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  • The African American Bible:Bound in a Christian Nation
  • Richard Newton

At the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama delivered a sermon from his bully pulpit that garnered the ire of the Christian Right.1 In retrospect, there were many moments from the speech that could have caused concern. The president’s conciliatory gestures toward the Dalai Lama might have opened a diplomatic Pandora’s box, for even the slightest bow of acknowledgment could tax relations with the Chinese government. Ultimately this hardly proved newsworthy, nor did Mr. Obama’s description of the Islamic State as a “death cult.” His denunciation of Islamicized violence in Paris, Pakistan, and the Middle East was as expected as his recitation of words attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”2 At the time, “the golden rule” was a party line feigned by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Any contention from these statements paled next to this controversial presidential parable:

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities—the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religion for their own murderous ends? Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, [End Page 221] people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.3

Much could be said about the identity politics at play in Mr. Obama’s statement—the limits of his religious pluralism, his signification of 9/11, his social location of theodicy. But in this moment, I’d like to suggest that this event was proof positive that Americans are bound in a Christian nation.

To be clear, the United States of America is not made up solely of Christians, nor is it a theocracy. But America is a Christian nation. Those who protest with song of “the separation of church and state” forget that its refrain comes after a verse not about whether but how the one may operate in the other. Put differently, Americans would not argue about church–state relations were it not a central concern.

In terms of the “anthropology of Scriptures,” I contend that black people’s relationship with the Bible testifies to two aspects of the Christian nation paradox.4 America is a strange new world in which some are bound in (i.e., the enchained, the castigated, the conquered) just as it can be the promised land where others are bound for (i.e., the invigorated, the cheered, the conquerors). In theorizing about an African American Bible, members of the Society of Biblical Literature might re-cognize the category of Scriptures as indicative of the stories not only that we read but that also read us back.5 Within their binding, the astute begin to make sense of their worlds.

The following reflective essay recounts some of the lessons learned in studying the tension between the Bible and the very constitution of African American identity. There we see the ambivalence of this nation’s Bible readers to the matter of black life—namely, that its import is far from sacrosanct according to America’s hermeneutical posturing.6

In the Beginning

At the crossroads of the “genetic turn” and the post–civil rights era, inclusion-minded Americans began to profess that we are all just part of one race, the human [End Page 222] race.7 The Christian Pop/Rock/Rap group called DC Talk (Decent Christian Talk) made the statement into a creed.

We’re colored people, and we live in a tainted place.We’re colored people, and they call us the human race.We’ve got a history so full of mistakes.And we are colored people who depend on a Holy Grace.8

The racial sentiment also reflects the scientism of the zeitgeist. The “Mitochondrial Eve” discourse has given moderns sufficient license to...


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