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Esau McCaulley | Justice & the Bible

McCaulley’s new book, “Reading While Black” lays out a biblical perspective for racial justice, which guides our conversation and helps us to understand how a biblical reading can call us to be advocates for justice in our world.

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young boy reading a bible

McCaulley’s new book, “Reading While Black” lays out a biblical perspective for racial justice, which guides our conversation and helps us to understand how a biblical reading can call us to be advocates for justice in our world.

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Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on February 04, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

A common refrain at BioLogos is “you don’t have to choose,” and usually it is in the context of the Bible and science. Esau McCaulley, assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, was presented with a different choice, one between the Bible and racial justice. But this too is a false dichotomy. 

The Bible is a good place to turn in times of confusion or questioning, but whether it is science or issues of injustice, it is important that a reading of the Bible be informed by the perspectives of other people and other cultures. McCaulley’s new book, Reading While Black lays out the case for a Black Ecclesial interpretive tradition. He shows how asking questions of the text that grow out of the reality of being Black in America, helps to give us a fuller perspective on what the Bible has to say about things like race, governing authorities, and justice.


Transcript

McCaulley:

An honest assessment of American history, is the fact that we have dealt with the problem of race from the beginning, and how to treat people equally. And what I want to argue in the book is that, listen, you don’t have to throw away the Bible in order to talk about justice, that historically African American Christians, precisely because they believe the Bible, contended for justice. And that you don’t have to ignore the history of this country in order to remain a Christian. You can say, yes, the people have done really, really horrible and difficult things in the name of Jesus, but there’s a hope on the other side of it.

My name is Esau McCaulley. I’m an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump.

If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, or following BioLogos, you’ve probably heard the slogan “you don’t have to choose.” Time and time again, we hear the stories of people who were told they do have to choose between science and the Bible, between human wisdom and God’s word. We’ve tried to show that it is a false dichotomy. You can live a rich spiritual life, following Jesus and trusting Scripture, while at the same time accepting what modern science says about the world. The topic of today’s conversation is another forced choice, another false dichotomy, this time between the Bible and racial justice in our society today. 

Esau McCaulley has been frustrated that too many people think you have to choose between working for justice, calling out the inherently racist structures of our society, or taking Scripture seriously and how it calls us to live with respect to the governing authorities. In his new book, Reading While Black, McCaulley shows that we don’t have to choose. 

One of the broader topics we’ve been paying more attention to lately is what it means to be human. An important part of that is race. I think this is a really fruitful area of inquiry for science and religion. Science has shown pretty conclusively that there is little genetic justification for dividing up races the way we do in society today. But the social reality of race has an enormous impact on our lives, and as you’ll hear in our conversation it even affects how we read Scripture, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a beautiful thing to bring our different perspectives together into a mosaic of every tongue and tribe and nation glorifying God in their distinctive ways. 

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Esau McCaulley, welcome to the podcast. We’re very pleased to be talking to you today.

McCaulley:

Thank you for having me. 

Stump:

Well, so you are a professor of New Testament and an Anglican priest, as I understand. Is that what you always wanted to be when you were growing up?

McCaulley:

No, God—I guess God had other plans. [laughter] I was raised in the Black Baptist Church. So I didn’t meet my first Anglican or Episcopalian until I got to college.

Stump:

Well what were some of the steps by which you felt called to go into the work that you are now?

McCaulley:

Oh, that’s a story for an entire podcast. To be honest, I’ve mostly stumbled into the Academy. My wife is a medical doctor and she wanted to be a medical missionary. And I didn’t want to be a missionary pastor because I think that people can pastor in their local context a little bit better. So this is back when we were dating. And so I said, “well, I’ll just go and get a PhD and then we’ll go into the mission field.” And this will be interesting, because it’ll bring up how I ended up in Scotland. And so I was talking to one of my professors, and they said, “Hey, if you could go, if you could study anywhere, where would you be?” And I was like, “well, I always loved the scholarship of N.T. Wright. Wherever he is, I will go there, if he would accept me.” And so he said, “Why don’t you apply?” I said, “I’ll never get in.” And so I applied. And Tom accepted me. And so I found myself in Scotland. While we were there, for a variety of reasons, we decided that missionary work wasn’t the vocation that God had called us to. And so I had to find an academic job in the States. And so I found a job stateside. And that’s how I became an academic. It’s not nearly as romantic as other people’s stories.

Stump:

Well, very nice to spend some time in Scotland, I’m sure.

McCaulley:

Yes, it was great. 

Stump:

Well, we’re going to talk primarily about your book, but because we’re BioLogos, I’m contractually obligated to ask you a little bit about science. So you mentioned your wife is a medical doctor. But I wonder if you have any other interesting or influential encounters with science in your background?

McCaulley:

Yeah, I mean, other than being bad at it in high school and college? [laughs] I was telling my wife that this was funny that I was the one who was on BioLogos, and not her. And I was like, you know—  She laughs at me. But I can say that I take science very seriously. And I think that the work of being intelligent about scientific discoveries, and bringing that into conversation with the Christian faith is not something that I take lightly. And I used to read a lot of science and apologetics kind of stuff, or kind of theological engagement. I remember the Francis Collins—what’s the name of that book that he wrote? 

Stump:

The Language of God.

McCaulley:

The Language of God, I read that in college. And so those were parts of my making sense of what it meant to be an adult and Christian. And so when they said BioLogos wants to interview you, I was like, “I can’t believe it. But I’ll come.” So don’t quiz me on any scientific stuff, though.

