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.

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Dominique Gilliard

4 Comments

  1. Dominique, wanted to say that I really enjoyed this piece and your response to Field’s article. In particular, the sentence “In this way, a black hermeneutic is innovative, embodied, and resilient – a corrective to Western Christianity’s disembodied, ahistorical tendency” conveyed to me the gift that comes when all members of the Church are present and have the freedom to speak at the table. But with this gift comes task – to reject the unspoken universality of ‘white theology,’ to listen and make space for marginalized voices, and to mourn and repent for past wrongs and on-going injustice. This article reminded me of the great gift of a Black hermeneutic perspective as well as calling me respond appropriately.

    • Thank you Andy, I really appreciate your words of affirmation and I am humbled by your insights. I am thankful that the Spirit spoke through my words and I am glad that we are in this together! You are exactly right, it is such a gift when the mosaic nature of the body is fully represented, affirmed, and equally heard. And in regards to your comment on lamentation, I really do believe that it is time that we start having conversations around incorporating lament as a habitual spiritual practice and disciple. Lament helps fosters a faithful disposition within us, towards both God and neighbor.

  2. Thank you to Dominique Gilliard for a very thoughtful response to Bruce Fields. Both Fields’ article and Gilliard’s response deepened my awareness of the value and gift to the church offered by black hermeneutics. My hope is that I and others may receive that gift with open hands and hearts.
    I appreciated Gilliard’s nuanced acceptance of Fields’ call not to neglect prior theological tradition. As one who has my own issues with Augustine, for far different reasons, I agree that any great theologian of the past need not be swallowed whole or without critique.
    Gilliard’s explanation of the offensiveness of the phrase “black on black crime,” helped me understand better the political and polemical implications of the term, an issue of which I was only vaguely aware from Facebook posts around the injustice in Ferguson, etc.
    I accept Gilliard’s point that white theology has often perceived itself as universal when it is not, but I wonder about his implication that such theology has been uniformly “disembodied.” The great tradition of Christian theology, both east and west, has from the beginning distanced and distinguished itself from gnostic theology which wishes to spiritualize salvation and deemphasize the body. I do, however, grant that there has been a strong gnostic tendency in modern Protestant theology and so his point is well-taken in that context. Perhaps we might say that white theology has failed to recognize the implications of its theology of embodiment, i.e., that the Body of Christ includes black and other non-white bodies and the differences of those bodies have theological significance.
    My largest question regarding Gilliard’s response centers around his last paragraph concerning the presence of black voices at the theological table. I am not sure how to understand, “Not all black theological reflections are grounded in a black hermeneutic.” On the one hand it seems to make it difficult, especially for a white person, to choose which black theological voices to listen to. On the other hand, it makes me wonder who is the arbiter of which black theological voices are authentically grounded in a black hermeneutic. My guess is that Gilliard would especially esteem those voices which exercise a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” which Fields discusses near the beginning of his article. But I would wonder, with Fields, whether that sort of hermeneutic, shared with womanist and other postmodern philosophies, is the only authentic kind of black hermeneutic voice.
    In all this I will confess that, as a white male with a lifelong investment in the established academy and traditional theology, I am way out of my depth in these reflections and certainly have many misunderstandings and prejudices which need repentance and correction. So I thank Gilliard (and Fields) and any other African American readers of this for any grace or enlightenment they may care to offer to this old white dog.

    • Thank you, Steve, for your rich engagement of my response. I appreciate your thorough reflection, your words of affirmation, and the important questions that you raise. Regarding my use of the term “disembodied,” I agree with you that the theology in question is not quite gnostic in nature. I affirm your assessment that it “has failed to recognize the implications of its theology of embodiment, i.e., that the Body of Christ includes black and other non-white bodies and the differences of those bodies have theological significance”. I, however, would also suggest that these differences are not exclusively theological but are also concrete and made manifest in the social currency in which our bodies have been socially ascribed.

      Your later question is a great one, one which I anticipated being raised. First, let me say that I resonate with how this statement troubles the waters and particularly makes it difficult for those outside of the black community. But, the reality is that this is really difficult work – work that I insist we are incapable of doing in our own strength. The answer to this question begins with a healthy dependence upon the Spirit as our guide in discernment. The reality is that not every theological reflection made by a black person is made from the perspective of, in the best interest of, nor representative of a black communal ethos. Now, I know that it is difficult–if not virtually impossible–to make such an all-encompassing statement because in actuality, there is not a singular black communal ethos. Nonetheless, to exemplify what I mean, let’s use slavery as an example (because this is what Augustine uplifted, but let’s look at it from a U.S. context).

      On most plantations, there were black overseers – individuals who represented and protected the interest of their masters. These individuals were willing to do harm to the broader black community for their personal advancement, in spite of being black themselves. While they might not have started off doing their job for this reason, their own advancement and comfort within this oppressive system oftentimes became the driving force for their actions over time. Consequently,their worldview gradually became so divorced from that of the broader black community from which they came and for whom someone could easily – yet mistakenly – believe that they spoke for and represented. Thus, if this overseer were asked to make a theological assessment of something like the ethical nature of the role of an overseer in the broader system of slavery, their assessment would not be grounded in a black hermeneutic.

      Therefore, I would say that there are two arbiters of a black hermeneutic: the black community and the black church. These two sources determine one’s rootedness in a black hermeneutic, but I also believe that there are checks and balances that we can use as litmus test for being rootedness in a black hermeneutic. Some examples of these checks might be:

      1) Does the analysis\reflection take history, embodiment, and the socioeconomic realities of our world seriously?
      2) Are these lens evident in the theological analysis\reflection?
      3) Is the praxis practically identifiable within the analysis\reflection?
      4) what sources were used to derive the analysis\reflection?

      Finally, I would contend that it would be a mistake to lump me into the group which Field’s describes as esteeming those voices which exercise a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” because while this hermeneutic is valuable and relevant in many cases, I don’t necessarily see it as a hallmark of a black hermeneutic.

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