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[BT 9.

1 (2011) 57-76] ISSN (print) 1476-9948


doi: 10.1558/blth.v9il.57 ISSN (online) 1743-1670

T H E BIBLE IN BLACK THEOLOGY

Mukti Barton1
The Queen's Foundation
Somerset Road
Edgbaston
Birmingham B15 2 Q H
UK
m.barton@queens.ac.uk

ABSTRACT

Although misuse of the Bible has caused much suffering to Black people, it
still plays a pivotal role in their lives. These people have engaged with the
Bible over many centuries and in different circumstances. In this paper I
outline the prophetic readings of the Bible by three groups: the Black slaves,
the authors of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black/womanist scholars of
today.

Keywords: Black/womanist interpretation; misuse of the Bible; subjugation


of Black people.

Doing Black Theology in My Context


Black Theology is a contextual theology.2 Therefore, first of all, I would like to
say something about the context in which I do theology. I had a baptism of fire
on my first day in Britain. I married my English husband in India and was
coming with him to his country. The power structure at Heathrow Airport
racially and sexually harassed me and made me realize that I was not welcome.
My eyes were opened. For the first time in my life I knew what innocent suf-
fering and structural racism were about. It was a traumatic experience to feel

1. Mukti Barton is tutor in Black and Asian Theology at the Queen's Foundation for
Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham. Mukti is passionate about Scripture, libera-
tion and justice. She is the author ofRejection, Resistance and Resurrection: Speaking out on Racism
in the Church (London: DLT, 2005).
2. "Contextual theology can be defined as a way of doing theology in which one takes
into account: the spirit and message of the gospel; the tradition of the Christian people; the
culture in which one is theologising; and social change in that culture," Stephen B. Bevans,
Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 1.

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58 Black Theology: An InternationalJournal

excluded in a country from which British missionaries went to convert my


ancestors to Christianity.
The Heathrow experience was not an isolated one. The regular incidents of
racism and sexism were slowly destroying me. Our two sons were born and we
did not want to bring them up in Britain. We had an invitation from Bangladesh
to work there and we responded to that immediately. There, once again, my
humanity and gifts were recognized. I founded a women's theological centre
for doing theology from an Asian woman's perspective. Women there learned
to read the Bible from the viewpoint of the powerless and the results were
tangible: they stood with their heads held high. After 11 years in Bangladesh, we
came back to Britain and I wrote my PhD thesis, "Scripture as Empowerment
for Liberation and Justice: The Experience of Christian and Muslim Women in
Bangladesh".3
In Bangladesh I was doing theology from both gender and colour perspec-
tives, but after coming back to the UK, the focus on colour and ethnicity became
more prominent. I appreciate that whether our heritage lies in the continents of
Asia, Africa or in the Caribbean Islands, in Britain we are equal targets of racism
because of our skin colour and therefore politically bound together. This cor-
porate experience has helped me to see that our history has also united us and
we might be described as belonging to a minority ethnic grouping. Our countries
of origin have been scarred by Euro-American imperialism and the slave trade,
which in turn have divided the world on colour and ethnic lines. At present we
live in this divided world. This awareness has made me recognize "Black" as a
political term, and so when I struggle for justice and peace in this divided world
I do this as a Black woman. The last 20 years I have been actively involved in
Black Theology, remaining very close to the Bible as this work has progressed
and developed.
Black Theology developed and expanded to include womanist theology,4 a
theology articulated by Black women. James Cone, the pioneering figure in
Black Theology, sees this as "the most creative development to emerge out of
the Black Theology movement during the 1980s and 1990s."5

3. Mukti Barton, "Scripture as Empowerment for Liberation and Justice: The Experi-
ence of Christian and Muslim Women in Bangladesh" (PhD thesis, University of Bristol,
1999).
4. Womanist is a term that comes from the word womanish, opposite to girlish. It is
Black folk-expression of mothers to female children: "you acting womanish." This behaviour
can be seen as either courageous or outrageous. The Black poet and novelist Alice Walker was
the first woman to coin the term womanist. For the definition of "womanist," see Alice
Walker, In Search of our Mothers' Gardens (London: The Women's Press Limited, 1984), xi.
5. J. H. Cone and G. S. Wilmore, eds., Black TheologyA Documentary History. II. 1980-
1992 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 257.

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Barton The Bible in Black Theology 59

The Bible Was Misused to Subjugate Black People


Although the Bible originated where Africa and Asia meet, and was already
known to many African and Asian people, it came to us the second time,
through European missionaries. Sadly, mixed motives worked behind the
preaching of the Bible. Gerald West, a South African biblical scholar, gives this
anecdote as an illustration: "When the white man came to our country he had
the Bible and we had the land. The white man said, 'Let us pray.' After the
prayer, the white man had the land and we had the Bible."6 Black Theology
scholars have plenty of evidence that the Bible has been deliberately misused by
the powerful for their gain. One such piece of evidence is a letter Leopold II,
the king of Belgium, wrote to the missionaries who were about to depart to the
Congo in 1883:
Reverend brothers and dear compatriots! Your mission.. .is a very delicate one
and requires a lot of tact. Priests know you are going on a mission of
evangelization, but such evangelization must draw inspiration primarily from
the interests of Belgium...

