Our ability to judge ourselves and others rests on our ability to interpret Scripture intelligently. The right use of the Bible, an exercise as old as the church itself, means that we confront our prejudices rather than merely confirm them.—Peter J. Gomes, “Homophobic? Re-Read Your Bible,” New York Times
I am the daughter of a Black Baptist church. I learned to embrace my history and culture and to become politically active at church. I was empowered as a leader in the church space but discouraged as a human being. My church, like many other Black churches in the United States, was not a safe space for a young, bisexual woman. At church, I learned that my sexual orientation was an “abomination” from adults who openly engaged in “adultery,” a practice condemned in the Ten Commandments.1 The hypocritical biblical interpretations, and a host of other issues, led me to withdraw my membership from my home church as a young adult.
I then began attending a multiracial church that focused on biblical teachings that promoted charity for the poor and care for immigrants. Yet there, the leadership failed to look to biblical texts such as James 2:9 to address white privilege within the church’s culture or to Exodus 22:21 to condemn police brutality in our community and country. Furthermore, the church had a “welcoming but not affirming” policy. This means the church welcomed LGBTQIA+ individuals to church services, but they did not embrace them as full, participating members.
After that experience, I stopped attending church altogether until 2020, when the pandemic led me to discover Freedom Church of the Poor, an online congregation of activists, organizers, clergy, and scholars who read and teach the Bible as stories that promote liberation for all people in the United States and abroad. This church, founded in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, asserts a biblically inspired faith that advocates for social and political freedom while also being welcoming and affirming of all people. This is the kind of church that I believe draws upon the best of Black church history.
Henry Louis Gates’s recent multimedia project, The Black Church, offers me—a daughter of the church, a historian of US Christianity, an organizer, and a bisexual woman in a same-gender-loving relationship—an invitation to imagine how we can use the story of the Black church to help revolutionize what we value as a society. Gates’s PBS documentary has been condemned for overlooking the role of Catholicism and praised for its honest depictions of Black churches as oppressive spaces for women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and #BlackLivesMatter activists. It’s a documentary that tells the stories of everyday Black women and men who used the Bible to affirm their human dignity and to secure their civil rights, even as powerful people used sacred texts to dehumanize and disenfranchise them. Their stories allow us to consider what they valued in their lives—their dignity, their freedom, their faith, and the flourishing of their communities—and they offer models for how we might also interpret the Bible to protect the dignity and rights of marginalized communities today.2
The documentary originally aired on February 16 and 17, 2021, a fitting contribution for Black history month. However, the timing of the broadcast is much more significant when we consider the religious and political climate of the United States over the last five years. In 2016, an overwhelming number of evangelical Christians elected Donald Trump to the White House. The following year, the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally exposed the emergence of an alt-right Christianity. Then in 2020, after nonviolent protestors took to the streets of American cities to protest the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd and after police in Washington, DC, responded to the protestors with teargas, President Trump stood in front of Saint John’s Church with a Bible in his hand and threatened to use military force if protesting persisted. Trump’s actions and words sparked outrage among religious leaders around the country, as Mariann Edgar Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, fumed, “Let me be clear, the president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.” Finally, on January 6, 2021, the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, America Firsters, and QAnon followers stormed the US Capitol to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election results; members of these groups claimed that God called them to riot.3 This religious and political milieu shaped the filming, production, and airing of Gates’ documentary on the Black church.
In a February 15, 2021, interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gates spoke about filming and producing at the height of the coronavirus pandemic and the George Floyd protests. Gates explains, “I wanted to make a series about the sheer transcendent power of belief and never has that been more important than today. These stories of grace and resilience and redemption and hope and healing are so desperately needed.” In another interview, he says he wanted to remind the nation that we are “better than this.” He continues, “We could end social inequality, that we can end people living in the streets, that we can become compassionate toward each other and realize that we have more in common with each other than we have differences.”4
I agree with Gates that we, as citizens of this nation, can be better. I also believe that we must commit to doing better. For those of us in Christian churches, now is the time to take inspired, intelligent action, to take the kind of action that first created the Black church, an institution built upon the biblical interpretation of enslaved human beings. And to that end, I offer Howard Thurman, a spiritual leader briefly introduced in The Black Church, as one to imitate as we imagine and create laws that produce a country in which a Black, lower middle-class, same-gender-loving Christian woman like myself can live peacefully, without any threats to my social and political rights.
Thurman was a theologian, mystic, preacher, and professor who wrote extensively about a personal God who identified with the plight of the marginalized. His work had a profound influence on many civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer, and indeed, writers and documentarians generally reference Thurman’s theology in relation to the more visible leaders whom he inspired. However, the key to understanding Thurman’s significance as a theologian is to dive into the influence that his maternal grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, had on his life and work.
