What Did God Really Say? Reflections on Candice Benbow & Dr. Howard John Wesley — Part 1
My first impression of Christianity was that the God it spoke of said “white is right” and “black is bad.” Before I was born, my parents had left their Catholic and Baptist traditions to follow Minister Elijah Muhammad who started the Nation of Islam (hence the origin of my Arabic name). I understood early on that to the Nation of Islam, and many others, Christianity was a “white man’s religion” created to oppress us.
I also absorbed the television stereotypes that depicted Christians as legalistic, hypocritical, unintelligent killjoys. Following my culture’s lead, I avoided churches and Christians until my senior year in high school when a moral crisis prompted me to explore faith with new eyes.
To my surprise, I discovered that Jesus lived as a marginalized minority, was a victim of police brutality, and his resurrection brought with it forgiveness of sin and the promise of justice. It was the most compelling truth I had ever heard. Choosing to follow Jesus not only helped me make sense of my life but also opened my eyes to see that the Fall of man infected individuals and institutions. The Bible showed me that God called everyone to repent of unrighteousness and injustice.
Honor and Factions
But my conversion created a personal crisis. I didn’t know how my family would respond. My father had been murdered when I was seven years old, and after drifting from the practice of Islam, my family just never talked about faith (though I knew our familial prohibition on pork products was still in full effect).
When my older brother found out I had become a Christian, he said: “You’re dishonoring our father’s legacy. You’re in that white man’s religion.” Those words cut like a knife. In the years that have followed, I continued to be nagged by the history of the Bible’s use as a tool of oppression. What did God really say about it?
As I was earning my degree in Africana Studies and Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, I discovered an often forgotten history: racists weren’t the only ones who used the Bible to address the issue of American slavery.
Some of the most prolific anti-racists were inspired by the Bible to fight for freedom, justice, and equality. Everyone from Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman to Frederick Douglass and William Wilberforce leveraged the Scripture as a great asset. But what should we make of pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions both using the Bible to support these competing narratives? Which side was right? Was either side wrong?
Biblical = Anti-Black?
Recently, with the emergence of postmodernism’s rejection of absolute truth, the concept of the search for a “true interpretation” of the Scripture has been dismissed as a fool’s errand. Similar to what my brother told me years ago, the desire to conform my life to the Bible’s teachings is considered by some to be out of step with the legacy of our ancestors, and even anti-Black.
I am sympathetic to the aversion many have regarding claims to the Bible’s authority. Shows like “Handmaiden’s Tale” present dystopian storylines of religious men exploiting their power to oppress the marginalized. The trope of the powerful, legalistic, religious zealot is seared into our collective conscience. And too often art is an imitation of life. There are trails of tears of such spiritual abuse today. I was moved as I watched a video conversation between Candace Marie Benbow, a thoughtful Duke seminary graduate and popular womanist theologian, and Black Christian comedian, Kevin Fredericks, known as KevOnStage.
During the conversation, she revealed a painful story of abuse. Church leaders demanded her (now deceased) mother to offer a public apology for getting pregnant outside of marriage by a man at the church (who was not forced to endure such public shaming). Instead of submitting to such humiliation, her mother courageously chose to leave the church and the hypocritical double standards behind her.
But clearly that situation, and other tragic instances of spiritual abuse, continued to attack Benbow’s sense of value and worth. She would later find solace in a re-imagined approach to her Christian faith which not only dismissed the judgmental hypocrisy but also rejected the traditional Biblical teachings on sex that the attempts to shame her mother were based on.
She told KevOnStage: “I’m of the ilk where I don’t believe pre-marital sex isn’t sin.” In responding to a question from a live viewer asking her about the Biblical basis of her claim, Benbow retorted:
“Asking ‘Is that Biblical?’ is an anti-Black question.”
Questioning Biblical Authority
To support her claim, Benbow explained how Black people first came to Christianity through the crucible of oppression. Our ancestors were denied the ability to read and so they developed a deep devotion to God often without the ability to read the Bible, but through their experience with God. In light of that legacy, Benbow concluded, attempts to make the Bible central to our faith and practice is anti-Black.
Similarly, Dr. Howard John Wesley, the pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church, recently created a YouTube Series titled “Can I Push It?” to explain and articulate his progressive theological views.
He released a three-part series called “The Bible” which gives a historical analysis of Christian views of the Bible, with a clear slant toward his particular progressive perspective. In the series, he rejects “Sola Scriptura” and states bluntly, “The Bible contains contradictions.” He also appealed to the misuse of Scripture to justify American chattel slavery and the mistreatment of the LGBTQIA community as examples of the dangers of asserting Biblical authority.
I have a great appreciation for Miss Benbow and Dr. Wesley’s intellect, passion for Black liberation, and advocacy for social justice. Those are values I also share, though, we have significant differences in how to define and achieve those aims. Striving toward true freedom requires a respectful, thoughtful critique of each other. It’s the heart of iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 17:17). We must define the “problem” correctly to have any hope at arriving at an effective “solution.”
Are these theologians right in their diagnosis that the problem preventing Black people from experiencing liberation is the Bible itself? Is striving to be Biblical “anti-black” or illogical?
What Is True?
In my study and experience, I have found the opposite to be true. Both the words in the Bible and its use among our people has often been liberating and life-affirming. Historically, the Bible has been an indispensable tool for Black liberation, beloved for its counter-cultural empowering of Black identity, as well as its implicit condemnation of the notion that “white is right.” In fact, I believe the more committed to understanding the Scripture we are, and the more submitted to its authority we become, the more Pro-Black and logical we will be.
It is important to note that the 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. Relative and absolute truth? Unknowable. 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?