The role you are called upon to play is basically that of easing the task of
administrators and business people. That means you will interpret the Bible
in such a way as to best protect our interests in that part of the world...

Your knowledge of scripture will help you to easily find passages that advise
the faithful to love poverty, for instance, "Happy are the poor for they shall
enter the kingdom of heaven."... Your actions must target the youth basically
to prevent them from resorting to revolt... Put emphasis particularly on
submission and obedience. Avoid developing critical minds in your schools.
Rather, you are expected to teach pupils to believe and not to reason.

Preach to the Negroes bearing in mind their race, so that they can remain
submissive to the Whites...so that they should never revolt against the
injustices the latter will subject them to. Make them meditate everyday
"Happy are those who mourn, for the Kingdom of God is theirs."...

Subject their women to submission...

Do all within your power to ensure that the Blacks do not become rich.
Remind them everyday of the impossibility for the rich to enter the kingdom
of God. 7

6. Michael Joseph Brown, Blackening of the Bible: The Aims ofAfrican American Biblical
Scholarship (Harrisburg, London, N e w York: Trinity Press International, 2004), 7.
7. Cited in Chinweizu, "The Trouble with Africa's Political Development," http://
www.africawithin.com/chinweizu/trouble_with_africa.htm, 6 October 2005. See also, Paul K.
Fokam, Tomorrow's Africa: What about a Take Off? (Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 2004), 14-16.

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60 Black Theology: An InternationalJournal

It has been claimed that Mr Moukouani Muikwani Bukoko, born in the Congo
in 1915, bought a second-hand Bible from a Belgian priest who forgot that the
letter was inside the Bible.8 We believe that this statement is genuine and that
similar instructions must have been given to missionaries in other regions,
because we notice,
The Bible was interpreted to protect European interests.
The colonized people were expected to believe but not to reason so
that they would not use the Bible to support their struggle for justice
against their exploiters.
Young people were controlled more since there was more chance of
rebellion from them.
The passages regarding submission and obedience to the masters
were highlighted in missionary teaching.
All colonized people, but especially women, were taught to be sub-
missive.
There were double standards. Poverty and suffering were prescribed
as spiritual virtues for the colonized but not for the colonizers.
The gospel was spiritualized in order to justify the material gains of
the Europeans.

Hermeneutics in Black and Womanist Theology


Although Black interpretation is many faceted and varied, it is possible to trace
some general hermeneutical principles that work behind it. For centuries,
Euro-American elitist male methods have dominated biblical interpretation. It
has been claimed that this approach alone is scientific, objective, value-free,
neutral and universal. Ordinary Black people and Black theologians have
challenged the White male approach making it clear that the interpretation of
Scripture is influenced by the reader's context. Black Theology exposes "the
fallacy and fraudulent nature of claims for an 'objective' versus a 'subjective'
reading of biblical texts."9 A womanist scholar, RenitaJ. Weems, claims, "To the
extent that no interpreter is able to divest herself of her values and assumptions,
then all interpretation of data and texts reflect to some degree the subjective
predispositions of the interpreter."10 Black and womanist scholars unashamedly
declare that their reading is subjective. Whether it is done in academic institu-
tions or beyond, it is not individualistic; rather, it reflects their corporate

8. Chinweizu, "The Trouble with Africa's Political Development".


9. RenitaJ. Weems, 'Womanist Reflections on Biblical Hermeneutics," inj. H. Cone
and G. S. Wilmore, eds., Black TheologyA Documentary History, II (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis
Books, 1993), 217.
10. Weems, 'Womanist Reflections," 217.

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Barton The Bible in Black Theology 61

subjectivity. This interpretation emerges from group experience and is con


stantly critiqued and validated by the group. In many parts of the world this
reading is done in grass-root communities, in caucuses, Black/womanist theol
ogy forums and in many other forums.
Black/womanist scholars, Blount, Felder, Martin and Powery, protest
against the theory that there is one interpretative method that is objective,
value-free and universal. They term this theory the "dog-and-bone" theory of
exegesis. According to this view, the meaning of the Bible is like a bone that a
dog has buried in the ground. The interpreter is the person who unearths the
bone. When the bone is unearthed, everyone can agree: that's a bone. These
scholars continue:
Meaning, then, is the bone buried in the biblical text. All one needs to do is
find the right shovel to dig it up. The idea is simple: exegetical methods are
like shovels. Once one takes hold of the right shovelno matter who one is,
what community one belongs to, or what history one has livedone will find
the same bone that everyone from every other community or history has
found, is finding, and ever will find.11

According to this view, "meaning is like a fossil."12Justin Ukpong, a Nigerian


New Testament scholar, claims that contextual approaches, such as Black and
womanist readings of the Bible, are different. When the Bible is read contextu-
ally, the meaning is not found, but produced, in the interaction between the
text and the reader. 13
In a parable Jesus says that the word of God is like seeds (Matt. 13:18-23;
Mk 4:3-24; and Lk. 8:5-15). Unlike a bone which is dead, fossilised and un
changeable, seeds have potential for change. They flourish and bear fruit only
when they are in contact with the soil. In the dog-and-bone theory of exegesis,
the soil has no effect on the bone. This theory is based on a presumption that
human beings will distort the pure word of God. However, in the parable of
the seeds, Jesus seems to trust the soil for its potential to make the seed come to
fruition.
Elsewhere, an acknowledgement of human subjectivity seems to be inherent
in Jesus' questions: "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" (Lk.
10:26). "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (Matt. 16:13). "But who

