Esau McCaulley on Race, Gospel, and Justice: the Bible and History

Image: Photo by Katherine Benware

Esau is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. He’s the canon theologian in his diocese, and he directs the Next Generation Leadership Initiative across the Anglican Church in North America. Esau writes for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Christianity Today and others. He’s one of the hosts of a podcast called The Disrupters. You will want to read his new book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope that comes out in November of 2020.


Ed: I think you and I would agree that there are systemic and ongoing issues of racism that exist even beyond Jim Crow laws or overt discrimination. It hasn’t all gone away, yet some Christians want to think it’s all gone away.

Esau: To me, systemic racism is nothing other than the expansive power of the “all” working it out in governments and institutions. Any Christian who believes that an individual can be a sinner and believes that an individual sinner can have power, believes also that there can be multiple sinners in multiple loci of power who are then exercising that power.

It is not a Marxist conspiracy theory to say, “There might be racist people who have economic and political power who then disadvantage African Americans.”

Paul, when he talks in Ephesians about Christ being above every principality and power (Eph. 1:20-23), is talking first and foremost about spiritual beings. In Paul’s thought, the spiritual beings, the rulers of the forces of the air, influence human governments. He says that the world, apart from Christ, is under the influence of negative spiritual powers.

The question is, Would these negative spiritual powers have a vested interest in stirring up vitriol and hatred among the races? The answer to that question is yes.

If you believe that the Word of God in Ephesians talks about spiritual powers, that they influence the government and economic systems, then you have to understand the possibility that those systems could be arrayed against the most vulnerable.

In the book of Revelation, John talks about Rome. One of the reasons that God judges Rome is because of the economic exploitation of people, and how the trade policies of Rome leads to the sufferings of the innocent.

All over the New Testament, you see the reality that the problem isn’t simply the individual sinner’s sin against individuals, but also that systems are opposed both to God’s people and the needy.

I want to say that this comes from my resistance to believe what I see as structural racism. It’s not something I constructed on my own and then found Bible verses to justify. The Bible talks about these things. The Bible doesn’t only talk about these things, the Bible talks about God’s judgment on governments.

In Isaiah 34, you see God saying to the Edomites, “For these wicked things I’m going to judge you.” The reason he is judging these people is, yes, they’re idolaters, and they do all of these other things. But another sin that they commit is the oppression of God’s people, and the exploitation of the poor.

Finally, you open up Isaiah, and the prophet does two things that we want to tear apart. He says in 5:11, “Woe to you who get up early in the morning to drink wine.” He is saying, “You get up in the morning, and all you do is personal immorality.” He also says in 5:8, “Woe to you who add house to house and field to field so there’s no room left for anyone in the land.” He’s talking about housing policies. And he talks about their disregard for the one God.

You have three things critiqued in the book of Isaiah: first, individual sin; next, idolatry, the abandonment of the one true God; and third, structural oppression.

To me, a holistic Christian discipleship addresses our personal morality, our need for fidelity to the one true God, and the need for Christians as a part of our witness to the coming kingdom to push back upon the systems of oppression. Only one of those three gets me in trouble: when I talk about systems.

The other two, they say, “That’s in the Bible.”

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Source: Christianity Today