A decidedly Anglican review
I’m fairly certain that when Father Esau McCaulley set out to write his book he never imagined it would be released during such a contentious period as the one we are living in right now in the United States. We’ve been in the grips of a pandemic, an exhausting presidential election cycle, five days of ballot counting, reports of voter fraud, social media wars, boiling distrust of authority, protests, open rioting and looting. On top of this is the near constant dread of, for the Love of GOD what else could possibly happen this year?!
I am writing this review through the lens of my particular tradition. I’m not doing this out of any stubbornness. I grew up in The Episcopal Church, it was where I was baptized and minimally catechized. I am not an “American Evangelical” having spent too much time in the Anglican world and a number of years living outside the US. Thusly, I really feel no need to defend low church American evangelicalism which is where Father Esau seems to aim most of his considerable firepower.
I have read a few reviews of this book already, there are some falling all over themselves to sing its praises, some to the point of sounding like sycophants; while others tear it apart by examining its use of post modern language or some such thing that sound so esoteric as to render it unreadable by those outside academic circles. My desire is to present to you an honest review or engagement with the thoughts contained, where I take issue with Esau+ (the + sign after his name indicates he is an ordained priest, for those who may not be familiar with that nomenclature), where I agree with his assessments, and other places where I’d like to find common ground. For a decent summary of the book, try this.
Father Esau is an ordained priest in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). He serves within a non-geographical diocese called The Diocese for the Sake of Others, usually referred to as C4SO. This non-geographical status is already a bone of contention within certain American Anglican circles. Plus, it was intended as a church planting initiative by its Bishop, Todd Hunter, and then those churches would join the geographical diocese and that has not happened. C4SO also ordains women not only to the diaconate but to the priesthood, also another bone of contention within the broader ACNA context. Bishop Todd is a late in life adopter of the Anglican way and comes from what I would call a low church, highly American evangelical background.
Esau+ himself is something of a protégée of NT Wright, an English bishop of some note himself within Anglicanism and only slightly a lightening rod of controversy. Esau+ has a Doctorate in New Testament from the University of St. Andrews in England. So technically, he is the Reverend Doctor Esau McCaulley. You can see his bio on the Wheaton College website. Wheaton College is a bit of a flagship for American Evangelical Intellectualism, a sort of low church ecumenical learning center. Ed Stetzer runs the Billy Graham center on it’s campus. Wheaton College, and its graduate school, enforce one of those insipid holdovers from the early 20th century, the no drinking policy even if you are of legal age. (Because nothing speaks volumes about pretentious American low church piety like “I don’t smoke, drink or chew, or go with girls who do” idea of signing a no drinking pledge, but I digress.)
I bring all this up as context, both of Rev. Dr. Esau’s accomplishments and of his current professional life. My editorializing also allows you, dear reader, to see some my own theological tendencies and cultural proclivities.
A Certain Trepidation
It has taken me the better part of two months to write this article. The current climate surrounding a discussion of race in America is a minefield. The two voices that seem to cry the loudest are 1) Racism is everywhere and if you don’t see it you are a racist and 2) America is no longer racist in any way and these MARXISTS are trying to overthrow the government. Frankly, I don’t like either of these camps. The location and history matter, so societal problems vary from place to place, there is nearly nothing universal, save sin. One of the great truths of prayer is we trust the Holy Spirit is interceding on our behalf and praying the prayer we should have prayed, or maybe would have prayed, if we knew everything the Living God does. My point being, we are usually not sufficiently circumspect about our own limitations. This prayer from St. Thomas Aquinas nicely sums it up:
Creator of all things, true Source of light and wisdom, lofty origin of all being, graciously let a ray of Your brilliance penetrate into the darkness of my understanding and take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of both sin and ignorance. Give me a sharp sense of understanding, a retentive memory, and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally. Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations, and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm. Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in completion; through Christ our Lord.
