By Stephen Breck Reid

The hermeneutic of suspicion and hope has long sustained the African-American community. Can it survive today's threats?

The stereotypical Euro-American biblical scholar is a solitary Euro American man with half-rimmed glasses, bent humbly over an obscure text written in a language few of us read. This solitary scholar goes to lunch with other solitary scholars, where they talk of research. Then one day the scholar casts out of his room in the ivory tower an interpretation of the Bible for the church to swallow and digest much as Ezekiel (3:13) swallowed the scroll. However, the church, unlike the stalwart Ezekiel, often suffers from indigestion and cannot or will not consume the scroll. On the contrary, the scroll is designated as too far from the church to nourish her. It is as if no matter how the laity (those in the church who are not professional biblical scholars) try, they cannot force the scroll down their throats in order to receive its nourishment. As a result, the ideas of the well-meaning biblical scholar often fail to feed the faith of the equally well-meaning nonbiblical scholar.

But sometimes, just sometimes, a scholar emerges who does not disperse his ideas from an ivory tower but instead leaps the gap between biblical research and the community. Walter Brueggemann is one who presents a creative synthesis of biblical research to nonspecialists. This daredevil of interpretation jumps over the arcane and lands safely on the side of a broader population within the faith community. The interpreter as Evil Knieval has much charm. In Hope within History, for example, Brueggemann integrates the developmental work of Carol Gilligan and James Fowler with the formative narratives in Exodus.

For the African-American community, however, neither the solitary bespectacled don of learning nor the daredevil Evil Knieval of interpretation serves as an appropriate model. The interpretive task for the African-American community of faith generally involves reading along with the scholar instead of scrutinizing scholarly scrolls dropped from the ivory tower or waiting for messages from the interpretive daredevil. Reading along with means that the African-American scholar/ preacher maintains an organic connection to the intellectual, cultural, activist, and liturgical African-American community. This community, of course, has never been monolithic, and in fact today we see what appears at first blush to be increased ideological diversity. Nonetheless, enough patterns of the tradition remain for us to speak of certain readings as typically African American.

But before we can move ahead, we must address some basic questions. Where do the models of interpretation, the bespectacled don and the interpretive daredevil, come from? What generates the third, African-American, model of reading the Bible communally? And why is that third model in danger?

The donnish model of interpretation comes from the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, the Bible "belonged" to the church; the church interpreted Scripture for the populace. This corporate guide to interpretation was not populist; in a preliterate society the leadership of the church interpreted the text on behalf of the broader group but not necessarily in conversation with it. The "privileged reading" of the text-that is, the "correct" interpretation-came from the theological experts. The proponents of the Enlightenment sought to treat the Bible as a book of reason, to be read as any other book; the "privileged reading" became the "university reading." And the Bible, previously chained to the church pulpit, became just as firmly chained to the professor's lectern. Now the experts on history, archeology, and biblical languages gave the "privileged reading."

Such heroic figures of the Enlightenment as Descartes, Hume, and Locke shaped all modern scholars, including biblical scholars. The product of reflection is to be dispassionate and free of contingency.[1] This style of reading produces an unfortunate by product, an interpretation that does not excite the public imagination. The Enlightenment does generate modes of interpretation congenial to one type of populism the individualistic but in so doing it has replaced the corporate, ecclesiastical guide to interpretation that the church once provided.[2]

The interpretive model tries to move a limited distance from the Enlightenment. The daredevil practitioners agree correctly that Enlightenment hermeneutics has problems, especially in its claim to dispassionate interpretation free of contingency. However, they underestimate the power of the Enlightenment ideology of reading texts. Their roots in the community of resistance are insufficiently deep to provide the level of radicality necessary for transformation of society through the church.

The African-American community provides a third model. It experiences Scripture and biblical studies in a significantly different fashion for two reasons. First, African Americans are stepchildren of the Enlightenment, which their community did not experience directly: The same Enlightenment that sowed the seeds of the end of slavery also provided theoretical and theological support for the ideology of racism. The discussion of slavery in the Continental Congress displays the facile accommodation the Enlightenment made to the ideology of slavery and racism. The work of African-American biblical scholars in books like Stony the Road We Trod, Renita Weems's Just a Sister Away, Cain Felder's Troubling Biblical Waters, and Stephen Reid's Experience and Tradition share not only an African-American perspective but also a critical view of the Enlightenment and the style of reading that it engendered.