11. Brian K. Blount, Cain Hope Felder, Claris J. Martin and Emerson B. Powery,
"Introduction," in Brian Blount, True to Our Native Land: An African-American New Testa
ment Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 2-3.
12. Blount et al., "Introduction," 2.
13. Justin S. Ukpong, "Inculturation Hermeneutics: An African Approach to Biblical
Interpretation," in Walter Dietrich and Ulrich Luz, eds., The Bible in a World Context: An
Experiment in Contextual Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 17-32, cited in Brown,
Blackening of the Bible, 14.

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62 Black Theology: An InternationalJournal

do you say that I am?" (Matt. 16:15). The bone always looks like a bone and
people who are afraid of change like this theory. It makes them feel safe. How-
ever, they forget that if the word of God is really like a bone, something that
does not change, it is dead. In the Black and womanist interpretation, change is
invited and welcomed. The interaction between the text and a reader who is
aware of his or her own context is what gives life and meaning to the word.
There are other dissimilarities between the Euro-American and the Black
and womanist methods of biblical interpretation. Some scholars observe, "It
[Euro-American biblical interpretation] is carried out abstractly and therefore
leads to abstract results and truths, which are not related to any context." The
Euro-American scholars "would rather flee to an imaginary textual world than
confront the stark reality of this one."14 Black people, on the other hand, are
forced to study the Bible contextually. In the face of their stark reality they ask,
"Can the Bible help to challenge injustice?" I believe that the privileged groups
have the luxury of interpreting the Scripture in the abstract, but people who
suffer injustices do not have that luxury. They are impelled to make their con-
texts dialogue with the text. The seed comes in contact with the soil and the
fruit of their exegesis becomes visible. This fruit, this positive result, is all that
these hermeneuts need.
The main question they ask is whether their exegesis is producing the good
news or not. Michael Joseph Brown writes, "Unless the Bible is understood as
'good news' for all, it cannot maintain its moral authority."15 The blind man in
the Gospel said, "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see" (Jn
9:24). The blind man did not enter the debate about Jesus, because his positive
experience was enough evidence in favour ofJesus. Likewise, many who are
reading the Bible, utilizing a Black and womanist approach, do not know
whether this is a good method or not, but the result is sufficient evidence in
favour of using it.

Reading of the Bible in Three Black Theological Contexts


The reading of the Bible in Black Theology is a vast area. I will narrow my
focus to reflect on some aspects of the biblical interpretation by
Enslaved Africans.
The authors of the Civil Rights Movement.
Black and womanist scholars in the contemporary era.

14. Brown, Blackening of the Bible, 7.


15. Brown, Blackening of the Bible, 14.

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Reading by Enslaved Africans


In the time of slavery, enslaved Africans' interpretation was "informed by
traumaboth physical and psychological."16 History tells us that "Africans
were imported to the Caribbean as early as 1512."17 However, in the beginning
of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Euro-American missionaries were dis-
couraged from converting the slaves to Christianity. The main reason for doing
so was the fear that if they became Christians "this would mean setting them
free."18 Only in the eighteenth century did significant numbers of enslaved
people become Christians.19 Even following their conversions, enslaved Africans
were discouraged from reading the Bible. This shows that the liberating power
of the Bible was known to the slaveholders who wanted to bar the slaves from
accessing this power. One slave, James Curry, testified,
When my master's family were all gone away on the Sabbath, I used to go into
the house and get down the great Bible.. .and read, taking care, however, to
put it back before they returned. There I learned that it was contrary to the
revealed will of God, that one man should hold another as a slave. I always
heard it talked [about] among the slaves, that we ought not to be held as
slaves... But in the Bible I learned that "God hath made of one blood all
nations of man to dwell on all the face of the earth."

The context of the slaves was one of corporate suffering and they read the
Bible corporately and shared with each other whatever they learned. Vincent L.
Wimbush writes,
They were attracted primarily to stories... those about the adventures of the
Hebrews in bondage and escaping from bondage, and those about the
wondrous works, compassion, passion and resurrection of Jesus. But they
were also attracted to the oracles and prophetic denunciations of social
injustice and the visions of social justice.

The biblical stories helped the slaves to understand their own situation better
and to envision a different world order. Their spirituals and other songs, ser-
mons, prayers and testimonies tell us how they interpreted the Bible. Recog-
nizing the oppressor and the oppressed groups in the Bible, they realized that

16. Vincent L. Wimbush, The Bible and the African Americans: A BriefHistory (Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 2003), 28.
17. Madeleine Burnside, Spirit ofthe Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Seventeenth
Century (New York: Simon & Schuster Editions, 1997), 40.
18. Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History ofBlack People in Britain (London: Pluto Press,
1984), 146.
19. Wimbush, The Bible and the African Americans, 21; and Kelly Brown Douglas, The
Black Christ (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 14.
20. Glenn Usry and Craig S. Keener, Black Man's Religion: Can Christianity beAfrocentric?
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 107.
21. Wimbush, The Bible and the African Americans, 23-24.