Stump:

Well, since you read Francis’s book, you’ve passed the test. That’s all you need. That’s all you need to tell us to establish your credentials with us. Well, let’s talk about your book. So you published a book last fall, that’s called Reading While Black, African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise of Hope. And this is a really substantive, well researched and articulated book. And I’d  guess it was not something that you merely rushed out after the George Floyd murder and other escalations of racial tensions in 2020. But it’s probably been in the works for a while, right?

McCaulley:

Yeah. One of the interesting things that people have been—that has been interesting, and this is difficult to say, because you don’t want to sound arrogant and presumptuous—but when people say, “well, I didn’t see any of this stuff coming.” I was like, “well, I had the time to write a whole book about it.” And so a lot of the things that we—and it’s not just me, there’s a bunch of books that came out in 2019 and 2020, that dealt with the perennial question of Christian faith, and justice, and, and race. And so yes, it seems like the stuff in my book is directly relevant to issues that are happening today because the issues that are happening today aren’t new, they’re just a part of the American experience for hundreds of years.

Stump:

Well, we’ll get into some of that. Let me ask a couple of more general questions here to start with. Much of our audience at BioLogos will be familiar with this repeated refrain that we use at BioLogos that, “you don’t have to choose.” And for us, the way that plays out is there are these two dominant camps: one which takes science seriously at the expense of biblical faith, and one that takes biblical faith seriously at the expense of science. And BioLogos has attempted to show that there’s another way that you can have both biblical faith and science—you don’t have to choose. And in starting to read your book, I was struck by a very similar approach. That you’re making the case that you don’t have to choose between alternatives related to race and the Bible that only get things partially right. So perhaps as a way of situating your position, can you describe those other camps that are too often taken as the only options? And then how you’re showing there’s a different way?

McCaulley:

Yes. And if it’s okay, can I say a little bit more about science and faith and since this is BioLogos just to push the analogy a little further?

Stump:

We’d be thrilled for that. Thank you.

McCaulley:

So there are these different camps that you talk about. And the hard part about being at these different camps is there’s a world of knowledge. And what I mean is, we’re trying to convince Christians that every other scientist that has ever existed is wrong and this narrow way of doing science is the only Christian way. And that’s one way. But the hard part about that is that young people keep going out into the world, going into college, going to university and encountering the rest of the scientific world. And so rather than just saying, “we’re going to pull away into a non-viable intellectual ghetto,” we’re going to say, “let’s engage these questions, thoughtfully, assuming that all truth is God’s truth and there’ll be a Christian faith on the other side of it.” 

And so, a similar thing happens as relates to injustice in America. And what I mean is, we can try to tell the story of American history, with the issues of race and injustice aren’t that bad. And if it isn’t that bad, then the solution doesn’t have to be that great. But the problem is, people have to once again eventually leave the Christian bubble, and go out into the wider world. And the problem is, when you go out into the wider world, an honest assessment of American history, is the fact that we have dealt with the problem of race from the beginning, and how to treat people equally. And what I want to argue in the book is that listen, you don’t have to throw away the Bible in order to talk about justice. That historically African American Christians, precisely because they believe the Bible, contended for justice. And that you don’t have to ignore the history of this country in order to remain a Christian. You can say, yes, the people have done really, really horrible and difficult things in the name of Jesus but there’s a hope on the other side of it.

Stump:

So talk a little bit more about the camps that you’re drawing some element of your position from but not all of it.

McCaulley:

Yeah. So in in the book I talked about, like what happened when I first went to college. And I talk about the 100 Years War between white evangelicalism and the white progressive tradition. And the white progressive tradition—or the white mainline tradition that it’s sometimes called—was accurate in saying the following: in the south, it was white fundamentalism that largely pushed back on Black claims for integration and justice. And that the legacy of white fundamental, white Christian fundamentalism in the south, is against the freedom of black people. And the answer, the fact of the matter is, that’s actually true. But the solution that the mainline tradition posited was, well, we need to get rid of the Bible. And then we can construct our own understanding of justice, based upon the consensus of, kind of, Western European intellectuals. 

I said, “Well hold on.” When I was growing up, the Black church that I was a part of said yes, they were Christians who were using the Bible to justify evil. But the solution to that problem wasn’t to throw away the Bible in toto. The reason— the solution was to read the Bible better. And then my grandmother and my grandfather, who was a pastor, my uncles who were pastors, said that their interpretation of the Bible in which God was on the side of the oppressed, was the proper reading of the Scriptures. So I didn’t feel like I had to follow my mainline brothers and sisters, in the throwing away of the scriptures in order to find justice. When I talk about evangelicalism, when I started encountering evangelical Christianity, at first it felt like there was a greater synthesis, because both evangelicalism and the African American Christian tradition, have a high view of Scripture. I said, “Oh, this is great! We both believed the Bible is God’s word.”But then when we started talking about well, hold on, because the Bible is God’s word, we should care about, you know, the things that happen to people of color. Then I felt like there was much more of a strain. And so I didn’t feel like I was completely home in either side of the historic fights that have marked the different white Christian traditions. 

Stump:

So you call your position then the Black ecclesial model, right? Yes. And before getting to some of the specifics maybe of how this plays out and interpreting scripture, maybe we should let you address the objection that some people may have about a perspectival approach to Scripture at all. Shouldn’t we be looking for the objective, true meaning of Scripture instead of the Black reading of Scripture or the White reading of Scripture or the American reading of Scripture?

