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Friday, March 5, 2021

Threads of Victory in Tales of Despair

Esau McCaulley’s book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope is rightly garnering a lot of attention. It is a thought-provoking and important book. Rather than outlining or reviewing the entire book, I want to provides some excerpts from the second half of chapter six that have landed pretty hard on my heart.

Let this linger. 

It is right that we weep with those who weep, and find hope with those who have found hope. And we all be inspired to do justice and love mercy.

* * * * *

Black bodies enter the laws of this land, not as persons but as an accounting tool to determine the voting rights of white men (the Three-Fifths Compromise). Before that we were mercilessly dragged from our native land and flung to the far ends of the world to be beaten, bred, raped, and degraded. Families were ripped apart and all the doors of opportunity were closed to us. We were despised and rejected by men, seen as cursed and abandoned by God. We were those from whom men hid their faces.

The year 1865 did not signal freedom, but simply the beginning of a different type of struggle. The years of reconstruction saw some expansion of Black opportunity. However Black bodies were again sacrificed at the altar of compromise in 1877 when, in exchange for the presidency, Republicans agreed to remove troops from the south. What followed was a series of ever-increasing Jim Crow laws that robbed Black people of dignity and opportunity.

And what more shall we say? For the time would fail me to tell of the lynching tree, the Red summer, the dogs and the water hoses, the sit-ins, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., the people who defied governors and presidents, braved mobs, and sang victory, people of whom the world was not worthy. The history of Black people in this country is a litany of suffering. Yet we are definitely more than this suffering. There is a thread of victory woven into the tale of despair...

When a Black person learns the history of our suffering and then continues to experience the aftershocks of the seismic disruption of slavery in our ongoing oppression, a feeling of rage or even nihilism begins to rise. Our suffering is not an inadvertent consequence of an otherwise just system. It was designed to be that way. What are we do with this anger, this pain? How does Christianity speak to it? What does the cross have to say, not simply to human suffering, but the particular suffering of African Americans?

Possibly the most difficult of [the] psalms of vengeance is Psalm 137. The achingly beautiful longing that opens the psalm is only matched by the startlingly violent end. Psalm 137 is written from the perspective of Israelites who experienced the trauma of the destruction of the temple, the burning of Jerusalem, and the rape and murder that accompany modern and ancient conquests of the city. These are the words of survivors who look back on the devastation of what once was Israel and could only mourn. The King James version captures it best: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof” (Ps 137:1-2 KJV)…

The Babylonians wanted to hear some songs of Jerusalem (Ps 137:3-5). They wanted Israel to forget their anger and provide mirth for their captors. Here we encounter the psychological warfare that attaches itself to physical warfare. Not only did their captors take their land, their property, and their very bodies, now they demanded their emotions as well… 

On this occasion Israel refused the mask; they had reached the edge of their submission. There was a piece of themselves that even in defeat they refused to relinquish. This refusal, embedded in the traditions of Israel, gives space for Black resistance. We can refuse to sing. Psalm 137 reminds us that it is possible and even required for our own survival to say that we will not sing and dance for our masters. Instead we will remember what was done to us. It is the duty of survivors to remember. 

Psalm 137 is more than a personal memory of an oppressed people. It is a call for God to remember. It speaks of a reckoning: “Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” (Psalm 137:7)...

What kind of person of faith could ask that babies’ heads be dashed by rocks, and in what sense can we receive these texts as in a meaningful sense Christian? In response I ask, what kind of prayer would you expect Israel to pray after watching the murder of their children and the destruction of their families? What kinds of words of vengeance lingered in the hearts of black slave women and men when they found themselves at the mercy of their enslaver’s passions?

Psalm 137 is not merely a shout of defiance. It is a prayer addressed to God. Traumatized communities must be able to tell God the truth about what they feel… The fact that Psalm 137 became a part of the biblical canon means that the suffering of the traumatized is a part of the permanent record. God wanted Israel and us to know what human sin had done to the powerless. By recording this in Israel’s sacred texts, God made their problems our problems. Psalm 137 calls on the gathered community to make sure this type of trauma is never repeated. 

What theological resources does Psalm 137 give to Black rage and pain? It gives us permission to remember and feel... I contend that Black Christians can and must articulate what has happened to us to God and to others as a part of the healing process. We must tell the truth. Like the later Israelite readers of Psalm 137, the pain of the Black past must be carried forward and remembered as a testimony to what sin can and will do to the helpless. The beginning of the answer to Black anger is the knowledge that God hears and sees our pain… 

If we end our discussion of Israel’s rage and Black rage with simply a call for God to act, we are not being true to the fullness of the biblical witness. Sometimes we need to lament injustice and call for God to write wrongs, [but] the miracle of Israel’s witness is that the Old Testament could imagine something beyond blood vengeance…

[The] prophets called on them to hope for more than a destruction of their foes and the salvation of Israel. Shockingly, they look to the salvation of their former enemies: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)… These prophetic texts call us to the costly and painful work of imagining a world beyond our grievances. This does not rule out justice; it speaks to what happens afterward… There is a tension within Isaiah. God must be just, and he must judge sin. But there must also be more…

What is God’s first answer to Black suffering (and the wider human suffering and the rage that comes alongside it)? It is to enter that suffering alongside us as a friend and a redeemer. The answer to Black rage is the calming words of the Word made flesh. The incarnation that comes all the way down, even unto death, has been enough for us to say yes, God, we trust you.

The profound act of mercy gives us the theological resources to forgive. We forgive because we have been forgiven. It is only by looking at our enemies through the lens of the cross that we can begin to imagine the forgiveness necessary for community. What do Black Christians do with the rage that we rightly feel? We send it to the cross of Christ.

The New Testament also calls on believers to help those who are suffering. James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27). How could we offer those being abused anything less than the end of their suffering when we have the power to grant it? James does not say, “Tell the orphans and the widows to put up with suffering.” He says to the Christian, “Help them!” Therefore, finding a place of forgiveness does not mean that we must allow suffering to continue indefinitely when we have the resources to do something about it.

There are times when I look at the present and the historic suffering of my people and I feel closer to Psalm 137 than Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them”). That is fine because I am not yet fully formed into the likeness of Christ, and Psalm 137 is a part of the canon for a reason. This side of the second coming there will continue to be Babylons. As long as there is a Babylon, the oppressed will weep beside its willows.

Belief in the resurrection requires us to believe that nothing is impossible. If death gives way to the power of God, so does my hate. But more than that, resurrection is the final vindication of all Black hopes and dreams. If Black anger arises from the disregard of Black bodies and the failure to see us as persons, then resurrected Black and Brown bodies are God’s final affirmation of our value. When God finally calls the dead to life, he calls them to life with their ethnic identity intact (Rev 7:9).

The sins that have been committed against us matter. This is both terrifying (I find it difficult to long for such an outcome even for my enemies) and comforting (because sin is judged). God’s terrible power to judge makes me long for everyone to take advantage of God’s offer of forgiveness. Christian eschatology breeds compassion. Many years into my Christian life I still feel the anger, but the cross and the reality of God’s power have changed me. I want the oppressor to repent and find healing. 

 

Reading While Black Bible Project Podcast (interview)

Race, Gospel, and Justice: An Interview with Esau McCaulley, Part 1 (Christianity Today)

Jesus Creed Interview

Link to a bunch of podcasts featuring Esau McCaulley

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