Review of Lisa Bowens on African American Readings of Paul

Review of Lisa Bowens on African American Readings of Paul July 5, 2021

I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to review and respond to Dr. Bowen’s book on African-American Interpretation of the apostle Paul. I consider the book to be not only highly informative account of Pauline reception history and American religious history, but also truly gripping, documenting as it does the cruel subjugation of African-American people, and the succour and spiritual springs that African-Americans have found in the letters of the apostle Paul. It was also my favourite book of 2020, a true delight to read in what was otherwise a depressing year. Highlights for me were the stories of Maria Stewart, the first American-born woman of any race to lecture on politics; Daniel Payne, America’s first African-American college president; and Harriet Jacobs, the first African-American woman to write an autobiography. Together they show that it is possible to “take up Paul’s voice and use him to protest and resist injustice” (p. 12).

I approach this review with a somewhat unique perspective. I’m not American, rather, I am a British expatriate, who has lived in Australia for over forty years. While I’ve gained some rudimentary knowledge of American history through my own reading and visits to the USA, my context is the Australian context, with its own distinct history, and set of racial issues related to colonisation and immigration. Those effect the way that I think about religion, race, and reconciliation, so I’d like to mention them briefly as a pretext for my review.

Australia was colonised by the British on 20 January 1788, when a fleet of 11 ships first arrived in what is now known as Botany Bay. British settlement would have a detrimental effect on the indigenous people, Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI), as they gradually became subject to the same disruption, violence, segregation, and exploitation that accompanies colonisation by a foreign power. This included genocide (esp. in Tasmania), various massacres (esp. in Victoria), periodic blackbirding (indentured low-paid labor), children forcibly taken from parents (the stolen generations), and various forms of discrimination (ATSI were not included in a census until 1967). If you get a chance, see the movie Rabbit Proof Fence, and that’ll give you some idea.

The Australian churches were among the leading advocates for indigenous welfare and opposed unjust treatment of indigenous peoples. There are some good stories to tell here. The Australian church’s annual day of mourning for indigenous communities begun in the 1930s was eventually taken over in secular form in the 1970s by the federal government and became NAIDOC week (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee). There is the story of James Noble (1876-1941), the first indigenous Anglican clergyman who led a remarkable career along with his wife Angelina, who established several missions and helped uncover several massacres of Aboriginal people. John Harris’ book One Blood: 200 Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity is the primary work documenting the history of Christianity among Australia’s first peoples. More recent years have seen a national apology for exploitation of indigenous people (2008), bi-partisan commitment in principle to indigenous recognition in the Australian constitution, incremental steps towards a national treaty with indigenous peoples, and the Uluru Statement of 2017 calling for an indigenous voice to the Australian parliament. The aim is for genuine Makarrata, a Yolngu word for reconciliation.

While Australia did not have a system of chattel slavery, we did have our own systematic oppression of indigenous peoples, and we have had our own xenophobic policies going back to eighteenth century discriminations against Chinese immigrants, the White Australia policy of the post-WWII years, and even now with our indefinite off-shore detention of refugees. So what does it mean to read Dr. Bowen’s book on Africa-American hermeneutics in the Australian context?

First, it is eye-opening to read about the first-hand accounts of the incredibly inhumane treatments of people in slavery, the degradation, disempowerment, and dehumanization of other human beings. For me, it invokes a sense of confusion and rage – how could people be so cruel and rationalize it with the same Bible that I am reading. I am grieved reading what Charles Hodge said about slavery (p. 118) and the pro-segregationist policies of Presidents Wilson and Taft (p. 188).

Second, I can see some overlap between how Africa-Americans and Indigenous Australians read the Bible. In particular, Acts 17:26 (KJV) where God “hath made from one blood all nations of men to dwell upon the earth” has been an important text in the campaign for indigenous rights, and such a verse was popular too among African-Americans according to Dr. Bowen.

Third, I do look upon the book with some degree of envy. Australia has had many great indigenous clergy (e.g., Rev. James Noble – first ATSI clergyman; Rev. Sam Passi – linguistic and land-rights activist), and indigenous political leaders (Neville Bonner, first ATSI person elected to parliament; Eddie Mabo, who won a famous land-rights court case). In our federal senate at the moment, we have Senator Pat Dodson, who is a former Catholic priest, and advocate for indigenous peoples. We have various indigenous Christian organizations that do some wonderful work. However, I have to say that Australia has never had a Dr. King, an indigenous clergy-person, who has been at the centre of national advocacy and attention. The reason for that is mostly demographics, ATSI make up only 2% of the national population, indigenous clergy numbers remain minute, and that’s notwithstanding that Australia has more Buddhists than Baptists. Plus, our secularity is more acute, and Australians are generally allergic to combining religion and politics.

Fourth, Dr. Bowen’s book is a book that I warmly recommend to my mostly Anglo and Asian students. A couple of weeks ago I was teaching a class on Theology 101, addressing the shift in theological method from modernity to postmodernity, and we spent some time wrestling with the problem of (a) nobody has a God’s-eye-perspective of truth; and (b) the opposite danger of the complete relativity of all truth. The solution, I argued and which they agreed, was to listen and learn from the perspective of those who have exercised faith in a different context. The ideal Christian interpreter is one who is informed by the diachronic excavation of the Christian tradition and in a synchronic dialogue with the global church. To find a faith seeking understanding, one must not only read Scripture, but look back and listen around. Accordingly, I commended to them Dr. Bowen’s book as exemplary because she shows how others read Paul in experiences of oppression and the quest for liberation. Dr. Bowen narrates how Paul could be read as the justifier of slavery but also as a source of spiritual strength in the face of injustice and one who sides with the oppressed (esp. Harriet Jacob’s Pauline critique of sexual violence on pp. 180-83). This book challenges us to always ask what it means to read Paul responsibly, to build up love for God and love for neighbour, and to prosecute the Pauline vision of one church made up of Jews and Gentiles who together praise one God through Jesus Christ.

Finally, interesting fact, in 1865, the Confederate ironclad naval vessel CSS Shenandoah docked in Melbourne, Australia, after attacking Union whaling vessels in the Indian Ocean. The Shenandoah, its captain and crew, were met with a warm reception and several Australians enlisted to join the crew (the reasons for this are more pro-British than pro-Confederacy, but that’s another story). However, things have changed since 1865, since in June 2020, several Black Lives Matter demonstrations took place in several Australian cities, partly to show solidarity with African Americans against police brutality but also to protest the death of indigenous Australians in police custody. What happens in America concerning race relations, whether civil war or racial injustice, does seem to turn up in Australia. Dr. Bowen’s is book on African Americans readings of Paul is something from America on the topic of race, religion, hermeneutics, and justice that I believe Australians would find highly informative and speaks into their own context.

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