McCaulley:

Well, obviously, we’re looking for the truth. But truth is mediated through experience. And it maybe, it’s always better if you can have a less controversial analogy. And let me give a couple of them that people understand. We talk about, if you know anything about kind of wider Christianity, British evangelicalism versus American evangelicalism, have you ever heard of that? 

Stump:

Yep.

McCaulley:

And we talk about how the British temperament, British evangelicalism has a slightly different vibe. And here’s the other thing that we’re actually honest, that’s different from Australian evangelicalism, which is actually a third different vibe. And we’re not at all offended and say, you know what, these are all Christians who are reading the Bible well, who have different perspectives rooted in their experiences. Another thing that happens a lot, is that we have missionaries who come over or people who come over from the global south from the majority of world, Africans, and they’ll say, look, they will point out things in Scripture that are actually there that our Western materialism blinds us to. And so we say, “oh, I’m so grateful.” The other reason why you read Christians from the past, the Church Fathers and the Church mothers, is because they lived in a different context. And because they live in a different context, they’re able to see things that we didn’t see. And so when I talk about African American Bible reading. I’m talking about the ways in which the experiences and the culture shapes the kinds of questions that we ask in the Bible. And that way of asking the question, doesn’t change the text, it helps us to see things that aren’t there. And in the same way that I needed the global south to help me read the Bible well, that I need parts of Europe that help me read the Bible well, and that we’re not all saying the exact same thing or seeing the exact same thing, I’m saying that the African American Christian tradition, also has something historic to offer. 

But there’s another part that’s also important. When I speak about African American biblical interpretation, I’m speaking of a fact of something that exists, not a hypothesis. And so this is the—we have to really wrestle with this. If you go back to the to the birth of the Black church in the 1800s, the African American Christians were largely alone in saying the Bible says that Black people are equal and that slavery is wrong. And they developed some exegetical techniques and arguments to make that argument that stood in contrast to the majority interpretation of white Christians. And even—and this is the important part— even white abolitionists were abolitionists, but they often didn’t believe in the essential equality of black people. And so when we talk about African American biblical interpretation, I’m saying—and you can go back and look—and we were told, during the 1800s, that your way of reading the Bible that speaks about your equality, and your desire for freedom, is wrong. So you can’t say that the thing doesn’t exist when there’s literally these two groups. The other thing that you can look at is 1950s and the 60s, with the civil rights movement, where in the black church, they were saying that the Bible demands equality and integration. And the people who are on the other side—these are just facts—were largely white Christians who were saying “you’re reading the Bible differently.” And so you can actually look and see different interpretive traditions in the same way that you can say, there’s a British evangelical, biblical interpretive tradition that you can change trace through time. So at one point, I’m just speaking about a historical fact.

Stump:

So part of the point here, then is that all of us are situated in a particular time and place and community and we can’t help but read through our own experiences. And for the church as a whole, then it’s important that we not limit it only to my personal experience, but to hear what our brothers and sisters from lots of other traditions may see in Scripture that we have blind spots for, that we haven’t seen.

McCaulley:

And the important part is that I have blind spots too. And that I need other people to help me read the Bible better. So it’s not that like, I’m infallible because I’m Black. I’m saying that I can’t separate my Blackness from the reading of Scripture. 

And one more analogy, not to bury people with them, but I want people to understand what I’m saying. Anyone who’s ever taught a Bible study, and the moment that you began to like sit down to prepare to teach the Bible, and to begin to think about the people who are going to be in the room, you think, oh, now that I think about it, this passage applies to these people in this way. So once you populate your mind with the community, it focuses your Bible reading in a certain way. If you’re preaching a sermon to a youth group, or a Sunday school, or a singles group, or a group of young married people, the same Bible is going to have you give different applications based upon the group that you have in mind. And you’re not distorting the text. But what I’m—this is the important part—thinking about the community helps you see things that you didn’t see before. You go, “Oh, I never thought about this. But I see how this directly applies to the situation.” So then, if you’re African American, imagine this, it’s 1955 and Brown versus Board of Education has just been passed. And you’re going into an all-black congregation, and you have the Bible in front of you. And you’re asking yourself, how does what the Bible says, apply to the experience that these African American Christians are about to encounter as they attempt to integrate schools? Or, let’s say for example you’re now pastoring, an all white church, and the majority of people in that church opposed integration in 1955. And you’re opening the Bible and you’re saying, what does the Bible have to say to this congregation about this topic? And you will see, the scripture says God’s Word to us will give you the message. And you’ll say, Oh, I never saw or thought about how this applies to that situation, but it does. So I’m not talking about distorting the Word of God. I’m talking about how different contexts open up different elements of Scripture.

Stump:

So let me get into some specifics here, now. You say on page 20 of your book, let me quote a short paragraph here: “I propose that dialogue rooted in core theological principles between the Black experience and the Bible has been the model and needs to be carried forward into our day. This means that it is laudable to engage in what Brian Blount, noted New Testament scholar, called an academically unorthodox experiment, of asking questions of the texts that grow out of the reality of being Black in America.” Walk us through, if you would, what are some of those questions that we should be asking of the texts that grow out of the reality of being black in America?

McCaulley:

Well, one example that I talk about in a chapter in my book is, this is whether or not you can be Black and Christian. And this may seem to be straightforward to maybe a largely white audience. But in a black urban context, we’re often told that Christianity is a white man’s religion. And the only reason that black people became Christians was because we were forced to by slave masters. And so when the black Christian opens the Bible, one of the questions that they’re posing that is unique coming out of the history of slavery, and the way that Christianity was used, is, does God—is there a place for me in God’s story? And sure, other ethnic groups can ask that same question, but it’s gonna come with a particular set of urgency, a sense of urgency, in an African American context. Another question that I talk about is the issue of policing. And as an African American, who historically has dealt with injustice at the hands of the police, we say this, does the scriptures have anything to say about how the state treats its citizens? Another one is an issue of protest. You know, we’re often told that it’s the job of the Christian to only submit to the state. And the legacy of the black church tradition is political protest. Well, how do you make sense of which one of those are biblical ideas?

