The “N-Word”

Seeing the deluge of tweets referring to President Barack Obama as a “Nigger” have revealed something about myself, something I struggle to admit: the word still has a sting for me. Some have moved beyond the power of the word, but I haven’t yet to achieve such a level of nirvana. The word still hurts because it stirs up the images of Black women and men being beaten, raped, maimed, burned, tortured, and killed while this very word polluted the air around them. It hurts because it goes beyond mere intolerance and ignorance and moves directly to hate at its most basic level. The word hurts because of the history to which it is connected: a history that is seldom discussed and never really dealt with. The word hurts because it reveals something about the fallenness of human nature: the capacity to hate and to do so vehemently and with such intentionality. But the word also hurts because, insomuch as it is easy to externalize hate, I realize that I have within me the capacity to hate just as much. It hurts because I too, if not constantly resting in the grace of God and leaning into the love of Christ, have the capacity to hate those who employ such a word equally as much as they may hate me. But thus hurt is not an end in itself; rather, it is a reminder that we all are called to rest in this grace and lean into this love.  The alternative to this is hate.  “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love…”

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” – Ephesians 3:14-19 (NRSV)

We Real Incomplete: Interrogating the Lack of Queer Voices in Black Masculinity

Book Review on “We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity” by bell hooks

Ever since my formative days in undergrad, I have long been enamored by the clout associated with the name bell hooks, particularly in my Political Science classes which sought to reframe the political dialogue of African Americans to include voices present within the Black Liberation, Feminist, and Womanist movements.  We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity has long been on my list of books to read.  The title in conjunction with my limited knowledge of bell hooks promised to render a fresh assessment of the state of black manhood and ways in which black men can move from woundedness to wholeness.

hooks offers ten chapters that systematically expose the ways in which “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture” have attacked the life possibilities of black men and boys and prevented from being able to construct more holistic and healthy expressions of black masculinity.  Specifically, in this treatise, hooks discusses the ways in which current notions of black masculinity affect the way black men relate to each other (often through a “gangsta culture” that requires violence to assert control), to black women (too often in violent and abusive relationships out of a fear of a loss of status), in sexual relationships (where hooks describes the ways in which black men have internalized the sexualization placed upon during slavery and associate sexual dominance as a sign of masculinity), to their families (who are often the recipients of the lack of emotional connection and aloofness commonly associated with popular notion of manhood), and to the larger society (often internalizing the own hate placed upon them by society.

In the end, hooks seeks to offer ways through which black men can move from woundedness to wholeness through a commitment to “being real.”  hooks frames being real as a complete reframing of notions of manhood the commonly associated such as a lack of emotion, disproportionate relationality between one’s body-self and mind where the body is valued more than the mind, and a lack of desire to be a nurturing parental figure along with other “suspect” behaviors.  She issues a challenge for black men to reimagine was of expressing black masculinity in broad terms that allow black men and boys to be themselves within a culture that currently attempts to stamp out the nuances of “self” in favor of a homogenous and stifling definition of black manhood.  She advises that black men externally process and speak to their hurts, broken dreams, and the “intense loneliness” in order to facilitate the first steps of “being real” and moving towards healing.

While I can applaud hooks’ desire to speak to a broad spectrum of black masculinity, I am appalled at the way she engages the queer community.  Throughout much of this book, the queer community is non-existent.  The few times that she mentioned queer men, it seems to be in her references to “suspect” behavior found in black boys and in the few black queer scholars that she uses to buttress her own argument.  The culmination of her superficial engagement of the black queer voice occurs when she quotes James Beam, author of In the Life, an anthology of black queer men.  Beam writes

I dare myself to dream… I dare myself to dream of a time when I will pass a group of brothers on the corner, and the words “fucking faggot” will not move the air around my ears, and when my gay brother approaches me on the street we can embrace if we choose.

There does not seem to be an intentional engagement of the queer voice within black masculinity which ostensibly reifies the notion that somehow black queer men are not really men at all.  Although hooks claims to speak from a liberated black feminist point of view, her refusal to engage the queer black male voice only speaks to her collusion with current heterosexist and heteronormative hegemony.

While this book offers a critique of “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture” and strategies for black men and boys to overcome the nihilistic threat this culture produces, the lack of black queer male voices leaves this book incomplete not only in its scope of black masculinity, but also in its strategic engagement of “soul murdering” culture.  The reader should engage this book knowing that this is an incomplete analysis of black masculine culture and reflect on ways to broaden this discussion to include more voices and experiences.  She ends this book discussing the Egyptian myth of Isis reassembling the dismembered body of her brother/lover Osiris in order to facilitate his resurrection and posits that this is the way in which black man and boys and those who love them should engage in the task of reassembling black masculinity; however, by negating to include the voices of black queer men, the body of black masculinity can never be fully reassembled.

