Cain Hope Felder used to hate his name. Now he enjoys its balance of despair and promise, and the way it symbolizes the work that has absorbed him for 15 years.
Felder, professor at Howard University School of Divinity, has been researching the presence of blacks in the Bible. He said his recent book, “Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family,” is an attempt to correct “historical distortions” favorable to European civilization.
Scholars and missionaries, he says, have taught that blacks have no substantive history until 1600 and have encouraged the notion that the Bible is a document of the white man’s religion.
By dispelling those myths, Felder says, he hopes to prove the Bible preaches racial pluralism and equality. “This is not black romanticism. . . . This is not a book against white people,” he said.
“Out of bitterness that comes from being robbed of your history, some religious groups recast the whole Bible, they paint everything and everyone black. I’m saying we don’t need to react like this. Racial pluralism is part of the biblical story.”
Two main tracks run through Felder’s book. One is the story of important black men and women in the Bible, the other is the relevance of the Bible to black churches and families today.
Felder, 46, says the book comes out of his own personal pilgrimage. He learned about social injustice growing up in the Boston ghetto.
He had his first black teacher when he was an undergraduate at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t even know blacks could get Ph.Ds until then,” he said.
As a theology and divinity student at Columbia University in New York and Oxford University, England, he would ask his professors about the black presence in the Bible. “I got only two answers: ‘We don’t know’ or ‘That’s not important.’ . . . I decided to find out myself.”
His research took him to Egypt, where he examined pictorial reliefs and archeological records. He devotes a chapter of his book to arguing that the Queen of Sheba, who was enthralled by Solomon’s wisdom, was a black African and not a light-skinned South Arabian. Blacks have an ancient history in the dynasties of Egypt, Felder says.
He cites archeological discoveries near the border of Egypt and Sudan (ancient Nubia) that indicate Nubian Pharaohs existed six or seven generations before the First Dynasty of Egypt.
He points out numerous Old Testament passages that speak favorably of blacks. Texts indicate blacks served in the Hebrew army and were even part of the royal court. Ethiopians are portrayed as a wealthy people, merchants whose land was rich in precious stones.
Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian, goes before the King to save Jeremiah’s life and receives a singular divine blessing. Solomon woos the black Shulamite maiden whom we’re told is “beautiful like the full moon, pure like the glowing sun.”
Arthur Vaneck of the National Council of Churches agrees that the black presence in the Bible has been overlooked, as has the importance of women. Felder spends most of a chapter illuminating women in leadership roles, regardless of race. He names Phoebe, Julia and Prisca as 1st Century Christian leaders.
Felder says the Bible has become meaningless to black people, because they’re not shown how it relates to their everyday life. They are not shown how the ancient biblical yearnings for justice, liberation and peace are the foundation of their struggle today, he says.
Felder chastises Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religious leaders for their silence on social issues, such as homelessness, race relations, subjugation of women, breakdown of family life, nuclear weapons.
He writes: “Both Paul and Jesus speak against class discrimination as a social evil and, in so doing, indict modern church leadership that refuses to do likewise today.”
Clarice Martin, New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, calls Felder’s analysis “refreshing.” In an endorsement of “Troubling Biblical Waters,” she writes that the book “will change forever the way scholars, teachers, preachers” treat the Bible.
Felder dedicated his book to his three deceased brothers, “because they symbolize the plight of black men.” Alvin died in a mental hospital, Abel was killed in a car accident and Clayton drank himself to death.
Felder said, “I wanted to be part of the solution and not the problem. . . . That’s why I do what I do.”