Stump:

Let’s probe some of those a little bit further here. Perhaps the relationship to governing authorities. I think, Romans 13 gets cited a little too quickly sometimes as the sum total of what the Bible has to say about our relationship to governing authorities, right? How does the Black ecclesial model of interpretation help us to see a better more holistic picture of what the Bible says on this issue?

McCaulley:

Well, one of the things that I highlighted is something that is not unique, but it’s particularly emphasized in a black church context, is the canonical tradition. That means, rather than just zeroing in on one passage that we look at what the entirety of the Bible has to say about a topic. And so one of the things, a couple of things that can be stated in that regard: it’s fine to talk about Romans 13, but Romans 13 has to be informed by the rest of what the New Testament has to say in particular. Let me give you an example. In the book of Revelation, John calls Rome,, Babylon. And he calls Babylon—he says “fallen, fallen is Babylon the great.” Because why does God judge Rome? God judges Rome for three reasons if you read the book of Revelation/ One because it persecutes Christians. Okay, that we understand that. The second one is because of an exploitative trade—that it engages in economic policies that are unjust. And the other one is its personal morality. It’s like a—it’s an immoral place. And so there’s three reasons that God’s upset with Rome: economics, religious persecution and morality. And that means then, that in the Bible, you have a Christian critiquing the state for not just religious persecution, not just for being immoral, but for economic exploitation. But the part about Babylon is important because by calling Rome Babylon, he’s saying that Rome is a type of government that exists through time, that is just like the ancient nation of Babylon, that was also judged by God, for religious persecution, for being immoral, and for economic exploitation. 

One of the passages in the book of Daniel that gets lost a lot, is when King Nebuchadnezzar is driven to madness, where he goes, you’re gonna have to each draw like an ox. But if you read through Daniel’s statement of judgment on King Nebuchadnezzar, at the end, in Daniel chapter 4, Daniel says to Nebuchadnezzar, “therefore, cease off your oppression of the poor. And it might be that God has mercy upon you.” So why isBabylon judged? And now listen, this is the important part. Babylon is not a Jewish nation. Right? It’s not a nation under the covenant with God. But he still says that nation they’re responsible for injustice. And so when you begin to say, well, then, are there examples in the Bible of public criticism of government, by religious leaders? Then the answer is yes. Now what is—so then we have to understand what does Romans 13 actually mean? It doesn’t mean that you can’t criticize the government, it doesn’t mean that you can’t protest the government, it means that you can’t use Christianity as a cloak for violent revolution. One of the interesting things is that you see this why that black ecclesial tradition is so important. If you go back and you read, there’s two letters written by slaves to the Massachusetts legislature and the Connecticut legislature in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. And they say, “well, hold on, how can we talk about having a revolution to bring about liberty, and then continuing to enslave people?” And so they’re saying, well, how can you talk about like, you don’t have to submit to the government, but we have to submit to you. And so one of the other things that the African American Christian tradition highlights is the sometimes inconsistent application of Romans 13. So Romans 13, is used when African Americans want to sometimes peacefully protest injustice. But it’s not evoked in the analysis of the Civil War.I mean, not the Civil War, the Revolutionary War.

Stump:

Let’s push a little further into civil war, and the causes and all of that. So, of course, there’s this sordid history of white interpretation of the slavery texts in Scripture to justify their atrocities. And some people assume that since scripture itself was written in cultures that seem to accept the reality of slavery, that these texts are going to have to be stretched or manipulated to say something clearly against the practice. But that’s not what you say—how do you respond to that?

McCaulley:

Oh, that would be once again, that would be the entirety of the podcast to try to repeat it. What I tried to do is once again, and there’s a couple of things. One is: whenever you are dealing with a difficult problem in the biblical text, it’s really important to state the problem clearly and unapologetically. And the depiction of slavery in the Bible is, like, emotionally problematic. And then we have to say, well, then once again, the African American canonical and theological instinct begins to say, well, how do you begin to look at this as you go from Genesis to Revelation? And one of the things that I try to argue in the book is that what the Bible does, is it creates a theological imagination and where we could construct the world without slavery. And though we wish that the Bible had legislated slavery out at every point, it just doesn’t do that. But it does, I think gives us the tools that we need to dismantle slavery. And yet you’d have to read the chapter to see the details in which I lay that argument out.

Stump:

Maybe say just a word though even sometimes people want to bring up Paul and instructions to Onesimus…

McCaulley:

Okay, so yeah, I can say—actually the place that I like to begin which is people think this is a strange place. Actually, I begin with the divorce conversation that Jesus has with the Pharisees. And in the conversation, and this is really, I think, a good starting point in thinking about the Bible and slavery. So the Pharisees go to Jesus, and they quote Deuteronomy, they say, Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason? I’d say at the beginning, this is actually not a conversation about divorce. And I know there’s a lot of things that’s related to that emotionally. So I’m not talking about that, I’m just using this as an example. So they come to Jesus, and they say, “hey, Jesus, the Bible says that you could have a divorce.” And what they wanted to do is, they had Deuteronomy 24:2 in their mind, that the Bible speaks about divorce, and they just want Jesus to give his interpretation of that individual verse. The Bible says that divorce is there, therefore divorce must be good. And Jesus does something very, very important. He says, “in the beginning, it was not that way. When God created them, he created them man and woman.” And so rather than arguing with a verse in the law, he says, “well, what was God’s intent when he created humanity?” And he says, “God, when he created humanity, originally designed humanity for man and women to be together in covenant relationship forever.” And so he says, we need to begin our theology of marriage, not with the exception to the rule—what happens when things go awry—but by asking what’s God’s creational intent? 

