Longing for the Divine

On Edge with Paul: Learning from African-American Readings

Which better fits the Pauline hermeneutic of God—an angry, punitive, condemning master demanding obedience or the Great Liberator and deliverer of human beings?

American Christians often read Paul leisurely or in ways that are otherworldly, detached from the concerns of this earth, of justice, and of the character of God. Martin Luther was a great figure in Christian history—a champion of freedom of conscience and salvation by faith who countered religious abuses of power in the context of merit based religion—yet even his reading of Paul interpreted Jews as enemies of God and thus his own enemies. Even today, many modern theologians use Paul to express disdain of Jewish things, rejecting Old Testament law and the human role in salvation. Paul’s views on slavery and silencing women have likewise been misread by Christians throughout the centuries. While the Christian church has woken to the evils of racism, misreading Scripture continues to foster unfortunate circumstances, calling for further reformation and protest.

Lisa M. Bowens, the author of a new book I am reading, African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation, describes how a justification for slavery in America came from a misreading of Paul. Slaveowners interpreted Paul’s words in cruel ways to justify treating African Americans as less than human, and they imposed these narrow views on others. Paul clearly opposed ethnic and racial discrimination, but slaveowners cited Pauline texts to legitimize and tolerate slavery. We now see, however, that they interpreted Paul incorrectly. What can we learn from African-American interpretations of Paul, and how might we choose to follow the familial example of Paul to imitate Christ in our treatment of others?

In her book, Professor Bowens shows how Christian slaveowners and ministers used the letters of Paul to remind slaves of their rightful place and to demand obedience to their masters. During the days of slavery, preachers would reference proof texts from Paul, such as “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ” (Ephesians 6:5, NASB) and “Slaves, obey those who are your human masters in everything, not with eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22, NASB). 

Such passages played an enormous role in justifying slavery and were cited to indicate God’s approval of its practice, thus promoting punishment of enslaved people. While black slaves resisted such oppressive interpretations, they did not reject Paul but rather reappropriated the texts to portray Paul as a voice for justice, healing, and freedom. Quite remarkably, Paul was utilized by many African slaves and ministers to resist the insinuations of slavery that others had misread in Paul. “Historically, many blacks felt connected to Paul and his writings, for they perceived in his words language that spoke to their own life circumstances, which enabled them to endure but also resist the status quo. African Americans engaged in a reclamation or resistance hermeneutic in which they reclaimed Paul for themselves in their fight and struggle against injustice and asserted their use of him in their resistance of racism” (Bowers, 2020, p. 6).

They did not accept at face value what was written: “Slaves, obey your masters.” Instead, they interpreted Paul in a way that undermined and reversed the practice of slavery. “To the slaveowner and minister, ‘Shall you continue in sin, that is, participate in slavery and the slave trade? (God forbid)!’” (Bowens, 2020, p. 59). I find it fascinating that such a reading of Paul became a way to protest and resist oppression. While slaveowners read Paul as justifying slavery and oppression, slaves read it as speaking of grace, love, liberation, and freedom. Bowens argues that “African Americans have struggled for more than two centuries to reinterpret and revise a distorted gospel received from White Christians” (p. 21). However, instead of trashing Paul and accusing him of racism, many have venerated and cherished him by suggesting he conveys the opposite of cruelty and oppression. Seeing slaveholding Christians as jeopardizing the gospel, these people chose to apply a resistance hermeneutic, a hermeneutic of trust and hope. 

This reading of Paul enabled African Americans to see a cosmic element of satanic influence over slavery. It was not individual but societal sin that led them to boldly call out the evils and injustice of slavery. They came to see “the god of this age” (Satan) deceiving the world through hostile powers that had overtaken systems, requiring them to push back against the slaveholders distortion. I find it fascinating that while Paul was being misused to support cruelty and injustice, slaves challenged these oppressive interpretations of Scripture by appealing to the love of God.

In a compelling autobiography, John Jea, an enslaved African born in the eighteenth century, tells of the cruel treatment inflicted on him and his fellow slaves. He was expected to feel blessed and thankful for the punishment he received, an expectation his master justified by quoting Scripture: “Bless the rod, and him that appointed it.” Yet Jea mentions that his owner omitted the passages that speak of acting and living in love, as God is love. According to Bowens, the slaves were “‘seizing hermeneutical control’ of Pauline Scripture.” Engaging in this exegetical reversal enabled them to resist the selfish and cruel interpretations of their owners, who were professing false Christianity, and to understand that they were worthy human beings loved by God. The slaves thus came to see God as a liberator, one who had not abandoned or destined them to a life of subservience and subjection but a life of intimate faith and freedom. 

I find it interesting that African American women did not succumb to male-centered readings of Paul’s injunctions that prohibited women from speaking. They did not interpret them as eternal mandates against women. Instead, African American women interpreted them through a body-contextual hermeneutic that speaks positively about female identity. Slaveowners would declare that their bodies belonged to the salveholders. Refusing to believe this, African-American women considered their bodies and lives as belonging to God and were thus empowered by the witness of His Spirit to stand with full authority in public spaces to voice their convictions. Bowens shows that in many instances, African-American people turned Paul inside out to resist interpretations that supported bigotry and oppression.

How might this African-American reading affect Christians today? The typical reading of Paul focuses on how to attain eternal life through belief in Jesus. If you’re part of a church tradition that preaches salvation for believers while damning others, you will know that such interpretations of Paul do not foster viewing and treating others nicely. However, God’s love embraces the world, and He desires to rescue as many as will respond, using them in His plan to transform the world. Such a revolutionary perspective on Paul can speak to us today, as it calls for a hermeneutic of hope and trust for all who put their lives on the line for righteousness’ sake.

Bowens shows how blacks thought about Paul and the importance of Pauline language to the black experience.  Interpreting Paul was nothing less than a matter of life and death! I find it necessary to not only clarify Paul’s context but also continually understand God’s redemptive purpose throughout history, especially how it can make a difference today. Bowens helps us understand that it is vitally important that Christians view Paul through a liberating hermeneutic and as a positive source of redemption. Such readings refuse to see Paul in terms of a legacy of retribution and oppression. Understanding God’s power as the agency of reconciliation and freedom, they interpret Paul as suffering for the gospel and living out what Jesus did. Despite their horrible circumstances and the prevailing misinterpretations of Scripture, many slaves clung tenaciously to hope, refusing to let go of a God who loved them. Instead of rejecting Paul because proponents of slavery used the letters of Paul to defend their oppression, they chose to read it well and faithfully.

If God’s love is broad enough to embrace the world, it should affect how we live and treat others, urging us to more faithfully embody what God calls us to be. Given the faithfulness of Jesus, I consider Paul’s gospel like a rescue mission. Such a reading of Paul is a compelling contribution to the righteousness of God in Christ, working to make things right in the world. Such interpretations of Paul deserves our admiration and respect. 

Craig Ashton Jr.

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