Ambrose was a former slave who made two significant contributions to Thurman’s theology and his approach to biblical interpretation. First, Ambrose taught her grandson how to understand God in his particular context as a young black boy growing up in a segregated society. She often quoted an enslaved preacher who taught, “You are not niggers! You are not slaves! You are God’s children!” Thurman indicates that when his grandmother “got to that part of her story, there would be a slight stiffening in her spine as we sucked in our breath. When she had finished, our spirits were restored.”5
In Thurman’s 1949 book Jesus and the Disinherited, this is reflected in his depiction of Jesus. The text stands out because of its presentation of Jesus of Nazareth as a poor, first-century Palestinian Jewish carpenter who was a second-class citizen in the Roman Empire. For Thurman, Jesus’s life and work suggest that God is on the side of the oppressed. In other words, Blacks in the United States and the dispossessed around the globe matter to God. They, too, are children of God, and like Jesus, they can transform the societies in which they live through the power of love and truth as manifested in nonviolent direct action. To be a follower of Jesus in Thurman’s mind meant using that power and taking action.
Secondly, although Ambrose could neither read nor write, she nonetheless taught Thurman how to read and interpret the Bible. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman explains that among his childhood chores, he had to read biblical passages to his grandmother several times a week. These readings generally came from the Psalms, Isaiah, the Gospels, and 1 Corinthians 13. In fact, she refused to hear any other Pauline passages because as a slave her master’s minister often preached from passages like Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters” (NIV). “I promised my Maker,” she said, “that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”6
This story led Thurman to engage in a deep biographical study of the Apostle Paul so that he might better understand the class and cultural factors that shaped Paul as a writer and thinker. Thurman presents Paul as a member of the oppressed class (a Jew, like Jesus) and of the privileged class (a Roman citizen, a member of the empire that killed Jesus). Paul’s status as a Roman citizen makes it understandable to Thurman why Paul instructed slaves to obey the laws of the Roman Empire. However, he also points out that Paul’s thinking as a Roman citizen in the first-century should have never been used as a reason for Christians “to oppress and humiliate” other human beings over the course of history.7
Ambrose and her grandson, Thurman, offer contemporary Christians sound guidance on how to use the Bible personally and publicly. Ambrose taught Thurman to view and use the Bible as a manual for spiritual and political freedom. Although her master and his minister used Scripture to deny her humanity and to manipulate her and other enslaved people into believing that God sanctioned their status as slaves, Gates’s documentary shows how other enslaved preachers often preached in secret, affirming the human dignity of their enslaved audiences and assuring their fellow slaves that liberation was possible for them in heaven and in the United States. Likewise, Ambrose taught her grandson how those with power misused the Bible, and he, in turn, learned to study biblical writers to resist the ideologies that upheld the systems of slavery and segregation in the United States. And Ambrose taught Thurman how to use the Bible to affirm his humanity as a Black person. Like his grandmother, Thurman looked to the Psalms, particularly Psalm 139, to strengthen him and his people in a society marred by deadly discrimination.8
The story of Ambrose and Thurman is precious to me because this pair has helped me to develop my theology, my work as a teacher, and my social justice commitments. They have led me to undergo what author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has called “a revolution of values.”9 Ambrose reminds me that I am a beloved child of God. This reminder is necessary for a Black, same-gender-loving woman who studies US history for a living. This country—and many Christian churches within it—does not value people who look, love, and identify like me. Yet through the story of this formerly enslaved woman who read the Bible and found a loving God within it, I know that God values who I am as a human being. She also teaches me that I have the power to resist any teaching that denies human dignity and political freedom. And I imitate Ambrose when I teach and preach in Freedom Church of the Poor—I reject public narratives that criminalize homeless people, and I use Scripture, such as James 1:27, to demonstrate how the Bible instructs societies to care for the poor.10
Similarly, Thurman’s presentation of Jesus in his scholarship helps me to shift my focus from seeing Jesus as the personal savior of my sins to Jesus as a person I can imitate as I work as an organizer to address societal sins. Thurman presents Jesus as a freedom fighter who provided food to the hungry and free health care to the sick. He points out that Jesus rebuked religious and political leaders for taking advantage of vulnerable populations. When I read the Gospels with Thurman’s work in mind, I see myself as someone with the same revolutionary power as Jesus. I, too, am someone endowed by God to work with the poor and to reject systems that debase human beings and deprive them of rights and privileges. The powerless mattered to Jesus. Therefore, those of us who claim to follow Jesus must value the powerless and develop systems that permit all people to live freely and abundantly as they are.