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64 Black Theology: An International Journal

their context directly related to the Scripture. They found immediate affinity
with the story of Exodus and were surprised to find that God supported the
slaves rather than the slavemasters. They sang:
Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt land,
Tell ole Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

Harriet Tubman (1820-1913, Maryland) was known as the "Moses of her


people" for leading over three hundred slaves to freedom.23 The slaves identi-
fied Harriet with Moses and the slaveholders with Pharaoh. They gave each
other hope by singing,
don't you weep,
Don't you moan,
Pharaoh's army got drowned.

They were struck by the similarities when they read the story of Daniel. The
Babylonian captors renamed Daniel and his three friends and gave them Baby-
lonian names. Likewise, the slaves' African names were replaced by European
ones.25 They sang,
He delivered Daniel from de lion's den,
Jonah from de belly ob de whale,
And de Hebrew children from de fiery furnace,
And why not every man?

The slaves found Jesus the liberator and sang,


Jesus make de dumb to speak.
Jesus make de cripple walk.
Jesus give de blind the sight.
Jesus do most anything.27

Jesus not only sided with the oppressed and ministered to them, he like the
slaves, was an oppressed person. This is what bound the slaves most intimately
with Jesus and they sang,
World treated him so mean
Treats me mean too. 28

22. Wimbush, The Bible and the African Americans, 25.


23. Usry and Keener, Black Man's Religion, 114.
24. Usry and Keener, Black Man's Religion, 108.
25. Usry and Keener, Black Man's Religion, 108.
26. Brown Douglas, The Black Christ, 26.
27. Brown Douglas, The Black Christ, 23.
28. Brown Douglas, The Black Christ, 21.

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The innocent slaves, who were regularly whipped and hung on the trees to die,
found Jesus in solidarity with them,
Oh, dey whupped him up de hill, up de hill, up de hill...
He jes' hung down his head an' he cried...
Oh, dey crowned him with a throny crown...
Well, dey nailed him to de cross, to de cross, to the cross.

Even in the midst of slavery they were able to sing Easter songs:
Go and tell ev'rybody
Yes, Jesus is risen from the dead.

The slaves were not preoccupied with the question whether it is scientifically
possible for a dead man to rise or not. They were looking at Jesus' resurrection
from a different angle. It showed them that although oppressive structures were
deadly, Jesus' suffering and death were not the final word, as that lay with his
resurrection. This gave the enslaved Africans enormous hope that no oppressors
could keep them in slavery forever. Jesus' resurrection saved them from hope-
lessness, from the emotional hold of slavery, and they were able to fight against
this evil.
Many slaves loved the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels,
but avoided St Paul's epistles, because the slaveholders used them to teach the
slaves obedience and submission to their masters. Howard Thurman wrote that
when he was young, his regular duty was to read parts of the Bible to his
grandmother, an ex-slave. The grandmother did not let him read Paul's epistles
except for 1 Corinthians 13. When Thurman grew up, he asked why he was not
allowed to read St Paul's epistles. The grandmother explained,
During the days of slavery... Always the white minister used as his text
something from Paul... "Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters...
as unto Christ."... I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if
freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.

However, rejecting St Paul is not the only method of interpretation that was
adopted by enslaved Africans. Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), a Nigerian born
ex-slave living in Britain, must have been the first "Black theologian" to make a
serious attempt at claiming St Paul as a liberator of the slaves. Equiano used
Paul's epistles to campaign for the abolition of the British slave trade. The letter
that he wrote to a pro-slavery campaigner, a Jesuit priest, Raymund Harris, is a
theological gem. Quoting St Paul, this priest argued that the Bible gives slavery

29. Brown Douglas, The Black Christ, 21-22.


30. Brown Douglas, The Black Christ, 24.
31. Howard Thurman Jems and the Disinherited (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press,
1981), 30-31.

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a divine sanction. Equiano in response cited 1 Cor. 7:22-23, "For whoever was
called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord... You were
bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters." He argued that
it was impossible for Christians to be slaves or to be dominated over by any
human masters, because they already have a master, Jesus Christ, who paid the
ultimate price on the cross to buy them.
This was Equiano's challenge to the spiritualized Euro-American gospel,
which preached that Jesus came to save the sinners and said nothing about how
Jesus saved the sinned against. Moreover, many Euro-American preachers
refused to identify slavery itself as sin, from which Jesus came to save the slave-
masters. Equiano challenged the Jesuit priest by saying, "Being contrary to reli-
gion, it [slavery] must be deemed a national sin."32 Equiano's theology still
challenges the spiritualized, decontextualized, depoliticized and individualized
Christianity that ignores corporate sin and is silent about the role of Christian-
ity in the liberation of the sinned against.

