Not long ago, Lisa Bowens came out with a resource covering the wide topic of African-American interpretations of Paul. In particular, Bowens strives to paint a picture of how many in the African-American Church understood Paul and even considered him an ally in their fight for freedom.

Bowens begins by pointing out that many African slaves were skeptical of the Christianity perpetuated by their white owners. Since their masters tended to use Paul’s letters against them (telling them to joyfully submit), many developed a low view of Paul’s letters. That said, that was not always the case as Bowens’ work itself attests to.

Many Christian slaves saw in their slave masters a serious hypocrisy and neglect of the heart of Paul’s letters. Bowens documents many of these American slaves and their prophetic role in calling the white American Church to repentance. Using logic and exegesis, these black theologians and deep thinkers (some of them were freed while some remained slaves) boldly challenged the status quo and the injustice that white Christians perpetuated. In response, white owners continued to use the Bible to tell their slaves that their plight (=slavery and domination by the white other) was in fact God’s will.

Bowens documents that initially, many white slave owners were hesitant of their slaves embracing Christianity since the Christian faith affirmed the humanity and dignity of all. Thus they selectively searched their Bibles for proof-texts and would use Paul’s letters (or rather snippets of his letters) in an attempt to shut their Christian slaves up.  As a result, many slaves either rejected Christianity, or accepted Jesus but rejected Paul. And yet a great number of slaves began to see for themselves that it was not Paul’s letters that were corrupted but the strange Christianity that whites had developed that ignored not only the Exodus but the heart of Paul’s letters.

Slave owners wanted to be viewed as the ultimate authority of slaves, another reason why they discouraged slaves from converting to Christianity. Bowens points out that slave masters wanted “enslaved Africans [to] believe in their owners’ total claim to their bodies, minds, and souls believe that their existence rested upon the slaveholders alone” (p. 64). In response to this, many slaves insisted that they belonged to God, not man (white or otherwise).

When they could not prevent the slaves from converting, white slave masters sought to control the Christianity of the slaves by closely monitoring them and what was said from the pulpit. Many masters wanted specific vetted preachers to teach and only on specific subjects. Even white guest ministers/speakers had to be very careful with what they preached to slaves, or else pay the price.

Slavery was not reflective of God’s Wills

While slave masters sought to control the narrative by insisting that slavery was God’s will, many slaves and freed slaves fought against this misunderstanding of Scripture. They instead insisted that slavery reflected the nature of Satan rather than the will (and character) of God. The God of the Bible was the God of the Exodus, the God who opposed (rather than approved of) Pharaoh and his oppressive tendencies. Some argued that the slavery that Hebrews experienced in the Bible (in Egypt) was lighter than the slavery of Africans in America. And yet many black Christians felt hope in the fact that their oppressive masters (who used Scripture to justify sadistic tendencies) would face their Creator one day and need to give an account for their cruelty. As Bowens documents, there were times when the slave masters realized this and feared this reality, though at times their “repentance” was short-lived.

In part 2 of my review, I’ll bring into a focus two of the many African-American figures that Bowens highlights in African American Readings of Paul.

I received my copy from Eerdmans Publishing in exchange for an honest review.