Instead, the main political current in US Christianity seems to flow away from Thurman’s vision. In a 2020 report from the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of white evangelical Protestant Republicans indicated that they wanted the Bible to influence US law, and Michael Lipka attributes some of these responses to concerns over “biblical marriage, defined by some Christian leaders as a marriage between one man and one woman, precluding same-sex unions. Recent surveys by the Center find that most white evangelical Protestants (63%) and half of black Protestants (50%) continue to oppose legal same-sex marriage.”11
Lipka’s conclusion is fascinating, especially for those of us who recognize how the Christian Right has monopolized the public discourse on faith for over fifty years. Their conversations on the Bible and Christianity tend to disregard the civil rights of the LGBTQIA+ community and other human beings who live without the social and political privileges of many on the Christian Right. These people include women, Black, and Indigenous peoples; other persons of color; immigrants; poor people; and individuals who live with different physical and mental abilities. As Peter J. Gomes writes in the New York Times, many public representatives of the Christian Right use the Bible to “confirm” their prejudices rather than to “confront” them.12
The fact that Lipka did not think that Christians would want to interpret biblical texts to confront societal problems like poverty or systemic racism proves how necessary it is for the public message of Christianity in the United States to reencounter the revolutionary Bible reading practices of formerly enslaved individuals. Those of us who follow Jesus of Nazareth would do well to imitate how our Black spiritual ancestors used the Scripture in their personal, professional, and public lives. Ambrose and Thurman revolutionized the values of a society shaped by slavery and segregation. They developed and publicized interpretations of the Bible that connected them with a God of love and not condemnation. Therefore, they were able to look to God and the Scripture to affirm their Black humanity, to provide support for vulnerable populations, and to promote freedom, justice, and equality throughout the country.
It is my hope that Christians today, especially those of us who want our holy book to influence the creation of American laws, will commit to a revolution of values by reading the Bible with intelligence and compassion. Like Ambrose, may we understand and interpret Scripture in such a way that we see all people as children of God who are worthy of the right to live with respect and freedom. Like Thurman, may we come to experience Jesus as a first-century Palestinian Jewish carpenter who led a movement to free himself and others from hunger, sickness, and other forms of oppression. Let those of us who are inspired by the Bible and the history of the Black church ensure that laws and policies are created, passed, enforced, and executed with the love and compassion that God demonstrates for all of creation from Genesis to the Revelation.
- See Exodus 20 in the NRSV.
- See The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, 2 episodes, written and hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., aired February 16–17, 2021, on PBS, https://www.pbs.org/weta/black-church/. Also see, for example, Nate Tinner-Williams, “Opinion: ‘Black Church’ Doc from Henry Louis Gates Chooses Spectacle over Accuracy,” Black Catholic Messenger, February 21, 2021, https://www.blackcatholicmessenger.com/henry-louis-gates-black-church-doc; and Christina Turner, “Where Does the Black Church Fit into Today’s Black Lives Matter Movement?” PBS NewsHour, March 30, 2021, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/where-does-the-black-church-fit-in-todays-black-lives-matter-movement.
- Mario Koran and Helen Sullivan, “Bishop ‘Outraged’ over Trump’s Church Photo Op during George Floyd Protests,” Guardian, June 2, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/02/outrageous-christian-leaders-reject-trump-use-of-church-as-prop-during-george-floyd-protests. Also, see for example, Peter Manseau, “Some Capitol Rioters Believed They Answered God’s Call, Not Just Trump’s,” Washington Post, February 11, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/02/11/christian-religion-insurrection-capitol-trump/.
- Rodney Ho, “Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Takes a Deep Dive into ‘The Black Church’ on PBS,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 15, 2021, https://www.ajc.com/life/radiotvtalk-blog/henry-louis-gates-jr-takes-a-deep-dive-into-the-black-church-on-pbs/OU4XGPAXVVAOXDKDZSR6XOXQ6I/; and Natachi Onwuamaegbu, “Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on His New Documentary and the Role of the Black Church in Social Justice,” Boston Globe, February 14, 2021, https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/02/14/arts/henry-louis-gates-jr-his-new-documentary-role-black-church-social-justice.
- Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 21.
- Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1996), 20.
- Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 22.
- Thurman notes his love of this Scripture in his autobiography With Head and Heart, 23.
- I am borrowing this phrase from Wilson-Hartgrove, Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2019), 5. The book challenges those who align themselves with the Christian Right to reconsider how they use the Bible as a political tool.
- For examples of how the poor are criminalized, see “Civil Rights,” National Coalition for the Homeless, http://nationalhomeless.org/issues/civil-rights/; and here are the words from James that I center in my preaching: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (NRSV).
- Lipka, “Half of Americans Say Bible Should Influence US Laws, including 28 Percent Who Favor It over the Will of the People,” Pew Research Center, April 13, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/13/half-of-americans-say-bible-should-influence-u-s-laws-including-28-who-favor-it-over-the-will-of-the-people/. Also see “Majority of Public Favors Same Sex Marriage, but Divisions Persist,” Pew Research Center, May 14, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/05/14/majority-of-public-favors-same-sex-marriage-but-divisions-persist.
- Gomes, “Homophobic? Re-Read your Bible,” New York Times, August 17, 1992, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/ref/opinion/op-classic-gomes.html?pagewanted=all&ref=opinion.