by Dr. Rachel Coleman
This piece is written specifically from within and for the white church in the U.S. in 2021.
One of the upsides of working as an adjunct professor for multiple colleges and seminaries is that I get to teach a fairly wide variety of courses within my discipline of Biblical Studies. Boredom is not an issue! There is one course, however, that never gets old, no matter how many times it shows up on my schedule. This six-week introduction to “global biblical interpretation” has moved high on my list of favorites. In the three central modules, students receive a general introduction to the African, Latino/a, and Asian contexts (all those places, mostly in the global south, where the church is thriving and growing) and they engage with examples of biblical interpretation from scholars in each of those contexts. In the opening module, they are introduced to African American hermeneutics in general, then circle back around in the final two weeks to engage more closely with specific interpretations from that tradition.
Recently I have found myself pondering the general patterns of student response and engagement that have emerged over the course of seven or eight iterations of the class. (I want to emphasize the word “general”; while these patterns are typical of a majority of students across all the cohorts, there are always exceptions.) These repeating phenomena provoke both deep concern and glimmers of hope, in terms of the North American church’s response to issues of racism and diversity. To set the stage, most of the students in these classes are white and attend white or mostly-white churches, and most of them would self-identify as “evangelicals.” Most cohorts have only one or two African American students, sometimes none at all; occasionally there is a Latino/a student. It is out of this context that I offer the following observations of concern and hope, along with how these things are pressing upon me. (Sometimes the teacher is the one who learns the most!)
There are two general patterns that repeat across the various iterations of this course, both of which reflect underlying issues that play a significant role in preventing or inhibiting genuine, lasting racial reconciliation within the church. The first thing I have noticed about student reactions in this course is that they are like smooth, creamy chicken salad sandwiched between slices of really thick, really hard, crusty bread. In those inner modules, students engage compassionately with the introduction to Asian, African, and Latino/a contexts, humbly acknowledging their ignorance of the historical, social, and political factors that have shaped and continue to shape those situations. They lament the sufferings, past and present, of their brothers and sisters in those far places, and look with interest through new windows into familiar texts read through African, Latino/a, and Asian eyes, even when those readings may “push the envelope” of their theological sensibilities.
The contrast with the outer modules could not be more noticeable. There is generally an entirely different posture when students engage with the African American experience. They readily acknowledge the dark historical stain of slavery on America’s distant past and perhaps even the raw abuses of the not-so-distant Jim Crow era, but there is an underlying impatience that often flowers into overt frustration and anger when they are asked to consider that the actual lived experience of African Americans in the twenty-first century proves that those pernicious realities are anything but past. The basic narrative that many of these students bring with them into the class is that systemic racism and pervasive inequality are exclusively “historical” issues, things of the past that have been overcome and “could we please just move on”; they are often unyielding in their grip on that version of contemporary reality. The humility and compassion that allowed them to listen to the narratives of non-Americans’ experiences with oppression and injustice are conspicuously absent when listening to African American narratives. And while the particular African American interpretations that they read are from a womanist hermeneutic of suspicion that rightly provokes vigorous critical analysis, students are often predisposed to dismiss wholesale the interpreter’s work, without offering her the same posture of hermeneutical humility that they afforded to the other perspectives.
While the first pattern is observable in students’ interactions with faceless interpreters who are ensconced at a safe distance behind words on a page, the other general dynamic is visible in the interpersonal engagements in the discussion forums. There is a discernible (and, by now, predictable) tendency in how white students interact with their African American classmates. If the African American student’s posts are gentle and non-confrontational, don’t talk much about contemporary racial issues, and reflect his or her classmates’ rejection of the particular African American interpretation they are dealing with (not uncommon, as most of our students of color are much more conservative theologically than the writer of the textbook), their discussion threads are usually bursting with active engagement. But when an African American or Latino/a student dares to confront the myth of racial equality or has the audacity to affirm some element of the author’s interpretive framework, there is a drastic reduction of engagement. Many students avoid that thread altogether; those who do interact with it stay on the surface, without probing, challenging, or asking questions.
