When the world began to witness an increase in the videos of Black people being killed over the past few years, Esau McCaulley knew he had to respond to the pain in Black lives. The assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, Anglican priest and canon theologian, is leaning on both his culture and Biblical knowledge to show Black people how Scripture relates to their identity and their past and present struggles in his new book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP, Sept.).
It was originally planned for release in November but moved up because, an IVP spokesman told PW, his voice is “so important right now.” McCaulley says his aim is to challenge, affirm and respond to the concerns of the Black community that are not typically addressed in Biblical scholarship.
(This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.)
What are some of the myths and misconceptions about Christianity and Black people you seek to dispel?
The idea that Christianity only creates docile Black Christians is one myth I would like to put to bed. The historical data witness of the Black church and the texts of the Old and New Testament do not support such a claim. I would also like to dispel the idea that Christianity is the “white man’s religion.” The Christian message is global and we cannot share it properly without acknowledging the varied peoples of the earth who remain central to God’s purposes.
How did you decide which issues to address?
These were barbershop or barbeque questions in that these were the kinds of issues my friends and I would wrestle with when we tried to make sense of being Black in America. I myself have felt anger or rage about what has happened to Black people in this country. I knew that I had to start with policing and there had to be a chapter on social justice. I didn’t think it was possible to write a book about blackness and the Bible without addressing the question of slavery. Black identity, the question of the relationship between my faith and my ethnicity, also demanded my attention. When I pitched the idea for this book, I didn’t have the answers to any of these questions. It was written as much for me as it was for the reader.
Many Christians are polarized about whether and how policing in the U.S. should change. What can they glean from your book?
I hope Christians see that there are theological resources in Scriptures to use to develop a Christian theology of policing. Too many people assume that the only proper Christian stance is submission to the state. On the other hand, people think that because submission is the only Christian option, the Christian faith has nothing relevant to say. There is a lot more going on in the Bible than accepting the status quo.
What can people who do not identify as Black Christians learn from this book?
This is important for other races and people of no faith at all because it gives them a window into the kinds of conversations that Black Christians and the wider Black community are having among themselves. It is a chance to listen without being the center of attention. You can often learn a lot about a person or community when they are talking among themselves and not simply explaining themselves to you. Think of a couple telling you how much they love each other. It is not the same as seeing whether there is real affection in the way they interact when no one is watching.
You call this an “exercise in hope.” What encouragement do you offer in this turbulent time?
I have tried to show that the practice of Bible reading has been an exercise in hope for many Black Americans historically and in the present. That book, for all its complexities, still challenges, encourages, and inspires many. Beyond the text itself is the person that the text describes. For the Christian, our ultimate hope is that we are deeply loved by God.