Amen.—St. Thomas Aquinas
I do not know the entire context of Esau McCaulley’s life. You, dear reader, do not know the entirety of my life. You also don’t know the context of Esau’s life, unless you are actually Esau and you are reading this piece. If this is the case, I’d be happy to buy you a coffee at the downtown Wheaton Starbucks and discuss life and theology, and you can pray for me, a sinner.
My point being, I’m going to give Father Esau as much benefit of the doubt as I can. I’m going to take this as a good faith effort to discuss a complicated topic, in a complicated time, and try NOT to further complicate it myself. In the words of one our vicars, Christians should be “fiercely civil”. To the best of my ability and within the limits of my own sinful nature, I will strive to do that here.
If you think my thoughts are disjointed it may reflect my own struggle with the book. There were many times where I felt like I’d walked into an argument where I was only hearing the response and I was unfamiliar with the argument that was made prior.
There are some thick, rich and deep veins of gospel gold in this book. Father Esau is unrelenting in his presentation of a vision of hope for the oppressed, specifically black Americans, those descendants of freed slaves. He revisits the vain and near cannibalistic theology of the slave owners. I use the phrase near-cannibalistic because of a quote from a former slave: “They did everything except eat us“. This phrase, to me, has come to represent the utter depravity of chattel slavery at its darkest nadir. This evil left its scar on southern minds for generations, creating a people who were casual with mob violence and treated lynchings like a fair had come to town. Also, if you have never read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, please cease reading my trash and read it here.
Dr. McCaulley lays out a clear exegesis of the text of Romans that contravenes the cherry picking of verses slave owners used to justify their actions and their greed. He also points out the lasting damage of that selective use of verses. How it made it difficult in the black community to hear those exhortations from Paul and not hear it as it was subverted to do, as a cudgel to do two things: justify the slave owner and to demean the slave. It obscured the great truth, that we were all slaves to sin and that Jesus Christ came to free us from that bondage.
He is also unrelenting his presentation of the Gospel, of Christianity as the best place for hope to a grieving people. He disarms the specious arguments of others painting Christianity as the religion of the Master, a vehicle of oppression, and clearly reveals it as the hope for the oppressed and downtrodden. The Slave Master had perverted the text to make it say something it didn’t mean with the intent assuaging their consciences so they could continue in their sin.
Dr. McCaulley makes a deep and profound argument for black preaching. He thinks the “White Church” has ignored this, preferring its own children especially early American ones. I get the sense, this is within the walls of academia, that his seminary education was within a standard American evangelical type school. I also understand him to be saying that Black Liberation Theology has been unfairly characterized as the predominant and most influential theology within “black churches”. He argues that preaching is the major source of theology for those who are orthodox in their beliefs.
The distinctions in preaching style are very apparent however. The great power of Martin Luther King Jr. was that rhetorical style. The cadence, the rising and falling of the voice, changes in inflection and soaring to poetic turns of phrase. Pastor Michael Wright of Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist church in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago preached recently at our church, and in my limited knowledge, is a fair representation of this particular style: How Quickly We Forget. Within preaching styles, I think it’s some of the best at exhorting the listener, an encouragement both to hold fast to the Faith once delivered to us and to urge us on to good works.
McCaulley also does a lovely job addressing the historical amnesia of American Evangelicalism, which editorially speaking, is just an outgrowth of the pitiful state of the teaching of history in the US. The Gospel reached Ethiopia before it reached Europe: the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch being one of the earliest events in The Acts of the Apostles. He also takes us back to the Exodus where the Israelites left Egypt with a “mixed multitude” which has traditionally been understood to be a little bit of everybody in Africa.
