Black America Needs a Radical Reading of the Bible
In America’s beginning was slavery, and slavery was in America, and slavery was America. Slavery was with America in the beginning. Every American system, structure, ideology, and cultural expression was created through slavery and apart from slavery not one thing in America has ground to stand upon.
These opening lines are written as a mirror to the prolong of John’s Gospel. I begin in this way because it is critical for you understand that American politics and persecution are intimately attached to how American Christianity reads the Bible. What if we changed this? What if we started reading the Bible and our country in light of the experience of the oppressed? What if we began doing radical readings of the Bible?
While the Bible is the sacred text of an Eastern religion now known by the Western world as Christianity, it has long been co-opted and used as a tool for indigenous extermination, African enslavement, black American subjugation, Latinx exploitation, Asian mis-education, and Muslim exclusion. Most recently, its use as a political prop for American politics has been displayed on a national scale due to President Trump’s recent photoshoot in front of St. John’s Church.
The truth is, long before President Trump decided to scatter peaceful protestors from Lafayette Square with tear gas in an effort to make way for his glorious photoshoot with Scripture, the Bible has long been used as a tool by the powerful to control and exploit the vulnerable. Such misinterpretation and misappropriation of Scripture has made the Bible a weapon many fear, and Christianity a religion others cannot accept. But what if the problem is not the text itself? What if the problem is in how we’re reading it? Better yet, what if the problem is how we’ve been taught to read it?
One of the greatest theologians to write about Jesus and the condition of black America, Howard Thurman, in his critical work Jesus and the Disinherited, writes of his experience caring for his maternal grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who was born a slave. He shares that one of his chores was to do all of her reading and writing. So, two to three times a week he would read the Bible aloud to her, but was forbidden to read any of the Pauline epistles. All except the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. Some years later, Thurman worked up the courage to ask his grandmother why she would not let him read any of Paul’s writings. She said,
During the days of slavery the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters…as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.
What a powerful declaration! Here, Nancy Ambrose teaches us the value of the Bible and the importance of taking control of how we read it. This woman may not have known phonetically how to read or write, but ideologically she knew how to read radically. She understood that reading is more than the intellectual understanding of letters and words. Reading is the intellectual position of surrender, it is the act of allowing oneself to be shaped and molded by the thoughts of another. And Nancy Ambrose made a radical decision to not receive the oppressive readings of Paul’s letters as given by her former master. By denying her grandson the permission to read the writings of Paul aloud to her, Nancy Ambrose engaged in a radical reading of the Bible. In that moment of freedom, she took the Bible back from her oppressors and declared this text will no longer be used to further my subjugation. Instead, she submitted herself only to a reading of the text that inspired her liberation.
The difference between us and Mother Ambrose is that we do know how to read phonetically. This gives us access to the context of Paul’s writings, and the writings of others in Scripture, in ways our foreparents did not possess. In other words, we have access to the healing balm of Scripture in its entirety. No longer are we restricted from the parts of Scripture that were used to oppress us. Now, we can access and properly interpret these passages and use them for our liberation. Furthermore, such literary understanding empowers us to reject any reading of Scripture that perpetuates the notion of black inferiority and the belief of any African’s inherent subjugation. By rejecting the way Scripture has been taught to us and embracing the challenge to read Scripture in its totality and context, we resist and reject racist readings of the Bible and instead engage in a radical reading of the Bible.
Frederick Douglass details this in his narrative:
Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.
This means that we do not need to abandon the Christianity of the Bible, but instead should abandon the Christianity of this land. In a time when an officer can kneel on the neck of a man, a father, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, keeping his hands in his pockets the entire time, we are living in a moment where our world is in desperate need of a God who saves. This makes it critical that we hold on to the DuBoisian ‘frenzy’ of the black Christian experience allowing our faith and the words of this book to continue to radically permeate our hearts and minds. Christianity does not have to be an opiate that lulls black Americans into social and political apathy. Christianity, when buttressed by a radical reading of the Bible, is the very fire that ignites sustained social transformation.
It is this belief that makes a rebuke of America’s use of the Bible and Trump’s performance with the Bible so critical. When this President disrupted and dispersed peaceful protestors rebuking the unlawful deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others, with tear gas to stand in front of St. John’s church as a symbol of law and order, he demonstrated white America’s practice of seeking to quell and quiet black American protest with the Bible. For far too long, white America has held up the Bible in the midst of our cries, in the midst of our rage, and they’ve elevated it in an attempt to put us back into positions of docility and meekness.
But it is critical that we not assign the politics of Trump and white America to this sacred text. For if we could extricate the Bible from the clutches of white America, reading it for ourselves, we’d see that the politics of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation reveal a God that is immensely concerned with the social, physical, psychological, and spiritual emancipation of humanity. We’d see that the very book white America uses time and time again to keep us disengaged in the political process and silent on our systematic oppression, is a book filled with stories about people spiritually empowered and emboldened to tear down oppressive systems and governments.
In fact, when I do a radical reading of Scripture I see Jesus talking to the woman at the well as an example of rejecting patriarchal misogyny; Jesus healing the leper as an example of embracing the marginalized; Jesus delivering the demon possessed as an example of emancipating the enslaved; Jesus cleansing the temple as an example of how to protest and riot in opposition to economic exploitation; and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead as an example of the power we have to bring dead communities wrapped in discriminatory policies back to life. Obery Hendricks solidifies such a reading in his book The Politics of Jesus writing,
…an important goal of [Jesus’] ministry was to radically change the distribution of authority and power, goods and resources, so all people — particularly the little people, or ‘the least of these,’ as Jesus called them — might have lives free of political repression, enforced hunger and poverty, and undue insecurity.
Such a radical reading of the Christ of Scripture suggests that if black America would divorce themselves from the white supremacist readings of Scripture given them during enslavement, we’d be introduced to a text and a God well acquainted with our experience and our fight. If only we’d radically read the Bible then we’d see that we serve a refugee redeemer, born to an unmarried woman, in the year of the census. We’d read Jesus as the brown skinned, Palestinian Jew, of a hood called Nazareth that He was. We’d finally see Jesus as a revolutionary who challenged the church and the state, and who for his teachings was falsely arrested, interrogated, beaten, tortured, and forced to carry the very wood for his own lynching.
Black America’s politics does not have to be separated from Scripture. In fact, if we’d walk in the example of Mother Ambrose and read the text radically we could separate the Bible from its violent, racist use. With a commitment to a radical reading of Scripture we’d see that Father Cone was right, we do serve a God who is on the side of the oppressed. A radical reading of the Bible reveals that our cries for justice, equity, fairness, and the recognition of our humanity is not a political agenda attached to any two party system. But instead, our cries are spiritual demands attached to the very character and ideal intentions of the Judeo-Christian God. May we not abandon Christianity or the Bible for the way it has been misused, but instead take it back and read it for ourselves. May we radically read the Bible to learn that according to Paul,
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness [or the quality, state, or practice of judicial responsibility with focus on fairness, justice, equitableness, and redemptive action in the administration of the law], so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
May we radically read the Bible and discover the healing balm and liberating fire that it brought to so many of our foreparents.