And so then the Pharisees say, “well, hold on. If God didn’t want us to get divorced, then why are there these passages in the Bible?” And he says, Jesus says, “well, because of your hardness of heart.” In other words, in a broken world, things aren’t always going to go the way that God plans and relationships are going to fracture. And because relationships are going to fracture, we need to find ways to limit the damage that this brokenness does to us, right? So God has to regulate, kind of, the brokenness of humanity. And so Jesus then makes a delineation within the Torah, between passages that articulate God’s will, and passages that are limiting the damage that we do to one another as believers. 

And so then you come to the question pretty quickly. Well, then, when you look at the Bible, and you look at God’s creational intent, is there any evidence that God wanted us to enslave one another? There isn’t. It’s pretty clear that in the creation narrative, absent the fall, there would be no slavery. So then how do you make sense of those slave passages in the Old Testament? Well, the slave passages in the Old Testament then are attempts to limit the damage that a broken society does to one another. And so what you see mostly in the slave passages are all of these provisions around some abuses. Now that I want people to understand. I’m not arguing that there’s like a good slavery and a bad slavery. I’m saying that all slavery is the manifestation of human sin. And the Bible is, as it’s articulating a theology of freedom, is at the same time, beginning to limit the brokenness of society. So here’s the perfect example. Yes, you have passages that allow slavery in the Old Testament. But you also have the Book of Exodus, in which God chooses as his people, a nation that was enslaved. And then he says, I want you to use your experience in slavery as the basis for your ethics. So he says over and over again, in the Old Testament, remember that you yourselves were slaves in Egypt. And so in other words, he says, “I want you to think about what you experienced, and use that experience to inform how you live in the world.” And so when the African American slave comes along, you know, centuries later, and goes, “Oh, hold on.” Yes, there’s the slave passages in the Bible. But there’s this story of God, liberating people from slavery, and if God can liberate one people from slavery, then he can liberate others. And they’re saying and actually, I think they’re correct exegetically, that it is more central to understanding God’s purposes in the world, to look at the Exodus story, than to look at a couple of passages that allow slavery.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum. We discuss each podcast episode, but it goes far beyond that, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Well, we’re obviously only hitting some highlights here of the book. And I hope what that does is to drive some of our listeners to actually read the whole book and see how you unpack these in more detail. But let me ask about one more of these kinds of questions, then. BioLogos has increasingly addressed the issue of human identity, what it means to be human. And one part of that is race. Science has pretty well shown that there’s no biological basis for race, at least according to the lines that our society have drawn—that there’s way more genetic similarity between us all than you would expect to find if there really were these discrete biological races. Scripture too, attests that we are all of one blood. But some people have taken both of these, both on the science and the Scripture, to mean that we should then just be colorblind, like some interpret Galatians 3 to be recommending there is no Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female—we’re all one in Christ Jesus. Why is the colorblind approach a bad understanding of what the Bible has to say about race and ethnicity?

McCaulley:

Well, I mean, there’s, I mean, as you know, we could have a much larger conversation too, about race and ethnicity. I want to say a couple of things. And then I’ll say the stuff about the Bible. First, we all know that race isn’t real, like that there is no biological foundation for it. But something without biological foundation can still have real power in society. So you talk about the impact of race, it doesn’t have to be real for it to be a source of oppression. And so if like, someone pulls me over, because I’m being black, I can’t say, “race is a social construct.” [laughs] I don’t think like it—so like, we tend to think that it’s simply a matter of ceasing to talk about it, without dealing with the ways in which our society was founded and structured in those ways, and concrete steps need to be taken to bring healing. 

Now what the Bible does talk about though is ethnicity, the different cultures. And when you get to the end of the Bible, and this is the important part—actually forget the end—the beginning of the Bible. Abraham, right? The whole point of the Abraham story is through you, the different nations, ethnic groups of the world is going to be blessed. So the energy of the Bible moves from this idea that through one ethnic group, the Jews, all the different ethnic groups of the world will be blessed. And so to say that at the end of the story, God says, “I don’t care about ethnicity” would be a strange thing, when God says, “My whole purpose is to bless a bunch of different ethnic groups.” And when Paul says, “I’m an apostle to the Gentiles,” he is saying, part of the particular ministry that I have, is that God is glorified by bringing different types of people together under the Lordship of Jesus. And so ignoring those differences is sub-biblical because the Bible glories in those differences. Because it’s precisely to the fact that the gospel does what no other ideology can do. It brings the very people together under the Lordship of Jesus. 