The Strange Fruit of Christianity and the Nuances of Inclusive Discourse

Book Review of Kelly Brown Douglas’s What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls

I have long been a fan of Kelly Brown Douglas ever since my introduction to her while reading her seminal treatise against the hegemonic discourse in the Heterosexist Black Christian tradition entitled, Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective.  After reading this first academic work, I noted to a professor that “this book has freed me.  I feel more confidence in my ability and commitment to being fully and intentionally myself.”  With this in mind, I was excited when I walked into the bookstore and found a new book with her name on it.  This book, entitled, What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls was written as Douglas sought to wrestle with the question presented by one of her students, “How can you, a black [sic] woman, possibly be Christian… when Christianity as often contributes to your oppression as a black [sic] and as a female.”[1]

As she engages this question, Douglas does so by broadening the discourse beyond simply gender and racial terms and is intentional about being inclusive of sexuate realities within this dialog.  Per her characteristic, methodical nature, Douglas systematically and meticulously builds her case about the realities of a platonic Christian tradition that seems to be an affront to authentic Christian religious expression and she indicts this tradition as a main culprit for the ways in which the Christian faith colludes with hegemonic power and resulted in the historic oppression of bodies, particularly Black bodies.  Specifically, Douglas illumines the ways in which the American Christian tradition ostensibly condoned, if not actively participated in the lynching of Black bodies.  According to Douglas, this is done because of the flesh versus spiritual dualism that is present within the platonic Christian faith tradition (as expressed in the Pauline epistles) that offers sacred canopy for the attacks on the bodies of a sexualized people.

As she begins to conclude her argument, Douglas does so offering solutions that she proposes will help reframe the flesh/spirit paradox and help the Black Christian faith tradition speak about their faith in more inclusive, egalitarian, and communal terms.  The problem arises as Kelly Brown Douglas seeks to discuss Black(ness) in more inclusive, liberative terms.  As a student of James Cone, Douglas struggles to discuss Blackness as something other than a racialized reality.  Douglas does attempt to discuss the notion of ontological Blackness, that is, Blackness that is a state of being opposed to the hegemonic and oppressive forces of whiteness; however, her fluidity between these definitions exposes a lingering truth about the liberative theological discourse – the difficulty of engaging in liberative theological discourse that is inclusive while still maintaining the images, language, and concepts that are important to maintaining and affirming the agency of selfhood an oppressed community.  Furthermore, as currently constructed, Blackness is framed in opposition to whiteness, which still utilizes racialized \

gtlanguage to discuss the complexities of oppression.  This relationship precludes the other manifestation of oppression and serves to limit our discussion of oppression to chiefly, if not solely, racial terms.  Douglas herself says, “It is important to move beyond the boundaries of race and gender to confront the issues that involve the life, dignity, and freedom of black [sic] women and men in particular and other humans in general.”[2]  Despite her willingness to do so, she unwittingly found herself mired in problematic language that has the possibility of reifying the oppressive, hegemonic delineations that we seek to overcome.

Future and current theologians must then grapple with the task of framing liberative discourse in ways that both affirm the lived experiences and historical realities of persons and communities while offering an inclusive framework and language.  How can God be exclusively Black in a world where oppression is being framed along gender, sex, socio-economic, and sexuate terms.  Are we to reframe Black(ness) as the sum total of all oppression, and if so what does this say to all the other ways in which persons are oppressed?  What other language becomes possible in addressing the overarching principles and precepts of oppression while still acknowledging the particular nuances of oppression situated within specific contexts?  One should read Douglas’s What’s Faith Got to Do with It? with these questions in mind, and take seriously Douglas’s challenge to “move beyond the boundaries of race and gender.” One should also read this treatise mindful that this seeks not to be a final volume in the ever-increasing liberative anthology; rather, this work simply seeks to add more questions in order to help move the dialogue forward.

     [1] Kelly Brown Douglas. What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), xi.

     [2] Ibid., 210.

