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Scripture in the African-American Christian Tradition

Scripture in the African-American Christian Tradition

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Published by NYU Press
Chapter 16 from "Christian Theologies of Scripture" edited by Justin S. Holcomb.

The book traces what the theological giants have said about scripture from the early days of Christianity until today. It incorporates diverse discussions about the nature of scripture, its authority, and its interpretation, providing a guide to the variety of views about the Bible throughout the Christian tradition.

Preeminent scholars including Michael S. Horton, Graham Ward, and Pamela Bright offer chapters on major figures in the pre-modern, reformation, and early modern eras, from Origen and Aquinas to Luther and Calvin to Barth and Balthasar. They illuminate each thinker's understanding of the Christian scriptures and their views on interpreting the Bible. The book also includes overview chapters to orient readers to the key questions regarding scripture in each era, as well as chapters on scripture and feminism, scripture in the African American Christian tradition, and scripture and postmodernism.
Chapter 16 from "Christian Theologies of Scripture" edited by Justin S. Holcomb.

The book traces what the theological giants have said about scripture from the early days of Christianity until today. It incorporates diverse discussions about the nature of scripture, its authority, and its interpretation, providing a guide to the variety of views about the Bible throughout the Christian tradition.

Preeminent scholars including Michael S. Horton, Graham Ward, and Pamela Bright offer chapters on major figures in the pre-modern, reformation, and early modern eras, from Origen and Aquinas to Luther and Calvin to Barth and Balthasar. They illuminate each thinker's understanding of the Christian scriptures and their views on interpreting the Bible. The book also includes overview chapters to orient readers to the key questions regarding scripture in each era, as well as chapters on scripture and feminism, scripture in the African American Christian tradition, and scripture and postmodernism.

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Published by: NYU Press on Apr 24, 2012
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Scripture in the African-AmericanChristian Tradition
Lewis V.Baldwin and Stephen W.Murphy
At St.John Baptist,a small African-American Baptist Church outside of Columbia,South Carolina,Pastor Roosevelt Robinson gathers the churchelders in his office before each service to pray aloud for God’s blessing.Onefall morning in 2002,Deacon Willie Simmons started offthe prayers oftheelders with the type ofemotional appeal to God that would have evoked avigorous or enthusiastic response from any black congregation:
Lord—whatever’s crooked,would You make it straight!Whatever’s low,would You raise it up!Whatever’s too high,would You lay it low!
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DeaconSimmonssprayer,deliveredinhisdeep,tremblingbaritone,askedGodtohumblethearrogant,toliftupthehumble,andgeneralltosetthecongregantswillsinlinewiththewillofGodinpreparationfortheworshipservice.AllthishedidthroughacreativeadaptationoIsaiah40:
A voice cries out:“In the wilderness prepare the way ofthe Lord,Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.Every valley shall be lifted up,And every mountain and hill be made low;The uneven ground shall become level,And the rough places a plain.(NRSV)
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This text has traditionally been interpreted as a prophecy ofthe coming of John the Baptist,who baptized Jews in the River Jordan and announcedthe imminent coming ofthe Messiah.Such is the interpretation suppliedby all four ofthe Gospels.Deacon Simmons,however,applied the textmore generally to Christian experience;for him,the text described howGod interacts with individual believers.Deacon Simmons thus asked Godto act in his life,and in the life ofthe congregants,just as it was describedin Isaiah.As he appealed to God in this way,Deacon Simmons stood in a longline ofAfrican-American Christians who have looked to scripture for aguide to God’s activity in the world.Such readings were most evident,andperhaps most important,before the Civil War,as African-American Chris-tians looked to scripture for hope in the holocaust ofslavery.During theCivil War,Colonel Thomas Higginson documented a number ofspiritualsin which his regiment offreed slaves used biblical language and symbolsto look forward to a time offreedom.In one such spiritual,the freedmensang:
My army cross over,My army cross over,O,Pharaoh’s army drownded!My army cross over.We’ll cross de mighty river,My army cross over;We’ll cross de river Jordan,My army cross over;We’ll cross de danger water,My army cross over.
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In the stories ofthe Old Testament,slaves found a wealth ofcharacters,images,and events with which to interpret their own lives and experiencesand to tell their story.In the above spiritual,a group offreed slaves framedtheir plight in terms ofExodus:the Hebrews who escaped bondage inEgypt and safely crossed through the parted Red Sea became “my army,”while the armies ofthe South and ofoppression became “Pharaohs army,which tried to force the Hebrews back into slavery but was drowned by thereturning waters.These freedmen did not feel bound by the letter ofthebiblical narratives;they sang not ofthe Red Sea,which the Hebrews
Scripture in the African-American Christian Tradition
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crossed in order to escape from bondage and to enter the desert wilder-ness,but rather ofthe “river Jordan,which marked their entrance to theHoly Land.Such stories understandably resonated with those sufferingunder bondage in the antebellum South;when,like Deacon Simmons,they looked to the Bible as a guide to God’s interaction with the world,they found tales ofGod’s concern for the oppressed,God’s justice againstthe oppressors,and God’s promise to lead God’s chosen people to thePromised Land.By using biblical language and symbols to tell their own story,this typeofscriptural interpretation gives a voice and identity to African Americansin what William H.Becker calls “‘a theology ofpeoplehood,that is,a the-ology that finds God revealed in the experience ofa particular commu-nity,and is devoted to the interpretation ofthat experience.
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An analysisofthese communal readings ofscripture among African Americans willserve as a counterweight to the previous chapters in this volume,whichemphasized individual theologians’approaches to scripture.In the experi-ence ofthe African-American Christian community,the images,places,and characters ofscripture literally come alive.TheAfrican-AmericanChristiantraditionisdauntinginitsdiversity.Amongitsadherentscanbecounted,tonamejustafew,ecstaticblackPen-tecostals,heirsofWilliamSeymour’sAzusaStreetMissioninLosAngeles;rural,emotionalBaptistslikethoseofDeaconSimmonsscongregation,whoseethemselveslivingoutGodscalltoasimpleChristianlife;BlackCatholics,whoneverformedaseparatenationalchurchandwhoseethem-selvesassymbolsoftheuniversalityoftheCatholicChurch;andthesocially activeChristianskeepingalivetheaimsofMartinLutherKing,Jr.s“BelovedCommunityorJamesConestheologyofblackliberation.Anattempttolumpthesetraditionstogetherasonehegemonictraditionisatrstfrus-tratedbythisdiversity;infact,intheirtheology,morals,andsociopoliticaloutlookandpractice,someoftheabovegroupssharemorewiththeirwhitecounterpartsthanwithotherAfrican-AmericanChristians.Tragically,however,there is one overarching and unifying factor in theAfrican-American Christian tradition:white oppression.Ultimately,it isAfrican-American Christiansresponse to this white oppression that pro-vides the unity and continuity within an African-American Christian tra-dition that often differs widely regarding doctrine and practice.
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Forexample,W.E.B.DuBois noted that because slavery,and especially thedomestic slave trade,deprived African Americans ofa monogamic family unit,African-American churches took shape not merely as religious
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lewis v.baldwin and stephen w.murphy

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