The Enlightenment, though it influences us all, comes from the particular cultural context of Germany and Britain that the American colonists saw as their heritage. Its mentality created an idiosyncratically political context in which the new appreciation of the individual and individual liberty for decade upon decade found a way to overlook the African slave as an individual. In consequence, the African-American stepchildren of the Enlightenment did not see this European intellectual tradition as their own heritage.

What does it mean to be a stepchild of the Enlightenment? The story of Cinderella is instructive here. In the tragic world of the fairy tale the stepchild learns from the disparity between her and her stepsisters, the biological children. She is alien-grafted onto the family tree. The biological child is sometimes today given the designation the "natural" child with all the legitimacy and power that comes with the word "natural." The Enlightenment constructs a world where the "natural" view is Eurocentric and the "natural" children are of European origin. However, unlike Cinderella, the African-American community does not exchange its status as stepchild for the privileges of royalty.

What the stepchild experience does create is an "Alice in Wonderland" world where nothing is what it seems. Paul Ricoeur highlights three thinkers in the history of philosophy who recognized a disparity between the world and its appearances the three masters of suspicion Marx, Metzsche, and Freud.[3] Ricoeur's proposal for a hermeneutics of suspicion resonates with the experience of African Americans. The African-American literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in Signifying Monkey, points out similarities between a hermeneutics of suspicion, deconstruction, and traditional African and African-American styles of interpretation.[4] As stepchildren of the Enlightenment African-American scholars/preachers employ a hermeneutic of suspicion to which they add hope.

What do we mean by hermeneutics of suspicion and hope? The stepchild learns, through deciphering texts and experience, that the natural child's view of truth is based on a lie. In order to uncover the truth the interpreter must first address the lie. The "natural" child lies. Traditionally, African Americans take that as a starting point of interpretation inherited from Euro-American scholars. Their hermeneutics of suspicion formulates new readings to replace what the dominant group calls "the accepted reading"; it clears away the debris of conventional reading and moves to a different style of deciphering.[5]

But why talk about a hermeneutics that adds hope to suspicion? Why not a hermeneutics of suspicion alone? Because the survivalist instinct in the African-American community traditionally rejected the hermeneutics of suspicion alone as insufficient sustenance for the community because it yields only nihilism and despair. The hermeneutics of hope is necessary, and it springs from faith and Scripture. The vision of the reign of God and of a just world puts the lie to conventional readings of Scripture. And Scripture is the keystone.

A central characteristic of the slave church was its biblical orientation, a characteristic which continues to this day in the black church. But from the early days of the slave church to the present, black Christians have rarely received the biblical interpretation of white scholars/ preachers uncritically.

The drive for an unmediated access to the text in the slave church propelled the desire for literacy among black Christians. However, literacy then was a charged political issue: the educated slave who could read the Bible was often tortured for the effort. William McWhorter testifies, "Folks did tell 'bout some de owners dat cut off one finger evvy time they cotch a slave tryin' to git larnin'. How-some-ever dere was some Niggers dat wanted larnin' so bad dey would slip out at nigth...."[6] The hermeneutics of suspicion and hope rises from the smoldering embers of the church of resistance.

The black church uses a hermeneutics of suspicion because of the way Scripture has been used against African Americans in order to support racist policies.[7] The curse of Ham (Gen. 9:20-26) was. used by white slave owners to provide divine sanction for enslaving Africans. Paul's letter to Philemon was used to demonstrate divine sanction for slavery. The Tower of Babel story was used to demonstrate divine sanction for separation and segregation according to racial and social class (Genesis 11). The household codes of 1 Peter were used to promote a socially conservative view of Christianity.

When we talk about a hermeneutics of suspicion, what are readers supposed to be suspicious of? To begin with, they should exercise suspicion whenever a text or interpretation of a text is used to buttress the present social order. However, the hermeneutics of suspicion used in the black community differs from French-style deconstruction: the former suspects that each reading may conceal the ideology of racism that permeates American culture and the latter has an anti-institutional bent;[8] without hope, it collapses quickly into nihilism.

The hermeneutics of suspicion and hope merges with African American patriotism: "For the black community, patriotism refers to loyalty to a nation and ideals that a nation holds as inviolate, such as freedom and justice."[9] Ironically the African-American community is often accused of not being patriotic when it takes stands that call into question Eurocentric hegemony. Euro-Americans, however, complain with different levels of sophistication--"If you don't like the racism of the U.S. it is because you (people of color) don't love the U.S." Traditionally, the African-American community has been suspicious of the ideology of racism but not about the ability to have a viable institution. Therefore, despite the vociferous winds of racism, African Americans have been a most patriotic people.[10] Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, both encouraged black participation in the military. Nonetheless, as the black underclass loses hope and the unchurched African-American community grows, the nihilist position of French deconstruction may find its intellectual counterpart in the black community.

