Through the Blood of the Slaughtered: Reclaiming a Contextual African American Hermeneutic

There is a popular adage that attempts to provide an over-simplified, general hermeneutical understanding of the Biblical witness.  The adage says:

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 [1].”  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.[2].

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 [3].”  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… [4]”  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 [5].”  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…

________________________

[1] Michael Joseph Brown. 2004. Blackening the Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Scholarship (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International), 71.

[2] 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.

[3] Brown. Blackening the Bible, 65.

[4] Riggins Earl. 2003. Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs: God, Self, and Community in the Slave Mind (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press), 27.

[5] Brown. Blackening the Bible, 123.

6 thoughts on “Through the Blood of the Slaughtered: Reclaiming a Contextual African American Hermeneutic

  1. Whenever theological issues be they doctrinal, institutional, concerning how to live etc., the Christian always reconciles it with the “word of God.” I put the “word of God” in quotes, because it’s really more than just the written words in the biblical text. The “word of God” are those life commands that we’ve garnered from preachers over the years, from what our parents and grandparents have passed down to us, and even our own personal conclusions that we have arrived at over the course of the years.

    However, we intertwine all of that together as a “checklist” of sorts when we’re met with such hermeneutical issues as you have presented. Because we’ve been inculcated that “the Bible is right, someone else has to be wrong” mentality, it’s VERY hard to have certain conversations.

    To admit, out loud, that the biblical text including writers from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22, and no doubt the apocryphal writings as well, fundamentally do NOT have a problem with the institution of slavery would force black folks in this country at least to change their whole perspective on American history and just how we feel about whites in America.

    I think black liberation theology at its core, doesn’t address the texts where the Israelites become the oppressor as they enter the land of Canaan in Joshua chaps 6ff, and that’s problematic for me on so many levels. Certainly not the texts that portray Israel as a whore and God as an abusive husband in Ezekiel, Jeremiah and some other books of the minor prophets–hell, I’d run off too if you keep on beating me you sadistic fxck!

    But again, I come back to the “word of God.” What do we do with God in those passages? As I said on FB, the way I reconcile those passages is by simply saying that this is one [the writer’s] interpretation of God in action. Just as I disagree with the theology behind slaves in Ephesians and the Petrine letters, I disagree with the God I know being in the midst of the oppression.

    This also goes into why I think the saying “favor aint fair” is one of THE dumbest catchphrases we can run around with, but that’s for another blog lol

    • Thank you for your response. It does trouble me that Liberation Theology hasn’t dealt with the Oppressed-Oppressor paradigm implicit in the conquest narratives, but also the oppression themes that are engrained in the Exodus narrative itself. Our ancestors were able to use this story as a liberatory paradigm because they did not have access to the “textual details;” however, now that we do have access to them, it is the job of Liberation Theologians to take seriously the task of dealing with the themes of oppression that flow throughout this book that is supposed to represent God’s liberatory work in humanity.

      The fact that you are able to say “this is one… interpretation of God in action” mirrors my own view of the biblical witness; however, the question becomes “how do we engage a church that still operates from an exalted view of scripture, particularly with the infiltration of fundamentalism?” It is the job of the scholar and the preacher to find constructive ways to build a theology that spans the gap. This task is often more difficult than we want to realize.

  2. Marcus, the good news is you don’t have to be troubled that liberation theology hasn’t dealt w/the oppressed/oppressor paradigm in the conquest narratives or in the Exodus narrative. You can write that book (or those articles) yourself. Yours is a voice we need to hear.

  3. A very interesting take, but I’m afraid that as long as African-Americans remain within the religious traditions of the white slave masters, the “blood of the slaughtered” will go unavenged and such symbolic references emptied of meaning. Don’t be surprised that your colleague defended the concept of slavery, because she has only remained true to her religious brainwashing. Me, I can’t understand the modern need for blacks still worshiping anything that was forcibly imposed by the white man, especially the white man’s God, and yet, here we are. I’m reminded of the quote by Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant novella, “Wise Blood,” where he spits out, “Jesus is just a trick on niggers.” Did she realize how on point that statement was? Maybe that’s the hermeneutical context one should grapple with: is Christianity a trick on niggers? I mean, we all know what a great job the white man did in converting slaves into Christian slaves and then convinced the slaves that their enslavement was for their own good! Seriously, any black person living in the postcolonial first world should have her head examined if she seriously believes that there is a white man Jesus and God waiting for them at the Pearly Gates when they “cross over” just because they read it out of a book. Thus, Religion is nothing more than a mass delusion, and the white man’s God has proven its delusion many times, while apparently watching and presiding over what we laughingly call, “life,” where all of us contend fruitlessly with death, disease, discrimination, extreme poverty, children and women raped, countless centuries of misery and despair. The white man’s God caused all of it, or rather, more accurately, the “belief” of the white man’s God caused all of it. That’s really messed up.

