Talking Book: Biblical Hermeneutic of Jesus, Exodus, and Spirit

by Whitney Wilkinson Arreche

The name of the ship was Jesus, colloquially referred to as the “Good Ship Jesus.” Built in Lübeck, Germany, it came to be owned by Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I gave permission in 1562 for John Hawkins to use it for a journey from Sierra Leone to the Dominican Republic. This Jesus bore between three to five hundred enslaved Africans. This Jesus was the beginning of overt British involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  

As far as I can tell, there was not a slave ship named Moses. 

But, Jesus – that name served the purposes of hatred and subjection nicely. I am reminded of a workshop I once attended led by United Church of Christ Minister for Racial Justice, Dr. Velda Love. She began by unequivocally saying, “We do not follow the same Jesus.”  

So, the question is, whose Jesus do we follow? And, for that matter, whose Bible do we read?

As a white women of progressive leanings, I hear many people who look like me express outrage at the censorship of books deemed too subversive for public consumption. Memes of Nazi book burnings fill my newsfeed, met with impassioned and important cries of never again. This matters. And this is also symptomatic of white women’s feminism that pays attention to subjection from a safe distance, and not within our own genealogical connection to the enslavement of African peoples here, and the continued economies of subjection in this country. 

When enslaved Africans were taught the Bible, it was a heavily redacted version. The Exodus was out, as was most of the Old Testament. References to racial unity disappeared, as did the entire book of Revelation. While scripture itself was butchered by the tools of white supremacy, it was also forced into smiling compliance: writings about slaves obeying masters were elevated to supracanonical status. Dr. Allen Dwight Callahan names the Bible “the poison book” for this reason. But Callahan claims that the poison was also the antidote, writing, “As both curse and cure, slavery’s children would distill antidotes for the toxic texts of the Bible and make those texts their own.”

In the Hush Harbors, enslaved Africans taught one another a different Bible. Shared in story-song, they learned of an Exodus where the liberation of enslaved people was God’s primary concern. They learned of prophets who called out greed. They learned of a Jesus who was very different from that so-called “good” ship. They learned of a fire-in-the-bones Spirit poured out on all flesh. They learned of a Revelation of all that is wrong being turned upside down, in a flourishing garden not poisoned by enslaved labor. This talking book was the antidote to slavery’s prooftexted shouting. 

That antidote is still sorely needed in a church that continues to perpetuate the prooftexted lies of white supremacy. I was recently a teaching assistant for an Old Testament course. On the last day of class, one of the professors asked some of the teaching assistants to share their biblical hermeneutics regarding the Hebrew Bible. This is academic jargon for “how do you choose to read and interpret scripture?” I didn’t plan on speaking. But sometimes, you have a fire-in-the-bones moment. I found myself taking the microphone from the professor and speaking to the class of Master of Divinity Students. I told them that white supremacist plantation church, on the whole, amputated the Old Testament from the Bible. It represented threats to their theological and physical power. I went on to say that if we only read, teach, and preach the New Testament, particularly when we heavily center the writings attributed to Paul, we are perpetuating a plantation church ethic of scripture. If, instead, we center narratives of liberation, refusing to sanitize Jesus and refusing to spiritualize physical freedom, we get closer to the Hush Harbor. We get closer to the power of the Talking Book. 

Taking Dr. Velda Love’s words to heart, we do not all follow the same Jesus. 

We also do not all read the same Bible. 

Whose Jesus? The Jesus coopted by empire in whom enslaved humans were literally held captive? Or the Jesus of the Hush Harbor, whose compassion – shared suffering – meant that heaven itself was shaken by the injustices of earth, and resolved to do something about it?

Whose Bible? The whited-out version that perpetuates colonial power? Or the Bible of the Hush Harbor that didn’t need fancy binding to make it legitimate, but rather was woven out of song and sweat and stolen time, proclaiming that the last word was never really a stoic “amen,” but was and will forever be an untamable “freedom”?

It is not enough for United States Christians in our time to say we follow Jesus. It is not enough for us to cling to our enlightened NRSV’s, oblivious to the stains of colonial power and racism that mar those pages still. Now is the time to be very, very clear about exactly which Jesus we follow, and exactly which Bible we read. 

Questions to Consider:

  • What books of the Bible do you gravitate towards? How have you been socialized toward certain themes and texts?
  • If you are the leader of a worshipping community, what commentaries on scripture do you gravitate towards? If they are written by white theologians, how might they implicitly center whiteness and perpetuate plantation church?  
  • How might the sharing of scripture in your community be more creative and egalitarian? Is there an opportunity to respond to the preacher? Does the word get proclaimed in many forms, by many people?
  • How has scripture been poisonous to you or those in your community?  (Remember that plantation Bibles also poisoned slaveholders with evil theology.) What might biblical antidotes be?

Resources for Further Reflection:

Allen Dwight Callahan. The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Esau McCaulley. “Life as a Biblical Scholar of Color”

Esau McCaulley. “Why It Matters if Your Bible was Translated by a Racially Diverse Group”

Wil Gafney. “When Scripture is Violent”

Theological Works by Black Theologians, Pastors and Scholars (from The Witness, a Black Christian Collective)

2 thoughts on “Talking Book: Biblical Hermeneutic of Jesus, Exodus, and Spirit”

  1. Priscilla J. Quiah says:

    I’m glad I came across Dr. Wil Gafney on Jude 3 Project. I googled her name and here I stumbled upon this mine of different enlightening perspectives. Yahweh, thank you! I asked for wisdom and understanding, you lead me day by day to your brighter light

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