The Bible says what it means and means what it says.
This is probably true; however, when one takes into account the thousands of voices crying out from thousands of years ago and the distance from and positioning of the reader, how one interprets what is said is another issue all together. This is analogous to the old riddle “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Scientifically the answer is no. Sound is defined as a “mechanical radiant energy that is transmitted by longitudinal pressure waves in a material medium (as air) and is the objective cause of hearing.” Basically in order for “sound” to be take place, it must be perceived by the ear. Likewise then it is with the Biblical witness, it may be “saying” a lot of things, but what matters is what is perceived and “heard” by the individual or community engaging the biblical narrative.
The aforementioned adage attempts to ameliorate the perceived problem of the thousands of contemporary voices laying claim to the Biblical canon with often varying and conflicting interpretations of the same passages. One seeking some semblance of “absolute truth” would be hard pressed to find it among that academy that is struggling to hold together Womanist, Black Liberationist, Queer, African Liberationist, and other modes and manifestations of contextual theology in some sort of workable tension. The reason this appears to be the case is because of the different communities that are all seeking to find something sustainable and powerful from one source – the Bible. Each of these communities doesn’t approach the Biblical canon the same way; rather, based on the lived and transmitted experiences of the community, the community will read and interpret from that lens.
The African American community is no different. Throughout our long history in the Americas, every since the first slaves were catechized shortly after stepping of the slave ships, the enslaved Africans found ways of interpreting their aural religion in light of their circumstances. I use the word aural because the earliest slaves did not have access to the Biblical canon as a book, they were exposed to its stories, poems, parables, and epistles via sermons, hymns, or other audible forms of communicating faith. While analyzing the work of Vincent L. Wimbush (New Testament scholar, formerly a professor at Union Theological Seminary), Michael J. Brown, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University, makes the claim that, “[African American slaves] appropriated the symbols, concepts, and language of Christianity to suit their own existential condition… African Americans engaged the broad stories of the Bible rather than the textual details .” Renita Weems, Womanist Theologian and professor of Old Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School, says,
What the slavemasters did not forsee, however, was the the very material they forbade slaves from touching and studying with their hands and eyes, the slaves learned to claim and study through the powers of listening and memory… once they heard biblical passages read and interpreted to them, they in turn were free to remember and repeat in accordance with their own interests and tastes..
On one level, as I mentioned previously, African slaves did not have access to the actual text of the Biblical canon even if they were desirous of dealing with the “textual details;” however, on the other hand, African slaves were generally wary of the “Book religion” of the slave masters and dominant White culture. African traditional religions in general were lived, experiential religious systems in which the individual and the community became the repository of the faith system. The idea that a “book” contained these elements stood in diametrical opposition to what the African slaves had been accustomed to.
Due to the situations in and around their enslavement, enslaved Africans had to craft a faith system from a largely aural transmission of the Biblical canon and because of this, they took free literary license with the stories therein. It was not uncommon for enslaved Africans to conflate two different stories or even two different Testaments of the Biblical canon as witnessed in the spiritual:
Oh Mary don’t you weep, Tell Martha not to mourn, Pharoah’s army drowned in the Red Sea. Oh Mary don’t you weep, Tell Martha not to mourn
This spiritual calls upon two seemingly unrelated stories in the Bible; the story where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and the Exodus narrative. These two stories were joined by the need of the enslaved Africans to see retribution to the slave master, or “Pharaoh,” for the wrong inflicted upon them. Enslaved Africans had no need for a physical resurrection to life because the life that they lived was so bleak and terrible. This spiritual is just one example of the literary license wherewith enslaved communities reformed the Biblical narrative to suit their own needs for affirmation and survival.
The ways in which enslaved Africans appropriated the biblical canon served as an informant for later theologies that emerged out of the African American experience, such as Black Liberation Theology and Womanist Theology. The enslaved condition of Africans in the 16-, 17- and 1800s became a part of the lived and transmitted experiences of subsequent generations of African Americans who struggled to cope with effects of emancipation, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, Black Power, etc. As descendants of a people who bore the brunt of arguably the most brutal manifestation of slavery in human history, the cries, songs, laments, and stories of our ancestors became germane to our existence, something that could not, and should not, be forgotten. It is from this place that African Americans approach the biblical witness.
So what happens when a people still suffering from the effects of Post Slavery Traumatic Syndrome encounter texts that either explicitly state or allude to slavery? Carrying the legacy of our ancestors we should immediately decry the texts that call for us to be slaves of God (Exodus) or “doulos Christi” (slaves of Christ, a concept attributed to Paul the Apostle) as extremely problematic and work to present clearer, less oppressive images of God and self with the hope of raising the consciousness of our communities toward liberation. Instead, many African Americans have discounted their stories, lived and transmitted experiences as inferior to the dominant strain of biblical interpretation which seeks to gloss over problematic terms as somehow unproblematic. Brown states, “scholars have a tendency to diminish the harsh realities of life in the ancient world. This tendency is passed on to preachers and Christian educators, who attempt to explain the texts in a manner that is more palatable for modern readers and hearers .” Problematic texts are often glossed over in order to smooth over the problematic portions of the biblical witness and in the end the voices of the oppressed and marginalized are lost in favor a more “generalized” reading of the text.
