What Did God Really Say? Reflections on Candice Benbow & Dr. Howard John Wesley — Part 2
Experience vs. Exegesis
Both Candice Benbow and Dr. Howard John Wesley express value for the Bible, but challenge the idea of its reliability and therefore its authority. Benbow argues that experience should be prioritized over the Bible. Wesley also places experience as criteria that can be placed above the Scripture as a way of discerning truth. It is important to note that their claim that we should prioritize experience over the Bible’s teaching is inherently a philosophical argument in the realm of epistemology.
Epistemology answers the question: “How do we know what is true?” For most of human history, humanity sought to answer that question by looking outside themselves to sacred texts, mystical communion with the Spirit or spirits, or conferring with ancestors or elders. Postmodernism, conversely, teaches that there is no absolute truth that one should strive to discover. Truth, to postmodernists like Benbow and Wesley, is self-referential, unknowable, and relative. As a result of their postmodernist worldview, looking within oneself is trusted far more than some external source of purported truth. This is the origin of the well-worn phrase, “Live your truth.” This is the dominant worldview of the day. But is it true?
The emergence of partisan claims of “fake news” in the public sphere has diminished an experiential epistemology that denies truth. After all, how can we criticize someone for lying or hold administrations accountable for sexism, racism, or deception, if all of us have a right to “our truth?”
Historically, a postmodern, experiential approach to truth would not have served our ancestors well in the fight for liberation. If a slave owner could argue, “My truth is that I should own you” and his view was equally valid, what ground is there to deny the claim? Liberation demanded that all were held to a standard of truth that said unequivocally, “Slavery is wrong” (which assumes there is such a thing as right and wrong). Additionally, the assertion that truth is relative is also self-defeating. Is the idea that “truth is relative” also relative? Or is it absolutely true all the time?
Rich Oral Tradition
Black freedom fighters frequently turned to accurate exegesis (truthful interpretation) of the Bible to refute the “experiences” that White supremacy appealed to in order to deny their humanity. When those appeals were made by racists using “Christian” arguments, Black anti-racists refuted them by being more biblical, not by denying the truth of the Bible.
For example, Sojourner Truth reportedly said:
I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept – and Lazarus came forth.
Sojourner Truth challenged supposedly biblical arguments against her rights as a Black woman, not by appealing to her experience, but by refuting them with the Bible.
Additionally, note how her inability to read did not prevent her from knowing the Bible well. Benbow claimed that the fact that enslaved Africans couldn’t read meant that their faith was based on their experiences and not the Bible, but illiteracy didn’t prevent or dim Sojourner Truth’s commitment to the Bible.
The same is true for Harriet Tubman. Though she was illiterate, she was known for her ability to quote long passages of Scripture as a result of hearing her mother (likely illiterate herself) recite them to her. The dynamic oral tradition of the Black community preserved the cherished Bible more than most are aware of.
Rooted in the Truth
Benbow also overgeneralized when she stated that all Black people in the antebellum period came to faith in Christ were illiterate or placed their experiences over the authority of Scripture. In 1816, when Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the first Black Church Denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, they were both educated, freed Black men who led congregations. The Alfred Street Baptist Church, the church where Dr. Howard John Wesley pastors, traces its roots back to 1806 when free, literate Black people founded the Coloured Baptist Society.
From the beginning of the Black Church in America, the Bible was highly regarded. Black people wanted to know if it was biblical when slave owners said they weren’t human or under a divine curse. “Is that biblical?” is far from an anti-Black question. It was an anti-slavery and anti-dehumanization question.
For example, we also know that Caribbean slave owners published what they called the “Slave Bible” in 1807. This was three years after the Haitian revolution (Toussaint L’Overture, the leader of that revolution was a literate Christian). A successful uprising of African slaves in North America sent shockwaves of panic throughout the slaveholding European nations. In response, they commissioned a “Slave Bible” which removed 90% of the Old Testament, and 50% of the New Testament and was meant to be read by slaves. Why would slave masters remove significant sections of the Bible before making it available? They didn’t want slaves reading passages like:
And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;
And I will come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey;
What slave owner would want his slaves to believe that passage of Scripture was true? Exposing the errors in teachings like the Curse of Ham, the misinterpretations of the House Codes in the Pauline epistles, and the replacement of the brown Jesus of Nazareth with the white “Jesus of Norway” would doom the myth of White supremacy.
All of those myths would be debunked through accurate Biblical interpretation. Studying the Bible accurately is an inherently anti-white supremacist endeavor. Appealing to experience over proper Biblical exegesis opens us to the errors of the past. It doesn’t free us.