The Interpretive Location of the African American Expositor

Winfred Neely
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The experience of African Americans in the United States shapes the African American biblical expositor. The historical memories of slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, the desperate fight for the recognition of inherent human dignity, the open casket of Emmett Till, the assassinations of Medgar Evers (37 years old), Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (39 years old), and Malcom X (39 years old) are but a few of the events that mark the African American experience. Other significant events also shape our consciousness, including ongoing violence and poverty in some African American communities, the growth of the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration, and the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States.[1] These experiences create a profound sense that we, as a people, have “come this far by faith…leaning on the LORD.”[2] But that sense recognizes that precious lives have been lost to injustices in the process, and that the blood of African American men and women and children has been spilt through the fruits of this nation’s racism, discrimination, and prejudices, and the ongoing legacy of its white supremacy movements.

A Miracle of Providence

Today, the African American expositor stands on the shoulders of African American followers of Christ who had the courage before God to assert their worth and value as image bearers and Christ followers. All of these experiences are part of the interpretive location of the African American expositor in a general sense.

“Not even slavery, Jim Crow, racial prejudice and discrimination, and systemic racism embedded in the very laws of this land, and not even the abuse of Scripture to support these injustices, were able to stop the penetrating power of the gospel in the African American community.”

The ironic miracle of providence is also a part of the African American expositor’s interpretive location. In this sense, the African American preacher embodies one of the ironic miracles of providence and represents church life in the African American community as an ecclesiastical miracle:

Within the black community, the church has played an absolutely constitutive role. One of the ironies of history is that African slaves in America were indoctrinated in the religion of their master, yet discovered the true, liberating meaning of the gospel over against its cultural distortions. This happened in large part through the so-called invisible institution, the underground church that gathered secretly to sing, pray, shout, preach, and read. Here there occurred what might be described as a clearing of freedom within the harsh domain of oppression, a clearing in which slaves were transformed in human beings, seemingly silent docile masses into a singing, resistant, hopeful people. Throughout much of black history, individuals found their true dignity and identity precisely and only in the black church— in that space of freedom cleared on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, or whenever the community gathered. . . . The black church is a spiritual, eschatological, transformative event which has proved to be constitutive of the very survival of a people.[3]

Nothing Can Stop the Gospel

When African Americans, with colossal oppression and hardship seared into their social locations, encountered the biblical text, a redemptive revolution of hope, courage, and strength occurred. This is one of the great ironies of God’s gracious providence in the African American experience in the United States. Not even slavery, Jim Crow, racial prejudice and discrimination, and systemic racism embedded in the very laws of this land, and not even the abuse of Scripture to support these injustices, were able to stop the penetrating power of the gospel in the African American community. This miracle is also a part of the informed African American’s interpretive location.

Yet also standing in these spaces was and is the African American preacher, declaring freedom in the midst of a harsh world of oppression! Since the preacher by and large shared the social location of this people, the preacher was used by God as His instrument of blessing to this community. Under God, black preachers were at the helm of this powerful, spiritual, eschatological, and transformative event of black church life that has resulted in the survival of an entire people in the United States.

Under God, the preacher’s task was to keep hope alive in the hearts of many black men and women followers of Christ who lived life at the razor-sharp edge of hopeless circumstances. This was a part of the preacher’s preaching ministry and a vital part of the pastoral care of the African American church congregation. The preaching moment is pivotal in this endeavor. Think of the boldness of the expositor who has wrestled with God and emerged with the courage to say to these beautiful and oppressed people, “Let not your hearts be troubled!”

[1] A person must not agree with all of President Obama’s political policies and views in order to appreciate the historic significance of his election.

[2] Albert A. Goodson, “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” (Manna Music, Inc., 1965, 1993).

[3] Peter C. Hodgson and Robert C. Williams, “The Church,” in Christian Theology, eds. Peter C. Hodgson and Robert H. King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 267.

For Further Reading:

Say It!

by Eric C. Redmond

Say It! A Celebration of Expository Preaching in the African American Tradition argues that Biblical Exposition is most dynamic when coupled...

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