Strength to Love: Forgiveness, Justice, and the Death of Osama bin Laden

May 1 will be yet another day that will make an indelible imprint in minds of our generation – the day that the death of Osama bin Laden was announced to a world who had been terrorized by his image, his words, and his call to incite warfare based on skewed religious concepts and a myopic understanding of the family of humanity.  I can still remember where I was when this news of the horrific September 11th attacks broke across the television – 10th Grade English class.  Let me be clear, I believe Osama bin Laden was responsible for the death of thousands of Americans as a result of the horrific September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the downed aircraft in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  I am clear about the fact that prior to this, Al Qaeda operatives had involved themselves in a war on America which played out in several other terrorist attacks and attempted terrorist plots throughout the world.  Let me be clear, I am not making a claim of that Bin Laden be acquitted of these horrific crimes against humanity.  With all of this in mind, upon receiving the news of Bin Laden’s demise, a generation took the streets and celebrated, chanting “God Bless America,” singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” hugging, crying, and cheering.

I must admit that this whole image seemed a bit eerie to me.  A hodgepodge of Americans descending upon the White House gates in the middle of the night to celebrate.  As the news reporters interviewed the celebrators, some made comments such as “I hope he [Bin Laden] rots in hell,” and “now that he’s [Bin Laden’s] finally dead, it feels good.”  The former President of the United States, George W. Bush said,

This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001. The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.

In his prepared remarks, President Barack Obama echoed this same claim that “justice” had be done to Osama bin Laden.  As the rest of my American countrymen celebrated, I began to reflect.  Almost immediately I reflected on the sermons that I read from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book Strength to Love.  I began to reflect on this whole idea of retributive justice and Jesus’ call to radical forgiveness.  I began to reflect on the non-violent Civil Rights movement led by King.  I began to reflect on the state of the world and my place in it.

In Matthew 5:43, Jesus says, “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  In his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” King asserts

I am certain that Jesus understood the difficulty inherent in the act of loving one’s enemy.  He never joined the ranks of those who talk glibly about the easiness of moral life.  He realized that every genuine expression of love grows our of a consistent and total surrender to God.  So when Jesus said, “Love your enemy,” he was not unmindful to its stringent qualities.  Yet he meant every word of it.  [1]

As one who is intentional about following the ways of Jesus Christ, I take this command very seriously, the command to love those who don’t love me.  By placing these words into their cultural, historical, and social context, we can gain a better understanding of the radicality of this statement.  Jesus, a first-century, poor,  Jewish male living in Roman-occupied Palestine would have seen and experienced first-hand the brutality, not only of Rome, but of those facets of Jewish society that had allied themselves with empire.  As Rome bled the provinces the feed the aristocracy and ruled the fringes of the empire with an iron fist, the space had been created for violent, revolutionary fervor to spring up.  Instead of colluding with this cause, Jesus chose a different path – one of radical forgiveness.  Jesus called his followers to forgive those who were starving them, abusing them, exploiting them, disrespecting them, and in many cases killing them.

Before I go on to elucidate my claim regarding the fallacy of retributive justice and the need to pursue forgiveness, let me first state that the actions of the United States of America have created the same environments throughout the world that I briefly explicated above.  The American consumption machine has siphoned resources from the rest of the world to fill out SUVs, grant us the rich variety of food we believe we are entitled to, and provide us with an endless supply of “disposable” material goods that we feel we “need.”  The American political machine has sought to impose American ideals upon a world that is struggling to maintain its own autonomy and rich diversity.  The American religious heritage has sought to polemicize any religious tradition that is not Protestant, White, Middle-class, and Evangelical and has exported this myopic theological tradition into many cultures which has resulted in the destruction of ways-of-being for many peoples.  With these and more, America has waged war on the world, a war that created the climate for the rise of an “Osama Bin Laden.”

Earlier I mentioned the fear and hatred that the name “Osama Bin Laden” connoted.  We have been made aware of his disdain for Americans.  We are all aware of his role in the September 11th terrorist attacks.  We are all aware of his role in other terrorist attacks; however, this does not comprise the totality of who Osama Bin Laden was.  King claims, “We must realize that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is.  An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemies.” [2]  As Americans, and to some degree the rest of the world, we attached so much “evil” to Osama Bin Laden that, to us, he ceased to be human.  Instead, he became the latest of an incarnation of evil that needed to be eradicated.

In her book, What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls, Kelly Brown Douglas highlights the effects of the dehumanizing persons.  She claims, “Christianity’s classical atonement tradition makes Christians at least open to the notion that humans can serve as ‘sacrificial mediators’ between God and humanity – either as a way of exorcising evil from a particular community or as a way of pleasing God.” [3]  With America’s “platonized-Christian center” (a collusion between early Christian theology and Platonic philosophical ideology) it is not far-fetched to believe that Americans could openly celebrate a death with religious impunity, especially if the death was believed to “exorcise evil” from the community or “please God.”

