Brad R. Braxton No Longer Slaves: Galatians and African American Experience (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2002).
Let me start with a little honesty, I picked this book on a whim. I was ordering several books on Galatians I “needed” to read and was a few dollars short of free shipping. This book got listed in the recommendations section, it was cheap and got me to free shipping, so I ordered it. And let me say, I am glad I did.
No Longer Slaves began as a master’s thesis at University of Oxford, but is ultimately a very personal and pastoral work. Braxton, who is a New Testament scholar, engages Galatians from the perspective of African American experience – the key link coming in Paul’s line “You are no longer a slave.” In the book Braxton unites his scholarly training with his experience in “exile” at Oxford to offer an interpretation of Galatians meant to “shine a beacon of liberation upon contemporary African American experience” (xi).
Two important notes before I engage the book: First, the structure of the book is intentional (110) as it begins with experience thens moves to methodology and interpretation of scripture. Braxton states, “There is no pre-existent, essential meaning of Galatians (or any text) for African Americans that can be discovered apart from the experience of African Americans…The experience is constitutive of the meaning” (110). Second, Braxton, honoring a request of his wife, writes a book “that the rest of us can read” (xiii). In other words, he is trying to write in such a way that those outside the academy can understand, while not forsaking intellectual rigor. This is a difficult task, but one I think all academics should consider before we write.
The book is divided into three chapters:
- Liberation and African American Experience
- A Reading Strategy for Liberation
- Galatians and African American Experience
1. The first chapter answers two questions: “Why is liberation self-evidently necessary?” and “What does liberation mean?”
According to Braxton, liberation is necessary because “Very simply, African Americans have seen the debilitating effects of bondage upon our collective self-esteem and our ability to be productive citizens” (2). Although the institution of slavery was abolished in the 19th-century, the effects linger. African Americans need to be liberated from the effects of bondage that still oppress them in American culture.
With this in mind, Braxton defines liberation as the building of “a distinctive culture, which is both black and American” (9). For Braxton, this is personal in that brings about changes for individuals as they can accept there unique identity, but ultimately it must bring about social transformation. This transformation would free both the oppressed from being “bound by the dominant white culture’s ideology and portrayal of African Americans” (12) and the oppressor from requiring African Americans to assimilate into white culture for acceptance. In the end, acceptance or recognition is key – liberation is not overthrowing one dominant culture so that it can be replaced by another, but equal recognition of diverse cultures as legitimate.
2. The second chapter focuses on the role scripture interpretation can play in liberating African Americans.
Braxton lays out a version of reader-response theory based upon Stanley Fish’s ideas, although not identical (28). The focus is on the reader in creating meaning as he/she encounters the text. The text itself holds no meaning apart from the readers experience (see quotes above) and Braxton acknowledges this leads to questions about scripture’s authority and inspiration. He offers his answer to these questions writing, “The Scriptures are not the word of God per se, but the Scriptures possess the potential to become the word of God as they are read faithfully and creatively under the auspices of the Holy Spirit and in light of the community’s ongoing experience” (35). Braxton knows this argument will not appease all, but affirms scripture is “a reliable place where the contemporary community gathers, hopeful for and, in fact, expectant of a word from God” (37). This chapter also identify’s Braxton’s primary interpretive community is the African American community.
3. The final chapter, over half the book, engages with eight section of Galatians [1:1-9; 2:1-10; 2:11-21; 3:1-5; 3:6-14; 3:26-29; 4:1-11; 5:13-26], each offering a general analysis of the text followed by the interpretations implications for the African American community.
Though it varies at points, Braxton’s interpretation of Galatians is in line with the New Perspective on Paul; James D. G. Dunn figures prominently in the discussion. Braxton’s pastor’s heart beats throughout the implications as interesting conclusions for the African American community, and American culture as a whole, flow in these sections. For example, in 2:1-10, Braxton finds a call for the acceptance of diverse cultures within the gospel community. He writes, “A commitment to the gospel would not, of necessity, entail a obliteration of one’s ethnic distinctiveness, yet a commitment to one’s ethnic distinctiveness would not, of necessity, obliterate the unity implied by the gospel” (69). And in 4:1-11, Braxton sees that the fullness of time has come for the elements of the world, one of which is racism, to be defeated by the cross.
In conclusion, let me offer a few strengths and weaknesses of the book.
Strengths – First of all, and sadly this is not true often enough, the book is very well written. I would say it is an easy read, but not in the sense it is unchallenging only that Braxton’s style and attention to detail make reading pleasurable. In fact, they make me want to hear him preach! Second, the first chapter is eye-opening. Braxton’s account of the need for liberation and the definition of liberation are excellent. As a white male, and someone with limited engagement with Black Liberation Theology, this chapter made me not only think about the ideas, but also to pause and consider ways I engage in oppression. His line highlighting African American experience, “the ambiguity of being stripped of one identity and never fully afforded another” (19), has stuck with me and is still forcing me to consider my own need of repentance. Finally, Braxton’s ability to relate the biblical text to contemporary experience is admirable. Although I felt that he strayed a little to far from the text at moments, the implications he draws are insightful
Weaknesses – My main disagreement stems from my concerns with his reader-response hermeneutic. While I agree that meaning lies in the encounter of the reader and the text, his insistence that all meaning comes from the reader’s experience, I believe, swings the pendulum to far in direction. His hermeneutic is what allows him to stray to far from the text, or the meaning that resides in and with the text, in some of his implications. Second, at times I felt like the goal was to be more African American than African American Christian. To the focus on being freed “to be unashamedly black” (92) in Christ, I say “Amen”, but is being fully integrated into American society the most important outcome? I tread lightly here, as I acknowledge my own limitations, but do wish there would have been more discussion on the integration of the church as the means to calling for changes in society.
Overall, I strongly encourage those interested in Galatians, interpretation, and especially those interested in using academics to influence culture to read Brad Braxton’s book.