In contrast to the Euro-American model, in the main African American scholars/preachers have been "organic intellectuals," the term Cornel West borrows from Gramsci to describe their holistic approach.[11] These organic intellectuals share two characteristics: (1) They are rooted in the soil of the black community, and their political solidarity generates an activism on behalf of the black community. (2) They share in the African-American cultural heritage and make use of that heritage in the nurturance of the African-American community.[12]

Two recent scholars can serve as models of the organic intellectuals. Clarice Martin and Katie Cannon harvest the garden of African American cultural heritage and transform what they find there for the banquet table of African-American interpretation. Katie Cannon's treatment of Christian ethical resources draws on the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and her conversation with biblical traditions.[13] New Testament scholar Clarice Martin examines the spiritual autobiographies of Sojourner Truth and Maria Stewart ("America's first African-American political writer"), drawing on their interaction with Scripture to deepen her discussion of evil and suffering.[14] In Experience and Tradition I argue that good exegesis has three movements: a critical reading of the text; a reclaiming of the African-American discussion on the topic of the text, which means a look at the cultural heritage of African Americans; and finally, the application of the text to the life of the black church community.[15]

Guides to Interpretation

The hermeneutics of suspicion and hope, and the practice of organic intellectuals suggest alternative guides to interpretation. Whereas the two dominant models of interpretation, the bespectacled don and the interpretive daredevil, derive from the Enlightenment and the "university model," the alternative approach emerges from the African American church community.

The educational mission of the black church and the transformational mission of the black church have come together to engender an interpretive style honoring the unity that dominates the African-American reading of Scripture. The church educates for resistance to a sinful world, whose sins includes racism; in trying to live according to the coming reign of God, the church likewise transforms its members. The transforming and educational missions coalesce.

In theory, every church has a transformational mission. However, experience indicates that the transformational mission of many churches leaves in place the present distribution of power and material goods. In contrast, the African-American church traditionally questions the present distribution of power and material goods, giving its transformational mission a different force.

The transformational mission of the university, on the other hand, has always been suspect for one simple reason: it does not attempt to transform the society that pays its bills. And as we have seen earlier, the university reading dominates Euro-American biblical interpretation. The very presuppositions of the African-American "organic intellectual" tradition necessarily contradict the dispassionate and idiosyncratically political research of the Euro-American university.

The university-driven perspective of the Euro-American church struggles to eschew "political preaching." Stephen Carter offers a university perspective, criticizing both the "left" and the "right" for engaging in this practice. It is instructive, however, that the example he uses lampoons the left:

Shortly after moving to New Haven, Connecticut, my wife and I tried out a church about which we heard marvelous stories. The sermon was delivered with energy by a young woman a divinity student, I believe with the light of the zealot in her eyes and the flame of absolute conviction in her voice. She wanted to set us straight on Central America.... I was struck, eventually, by the realization that the preacher in question had no conception of the possibility of a faith not guided by prior political commitments.[16]

Carter would designate this sermon as political but he would argue that it is not preaching. Why? Because the prior commitment is political. A more positive way to make the same point would argue that preaching is rooted in Scripture and tradition. "A sermon is scriptural when it inscribes a community into an ongoing Christian narrative."[17] Yet at the same time all preaching is political-the result of contingent sets of circumstances which inevitably have to do with power.[18] As Hoyt insists, "Blacks read the Bible historically and concretely. It was the black preacher who told the stories of Israel liberated from the bondage of Egypt; of the three Hebrew 'boys' in the fiery furnace; of the dry bones in the valley; and of the birth, death, suffering, sorrow, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ."[19] These readings took place in the context of "political preaching."

The black neighborhood and church have traditionally formed the interpretive context, and preaching has been the crucible of African American biblical interpretation; preaching and worship constitute the implementation of interpretation. The neighborhood kept the preacher/ scholar focused on the needs and the language and life world of the community. The African-American community pioneered a populist hermeneutic, a guide of interpretation that moves contrary to the assumptions of the secular university. This populist hermeneutic finds a rudder in the vision of the Reign of God and the just world. With this in mind one gets a different view of political preaching and gets a better understanding of the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.