Reading by the Authors of the Civil Rights Movement


Now moving from the time of slavery, I want to turn to the context of the Civil
Rights Movement in the United States of America. After centuries of colour-
based oppression of Black people, in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights and
Black Power movements, the Black consciousness era began in the United
States of America. The Bible was once more a tool in the hands of Black people,
particularly Methodist and Baptist clergy, to fight against injustice in the Uni-
ted States ofAmerica. Here the formal use of the term "Black theology" began
with the publication in 1969 ofBlack Theology and Black Power33 by James Cone.
Cone was exasperated to find that "there was nothing in Euro-American theol-
ogy that spoke directly to slavery, colonization, and poverty" and asked, "why
should I let the white theologians tell me what the gospel is?"34
Cone, a theologian rather than a biblical scholar, made a landmark contribu-
tion in Black biblical interpretation by writing his essay "Biblical Revelation
and Social Existence" in 1974.35 Thus Cone bridged the hermeneutical gap
between "biblical scholarship and theological enterprise." R. S. Sugirtharajah
argues that bridging such a gap by ending the strict division of labour between
biblical scholars and theologians is a positive way forward.36 Cone found the

32. Olaudah Equiano and Vincent Carrettta, eds., The Interesting Narrative and Other
Writings (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 335-36.
33. James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: Harper and Row, 1969).
34. James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 43.
35. James H. Cone, "Biblical Revelation and Social Existence," in Cone and Wilmore,
eds., Black Theology, I.
36. R. S. Sugirtharajah, "Postscript: Achievements and Items for a Future Agenda," in R.

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Euro-American method of interpretation wanting. He believed that this


reading was influenced by Greek philosophy, in which God is removed from
history, whereas "the God of the Bible is involved in history."37 After reading
the Bible from a Black perspective, Cone wrote, "He is the active God, the
political God, the Protector of the poor and the establisher of the right for those
who are oppressed. To know him is to experience his acts in the concrete
affairs and relationships of people, liberating the weak and helpless from pain
and humiliation."38
During both the time of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, Black
people made their corporate experience the starting point for their reading of
the Bible. In return, what the Bible revealed to them was very different from
what it did to their White counterparts. However, for many years African-
American students were discouraged from studying the Bible. In the academies
they were admitted to study theology, ethics and Christian Education, but if
they applied to study programmes in the Bible they were either turned down or
they themselves left in frustration. Gayraud Wilmore writes,
It seems true that a certain aura of elitism surrounded these programs at the
most prestigious institutions...the assumption that biblical studies was
somehow above the emotion-laden issues of politics and race... For many
years it was difficult for a Black person, no matter how well prepared, to break
into that charmed circle at the centre of the theological academy.

For many years, African-American theologians "wrote extensively on the


African-American appropriation of the Bible," but their writing remained
mainly sociological without direct and constructive engagement with the
Bible.40 Even today in the United States of America as well as in Britain, most
Black people seem to be hesitant about obtaining degrees in biblical studies by
reading the Bible from a Black perspective.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther Kingjr (1929-1968) was
one who did not just read the Bible from a Black perspective, but he also lived
out its gospel values. This made it possible for the world to see what the
Christian faith looks like when it is put into practice. While Euro-American
understanding of faith remained abstract, King made his faith concrete by
integrating it within the context of his actions. He is one of the most prominent
theologians in history whose theology is clearly explicit in his actions. His

S. Sugirtharajah, ed., Voicesfrom the Margin (London: SPCK, 1991), 435-36.


37. Cone, "Biblical Revelation and Social Existence," 160. See also R. E. Hood, Must
God Remain Greek? Afro-cultures and God Talk (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).
38. Cone, "Biblical Revelation and Social Existence," 160.
39. G. S. Wilmore, "Introduction," in J. H. Cone and G. S. Wilmore, eds., Black
TheologyA Documentary History, II (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 177.
40. Brown, Blackening of the Bible, 19.

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68 Black Theology: An InternationalJournal

letters, sermons and books assist in deciphering the theology at work within the
Civil Rights Movement. King has left behind a legacy that could still transform
this war-ridden world.
King, a descendent of slaves, was brought up in the South of the United
States ofAmerica and witnessed the evil of racism in everyday life. As he trained
in theology for his ordained ministry in the Baptist Church, he began an intel-
lectual quest for the elimination of the collective and structural evils of racism.
As a devout Christian minister-theologian-activist, King was searching for a
practical method from within Christianity that could confront racism. This
method he discovered arose not from a Christian source, but came from
Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu.
Gandhi was using a technique of engaging collective human goodness (soul-
force) against collective human evil. He first used this force in the context of
racism in South Africa under British rule and later in India to overthrow the
British Raj. Several British missionaries handed copies of the Bible to Gandhi
in the hope of converting him to Christianity. When he wanted to resist the
evil of racism and imperialism, the missionaries presented Jesus to him as one
who taught people not to resist evil. In most translations, Matt. 5:39 still reads,
"Do not resist an evildoer" (NRSV). Gandhi wrote in disagreement: "Surely,
this is not Christianity."41
Now some biblical scholars agree with Gandhi and claim that the correct
translation of this verse would be, "Don't react violently against the one who is
evil."42 Gandhi, instead of rejecting the Bible, recognized the misinterpretation
and consequently loved Jesus' teachings, particularly the ones found in the fifth,
sixth and seventh chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, known as the Sermon on
the Mount. The Euro-American interpretation of some of these texts at best
helped people's individual relationships and at worst taught Christians to be
docile in the face of oppression. Gandhi, reading these verses differently, wrote,
"It was the Sermon on the Mount which endeared Jesus to me." 43 He was most
struck by the verse, "You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neigh-
bour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for
those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:43-44).
As Martin Luther King got to know Gandhi, he wrote,
As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my scepticism concerning
the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for thefirsttime its
potency in the area of social reform. Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about