    • You said a lot in that statement, and I think for you saying it. There are ways in which one can talk about Jesus as being a “trick on niggers” by elucidating the fact that religion, particularly that of Christianity, was used by the Europeans to crate docile and servile slaves in the Americas while also subverting their cultures and political systems in Africa; however, in “White Woman’s Christ and Black Woman’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Critique” by Dr. Jacqueline Grant, “Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs: God, Self, and Community in the Slave Mind” by Dr. Riggins Earl, and other books like “Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South” by Dr. Albert J. Raboteau, these African American scholars in tandem with many of their contemporaries are arguing for ways in which enslaved African peoples engaged “White Man’s Religion,” thus creating a contextual African American hermeneutic, also stripped Christianity of it’s noxious theologies. Howard Thurman once wrote, “By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” Though Christianity was meant to destroy the being of the slave, the slave actually redeemed Christianity as a valid expression of God’s movement in the world. The slaves were able to decipher between an authentic expression of God’s activity in the world and that which profaned who God was to them.

      You also raised some interesting theodicy questions towards the end that many theologians, priests, pastors, ministers, and professors still wrestle with to this day: How can a (loving) God exist while all these things happen? This is a question that we may never know the answer to, but will continue to wrestle with nonetheless.

      Now in reference to the White Jesus and White God, Black Liberation Theology and the subsequent development of Womanist Theology (critique of Feminist Theology and Black Liberation Theology) has addressed the issue of the image of God and Jesus and its impact on the Black Church, though clearly there is a long road ahead.

      As much as it would be easy to give up on the Church and acquiesce to the temptation that God and Jesus as figments of my or a communal imagination, I am able to see the goodness of God and that active power of Jesus as well as the power of his Gospel alive and active in a world teetering on self-destruction and annihilation. Do I believe the words of Jesus have been misused throughout history for negative means – yes I do. Do I believe his words still have power and speak to us in new, more liberatory ways – yes I do. Which is why I continue to both preach a Gospel larger than myself, larger than we are beckoning us to our higher calling in God (though what that looks like is contextual), and critique a system that can be damaging at times. Thanks for your comments.

  4. “Howard Thurman once wrote, “By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” Though Christianity was meant to destroy the being of the slave, the slave actually redeemed Christianity as a valid expression of God’s movement in the world.”

    I do not agree with this assessment by Mr. Thurman. A profaned religion remains exposed and discredited, no matter who may later practice it. It means its moral force is forever lost. The black religious tradition in America has unfortunately created generations of beings brainwashed and psychically dependent on the White Man for culture, context and identity. I submit to you that the African American belief in a dead man who rose to Heaven and is waiting to come back to Earth to take responsibility for everything, and the number of black American men in prison or saddled with a bum education today is intimately related. Where do you see the “goodness of God” within such a holocaust? What will you say when the black race finally disappears? It’s happening.

    I do not agree with the point that Christianity “tried” to destroy the slave, because that destruction was carried out fully and completely Look at the way our President is being treated. Look at the way he has performed in office. It is clear he doesn’t have that vital killer instinct of his white predecessors. That’s because it was culturally beaten out of him through a historical legacy of slavery and servitude. If we only had another Hannibal. Or Nat Turner.

    I do, however, agree with your sentiment about the words of Jesus. They are the finest words spoken (minus the obvious surcharges, interpolations, edits and revisions). And if they were lived, Christianity might have something worthwhile to offer.

    As it is, the peddling of “Pie in the Sky when you Die,” is unworthy and irrelevant in a multi-cultural, internet civilization. How many different gods do you think people in the world worship? Do you know that the Hindus alone have 330 MILLION. Such a fact indicates that our “Gods” are obviously projections by limited, patterned, easily programmable and impressionable human minds. I am a proponent in the study of postmetaphysics in order to free ourselves from the shackles of domination and mind control. God’s absence has made “God” irrelevant. It was only created to control masses of humanity by accepting unacceptable lives. Thank you,

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