It’s ironic, then, that Douglas claims that this notion is one of the underlying ideologies the motivated White Americans to undertake the diabolical task of lynching Black men and women.  As American’s celebrated the death of Osama, I reflected on the White Americans who celebrated the death of Black men and women who were believed to be threats to their community.  As American’s chanted “God Bless America” upon hearing the news of Bin Laden’s death, I couldn’t help but reflect upon those White Americans who would leave their churches, go out and lynch Black people, and then go back inside as if God not only condoned, but celebrated these ghastly events.

Let me make one thing clear.  The vast majority of Black men and women who were lynched were innocent of whatever crime they were “convicted” of.  Even those who were “guilty” of looking at a White woman, “talking back” to a White man, or posing any threat to White power didn’t deserve the death called for by the retributive justice of their day.  On the contrary, I believe Osama was indeed guilty of orchestrating terror plots throughout the world which resulted in the death of thousands; however, does his guilt make him less human and less worthy of forgiveness?  At what point does one no longer become worthy of forgiveness?

I understand the lofty, almost elusive, quality of this question.  Osama was imaged as the total, unrepentant, incorrigible, Anti-American and, with the collusion between Americanity (American civil religion) and Christianity, Anti-Christ; however, in the words of Dr. King, Bin Laden’s “terrorist” image does not comprise the totality of who he was.  Let us not forget, even the most incorrigible criminals are Children of God and thus our brothers and sisters.

We have many modern examples of humanity’s attempt to live up to Christ’s mandate of radical forgiveness.  One of the greatest examples of intentional and radical forgiveness took place in South Africa after the dismantling of the Apartheid system.  Under the leadership of Archbishop Demond Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission took on the noble task of reconciling the White, Colored, and Black sects of South African society into a more cohesive, united, and communal society.  In her book, Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa, news reporter Antjie Krog recounts the testimonies of those who were both victims and perpetrators of the Apartheid regime.  In one testimony, Krog recounts the words of Thomzama Maliti who was recalling the brutal, burning death of Nombulelo Delato.  Maliti says,

The word “reconciliation”… is my daily bread.  Compromise, accommodate, provide, make space for.  Understand.  Tolerate.  Emphathize.  Endure… Without it, no relationship, no work, no progress, is possible.  Yes.  Piece by piece we die into reconciliation. [4]

Despite the hurt, pain, and disillusionment caused by centuries of brutal mistreatment on the part of Europeans, Archbishop Tutu and his Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to create space for the building of the human family through forgiveness and reconciliation.  This was a difficult task, to be sure; however, it is a task that was necessary to create a society in which “the lion can lay down with the lamb.”

Having said this, I will end by elucidating why I did not celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden; rather, I took the time to reflect and pray.  I did not celebrate because I am believer the all life is a sacred gift from God.  I did not celebrate because a community that believes that death is the only way to bring closure, is a community that will eventually implode on itself.  I did not celebrate because retributive justice posits a way of being that would leave the whole world “blind and toothless.”  I did not celebrate because Jesus Christ invites me to participate in radical forgiveness, forgiveness that necessitates reconciliation and when reconciliation is not possible, I mourn the break in human relationship and respond by reflecting.  I did not celebrate because I am fully aware that America’s idea of justice is still being reframed and restructured in an increasingly pluralistic and diverse culture.  I did not celebrate because Osama Bin Laden was my brother and I am called to be my “brother’s keeper.”

I will conclude this reflection with words from Dr. King’s sermon entitled, “A Good Neighbor.”  King states,

Too seldom do we see people in their true humanness. A spiritual myopia limits our vision to external accidents.  We see men as Jews or Gentiles, Catholics or Protestants, Chinese or American, Negroes or whites.  We fail to think of them as fellow human beings made form the same basic stuff as we, molded in the same divine image. [5]

The Word of Marcus for the People of God…

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1963), 44.

[2] Ibid., 45.

[3] Kelly Brown Douglas. What’s Faith God to Do with It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 60.

[4] Antjie Krog. Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998), 50.

[5] King. Strength to Love, 24.

It’s Just a Season

I will not be daunted by an interval.

