Sharing a witness of Word and thought, as led by the Spirit. Let anyone who has ears . . .
A Black history reading of 1 Corinthians 10:1–13
A retelling of the Black experience in the United States
by Derrick McQueen
Last February, during Black History Month, I read this 1 Corinthians text and felt as if I was reading about the Black experience in the United States. And yet, it was not as gentle as Paul’s retelling of the Moses story. I read the Scripture and thought about the context of Black history, and I heard it a little differently. And here is what I heard.
“I do not want you to be unaware, my brothers and my sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud of slavery. And all came through the Middle Passage of the sea. Through the deaths of mothers, unwilling to bring their children into slavery, who jumped into the sea; through the deaths of those who jumped overboard to fly away home; through the deaths of those who rebelled and were thrown into the sea . . . we were all baptized in the cloud.
We all ate the same food, the salted scraps of meat that we were given, the yield from our patches of garden—the yams, the greens—to stay strong through our bondage. We all shared the same water when we saw another one thirst in the noonday sun in the cotton and tobacco fields.
We learned of a rock where there flowed a living water, and that Rock was Jesus. This spiritual Rock of living water followed us as we stole away in the night finding our way north by feeling for the moss that grew on the north side of the trees, guiding us to freedom.
Nevertheless, God heard our cry and was not pleased with this country’s sin of slavery. A war struck thousands down in the wilderness, a war that saw brother fight against brother.
These things occurred as an example to this nation, so that we might not desire evil as those who came before us did—those who embraced not only slavery, but also the violence, torture, sexual immorality, hoarding of wealth, and all the evils that came with it. For these things, though unwritten in most history books, are burned into the legacy of this nation.
But we have not learned from these things. African Americans are still being treated as property. The school-to-prison pipeline makes our young men vulnerable to be sold and traded as property of the state. Sandra Bland dies in a jail cell, as have other Black women—we still live in a time of torture. We have been infected with the rationale that our sexual bodies are not holy. We have taken on the curse placed upon us when our sexuality was a plaything to the plantation owners. We still live in a world where hoarding money and not caring for those who have less is par for the course; it’s just expected, it seems. And we all can be seduced by that idol, the almighty dollar.
People, we must resist the desire for evil that is all around us. If we profess to follow Christ, then we must not put him to the test. We cannot waste our time simply complaining and not ask God to help us find a way through. These things we see all around us in our world today happen to serve as an example of what not to hold important. They are written down in our newspapers and websites to instruct us that Jesus has a better way to be in this world.
And so if you think you are standing for Christ, watch out that you do not fall. Just stand. In looking back over history, we see that no testing has overtaken our people. And in looking at today’s world politics, we see that our testing has been made common to other people of color around the world. But it is through our history that we can be a witness to the world. It is our legacy to just stand. It is our duty as African American Christians to spread the good news from a new perspective. With our history on our backs we can go forth into the world with great power. Others who are suffering will know that we speak the truth when we say, ‘God is faithful. God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.’ It is our duty to show that our legacy is proof of the good news in Jesus Christ.”
And that, my friends, is how I read 1 Corinthians 10:1–13 last Black History Month.
Derrick McQueen is the interim pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem and the assistant director of the Center for African American Religion, Social Justice, and Sexual Politics at Columbia University.