Demetrius Williams: Black Abolitionists “Putting Paul Back Together”

Demetrius K. Williams, “African American Approaches: Rehumanizing the Reader against Racism and Reading through Experience,” in Studying Paul’s Letters: Contemporary Perspective and Methods, edited by Joseph A. Marchal (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 160.

Despite the proslavery portrayal of Paul, several blacks developed a more nuanced understanding of Paul. Instead of outright rejection, they sought instead to “put Paul back together again.” Although the letters and legacy of Paul were used to support slavery and oppression, black abolitionists believed that a different image of “Paul” could be reconstructed to support slavery’s abolition and win Paul over for the cause of freedom. Black abolitionists, then, reconstructed “Paul” by using several strategies: (1) utilizing positive statements of Paul against those that were negative to critique slavery’s mythological structures; (2) assuming a typological correspondence between Paul and the said abolitionist; and (3) seeking the general “spirit” of Paul. These strategies were used to sustain a hermeneutic of liberation using a reconstructed “Paul” as a cornerstone. The African Americans’ “Paul” of liberation could be seen most clearly through the egalitarian vision of Galatians 3:28, which provided them with a “new principle” for understanding God, humanity and their social situation.

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