41. Robert Ellsberg, ed., Gandhion Christianity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 22.
42. Walter Wmk,Jesus and Non-violence: A Third Way (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003),
10-12; and idem, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 184-85.
43. Ellsberg, ed., Gandhi on Christianity, 22.

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Barton The Bible in Black Theology 69

concluded that the ethics ofJesus were only effective in individual relation-
ship. The "turn the other cheek" philosophy and "love your enemies" phi-
losophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other
individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict, a more realistic
approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly
mistaken I was.

Gandhi had put Jesus' teaching into practice, providing King with a Christian
method that could resist the corporate evil of racism in the United States of
America. "King.. .insisted that Jesus gave him the 'message', while Gandhi gave
him the 'method'." 45
King observed that compared to individual evil, collective evil is more com-
plex, dangerous, infectious and stubborn. He challenged the individualization
of sin in Euro-American thinking. He witnessed how kind-hearted, generous
and loving individuals could be consumed by hate as a part of a group. When
sin is individualized, the corporate, more deadly aspect of sin is left to flourish.
Therefore, King's life-long mission was to save both the oppressor and the
oppressed from the corporate evil of racism. He realized that the loving of ene-
mies was an absolute requirement for challenging collective hatred. Since hate
begets more hate, it has to be stopped and overturned by love. This is the only
thing that saves human beings from self-annihilation.
In our own time, when in the name of religion, hatred and violence is con-
stantly multiplied, Martin Luther King's Black theological practice is of immense
significance. At present, religious fanaticism is increasing, which discredits all
religions. At this juncture, King's Black theological practice gives us hope that it
is still possible to draw on our various religious traditions to counteract cor-
porate evil.
Hating the enemy comes naturally to human beings. Jesus, Gandhi and King
taught their followers to love the enemy. They were urging people to overcome
their feelings of hatred towards an enemy in order to become bigger than
themselves. Jesus taught, "Love your neighbour as yourself (Lk. 10:27). If
loving one's neighbour requires the loving of oneself, how much more self-
love is needed for loving an enemy! For Black people, self-love has been
extremely hard, because White people systematically taught them to hate
themselves.
For hundreds of years the biblical story in Genesis 9 was used as the justifi-
cation for the slavery of Black African people. It was understood that in this
story, known as "The Curse of Ham," God cursed all Black people with eternal
slavery. It is quite amazing since in this Genesis passage God did not curse

44. J. Deotis Roberts, Bonhoeffer & King: Speaking Truth to Power (Louisville, KY: West-
minster John Knox Press, 2005), 66.
45. Roberts, Bonhoeffer & King, 66.

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70 Black Theology: An InternationalJournal

anyone, but blessed all three sons of Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth. Not God,
but Noah cursed, and he did not curse Ham, but Canaan. Yet, the Curse of Ham
theory has infected Euro-American Christianity for at least half a millennium.46
Moreover, Euro-American literature and language constantly glorify the
colour White and malign the colour Black with the claim that this colour cate-
gorization comes from biblical imagery. Everyday English expressions continue
to perpetuate the sentiments of what the painter and theorist Jacques Nicolas
Paillot de Montabert wrote in 1837:
White is the symbol of Divinity or God;
Black is the symbol of the evil spirit or the demon.
White is the symbol of light...
Black is the symbol of darkness and darkness expresses all evils.
White is the emblem of harmony;
Black is the emblem of chaos.
White signifies supreme beauty;
Black ugliness.
White signifies perfection;
Black signifies vice.
White is the symbol of innocence;
Black, that of guilt, sin and moral degradation.
White, a positive colour, indicates happiness;
Black, a negative colour, indicates misfortune.
The battle between good and evil is symbolically expressed
By the opposition of white and black.

Not only biblical misinterpretation but Euro-American art and language have
been constantly assaulting Black humanity. Martin Luther King was completely
aware of how assaulted were Black people, yet, he was asking them not to
retaliate, but to love their enemy. King certainly succeeded with many Black
people who joined his non-violent protest marches and refused to physically
retaliate when confronted by their enemies. However, many Black theologians
in that period knew that it was too soon to ask Black people to love their
enemies when they had not yet been given the opportunity to love themselves.
Affirming Black identity was the primary task of these Black theologians, and
they accomplished this by showing that Black people were not evil or eternally
cursed. On the contrary, it was shown that they shared the same skin-colour of
God incarnate, Jesus Christ.