So then when you get to the very end of the Bible, literally, it says, “I saw people from every tribe, tongue and nation gathered in praise of Jesus.” Now, everyone understands that language encodes culture. There’s certain things that you say in French, or in Spanish, that just doesn’t translate into English. And so when Jesus talks about, the Bible talks about the different languages coming into the kingdom of God, to offer themselves to God in worship, it is saying that each culture is in its own way, offering its distinctive gifts to God. And so there is no—the idea that as a Christian, I don’t care about cultural—I don’t notice cultural difference, is something that the Bible notices over and over again, and it actually glories in it. The point of Ephesians is that God has made the two people one. And so when the Bible when the Bible says there’s no Jew or Gentile, they’re not saying that Jews and Gentiles don’t exist. In this in the Jew, neither Jew nor Gentile nor the male or the female, neither slave nor the free, has special access to God, because of their Gentileness or their Jewishness—that the Jews aren’t above the Gentiles. It doesn’t say that Gentiles don’t exist. I mean, because nobody says that I don’t see gender. Right? Well, I mean, somebody, some people do, but you know, Christians don’t say what, like, after Christianity, I don’t see— I’m gender blind.

Stump:

Is there any concern that that approach of stating the truth, that the Bible glories in ethnic diversity and cultural diversity and that in some sense, these different people groups are bringing glory to God by their particularity? Is there any concern that highlighting that could lead other people to say, and therefore we better really keep all of these people groups separate? Because we don’t want to lose that distinctiveness? And then it also kind of becomes an underhanded way of further exclusion or keeping people apart?

McCaulley:

Well, here’s the thing. Like, the interesting thing about that, though, is that the merger of two cultures don’t lead to—well first of all, culture isn’t static. So I mean, like the idea that there’s kind of this freeze frame thing that doesn’t change, is also kind of a misnomer. So the idea that we need to preserve our culture closed off from the rest of the world is just not true. Because like America itself, I mean, we have pizza and hamburgers. I don’t think we did either one of those things. And so what you tend to have though, is that when different cultures come together. It’s actually the interesting fusions in the creation of something new that also brings glory to God. So when I talk about the distinctiveness of culture, I don’t think that distinctiveness comes from its separateness from other people. It’s about the ways in which history has shaped those people and the ways in which that shaping brings glory to God. And part of that history involves those people encountering others, right? So a culture isn’t shaped by being closed off. A culture is shaped by dialogue. Whenever you have dialogue, you have relationship, and that relationship changes the culture, sometimes for the good, and sometimes for the bad. And so, like that, I don’t think that the highlighting of culture means that we are separate, it means that there’s this mutual dialogue, and for whatever—we know that the Thanksgiving story is mythical, right? But the idea that there would be an exchange of the best of indigenous American culture interacting with European culture, if it was actually done as equals would not be a detriment, but it would be a mutual enrichment. And that’s what you see in the kingdom of God. That the whole point that you see in places like Antioch is the idea that Jews and Gentiles together are, through their interaction, bringing glory to God, not through, they’re just, I’m bringing glory to God over here, and you bring glory God over there. So we’re bringing glory to God by bringing ourselves together and seeing what God does with the fusion.

Stump:

Good, nice. Let’s, uh—this is great, Esau. It’s super helpful, I think for us to hear. When I say ‘us’, I mean, I expect that the majority of our audience is white. We know that from some of the demographical things we’ve done, we’ve surveyed, and we very much wish that that were not the case. And so to have a fusion of cultures is a dream, I thin, in many ways that would enrich all of us. Let’s push into some harder things, if we could. You begin your chapter six with a quotation from the late novelist and essayist James Baldwin. He says, “to be a negro in this country, and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time.” I fear that too many of us have the view that that’s really only for inner city black men, or for those who commit crimes, surely an educated and respectable black man like yourself has nothing to be in a rage about? Please disabuse us of that ignorant view. Can you share a little bit of your own experience of being black in America? Maybe why there’s a justified cause for your own rage in this regard?

McCaulley:

Well, one of the things they like—we have to listen to what Baldwin said, he says, to be relatively conscious, and what he means there is: the anger isn’t just from, like, the present experience. It’s the fact that the present experience is not disconnected from our past. And so to understand, to say that, you know, the things that are happening to me aren’t just happening to me by happenstance, but they are happening to me as a manifestation of a culture that has historically been hostile to African Americans. So it’s kind of the manifestation of a type. And so I can say something as simple as, I remember when I was working on my PhD, and I would have people come up to me and say, “well, you’re only gonna get a job because you’re black.” And this is like, not 1950, this is like in 2018. Or I remember when I was walking around in Scotland, I don’t know why I’m thinking about the UK now—I was walking around and like one woman comes up to me and like, stops me and says, “I see that you brought the sun with you from Africa on a sunny day.” I was like, “I’m from Alabama. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Or I could talk about, and I talked about in the book, the amount of times that I was just pulled over for driving while black. 

I remember one time I was—I didn’t tell the story in the book, so this is free. I was driving from my hometown to where I went to college with a friend of mine, and we were being followed by a police officer, they got behind us and he followed us for a couple of miles. And we were driving the speed limit and doing those things. And we went from like 55 miles an hour to like a 30 mile you know, you can drive one of those speed traps—you know what I’m talking about? And so I slowed down, and then the lights came on and I was like I know, it wasn’t speeding because I saw the thing. He said “I’m pulling you over for a sudden change in speed.” And I was like, well, I was thinking to myself, well, a sudden change in speed because we went from 55 to 30. And then he said, “well, where are you boys going?” I’m thinking I’m like, first of all, I’m a grown man. But once again, you can’t say that. And I said, “well we’re going back to our college, you know, up the road.” Because we’ve actually broken no laws, right? So we’re just like pulled over by the side of the road. And he says, “I need to see your student ID and your driver’s license,” for both me and the passenger, which is also illegal for like requiring our student licenses. So he took our student IDs and driver’s license and he went and he like, ran the information. And then he came back and he gave us back our IDs. He said, “I want you boys to drive straight home, or to straight to campus. And I don’t want you to stop between here and there.” And we had done nothing wrong. We had not sped—the supposed crime we had committed was a sudden change in speed. 

