Review of Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley

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Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley is a fascinating and compelling book that offers readers a glimpse into what it means and has meant to read the Bible in the ‘Black Ecclesial Tradition.’ McCaulley invites us on a journey the is thoughtful, personal, and important.

The first chapter is autobiographical as he wrestled to find his place and voice in that tradition. But a dialogical method arose from his struggles and he offers ‘a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ.’ (22)

In Chapter 2, McCaulley offers a theology of policing in the New Testament and notes that the closest parallel to modern policing was the soldier’s responsibility to keep order. He starts by unpacking Romans 13 in context. He argues, in light of Moses, the Hebrew midwives, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego defying the empire, that ‘Paul does not simply delay the righting of wrongs until the eschaton. Instead, Paul shows rightful skepticism about our ability to discern how we are functioning in God’s wider purposes.’ (34) Another element to this is found in Luke 3:14 where John the Baptist seems to speak to the personal responsibility of the individual soldier to not prey on the weak, recognize the humanity of all, and to be satisfied with what they are given. (42-45)

Chapter 3 and 4 pushes the policing question to the issues of political witness and justice in this current cultural situation. To the first issue, he concludes that, like Jesus, we can call our leaders corrupt and recognize the present evil age in Galatians is ‘a subtle condemnation of the current political order.’ (70) Moreover, God is an ally to Black Christians and ‘steps into history and reorders the universe in favor of those who trust him.’ (70) To approach justice, he walks through Luke’s gospel with the testimonies of Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, and then Jesus himself emphasizing the theme of hope in the midst of injustice. One quote from the testimony of Mary is helpful to understand the chapter. McCaulley says, ‘What is the testimony of Mary? The testimony of Mary is that even in the shadow of the empire there is a space for hope and that sometimes in that space, God calls us from the shadows to join him in his great work of salvation and liberation.’ (89)

Chapter 5 is about the Bible and Black identity and offers correctives to those who want to minimize the historical role of the black community in Israel’s story and the Early Christian one.

Chapter 6 focuses on the Bible and Black anger in light of the ‘litany of black suffering’. McCaulley offers four helpful reflections. “Israel’s pain and anger…provide and means of processing Black grief. Secondly, I contend the prophets warn that the ever-spiraling cycle of violence is a dead end… [Third] I maintain that the cross functions as the end of the cycle of vengeance and death and that the cross is a place where God enters into our pain. Finally, I suggest that the central biblical themes of resurrection, ascension, and the final judgment are necessary in any account of Black anger and pain.” (122)

Chapter 7 wrestles with the Bible and Slavery. McCaulley walks through the key passages and argues that ‘since slavery was not God’s original intention, the Christian could reason from creation to the liberation of the enslaved’ and ‘the Old and New Testaments, even the letters of Paul, provide us with the theological resources to dismantle slavery.’ (162)

This is a thoughtful, compelling, albeit challenging read. I am a white Canadian, so I truly cannot understand McCaulley’s story but Reading While Black invited me into it with all his struggles and hopefulness. A good book like this, one that asks us to reflect on the context from which we read the biblical text, one that asks us to wrestle with issues of power and its abuses, one that asks us to acknowledge the pain caused by those who claim to follow Christ are absolutely necessary to navigate the times we are in. McCaulley’s Reading While Black needs to be read and read widely.