the social gospel people are correct. That's not that the thesis of the book, the thesis of the book is you don't have to become less biblical to care about these things. You have to become more biblical. And so my goal is to people will return to the Bible more thoroughly, not less thoroughly, and with more confidence that God, that God, that they meet there is a friend and not an enemy rather than less.
2 (49m 56s):
So I think, I think that the combination of these things that you're concerned about is the only way that we can be Christian going forward. We are beyond the realm of being able to control kind of the flow of information so people will know. And so I think that the Christianity has to become more of what God actually attempted to be because no locker stand forever.
1 (50m 19s):
Well, that's a great way to end it. And I do appreciate your contribution to this conversation, not just in what we've just talked about, but in writing this book and an offering it as an exercise in hope and in faithfulness to this tradition, but also to not just the African American Christian tradition, but to the theological tradition that spans back many generations and really gives a much richer portrait of who Jesus is, who God is and why that's a compelling invitation for all of us to participate.
1 (50m 53s):
So thank you for that. And we will make sure in the show notes that we've got links to your book and just information about how people can follow your writing and your career and all that you're doing. But yeah, I just want to say thank you for taking the time, especially after the busy-ness of yesterday to speak with me this morning.
3 (51m 12s):
1 (51m 17s):
Thanks so much for listening today to love is stronger than fear. I'll make sure that all of our references get into the show notes and I would recommend buying this book reading while black. It was a great read and a great reference and resource for me. And I think it will be for you as well. And of course, if you're interested, share this episode, subscribe to this podcast, give it a quick rating or review so that even more people can benefit from these conversations. Thanks as always to our cohost breaking ground, breaking ground at us, you can find more podcasts articles, videos that are reflecting from a Christian perspective on how to think about the past, how to understand the present and how to explore redemptive possibilities for the future.
1 (52m 3s):
Again, that's breaking ground at us. Always. I am thankful to Jake Hansen for editing to Amber Barry, my social media coordinator, and to you for listening. So as you go into your day to day, I hope and pray that you will carry with you. The peace that comes from believing that love is stronger than fear.
3 (52m 23s):