On April 3, 1968 King preached on Deuteronomy 34, Moses' look over to the Promised Land, amid the Memphis sanitation workers strike. The strike had not gone well and the successes of the Birmingham bus boycott seemed a world away. The press, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Left, and the ever-present quietist movement were besieging King from all sides. With this context in mind, he returns to the rhetorical rubrics that gave birth to the Civil Rights movement. King starts with social analysis, a hermeneutic of suspicion, and moves to interpretation of biblical material, his hermeneutic of hope.

"I can remember," he says early in the sermon, "I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph [Abernathy] has said so often, scratching where they did not itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world."[20]

Beginning with Moses as the prototype for King, the sermon continues by exhorting the leaders to follow Amos and Jesus as models for action. Finally, the entire group presents an analogue to the Hebrews on their way to the promised land: "But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land."[21]

This sermon illustrates the shared hermeneutic of the African American community, a hermeneutic of suspicion and hope-a populist hermeneutic rooted in a vision of the full and just reign of God. That night one could see the check and balance of interpretation in the preaching event itself The traditional African-American liturgy has an antiphonal nature.[22] If the preacher/scholar gets off track, there is no "amen" to bring him/her "home." The congregation corroborated and validated his interpretation. For the organic scholar/preacher Bible study and preaching lead naturally and inexorably to a life of activism; but the activism is never solitary; the antiphonal response validates the interpretation but also promises community activism.

It may seem to the casual observer that the congregation merely rewards preaching that supports the congregation's political interests. However, in African-American tradition the preacher can challenge the political understanding of the congregation. Even when there is resistance to the interpretation, the congregation will continue the dialogue. However, antiphonal preaching requires that the challenge have an engaging quality in keeping with the style and cadence of black preaching.

A third element of the common hermeneutic between the African American scholar/preacher and the community of faith is the christological or trinitarian hermeneutic. On the one hand, the African American scholar/preacher realizes that Jesus does not figure in the Hebrew Bible. On the other, the astute African-American interpreter has sense enough to know that if the interpretation does not make contact with the Christ of the community he/she is "just talking," not "preaching."

One evening at a dinner party, some seminarians were talking about sermons. One woman asked me whether my sermons have a "JPL." For a while I kept quiet, until it became clear that I was going to have to ask what a "JPL" was. It seems that the African-Methodist-Episcopal woman who taught preaching had told her students, "In the black church, if you do not have a Jesus Punch Line, you have not preached." Just as a punch line is the payoff for a joke, so also the christological reflection brings together the theological importance of the biblical reading.[23]

That is to say, a nonchristological or nontrinitarian reading is not a "privileged reading." The scholar may think that one can climb over the cross to a pre-Christian reading but the community of believers instructs him/her otherwise.[24] The old spiritual speaks for black hermeneutics when it says, "If you don't have Jesus, you don't have nothing."

The Hebrew Bible, the First Testament in Christian tradition, provides both the key narrative and poetic language that shape the identity of the African-American believing community. However, those identitygiving narratives and the poetic language that is the common currency of black preaching are always refracted through the lens of the cross and the empty tomb.

Is the Fabric of Interpretive Consensus Tearing?

The fabric of the interpretive unity between scholar and community is at risk. There is increasing evidence of the danger that the gap experienced in Euro-American communities between the biblical scholar and the reading community of nonspecialists will be replicated in the black community. The three elements of shared hermeneutic, which brought an interpretive unity and flexibility that addressed the meaninglessness of African-American existence, are all under attack.

Threat to a hermeneutics of suspicion and hope. "Black liberals and conservatives simply fail to come to terms with the existential meaninglessness and personal despair throughout Afro-American."[25] Black conservatives deny a hermeneutics of suspicion because they view the battle for civil rights as finished and the beast of racism destroyed. As a consequence, the disparity between experience and conventional reading does not occur to them.[26] Perhaps this is because conservatives overindividualize the issues of meaninglessness and despair. Black liberals, on the other hand, trivialize issues of meaningless and despair by reducing them to mere political entities. Nonetheless, neither black liberals nor conservatives have at this point fallen into the nihilism displayed by some Euro-American intellectual fads.

The hermeneutics of suspicion and hope bubbles up from the congregational context. Therefore, the growing unchurched black population presents a new set of problems. (By "unchurched" I do not mean non-Christian; Muslims in the black community preserve a hermeneutics of suspicion and hope.) When the unchurched black underclass encounters the Bible it is typically through the lens of the Euro-American ruling class. The result can be abandonment of the Bible-and despair.

