Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black, While Chinese American – A Book Review

Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. By Esau McCaulley. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020. Pp. 208. $22.00.

For those who are used to my rantings, it is mainly around (Mainland) Chinese Christian theology or World Christianity. This is about something quite different: Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black. I have heard a lot about this book. As I read it, it stirred quite a lot in my own thinking as a Chinese American Christian (exiled in the UK).

McCaulley advocates for what he calls a “Black ecclesial interpretation” of the Bible. He explains that most Christians think of Black biblical interpretation in the vein of Black liberation theology, as exemplified by James Cone. This is a partial picture. While not denying the liberative aspects, McCaulley points out that Black interpretation also includes conversionist and holiness aspects. African American pulpits have brought together all three. He explains:

[T]here is no one Black tradition, but at least three streams: revolutionary/nationalistic, reformist/transformist, and conformist. Much of the modern academic dialogue highlights the heirs to the revolutionary and conformist tradition.… I noticed that there were some common tendencies among the reformist/transformist stream. I named this the Black ecclesial tradition because I think it lives on in pulpits even if it is less often in print.

Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black, pg. 183.

On the one hand, there are those who see the Bible as offering some solutions, but also being part of the problem. On the other hand, there are those who claim the Bible needs to be read apart from one’s social location—if that is even possible. For McCaulley, Black biblical interpretation is as unapologetically canonical and theological, as it is socially located in its engagement with the Scriptures (pp. 16ff). To make his case, the core chapters of Reading While Black considers a series of concerns for African Americans today, and interweaves them with a scholarly biblical exegesis.

For instance, he speaks about African Americans experiences in the hands of police officers. He explains that there is a “historic legal enforcement of racial discrimination and terror visited on Black bodies” (pg. 28). To be frank, as a Chinese American, these experiences are quite foreign—and shocking to me. McCaulley takes the contentious passage of Romans 13 about submitting to governing authorities and raises a problem: wicked rulers. He queries not whether to submit to wicked rulers, but why wicked rulers exist at all. Elsewhere, in Romans 9:17, God removes a wicked ruler: Pharaoh. Mindful that Romans 13:1–2 is a statement about God’s sovereignty, McCaulley develops a Christian theology of policing by showing how the Bible demands governing authorities to be accountable—both the state (Romans 13:3–4) and individual law enforcement officers (Luke 3:14). He concludes, “If we undertake this task of calling on the officer and the state to be what God called them to be, then maybe the hopes of Black folks as they relate to the police in this country might be fulfilled” (pg. 46).

Elsewhere, McCaulley points out how the gospel of Luke is written by a Gentile, for a Gentile audience, about God’s plan of reconciliation of all things in the Messiah Jesus. In other words, it speaks about how Gentiles—and, for that matter, all peoples have a place in God’s kingdom. This is precisely what early Black abolitionists and evangelists claimed for the Black church. The Black church should have equal standing in America. The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is a model for seeing “the Black church [is] born of truly miraculous circumstances and whose witness to Jesus has served as something of a forerunner preparing America to accept a truer and fuller gospel” (pg. 84). Or that Mary’s Magnificat sings about both God’s justice and the worship of the one true God. In other words, the Bible speaks both to souls and to the liberation of bodies.

In another example, McCaulley explains how problematic it is to speak about Christianity as a “white man’s religion” or a European religion. North Africa produced some of Christianity’s greatest minds, like Augustine and Tertullian. Even in the New Testament we are told of two Africans at the beginning of Christianity, Simon the Cyrene (present day Libya) and the Ethiopian eunuch converted by Philip. Furthermore, McCaulley contests claims that the Bible is colorblind; rather, God has promised—to Abraham and David, and fulfilled through Jesus—for His glory to be known through a multiethnic community of believers.

As a Chinese American living in the UK, I am keenly aware that racism is quite alive on both sides of the Atlantic. This book came out around the same time as protests erupted across the US and parts of the UK in response to the killing of George Floyd. This would also be a time of unprecedented anti-Asian racism, both due to the so-called “Chinese Virus” and as experienced by the six Asian American women killed in the Atlanta spa shootings. Especially in this Advent season, can we sing with Mary praises to the one true God as well as cry for justice?

McCaulley also challenges me to ask what an ecclesial interpretation of the Bible looks like in my social location. While Asian American biblical interpretation has been explored to some extent since the 1990s, it—like the Black theological discourse McCaulley critiques—has tended to remain within mainline Protestant discourse. Some Asian American biblical scholars have begun to probe this question a bit more, who are likewise unapologetically canonical and theological. McCaulley reminds us that there should be an integral connection between theology and the life and experiences of Christians and the church—African American, Asian American, or any other.

Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black has done us a great service. Not only does he help us to appreciate how Christianity has been understood and addressed by the African American church; McCaulley also offers wisdom and inspiration to the worldwide church which seeks to sing praises to the one true God and to cry for justice for hurting bodies.