He did miss that Moses’ wife was a Cushite woman and almost certainly dark skinned. Saint Athanasius was almost certainly dark skinned as his detractors called him the black dwarf. Much could be said about the American Evangelical Church’s (big Eva some call it) tendency to be entirely self referential theologically: McArthur or Mohler? Piper or Keller? This is a further outgrowth of the view that church history starts with the Reformation. Calvin or Luther? Calvinism or Arminianism? Or rhinking that the Roman Catholic church of today is the same as the one in the Middle Ages. Not to mention a complete inability to fathom the Eastern Orthodox Church. Or a Coptic one for that matter. Again, I digress. Suffice it to say, overgeneralization is an American past-time. Like I’m doing right now.
Easu+ lays out a concise review of New Testament to make a clear and compelling case for just policing. It’s very American in its spirit, that government can and should be a just exercise of power. This is one of those areas where I felt like an observer to the reaction shot. I kept thinking, how else does one see how police work should be?
In my wife’s native land of Guatemala (where we lived for 5 years in the late 1990s), This is not at all the case, as it is in nearly every country south of the US border. They routinely assumed if you wanted political power, you were interested in enriching yourself, your family and your friends. Government officials routinely lived down to this expectation. In fact, the husband of a close friend of my wife had to seek asylum in Canada to keep his family safe. Why? He was the poor bank teller who unwittingly counted the money that was actually an illegal transfer of money between the president and the military. Our friend testified, then spent 6 months in hiding with his family and then fled the country to Canada to ensure he didn’t suffer a reprisal from those in power.
I really wish Esau+ had gone into some of the sort of spin-off fundamentalist theories that existed out in the open until at least the 90’s and may still in certain places. I grew up in the High Desert of Southern California. The American west has its own history to tangle with “cowboys and indians”, chinese railroad workers, migrant Mexican workers and the boat people following the Vietnam war. So I know relatively little about the lived reality of the American south because I have never lived there. My earliest experiences with the low church world was when a dear friend brought me back to the Lord. In the mid 1990s I was “baptized as an adult” (which was completely invalid since I had been baptized as an infant in the Anglican tradition and therefore already validly baptized) in a Baptist church.
One of the insane ideas that circulated was this concept of because Noah cursed his son Ham, and because Ham was dark skinned, ergo all dark skinned people’s are doomed to slavery. A New York Times article here for a longer breakdown. This concept has morphed into a theory I encountered a couple times whilst sojourning with the Baptists, that the proclivities of entire people groups can be traced back to which son of Noah they belong to. This comes out of the Fundamentalist’s desire for the Bible to be the source of all knowledge (inerrant and infallible), as opposed to it being the Inspired Word of God: source of Truth, the Divine Revelation to his people. This is why you will encounter kooky flat earthers and the like when digging into Fundamentalist teachings, they treat poetic language as statements of scientific fact.
There is no discusion of how slavery and abortion are tied at the hip. The very same misreadings of scripture are also how some justify abortion. Planned Parenthood was a eugenics operation from the get go and it’s evil operations exist to this day. Some black leaders will forever be tainted by their betrayal of their prolife beliefs to embrace political power, Jesse Jackson being a prime example.
In the Apostle’s Creed there is a single phrase within one sentence that includes the Church: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. In the Nicene Creed, there is more flesh on those bones: We believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. As Anglicans, we are creedal, not confessional.
So, imagine my confusion when an Anglican priest starts talking about a “white” and a “black” church as if they are real things. Yes, I can hear you saying “but, you know what he meant.” Yes, I do and I don’t. He never clearly sets the context, so many times he simply assumes things without stating them explicitly. An important context of this book is “here in the United States, and predominately in certain geographical areas there are denominations and even some congregations within larger denominations that are comprised predominately by descendants of freed slaves of West African extraction.”
I’m going to guess that Dr. McCulley didn’t want to confuse his target audience. This book is really intended as a love letter to the preaching in churchs of the descendants of freed slaves in the United States. Those churches are predominately Baptist in polity and tradition and references to the creed might not be well received.