One time I was pulled over—I was parked somewhere. I was in a parking lot. And the police officer came up to me when I was just sitting in the parking lot outside outside of a mall, getting ready to go. He says, you know, give me your ID and all this other stuff. And he said, “you’re under arrest.” I said, “Under arrest? For what?” And he said, “you’re wanted in connection with—your name was in connection with an armed robbery.” I think, wow, that’s pretty interesting. I don’t remember having committed armed robbery. And for whatever reason, I said to the officer, I said, ”well, what year sir?” This was in like ‘98 when this occurred. Or maybe so actually would have been 96. And I said “well when was the armed robbery?” He said “1987.” I said “sir, I would have been eight years old in 1987.” 

And so you may think of that as just like manifestations of incompetence. But this is like, the sometimes—I mean, I could tell these stories all day. The difficulty of being African American and even like I said, the presumption that I got my job because of my race, not because I’m actually a decent scholar. And so, of course, you begin to see those things, and a sense of frustration builds. And what I tried to talk about in the book, is the ways in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ ministers to and helps us to find a way beyond simply being angry, but it points us towards hope.

Stump:

So you have four young kids, is that right?

McCaulley:

Four young children. Yes, sir. 

Stump:

How do you talk to them about growing up black in America, preparing them for growing up black in America?

McCaulley:

Well, I have a bias towards joy. And what I mean is I don’t sit around telling my children how horrible things are. They will have their own difficulties. Instead, I try to tell them the stories of how African Americans have pushed back against those things and contended for justice. And I remind them that what God says about who they are. And I want to remind them that God says that made in His image. And as image bearers, they are just, they’re equal to everyone else. One of the things that I try to say is like, what makes America great or what makes America special, is not that we always opt for the good, the true, and the beautiful—we don’t. We sometimes opt for the cruel, the nasty and the ugly. What makes America great though, is that this is the arena upon which the disinherited peoples of the world have contended and fought for their God-given rights. And despite all odds, they’ve often succeeded. And so when I tell my children, the story of America, I tell them that complicated story. That story of both the promise of America, the things that we offer, the things that we have in our documents, and the ways in which we fail to embody that, and the struggle of people in this country to help us become our best selves. And I’ll show them that, like I’m doing everything that I can to make sure that their life is better than the one that I experienced. And that one day they will take up that work as well.

Stump:

In this chapter, you point to some of the imprecatory Psalms as ways of dealing with this rage, right, like Psalm 137. And reading a little quote from the book here, again, that “traumatized communities must be able to tell God the truth about what they feel, and we must trust that God can handle those emotions, God can listen to our cries for vengeance, and the one sovereign over history. He gets to choose how to respond. Psalm 137 does not take power from God and give it to us. It’s an affirmation of his power in the midst of deep pain and estrangement.” I think that’s a really powerful way of—

McCaulley:

I wrote that? [laughter] I was like, that was kind of good. Well, you know, you never know what you believe—I’m not trying to make light of this at all—you never know what you believe until you sit down to write it. And I want to say some of the imprecatory Psalms, but like, when I began to write Reading While Black, I didn’t have the answers to the questions. I knew I had to ask them. And it’s almost like, you know, how you have, like, a movie, where the plot gets more and more and more and more and more, like complicated? How is the hero going to escape this dilemma? You know there’s a bomb in the building, and he’s tied up and he’s underwater. You got to—the author has to write himself out of it. And so what I wanted to do in that chapter in particular, is to write myself into the room with the clock ticking down to zero, and like the bomb about to go off in it, with water seeping in, so that I could see like what God might have to say. And what I wanted people to understand is, it is simply dishonest to pray to God as if God doesn’t see us live in the world. And God sees us live in the world, and God knows the things that cause us pain. And if you actually read the Psalms, which are themselves prayers to God, the Psalmist often tells God exactly what’s going on in his heart and in his mind. The thing though, is that once we’ve offered those things to God, he’s the one who gets to respond. And so it’s okay for me to be upset by racism and injustice. And I can tell God, the things that happen to me are frustrating and infuriating. But also, I have to allow God to minister to me in that. And I have to trust God that if I tell him what’s actually going on in my life, he might be able to speak a word of hope to me.

Stump:

I wonder if we could push one step further then and flip this question back on some of the rest of us here. So the title of your chapter there was “what shall we do with this rage?” And you’re primarily addressing other black men and women. But what if we flip that question to those of us in the majority culture, particularly in the church, in America, today? What should we do with African American rage? And before you answer, let me just say that I’m keenly aware that you should not be saddled with fixing us somehow, our white problems of cultural ignorance and even feelings of superiority should not be added on to this long list of things that you are responsible for changing somehow. But at the same time, I’m not sure that I always trust our intuitions of what we think we should do in these kinds of circumstances. So maybe I could ask it this way: what are some examples of responses to black rage from white communities that you’ve seen that are helpful and worthwhile, perhaps, that we could try to emulate in certain respects?

