This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series: ‘Reading While Black’ (McCaulley)
In chapter 6, Esau McCaulley discusses the anger that African Americans feel about their historic and ongoing mistreatment at the hands of others.
McCaulley writes movingly of his own and others’ experiences. However, I shall focus on his biblical and theological reflections, for it is these which give the book its unique character and value.
In the chapter, the author presents four reflections on the issue of ‘Black rage’.
1. Israel’s anger as a means of processing Black grief
We turn especially to the psalms of imprecation, and especially Psa 137. Here, the beauty of the sorrowful beginning is answered by the shock of the violent ending.
‘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 trauma of the Israelites’ experience is matched by that of the enslaved Africans arriving in Lagos, Portugal, in 1844:
‘But to increase their sufferings still more, there now arrived those who had the charge of division of the captives … it was needful to part fathers from sons, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers … and who could finish that partition without great toil. For as often as they had placed them in one part the sons, seeing their fathers in another, rose with great energy and rushed over to them; the mothers clasped their other children in their arms, and threw themselves flat on the ground with them; receiving blows with little pity for their own flesh, if only they might not be torn from them.’
The Babylonions wanted the Israelites to block out their anguish, and to entertain them with some songs of Jerusalem (Psa 137:3-5):
‘Not only did their captors take their land, their property, and their very bodies, now they demanded their emotions as well. They did not want to see the impact of their crimes on the faces of Israelites. They wanted the Israelites to accept their place joyfully.’
‘The dancing and jolly negro as one content with his place as servant was and remains a trope in fiction, advertisements, and film.’
‘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.’
But what shall we make of the shocking end of the psalm? –
137:8 O daughter Babylon, soon to be devastated!
How blessed will be the one who repays you
for what you dished out to us!
137:9 How blessed will be the one who grabs your babies
and smashes them on a rock!
‘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?’
But this psalm is not merely a shout of defiance. Still less does it reflect a commitment to personal revenge:
‘It is a prayer addressed to God. Traumatized communities must be able to tell God the truth about what they feel. We must trust that God can handle those emotions. God can listen to our cries for vengeance, and as the one sovereign over history he gets to choose how to respond. Psalm 137 does not take power from God and give it to us. It is an affirmation of his power in the midst of deep pain and estrangement…The beginning of the answer to Black anger is the knowledge that God hears and sees our pain.’
2. Enemies can become friends
There is more to the OT witness than the invoking of God’s wrath upon the enemies of his people. The prophets hold out a hope that moves beyond vengeance to transformation.
Hard as it is to maintain God’s justice and his mercy together, we must do so, for the latter is emphasised in Isaiah, say, as much as the former. It all comes together in Isa 11:1-10 –
‘We find the wisdom of God, the establishment of justice, and even the end of hostility between animals and humanity. War and death meet a foe more powerful: the king. Most importantly, the nations of the world begin to view this king as a rallying point. What brings the warring parties of the world together is not the emergence of a new philosophy of government; it is not free market capitalism, communism, socialism, or democracy. It is a person: the root of Jesse.’
Through Isaiah, then, God holds out a hope for Black people that looks beyond their pain and envisions a world defined, not by anger, but by the healing of wounds and the dismantling of hostility.
3. The way of the Cross
Turning to the New Testament, it is tempting to rush forward to the Revelation and to the final putting of all wrongs to rights. To be sure, there is the solemn prospect of a final judgement for all to contemplate. But the message of the Cross offers forgiveness and reconciliation now.
Black Christians do not rationalise their experience merely by vague appeals either to divine sovereignty or to human wickedness. No: the answer is to be found, not in a series of syllogisms, but in a person,
2:6 who though he existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
2:7 but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
2:8 He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross!
God’s answer to human suffering, and the outrage that often accompanies it, is to enter it himself; come alongside us as a friend and redeemer. On the cross we meet a God who experiences injustice in the flesh.
But Jesus is not merely one individual in a long line of martyrs. He is the inncocent one who suffered for us, the guilty ones (Gal 2:20; Rom 4:25). We can forgive because God has forgiven us. The cross breaks the cycle of violence.
The similarity between the plight of Black Americans and that of 1st-century Palestinian Jews is striking:
‘Jesus came into a world in which his fellow Jews had every reason to be angry at Rome. They were an occupied country—overtaxed, exploited, and subject to all the indignities of colonial rule. Those in Israel who still hoped for a Messiah often looked for one that would defeat their enemies. Zechariah’s psalm, which opens the gospel of Luke, did not portend a passion of the Messiah, but rather his victory (Lk 1:71–79). John the Baptist was so confounded by the ministry of Jesus that he wondered if Jesus was the one or if he should look for another (Lk 7:19). But nonetheless, these early Jewish Christians, who had all the historical ammunition needed to seek the ruin of their Gentile oppressors, made it their mission to convert a largely hostile Roman world.’
Jesus’ call to love and forgiveness must not be heard as a demand for acquiescence to mistreatment. The Bible offers a trajectory towards freedom – both from sin and from its consequences. Moreover, those who suffer are to be helped, not merely pitied (James 1:27) –
‘James does not say, “Tell the orphans and the widows to put up with suffering.” He says to the Christian, “Help them!”’
4. Resurrection and final judgement
At times, Black Christians may find it hard to choose between Psa 137 and Lk 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.’
But a change has really been effected. Christ really has trampled down death. He really is risen (1 Cor 15:12-19). And that means that nothing is impossible. ‘If death gives way to the power of God, so does my hate.’
Moreover, belief in resurrection assures mean that God affirms my Black, Brown or White body, for I shall be raised in that body, with its ethnic identity intact (Rev 7:9).
And yet, Christianity does teach that all must give an account of their actions. Martyred saints yet ask, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10). But,
‘John does not respond with, “There will be no reckoning.” Instead he says that the time has not yet come.’
In the end, Babylon will be judged for its wickedness (Rev 18:21-24) –