A Response to Bruce Fields

In this post Dominique Gilliard responds to Bruce Fields’s article on black hermeneutics, published in the most recent issue of the Covenant Quarterly. Do you agree or disagree? Add your own response, to Fields and/or Gilliard, within the comments section (see link above, under title).

Dominique Gilliard

Dominique Gilliard

In his article “The One and the Many: What Can Be Learned from a Black Hermeneutic,” Bruce Fields correctly articulates that a Black hermeneutic is “not only a way of reading and communicating the messages of the Bible; it is also a way of interpreting the complexities of life” (p. 44). This definition crystallizes why Fields believes the church must expand its biblical and cultural hermeneutic. Fields provides revelatory insight into the interplay between Scripture and culture, saying faithful hermeneutics require “serious study of the biblical text” and “careful communication of the message to an audience in its situatedness” (p. 52). Moreover, he appropriately concludes that “the hermeneutical task is impeded” if either element is deficient.

Fields also fittingly cautions against dismissing our Christian fore-parents. However, he may read Augustine too sympathetically. While Augustine does correctly acknowledge that slavery is a manifestation of humanity’s sinful condition and does not racialize it, does a black hermeneutic not challenge his claim that slavery “can only happen by the judgement of God…who knows how to assign different punishments according to the merits of the offenders” (City of God 19.15)? Moreover, Augustine’s claim that “clearly it is a happier lot to be enslaved to a man than to be enslaved to lust” is a statement that one who has never been enslaved has no grounds to make. It is a statement of privilege that elevates the spiritual over the material and fails to adequately address the concrete realities of oppression, exploitation, and death slavery breeds. Nevertheless, Fields is correct that attention to our Christian fore-parents helps ground hermeneutics in a tradition that transcends us and provides wisdom that guide us, even in our modern context.

I was surprised Fields used the phrase “black on black crime” since statistics reveal that all races are overwhelmingly more prone to commit intraracial crimes. The fact that we routinely say “black on black crime” and not “white on white crime” or “Asian on Asian crime” reflects the correlation between blackness and criminality embedded deep within our nation’s psyche. Employing this phrase only serves to reify and legitimate this correlation. When ghettoized, “black on black crime” is propaganda, a political talking point. For this reason I believe it is imperative to instead name “black on black crime” – when used as a special category – an illegitimate figment of our nation’s imagination.

It would have been helpful if Fields’ description of a black hermeneutic addressed whiteness’s claim to universality (as Lee discusses in his article, pp. 12-13). A black hermeneutic helps reveal how white theology clandestinely became universal – and, in the process, disembodied – theology. Camouflaged in universals, Eurocentric theology was set apart, against, and above contextualized theologies that acknowledge the embodied social locations from which they derive. Consequently, the scholarship of women and people of color became hyphenated, stigmatized theology. A black hermeneutic elucidates and names as white theology what otherwise operates unrecognized under the pretext of universality.

In this way, a black hermeneutic is innovative, embodied, and resilient – a corrective to Western Christianity’s disembodied, ahistorical tendency. Against the universal claims of dominant theology, a black hermeneutic insists that all theology emerges from lived experience – that all theology is contextual theology.

Finally, Fields rightly insists that all members of Christ’s body must be present and given a voice at the table for the fullness of the church to be realized. It bears stating that that merely having black faces present does not fulfill this call. Not all black theological reflections are grounded in a black hermeneutic. Consequently, the table must be radically reevaluated; we must not settle for reconsidering who is seated around it, but must insist on interrogating the operative power dynamics of the table itself.

What do you think of the points Gilliard identifies as strengths in Fields’ argument and those he problematizes? Join the dialogue by clicking on the comments link, located under the title above.

DominiqueDominique DuBois Gilliard is a graduate of North Park Theological Seminary and an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Dominique serves on the pastoral staff at New Hope Covenant Church, in Oakland California. Dominique also serves on the board of directors for the Christian Community Development Association. Dominique blogs at http://ctobt.com/. You can also follow him on Twitter @WEB_Ture.