46. David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Shvery in Early Judaism, Christianity
and Islam (New Jersey and Oxford: Princenton University Press, 2003), 1.
47. Jacques Nicolas Paillot de Montabert, cited in Goldenberg, The Curse ofHam, 2.

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Barton The Bible in Black Theology 71

Reading by the Black and Womanist Scholars in the Contemporary Era


Now I turn to the contemporary context to show some aspects of the impor-
tance of the Bible to Black religious scholars. Contemporary Black religious
scholars are continuing with the task of rediscovering the ethnicity of Jesus and
of Black people in the Bible. Although most of this work is done by African-
American scholars, in Britain Robert Beckford has discussed the Black Christ
in his book, Jesus is Dread,48 and I teach this topic in my work at the Queen's
Foundation49 and have written on it also.50
During my teaching and lectures, many professional biblical scholars have
confessed that they were never taught about Black people in the Bible. Many
have told me that deep down they knew that the biblical people were not
White, but somehow, in their minds they had pictured Jesus and other biblical
people as White. Films and art continue to perpetuate the myth. When people
are challenged to rethink their existing thoughts, some find it very difficult.
Jesus said, "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free" (Jn
8:32). Black scholars work tirelessly and find that, "More of the Bible is set in
the region of North-East Africa than in Europe, even Southern Europe; whereas
Rome is mentioned about 20 times and Greece 26 times, Ethiopia appears 40
times and Egypt over 700."51 European countries are hardly mentioned. Coun-
tries like England, France and Germany never feature in the Bible. In the
ancient world, Africa and Asia were joined together. This meeting place was the
birthplace of the Bible and its people, including Jesus. Had it not been for the
Suez Canal, which was completed in 1869, the two continents would not have
been separated.
During the Second World War, a new name, the Middle East, was introduced.
"Prior to these events, much of this [biblical] area was known as northeast
Africa."52 Had it not been for this rather strange Euro-centric term, Middle
East, the biblical region would have been known as African-Asiatic. One of the
greatest contributions of Black Theology in the contemporary context is to give
Black people the central place in the Bible that had been denied them by Euro-
American biblical scholars. In this area, Euro-American scholars are still way
behind their Black counterparts.
As Black scholars discard the Euro-American lens and read the Bible from

48. See Robert Beckford,/esMS is Dread (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1998).
49. The author teaches a module entitled "Bible and Liberation" at the Queen's Foun-
dation for Ecumenical Theological Education, in Edgbaston, Birmingham, in the UK.
50. Mukti Barton, "The Skin of Miriam Became as White as Snow: The Bible, Western
Feminism and Colour Politics," in R. S. Sugirtharajah, ed., Voices from the Margin (Maryknoll,
NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 158-68.
51. Usry and Keener, Black Man's Religion, 75-76.
52. Cain Hope Felder, ed., The Original African Heritage Study Bible (Tennessee: James C.
Winston Publishing Company, 1993), xi.

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72 Black Theology: An InternationalJournal

their own perspective, they are struck by the presence of a significant number
of Black people in the Bible. One such character is Hagar, who has caught the
imagination of Black people, particularly women. African-American womanist
scholar Delores Williams shows how popular Hagar is among Black people, as
she catalogues all the appearances of Hagar in "literary, social scientific, histori-
cal, anthropological, and theological sources."53 The biblical character Hagar is
very dear to the womanists. The narrative of Hagar, found in Genesis 16 and
21, is briefly retold below.
Hagar, an Egyptian slave woman, is in the hands of her master and mistress,
Abraham and Sarah, who have structural power over her. Sarah is barren, but
she could have a son through Hagar, so she gives Hagar to Abraham as a wife.
If Hagar has a son, he will belong not to the biological mother Hagar, but to
Sarah, her mistress. As long as Hagar abides by this oppressive status quo,
Sarah's position is secure. But, when Hagar becomes pregnant she looks with
contempt on her mistress. This means Hagar is challenging the status quo and
claiming her right to her child. This is unbearable for Sarah and she treats
Hagar harshly. Hagar runs away to the wilderness. It is noticeable that Abraham
and Sarah use Hagar for their own gain, but they never speak to her. In the
wilderness, God visits Hagar and speaks with her. Hagar sees God and lives. In
the Bible she is the only one who names God. She is the first woman to hear an
annunciation and is the only woman to receive a divine promise of descen-
dants. Laden with these gifts and promises, the pregnant Hagar is sent back by
God to her mistress's house. There she has her child, Ishmael.
Some years later, Sarah, too, has a child, Isaac. Sarah's sense of insecurity
rises as she sees the two boys playing. Ishmael is Abraham's first born and
therefore could threaten the property rights of Isaac. Sarah and Abraham send
Hagar and Ishmael to the wilderness where Ishmael nearly dies of hunger and
dehydration. Again God appears to show the source of water for them in the
wilderness. They both live to fulfil God's promise of countless descendants.
Black women see not only their suffering humanity reflected in the narrative
of Hagar, but also the blessings of God. "Does God exist?" is not the question
that preoccupies Black women. Like Hagar, they experience the God that
sustains them. Conversely, their question is, "Does God care?" Looking at
Hagar and their own lives, Black women answer, yes, God cares. Had it not
been for God they would have been completely destroyed. Hagar survives to
name God and so do Black women to create their distinct womanist theology.
Alistair Kee, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh,
writes, "Black women, identifying with Hagar, rather than Sarah, are on the

53. Delores S. Williams, "Hagar in African American Biblical Appropriation," in Phyllis


Trible and Letty M Russell, eds., Hagar, Sarah and their Children:Jewish, Christian, and Muslim
Perspectives (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 172.