The middle-class black from an unchurched context also has problems to deal with in regard to reading the Bible. Take, for instance, the case of a black university student who comes face to face with the Enlightenment reading of Scripture without the support of an institutional reading like that provided in the black church. Such a student has few resources for alternatives to the conventional interpretation of the professor. The individual black reader without benefit of the community/congregation is ill-equipped to do battle with the reading of the Euro-American powers.

Threat to christological and trinitarian interpretation. Black liberals, in a false sense of openness, have abdicated the strong christological and trinitarian hermeneutics of the traditional black church. Abandoning the radical/biblical judgment on racism as sin, they leave the African-American critique of sin and racism without the eschatological hope attached to traditional black christology.

Threat to the populist hermeneutic. The populist hermeneutic assumes that the strength of theological reflection and biblical interpretation comes from solidarity in the community. Today the idea of such black solidarity as well as the practice of black solidarity is in question. Black conservatism seems to fear that solidarity with the less powerful provides a weak theological political resource.[27] Even if one grants that the solidarity intrinsic to a populist hermeneutic is good, today the organic scholar requires new strategies in order to maintain solidarity. More and more, relatively prosperous professors reside in predominantly Euro-American neighborhoods and are less and less in touch with the black underclass.[28] The church no longer represents as powerful a force in the black community or in the lives of black university professors. As African-American biblical scholars become more enamored of and beholden to the university, the fabric that connects the reading of the scholar with the African-American community dissolves. As the number of university-trained biblical Ph.D. scholars increases, the likelihood of university interpretive styles of reading may displace the traditional style of reading the Bible in the African-American community. Those scholars who depend on the university for a living instead of depending on the black church face the same temptation, especially if they do not live in black neighborhoods as they did thirty years ago.

Every reading in the African-American community is an endangered reading. The pushes and shoves of Euro-American cultural and economic forces make the three points of shared hermeneutics difficult to maintain, even though they have nurtured the black church through slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights, and beyond. A dangerous gap of interpretation that may erode the black church of resistance looms on the horizon. We need to heed the admonition of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

We've got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court, and he can not hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together (and read together), that's the beginning of getting out of slavery.[29]


[1] W. Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 4.

[2] S. Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from the Captivity to America (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993),15.

[3] P.Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 32.

[4] H. L. Gates, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University, 1988), 51f. R. Weems, "Reading Her Way through the Struggle: African American Women and the Bible," in C. H. Felder, ea., Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 57-80.

[5] P.Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 32-36.

[6] A. J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford Press, 1978), 239.

[7] S. B. Reid, Experience and Tradition: A Primer in Black Biblical Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 19.

[8] P.Paris, The Social Teaching of the Black Churches (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 83.

[9] S. B. Reid, Experience and Tradition, 54.

[10] Paris, The Social Teaching of the Black Churches, 83.

[11] C. West, Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 118-20.

[12] S. B. Reid, Experience and Tradition, 20.

[13] K. Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 105-57.

[14] C. J. Martin, "Biblical Theodicy and Black Women's Spiritual Autobiography: 'The Miry Bog, the Desolate Pit, a New Song in My Mouth,'" 13-36, in E. M. Townes, ea., A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993).

[15] S. B. Reid, Experience and Tradition, 19-22.

[16] S. L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 69.

[17] Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scriptures, 42.

[18] Ibid., 42.

[19] T. Hoyt "Interpreting Biblical Scholarship for the Black Church Tradition," in Stony the Road We Trod, 29.

[20] M. L. King, Jr., "I See the Promised Land," in J. Washington, ea., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 280.

[21] King, Testament of Hope, 286.

[22] M. W. Costen, African American Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 46.

[23] Reid, Experience and Tradition, 23.

[24] We can see resonances of this among some Euro-American scholars. See G. Lindbeck, "Scripture, Consensus and Community" in R. J. Neuhaus, ea., Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 86-87.

[25] C. West, "Assessing Black Neoconservatism," in Prophetic Fragments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 62.

[26] One can talk about this as a problem of a misplaced realized eschatology. However, that would require more attention and space than we have available here.

[27] West, "Assessing Black Neoconservatism," 58.

[28] W. J. Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[29] King, "I See the Promised Land," 280. Parenthetical comments added.


STEPHEN BRECK REID is professor of Old Testament at Austin Presbyterian Seminary and author of Experience and Tradition: A Primer in Black Biblical Hermeneutics (Abingdon, 1990).

Copyright of the Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.  Cross Currents, Winter94/95, Vol. 44 Issue 4, p476, 12p.