McCaulley:

I would say, the first and like central part is to de-center their emotions or your emotions and to attend to the emotions of African Americans or the experiences. So in other words, like, sometimes people aren’t comfortable with black people expressing anger or deep disappointment. And they want to rush towards reconciliation, without a full hearing of the problem. And that which is not named cannot be healed. And sometimes people are so caught up in their own—like, the actual existence of racism is sometimes less problematic than the accusation of racism. Or the idea that someone might be complicit. And so we’d rather just deny it. So we don’t have to deal with the emotional reality of it. And so part of what makes African American frustration so difficult to manage, is because it calls into question so much about the wider culture. And so the first thing that I would say is, it has to be okay for us to tell the truth. And the truth is sometimes is difficult. I don’t know when this is going to come out—it could come out in Black History Month, but right now we’re sitting in the middle of—Martin Luther King day is going to be this coming Monday. And you will see a lot of quotes or like general aphorisms, yo u know, like, injustice is bad. But King was sometimes unflinching and his criticism of kind of lukewarm white Christianity. And that King is not remembered as much as the general-aphorism King, because we don’t really like to wrestle with fervent denunciations of the injustice that people experience. So the first thing I want to say is acknowledge that that frustration comes from a real place without being excessively defensive. And then we can begin to work together towards healing and community.

Stump:

Let me ask if this is a kind of example of what you mean. I think it was just soon after the George Floyd murder, that there was another person on our staff at BioLogos, we were talking about race and trying to grapple with it as best we can. And another staff member who has an African American friend said, think about it like this. He said, “I hear a lot of white people right now saying, yes, it’s unfortunate that a man was shot by the police. But we’ve got to stop this violence that’s going on now.” And this guy said, “try flipping those around and see what it sounds like.” If you were to say, yes, it’s unfortunate that there’s some violence going on right now but we’ve got to stop the senseless shooting of black men like this— 

McCaulley:

Actually, it’s really interesting that you talk about this, because Martin Luther King, he talks about this extensively. The real issue is the issue of deflection. And what I mean is, there’s always a reason not to look at the thing itself. And so King talks about how they could have— his is in the 1960s—and King says, “they could have, you know, 100, peaceful marches. And then if there’s one that turns violent, because we’re minority, then that becomes the only thing that people want to talk about.” And then he says that we’re often told that if only the Negro—this is the language of the1960s—that if only the Negro are nonviolent, consistently, then we would listen to them. He said, “but if my life requires perfection, then you never really love me.” He says you would never say this to one of your children. “If only my kid would get straight A’s in class, then I would love him. Because he got that one B, then that kid is worthless to me.” No true love, and companionship is unconditional. And so the very idea that we need to stop focusing on the death of African Americans because some—and nobody thinks—no one thinks this is a majority—because some engaged in violence shows that there was really not a desire for it in the first place. Because you’re just never going to get to a place where you have an entire population of people who are experiencing something and everybody’s going to behave in the proper way. That is a requirement that is too high. And so it shouldn’t require that for—so like the constant derailing of the conversation—there’s always a reason not to deal with the issue at hand.

Forgive me, because I’m a parent, and I want to talk about it. When my kids are having a fight, the first thing the kid wants to do is say, “but she did—” “No, I’m not asking what they did. I don’t want to hear what they did. Tell me what you did, your role in the fight.” “But she said—” “I didn’t ask you what she said.” And so when we say like, “Yeah, but the violence—” “I understand that. We’re gonna get to the violence in a second.” And the interesting thing about this is, and this is important, what tends to happen is, we’ll say, “I know George Floyd is bad—what happened to George Floyd was bad, but violence—” And the “but violence” takes up the other 1000 words in the essay, and the first 10 words are about Floyd. But how about you do it the other way? How about we have like 1000 words about this problem, and then we could talk about the violence. As if—because like the people who suffered most from this violence are usually black and brown neighborhoods in the first place. And so we don’t want our neighborhoods distressed. But we realized that we can deal with that issue. It’s not that—America is united in the idea that burning down a building is bad. America seems to be remarkably un-united on the question of the injustice African Americans are facing. And so condemning the violence doesn’t move us forward. Or, sorry, a decontextualized, unsophisticated condemnation of violence outside of an extensive discussion of injustice, doesn’t move us forward.

Stump:

Well, thanks for that. We’re about at the end of our time here. In closing, I often like to ask our guests for signs of hope. It’s been a difficult year for all of us, and no doubt more so for African Americans. Do you see anything hopeful out there?

McCaulley:

Always. This might be like the influence of my advisor Tom Wright. My hope is always in Christ, the resurrection of Jesus. So I always tell people that present events can’t unresurrect Jesus. You can’t put Jesus back in a tomb. He’s already out causing trouble. And so I’m always like, ultimately, my hope is rooted in the finished work of Christ and the hope of life with Him. As it relates to temporally, I could say, Yes, I can look and see that in 1000 ways the church’s witness has been compromised, and that is a real disappointment. But I can also say that there is a portion of the church that during the same season of our life, has found its voice and has been an advocate. And so I try to focus on the people who have been hope helpful in this moment. And I want them to know that their witness isn’t wasted. And I appreciate that support.

Stump:

Well, thank you, Esau McCaulley. The book is called Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. And I’ll say that I hope that everybody listening will read this book. I highly recommend it. And I hope you and I might talk again some time Esau thanks so much.

McCaulley:

Yes, thank you so much. And like I said, next time I’ll work on my—I’ll  open up some of my old science books, and I’ll be ready. 

Stump:

I look forward to it. 

McCaulley:

Thanks. All right. 

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley

Fr. Esau McCaulley, PhD is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. Dr. McCaulley also serves as Canon Theologian for his diocese. His first book entitled Sharing in the Son’s Inheritance was published by T & T Clark in 2019. His second book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope will be published by IVP academic on September 1st. He is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. His writings have also appeared in Washington Post and Christianity Today among other places. He is married to Mandy, a pediatrician and navy reservist. Together, they have four wonderful children.

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