A significant part of my disagreement stems from this entire idea of race. Race is an artificial construct of the early modern scientific era as scientists tried to understand why different people groups had different skin tones and body structure. Some dude filling skulls with sand is not sound science. DNA pretty well refutes any attempt to create seperate races, we are The Race of Adam. To speak of races is to accept the lie of the slave masters, that God by giving us our various physical attributes was making ontological distinctions, rather than a good and merciful God who suited us up for our various geographical and climate needs.
There is also no serious mention of the abolishionist movement. It’s almost as if he couldn’t bear the thought of possibily including somthing contra-narrative. But that is pure speculation on my part.
One of the more frequent and jarring aspects of the book is the assertion that blacks continue to be subjected to oppression, the assumption also being “here in the United States”. Writing about a fear of an interaction with law enforcement going very badly he writes:
“This fear might seem unwarranted to some. I am tempted to list statistics about Black folks and our treatment at the hands of the police. But I am skeptical that statistics will convince those hostile to our cause. Furthermore, statistics are unnecessary for those who carry the experience of being Black in this country in their hearts. We know, and this book is for us.”Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: Chapter 2, Freedom Is No Fear
I do really wish he had. Because the statistics I find do not support his point. Now, I acknowledge here my own misgivings about statistics, because one of my more frequent rejoinders is “There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics” made famous by Mark Twain. Meaning, statistics rely on a full compilation of data. Data can be deliberately tweaked to give the appearance of a valid conclusion when the data set and range were stacked to give the desired result.
Reconciliation between the children of former slave owners and formers slaves was a topic even Jefferson (a caution on the link, these are the unguarded thoughts of man steeped in the scientific thought of his day) thought about, realizing the deep animosity that would be present and how exceedingly difficult that gulf would be to bridge.
And one can understand the frustrations of Americans of African descent. Sold into slavery by their own kin. Shipped to a land not their own. Forced to work in fields and treated as subhuman. Freed from slavery only to fall into a quasi free state. President Woodrow Wilson re-segregates the Federal government, which only encourages certain state governments to follow the lead. Eventually the civil rights era and the federal government reversing course and then trying to bring the states back into line.
It is not hard to imagine this leaving the entire community with a kind of collective PTSD. Every incident that affects the community negatively is viewed through that shared trauma. I think of life story of John Perkins, who recently turned 90. The police brutality he endured is in the living memory of the community. It’s easy to see how statistics would be cold comfort.
We need to hold our local leaders to a higher standard. In private conversations I’ve noted how we have allowed the national media to drive us into thinking almost entirely about government in Federal or National terms. This is simply not how things should be, and I should not have allowed myself to be boxed in like this. I’ve ignored the local. But, it is someplace we should all be engaged. Personnel is policy as the saying goes. We should carefully vet local candidates and those appointed to leadership posts (particularly Police chiefs) for moral fortitude. We need local leaders who will enact and enforce the law without regards to person. We are equal, both in the eyes of God and the law.
Ultimately, our hope rests on the finished work of Christ Jesus. Empires rise and empires fall, but the Word of Lord endures forever.
So, do I recommend the book? Only if you think your nerves can handle it. And right now, a lot of us on the theological and political right have fried nerves.
“Low Church” vs. “High Church”
A dear brother in Christ, who one might say inhabits the “low church” world and has for decades, took issue with my approach. I let some arrows fly that were entirely unnecessary and unhelpful to what I wrote. I violated my own point about there being only one Church. In taking issue with certain practices I also took aim at the worst tendencies of the “low church” world. I didn’t point out its really good ones, among the many are a high respect for the Word of God and dependable attendance at Church on Sunday. While it might have seemed I was picking on Mohler or Piper, I’ve read both of them and probably agree with them at least 80% of the time. Within the “high church” tradition I have these critiques: weird and sustained arguments about Rite 1 vs. 2, when is it proper to genuflect during the Eucharist, is the reserved sacrament really permissible or not, 39 articles law or guidelines, and on and on. “I have shot mine arrow o’er the house and hurt my brother.”