Slavery. That’s the whole shebang. I don’t care how painstakingly orthodox any American Christian’s biblical hermeneutic attempts to be if it can’t account for the monumental fact of American slavery. For American Christianity, when it comes to the Bible and to hermeneutics — how we approach and regard and interpret that Bible — slavery eclipses, and alters and influences, everything else.
By now, in 2016, it’s no longer controversial to note that most white Christians throughout most of American history were wrong about slavery. This has now been established as old news, something about which we say yesbutofcourse and move on, quickly. We acknowledge that the hermeneutics of “orthodox” white Christianity in America produced a spectacularly wrong answer to the largest and most important religious question in the nation’s history. We acknowledge that this orthodox hermeneutics had the effect of promoting and defending and normalizing stark, massive, depraved, wicked sin.
And yet we leave it there. We still insist that this flawed, failed “orthodox” hermeneutics is the best and only acceptable model for Christians today.
This is deeply weird. It’s like we’d accepted all that modern science and modern medicine has learned about the lethally ignorant practice of bloodletting, but that we nonetheless still insisted that doctors should continue this practice.
I wrote about this a couple of years ago as “The Hole in Noll,” discussing religious historian Mark Noll’s wonderful, but frustratingly narrow, book The Civil War as Theological Crisis:
What about black Christians — lay people and theologians? There were millions of black Christians in America during the first half of the 19th century — where do they fit in Noll’s scheme?
Noll acknowledges this, almost parenthetically, in The Civil War as Theological Crisis. After laying out all these various views among the disputatious [white] Christians, he briefly turns to consider the voices and arguments made by black Christians at the time. That discussion is brief partly because it provides no contentious debate that needs summarizing. Among black Christians, there were no credible voices arguing the proslavery side.
But the important thing there is not the unanimity of black Christians in their opposition to slavery. The important thing there — what should be, for all Christians, everywhere, the most astonishingly important thing — is that America’s black Christians were right.
We can say this. Definitively. Without qualification.
When it comes to the single largest question in American history — the single largest theological question and hermeneutic question that has ever faced the church in North America — white Christians were squabbling and divided. White Christians were wavering and uncertain and all over the map. White Christians, for the most part, got it wrong.
Black Christians, almost without exception, got it right.
Stop everything. Just consider that for a moment.
The “theological crisis” of slavery was a test. White Christianity failed that test. White theology failed that test. White hermeneutics failed that test. White biblical interpretation failed that test. White piety failed that test. White devotion, white discipleship, white ecclesiology, white soteriology, white eschatology all failed that test.
And yet we haven’t changed any of those things accordingly. We’re sticking with those same failing answers and calling it “faithfulness.”
Today, throughout white evangelicalism and the rest of white Christianity in America, we remain determined to cling to the hermeneutics and the lessons taught us by the people who were vastly wrong while ignoring and marginalizing the vision of the people who were consistently and admirably right.
That all but guarantees that we ourselves will wind up repeating the errors we’re imitating. It means our hermeneutics will be wrong. It means we are misleading ourselves, deliberately and enthusiastically, about how to read the Bible and how to understand what it means.
That’s not good.
Maybe a better idea would be to try to learn from the people whose hermeneutics allowed and enabled them to get the question of slavery right. Maybe we shouldn’t be studying only the sinners, but instead we should try learning from the saints. Maybe insisting that we must emulate people whose hermeneutics were proven wrong, we should at long last start paying attention to those whose hermeneutics were demonstrably right.
All of which is why I’m excited about a new book from Emerson Powery and Rodney S. Sadler Jr., The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved.
Powery, who teaches biblical studies at Messiah College, recently discussed the book with his Messiah colleague (and fellow Mets fan) John Fea for an installment in Fea’s terrific “Author’s Corner” series. Powery gets bonus points for answering the “what’s the argument of the book in two sentences” question with a single sentence:
As active agents in the events that led to their freedom, formerly enslaved African Americans were also active hermeneutical agents in interpreting the Bible for survival and did so in ways that challenge some of the prominent conclusions on issues of life and humanity.
Yes. The heremeneutics of formerly enslaved African Americans “challenged some of the prominent conclusions” of the hermeneutics and exegesis practiced throughout white Christianity in America. And, more to the point, they were right where those white Christians were wrong.
But again, weirdly, we remain far more inclined to heed and to imitate the hermeneutics of those who were wrong than of those who were right. Cite Jonathan Edwards on the proper meaning and interpretation of scripture and everyone nods sagely because, yes, of course, Edwards was good and right and proper and orthodox — except for the minor point of being howlingly wrong about the central moral question of his day in a way that led him to promote, defend and participate in monstrous evil. But if you instead cite, say, Frederick Douglass about the proper meaning and interpretation of scripture, everyone will hem and haw about how Douglass wasn’t primarily a formal theologian and how he had a lot of uncomfortably heterodox ideas and so probably shouldn’t be treated as a reliable source — despite being impressively and utterly right about the central moral question of his day.
Part of the reason that the rightness of formerly enslaved African Americans is dismissed or diminished is because their view of slavery is portrayed as more a matter of self-interest than of theological insight. Well, yeah, of course former slaves would be against slavery, but that’s just because they didn’t like being slaves.
This is dumb — this makes us dumber — for at least three reasons. First, it coaxes us into imagining that self-interest played no part in shaping the theology of pro-slavery or tepidly “neutral” white Christians, which is just factually incorrect and thus causes us to misunderstand what we should be learning from those white Christians. And secondly because it tricks us into seeing a reaffirmation of the Golden Rule as grounds for treating something as less theologically significant, rather than recognizing that such a demonstration of the Golden Rule is actually, as Jesus said, the whole of the law and the prophets.
But the most important mistake in this dismissal is the way it causes us to miss the key point here. We wind up saying that we should ignore the black Christians who were right while everyone else was wrong because they were the victims of the injustice in question. We twist the last 17 words of that sentence into an excuse to ignore those we should be learning from, when the truth is that those words provide an invaluable hermeneutical principle that could spare us from repeating the massive errors of the past and from perpetuating the massive sins of the present.
If we want to know how to avoid twisting the Bible to suit our self-interest and to defend and promote evil, then we need to start by listening to the victims of injustice.
The victims of injustice tend to have a far better theological track record than the defenders, perpetrators, and beneficiaries of it. We should try learning from them for a change. Perhaps it would be better to learn about the Bible from the people who got it right than to continue learning about the Bible from people who insist on getting it wrong.