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Barton The Bible in Black Theology 73

wrong side of the election line." Yet again, a White scholar reads the Bible
categorically differently from Black scholars. Kee seems to believe that God
elected a particular group and bestowed eternal privilege on them putting the
poor, oppressed Hagar on the wrong side of the election line. Kee's argument is
based on Paul's letter to the Galatians ch. 4, but he has failed to notice the sting
in the tail. Paul admits that he is using Hagar's story as an allegory. In fact, he is
using this narrative not to exclude the Gentiles like Hagar, but to do exactly the
opposite. Paul is turning the story on its head to argue that if anyone excludes
the Gentiles on the basis of the issue of circumcision, they are slaves to the law.
They, instead of being the elected, have cut themselves off from Christ and
have fallen away from grace (see Gal. 5:4).
Kee has read Galatians 4 out of its context and has missed the spirit that
resides in the rest of the Bible. He seems not to have noticed that election in
the Bible is a matter of huge responsibility rather than a privilege. He seems to
be unaware of the large number of verses in the Bible that are about the judg-
ment on the so-called elected group who oppress people like Hagar, a resident
alien, who is virtually widowed and her son Ishmael, who is virtually orphaned.
There is no scarcity of verses regarding the alien, widow and the orphan, the
three groups of vulnerable people in Hebrew society. Here one is quoted:
21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the
land of Egypt. 22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23 If you do
abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24 my
wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall
become widows and your children orphans. (Exod. 22:21-24)

In Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, no elected groups have special
privilege. On the day of judgment, Jesus' question to all the nations of the
world is whether they took care of the hungry, the thirsty and the stranger. He
is talking about people like Hagar and Ishmael. Jesus' question is beautifully
expressed in the chorus of Sydney Carter's hymn, "And the creed and the
colour and the name won't matter. Were you there?"55 In this parable there are
strong words of judgment on the nations that failed to take care of the
vulnerable (Matt. 25:41).
Instead of reading some texts out of their contexts, Black and womanist
interpreters read Hagar's story in the light of the spirit of the whole Bible and
claim that the biblical God is really the God of the oppressed. The divine chooses
groups of people to urge them to take care of the vulnerable in society, so that

54. Alistair Kee, The Rise and Demise ofBlack Theology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 125.
55. Sydney Carter, "When I Needed a Neighbour," in 100 Hymnsfor Today (London:
William Clowes and Sons Ltd, 1969), hymn no. 100.

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74 Black Theology: An International Journal

peace and justice can be established on earth and all human beings can live in
harmony.

Conclusion
If one wants to hear the word of God in the Bible, one does not hear it through
the voice of the ruling class, but through the words of the prophets. Likewise, if
we depend on the ruling class of our world to interpret the Bible, we will not
hear the word of God. We need the prophetic voice. History shows that unless
the powerful are constantly checked, they will manipulate the Bible for their
own gain, at the expense of the powerless groups.
This article shows that starting from the days of slavery and throughout
history, Black Theology has played a prophetic role. Its contribution to biblical
interpretation is immense, and in this, both academics and non-academics have
played significant roles. Whenever the Bible has been deliberately and not so
deliberately misinterpreted, Black people have recognized it. They have found
ways of snatching the Bible from the hands of the oppressors to read it from
the perspectives of the oppressed. Black Theology has drawn the readers' atten-
tion to the socio-political-economic contexts of the Bible to understand their
own contexts better. It has burst the myth of pure objectivity to consciously
engage with human subjectivity for the good of all people. Instead of reading
the Bible individually, it has encouraged people to read together, corporately,
so that they can check one another's interpretations. It has discouraged reading
particular texts out of their contexts and has taken care to grasp the core ethos
of the Bible in order to read each text in the light ofthat ethos. Black Theology
has shown how the spiritualization of the Bible, instead of enriching people
spiritually, impoverishes them. By moving the sole focus from individual sins,
Black Theology has exposed the seriousness of structural sins and has consoli-
dated corporate goodness to challenge corporate evil. Whenever injustice has
been perpetuated in the name of the Bible, Black Theology has raised the alarm
and proclaimed good news from the Bible to counteract evil.
Ignoring never-ending criticism of their methods of interpretation, Black
and womanist interpreters exhibit quiet confidence in their reading. This confi-
dence comes from the fruit of their exegesis. This exegesis has been able to
expose the evils of slavery, colonialism, race superiority, sexism and many other
ills of the world. It has empowered countless Black men and women and other
oppressed people to fight against injustices. Reading the Bible with this approach,
the Bible is revealed in a way that the so-called "neutral and value-free" approach
failed to demonstrate. As long as injustice remains, Black Theology's prophetic
reading of the Bible has a significant role to play.

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Barton The Bible in Black Theology 75

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