I recently had a conversation with a ministerial colleague in which we debated the impact of the inclusion of images derived from slavocracy within the biblical witness. My colleague ia a young, African-American woman and a recent seminary graduate. She fixed her argument around the fact that I was reading more into the word “slave” than was meant by the author(s) of the biblical texts in question. She emphatically stated that since the author(s) of Exodus attached the word eved (the Hebrew root for “slave”) to the tetragrammaton (YHWH) that somehow God “redeemed” the institution of slavery. She made a similar claim that the Pauline writer’s connection of the word doulos (Greek for “slave”) to the title Christi (Christ) somehow redeemed the institution of slavery. She stated that “If I was a slave, I would’ve been happy to know that Pharoah is not my slavemaster, that I have a higher slavemaster – God.” As the conversation progressed, I was admittedly surprised that an African American, female, seminary graduate was able to make a defense of the institution of slavery, that somehow slavery had the possibility of being a beneficent institution. I could get into an exegetical argument about the ideologies underlying these two texts; however, I will simply stick the with the problematic images elicited by the inclusion of divinely ordained slavocracy into the biblical narrative.
The idea that slavery was a tool by which God redeemed humanity was a clear, underlying ideology supporting the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. True, there were other political and economic advantages to the system, but the theological underpinning of the rape of Africa was that God ordained the institution of slavery to save the “heathen” Africans from eternal damnation. Riggins Earl, professr of theology and ethics at The Interdenominational Theological Center, posits “Slavery was… believed to be the best means of conditioning souls of Africans to serve God in heaven… Slavery was understood as an institution that was ordained by God… ” The slave trade wasn’t just passively condoned; rather, it was actively supported by many European churches who held the notion that slavery in the name of God was a beneficent institution. The notion that God ordained slavery comes directly out of the concepts and words of the biblical canon itself.
Brian K. Blount, professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, underscores the power of language in interpretation. Brown alludes to Blount’s linguistic understanding when he writes, “Language is the tool through which human beings are socialized into their cultures. It transmits values, beliefs, and worldview .” Because of the lived and transmitted cultural experiences of the African American community, certain words carry certain values. The word slave is one of those cumbersome words. The word slave carries with it images of vicious assault upon Black bodies, Black women and men being raped and tortured, Black families being torn apart and sold, lynch mobs, economic and cultural exploitation, humiliation, dehumanization, and utter dispair. For an African Amerian to attempt to somehow read around this fact is to ignore the voices of those who lived through it and entrusted us with their stories.
What happened to engaging the biblical witness through the lens of lived and transmitted cultural experiences? I would argue that now that the African American community has achieved some level of equality, that the stories of our people have been forsaken in favor of assimilating into the larger American culture. By assimilation I mean the process by which a minority group disregards what makes them culturally unique and adopts the cultural practices of the dominant class in order to gain access to the power and prestige that comes along with membership in this class. By-in-large the dominant White culture has taught us that somehow our stories are deficient, particularly when juxtaposed against biblical monoliths such as Paul and the Exodus narrative; that the fault doesn’t lie in the biblical narrative but in the lens of the one engaging the narrative. We have been taught to subtract certain, less attractive segments of our stories in order to fall in line with a more general, less “offensive,” understanding of the text. We have become assimilationists, no longer interested in telling our stories; rather, we are only interested in buying into the power system of White culture. We have adopted a hermeneutical approach to scripture that is no longer baptized in the blood of Black suffering. Our modern appropriations of the biblical witness completely ignore the stories of Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglas, David Walker, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Olaudah Equiano, Sojourner Truth and many other nameless ancestors who bore the crushing yoke of a slave system that continue to effect us to this day. By buying into and adopting the hermeneutical approach of the dominant culture, we have relegated the voices or our own ancestors to the peripheries and margins of our existence in favor of a more palatable appropriation of scripture.
James Weldon Johnson harkened to this very idea when he wrote:
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.
The history of the African American community is written in blood and tears of our ancestors and our hermeneutic should be thoroughly baptized in the blood of Black suffering lest we forget where we have come from. If liberation is the focus of the Black church, then images that conflict with that goal should be expunged and replaced with images of liberation. We must not only seek to be iconoclastic in our approach to scriptures that support support slavery, but also scriptures the support xenophobia, misogyny, heterosexism/homophobia, and the marginalization of any group because of difference. The contextualization of the biblical canon to suit the needs of the oppressed African American community is not a new concept; however, the art of a contextual African American hermeneutic that speaks to the need for African Americans to be truly free needs to be recovered. There are a multiplicity of voices speaking from and speaking to the biblical witness. Are we going to silence the voices of our ancestors or are we going to allow their cry for freedom to ring loud and clear as we “march on til’ victory is won?”
The Word of Marcus for the People of God…
 Michael Joseph Brown. 2004. Blackening the Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Scholarship (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International), 71.
 Renita J. Weems. 1991. “Reading Her Way through the Struggle: African American Women and the Bible,” in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation (ed. Cain Hope Felder; Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 62.
 Brown. Blackening the Bible, 65.
 Riggins Earl. 2003. Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs: God, Self, and Community in the Slave Mind (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press), 27.
 Brown. Blackening the Bible, 123.