These eight words have been all I’ve had to hold on to for the past few days.  I have found that I am in a very weird, pensive space.  Disappointment after disappointment, frustration after frustration have amassed themselves all around me.  There have been many times that I feel that giving up would be a lot easier than going on.  To some it may sound like a lack of faith, but it’s more of a lack of support – from community and even from God.  There were times when gratefulness gave way to anger, joy gave way to sorrow, and contentment gave way to frustration.  I felt like Smokie Norful’s words,

Sometimes I feel like giving up, It seems like my best just ain’t good enough. Lord if you hear me, I’m calling you.  Do you see, do you care all about what I’m going through?

I was at my breaking point.  Either God had to speak or I was going to walk out.  Then I remembered that I am not the only person to every be frustrated and angry with God.  So when I picked up Howard Thurman’s The Inward Journey and opened it up, the title “Not Daunted by an Interval” immediately spoke to me.  As I read, I reflected on my life and about the journey that I had been through up until this point.  I thought about how I had grown increasingly frustrated and angry and recent weeks.  I thought about how at the time when I needed my friends the most, most of them were too busy to check on me, sit with me, and just be present with me.

Then the words from my first sermon that I preached in seminary flooded back to me – “This is not the end of my story.”  I may be angry and frustrated right now, but this is not the end of my story.  I may feel isolated and alone right now, but this is not the end of my story.  This is not the end of my story because scripture tells me that the same God that brought Jesus to Good Friday also “got him up” on Easter morning.

The power that enables a person to resist the terrible necessity for scaling down his faith, his hopes, his dreams, his commitment, to the level of the event which is his immediate experience – this is finally the meaning of the triumph of life over death, of strength over weakness, of joy over sorrow, of love over hate. This is the power of the Resurrection, which is rooted in the life of Go, available to all men in every age, in every faith, everywhere. [1]

Don’t allow your present circumstances to cause you to give up on your God-sized, God-given dreams.  Remember that what ever your story sounds like right now, it is still being written.  This is just a season!  Keep dreaming!  Keep running!  Keep believing!  Keep trusting!

The Word of Marcus…

[1] Howard Thurman. The Inward Journey (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1971), 71.

Surrendering the Controls

I read an interesting quote today that I had somehow overlooked from years ago.  In Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil that I had originally read while traveling up to New Jersey a few summer ago, Du Bois makes a powerful statement.  After reflecting on recent challenges in his life, he says,

I was ready to admit that the best of men might fail.  I meant still to be the captain of my soul, but I realized that even captains are not omnipotent in unchartered and angry seas. [1]

This statement, first penned in the early 20th century rung especially true to me.  It’s not hard to admit that I enjoy being in control.  I’m one of those “If you want something done right, do it yourself” kind of people.  This manifests in personal and vocational relationships, academic endeavors, extracurricular activities, and other areas of my life.  The problem comes in when this DIY mindset infiltrates my spiritual life.  I am tempted to believe that I can control God and I have the audacity to believe that I am in ultimate control of my life; however, every now and then life will throw something at me almost as a reminder that ultimately I am not in control.

After finally getting the opportunity to go on a hospital visit as a part of my Clinical Pastoral Education, my proclivity to control went into overdrive.  On the way over to the hospital I scripted out the whole conversation.  “I’ll start by saying this…” then “I’ll pause here…” then “we won’t say anything here, it’ll be the ministry of presence.”  With this script in my Pastoral Care toolbox, I sauntered confidently into Grady Memorial Hospital and arrived at the correct room.  I walked in the room and said “Hi Nate, my name is Marcus Halley from the Church of the Common Ground.  Pastor Mary sent me down here to talk to you.”  The patient and I struck up a wonderful conversation.  The surprise came a few moments later when I found out that I had been talking to the wrong person.  He wasn’t Nate.  Nate was behind the curtain.  I was embarrassed to say the least; however, even in all of my embarrassment the Holy Spirit was still speaking, “Remember, you can’t control everything.”

I am reminded of a statement from Howard Thurman’s The Creative Encounter.  Thurman writes, “The surrender of the self at its center gives to the life a new basis for action.  It provides an integrated basis for action.  Here at last the individual has a core of purpose for his life and for his living.” [2]  Learning that we we don’t have ultimate control of our lives, that somehow we are a part of something grander, is both humbling and comforting.  Humbling in that we realize that every now and then we must take our hands off the controls and allow God to do the driving.  Comforting in that we realize that God has a far better vision of where we are going.

The Word of Marcus…

[1] W.E.B. DuBois. Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 20.

[2] Howard Thurman. The Creative Encounter (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1972), 72-73.

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.