And here is a personal aside, in the interests of full disclosure, since this is a place where the Holy Spirit has poked and prodded at me. I am always grateful for the African American students who engage with me and with their classmates with grace and patience, but I’ve had to ask myself—am I equally as grateful for those who are simply too weary from the struggle to have any patience left to keep explaining their realities to those of us who have been walking around blind?
The two patterns identified above are disheartening, as they represent the widespread presence of underlying and often unrecognized attitudes that keep us (white Christians) from the posture of humility that would allow us to be true learners from our African American brothers and sisters and repentant solution-seekers alongside them. But that word “unrecognized” points to the aspect of this course that provokes hope in me. Of the multiple dozens of students who have taken this course, I can only think of one or two who did not actively confront in some way their previously unrecognized prejudices. Whether that self-awareness comes in tiny drips or in a great wave of revelatory impact, most students submit, to some degree of “dislocation,” allowing the Holy Spirit to unsettle them in a way that moves them closer to the mind of Christ in the area of race and racism. They are not the same at the end of the race as they were at the starting line. Reading their final papers is a precious gift, as I am allowed glimpses into their journey of willing unsettledness.
And so, I wonder—if a six-week, online course can have that kind of transformative impact, in a context where the conversation partners are either authors who stand at a remote distance from us or people whose lives have no physical, geographical, or social overlap with ours outside the virtual classroom, what might be the potential for deeply formative engagement if we were to place ourselves intentionally into spaces where we can have face-to-face interaction with our African American brothers and sisters? What if we were willing to take the seat of sustained humility, doing prolonged and patient listening to their conversation about life and faith in the 21st-century United States, before we ever asked to have a voice at the table? What if our commitment to the beautiful diversity of the Body of Christ did not mean inviting “minorities” into our spaces, to sit alongside us and conform to our patterns and traditions? What if it meant instead asking permission to sit in worship services filled with African American music, open to hearing the Word of God for the people of God through the voices of black pastors, willing to sit quietly in Bible studies as Black believers observe, interpret, and apply the Scriptures to their lives? What might change?
I want to close with excerpts from a recent poem that has helped me see what African American brothers and sisters have experienced as they worship in “our houses” and are asked to play by our “house rules.” May the words of this dynamic young poet, Lo Alaman, “dislocate” us sufficiently that the Holy Spirit will find propitious spaces for his transformative work in us.
Who can fashion laws in a home they don’t have keys to?
Ask the culture to name its parents and they’ll tell you whose house it is.
My praise fills a temple that welcomes every shade of child
The Spirit and womb can think up between them,
But I know the songs I will and will not sing today.
Know which outfits God has no problem with,
But my church won’t let me preach in.
Which burdens my brothers and sisters want to carry with me
And which prayer requests are considered contraband to their ears.
I am more welcome than my culture is.
Praise God for an acoustic guitar, but what if my feet get light?
Amen for contemplation, but where do I put the fire and shout I was raised in?
Amen for context, and tradition, and the other way around.
Amen for house rules.
But who’s (sic) house is it?
And where do we expect the pieces of self that we’re uncomfortable with to find shelter?
* * * * * *
To want my skin but not my voice is to hunt for pelts.
Representation without life is a funeral at best.
Don’t invite me to the table if you don’t care what I want to eat.
Or put more simply,
Remember who invited you to the table
And whose house this is in the first place.
Suggested resources for “listening in”:
For reading: Lo Alaman, We Sang a Dirge: Poems, Laments, and Other Things That Matter to God (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2020); Esau McCauley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020); Jemar Tisby, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021).
For listening: “Pass the Mic” podcast; worship through African American voices like Urban Doxology, Liz Vice, Tasha Cobbs Leonard.
 From “House Rules,” by Lo Alaman, We Sang a Dirge: Poems, Laments, and Other Things That Matter to God (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2020).
Rachel lives in Elida, OH, with pastor-husband Randy, a crazy cat, and a very needy canine (a.k.a., Coco). She is a Bible teacher, preacher, missionary, and very proud grandmother of two amazingly wonderful kiddos. You can read Rachel’s blog at: https://wordpress.com/stats/month/writepraylove660813036.wordpress.com