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The One Thing My Mother Would Not Let Me Become

Aug 26, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I’m in Northern Ireland at the Bangor Worldwide Missionary Convention. I first had the privilege of serving these dear saints back in 2008. I guess I didn’t scare them off because they’ve been kind enough to bring me back this year. This mission convention has been going on for nearly eighty years, attracting missionaries from around the world and participants from across Northern Ireland. The fellowship is warm, the singing joyful, the call to mission zealous!

I thought I’d come to Northern Ireland and have something of a respite from the news and opinions concerning Ferguson. But, as it turns out, events in Ferguson have been a significant part of news coverage across the pond, too. So my friends in Northern Ireland have asked me what I thought. They’ve taken a genuine interest. And as I’ve talked and they’ve listened, some have confessed that the situation somewhat confuses them. The closest analogy would be the “Troubles” between Protestant and Catholic, but nothing quite like the racial picture of the U.S. seems to fit their experience. When they ask me to explain, I take a deep breath trying to figure out where to start, and quietly acknowledging to myself that I don’t know everything.

The Beginning of My Suspicion

But for me it started at my parents’ dining room table. I must have been about the age of my son, around seven, when my parents started what felt like a campaign of encouragement. They’d repeatedly tell me, “You can be anything you want to be in life, even President of the United States.” Then they’d follow with a question, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I was trying on answers during that period of time. Professional football player. A professional basketball player, too. Lawyer. Doctor. Perhaps something exotic like a marine biologist. They encouraged every ambition. Except one.

One evening my mom asked me the question and with beaming eye I answered, “A police officer.” I don’t know where the idea came from. Maybe we’d had an elementary civics lesson on “Officer Friendly” or perhaps a visit to our class from an officer. Perhaps it was watching “Kojak” or “Starsky and Hutch” (I know; I’m dating myself!). But whatever was the source of inspiration, it all got dashed in a moment. My mother’s face grew solid, the soft flesh of her cheeks stone. She snapped back, “You cannot be a police officer.” I asked why. She said, “I will not have you arresting our people all the time.” I think she also said something about worrying and sleepless nights, but her main point had to do with this adversarial relationship between the police and African Americans. I mentally crossed the police off my list of aspirations and got on about the business of being a little boy.

Where Does This Distrust Come From?

During the last week, some genuinely concerned people have admonished me about what they perceive to be an unhealthy bias against police officers. They have with good intention taken the position that those in authority should have our trust and support. I’ve had a running conversation with at least four officers or former officers concerned that I’m spreading distrust of them and their mates. They think it’s better if people with a public platform of any size would encourage trust for officers.

I’ve benefitted from these exchanges, if for no other reason than it demonstrates once again the very different lives African Americans and White Americans live in the same country. For my white interlocutors, the thought of not trusting the police never crosses their mind. It’s the right thing to do. It’s basic civics. That’s, in part, why even the peaceful aspects of the protests in Ferguson look to them like a “riot.”

So I’ve been trying to find a way to explain the distrust and the sometimes angry protests. Let me put it as starkly as I can: For nearly all of African-American life in the U.S., the police force has been the local arm of white supremacy and oppression. Ask yourself, How does white supremacy, racism and oppression get enforced for centuries even in cities and places where African Americans were the majority? How was it possible to enforce slave codes and Jim Crow segregation? What local means of power did the state exercise to “keep Blacks in their place”?

Since the late 1600s up to the end of official desegregation, the official local means for enforcing white supremacy was the police. Oh, there were guys in white sheets and pointy hats who made their appearance later. And there were the over-zealous plantation overseers and paddy rollers that hunted down slaves. But even their actions received sanction from the state and police, or at the least a turned head by local authorities. You see, this is the story of men like my grandfather who fought in World War II, only to come back to a segregated America and be publicly harassed and beaten by police officers while in uniform. Not even a battlefield abroad proved their commitment to the country or earned them an equal place in it. There were local uniformed police to make sure of that. More often than we’d like to admit, the ones beating on the door, wearing the hood, burning the cross at night, or falsifying reports by day wore uniforms and badges.

Much African American mistrust and suspicion comes from living in a police state, a brutal and dangerous police state in which for many long centuries there was no recourse to “blind” or impartial justice. Lady Justice could see very well. She could see your black skin, assign a weight to it, and tip the scales against you.

That’s been an everyday truth for most of African-American experience. It’s a truth passed down at dinner tables between mothers who love their sons and sons wanting to play with toy guns or imagine one day being officers. It’s a truth recounted in history books—not the official books of public schools, but the books African Americans have worked to write in order to remember their names and tell their stories first person. It’s an experience that shapes generations. So the moments when little boys and girls daydream with their parents about what to become when they grow up intersects the story of an entire people. Like waters flowing from oceans into rivers, the moving memories and sediments get passed along until they puddle up in some lake and there grow with each wave that enters. Memory is long. The memory of hurt longer.

How Long?

The idea that African Americans have lived in a police state in the United States may be something new to White readers of this post. That, again, just shows how different the lived experiences have been.

And you may be asking at this point, “How long?” How long will the remembrance of past injustices dog the steps of inter-ethnic peace and progress? How long will the sins of the fathers haunt their children and children’s children? How long must we keep falling into this rut, this tires-stuck-in-the-dried-mud rut of mistrust and suspicion?

I have two answers.

First, how long do you think it takes a police system and a justice system to exorcise the poison of officially-sanctioned racial animosity? How long do you think it takes people and systems to move from embraced and open racism to something resembling a true content-of-character, love-believes-all-things heart? How many years might be required before those who view the “other” as “little black perverts” can begin to view them as sharing the same precious humanity, or those who view officers as “pigs” can return the favor?

Is ten years enough? Twenty? How about thirty? Or perhaps the fifty or so years since desegregation began to crumble?

Are all the racists and the racist sentiments of a police force with hundreds of years of practice gone in one generation? Have all the attitudes and practices that made forceful subjugation of African Americans possible disappeared in a couple of decades? Does justice travel city halls that fast and that sweepingly? I suspect not. Is it possible that the basic posture of police forces—though changed significantly—continues to be one of patrolling and suspiciously judging African Americans?

Now, I know there are lots and lots of fine officers who do heroic work in the most difficult and daily circumstances. I know there are many women and men on the front lines who are honorable and who would resist the impulses of racism with vigor. And I know that there are many people–many African Americans among them–who deserve to be arrested, justly tried and sentenced to whatever terms appropriate. This is not a matter of pretending all African Americans are guiltless or that every allegation of mistreatment is true. Far from it. I am as glad as anyone when criminals are properly arrested and taken off the streets.

But our police officers work in a system. And systems don’t change overnight. Systems have a way of molding the behavior and attitudes of the best of people. That’s true of every system, and it’s no less true of law enforcement. It’s true even when you put a black man in a blue uniform. They find themselves acting out prejudices or facing the prejudices inside the force. The invisible hand of systemic prejudice is always at work on everyone in the system. So how long it takes to be over these issues depends on how long it takes us to level serious critiques of systemic injustice and do the heavy lifting of standing upright a totem leaned against African Americans.

Second, how long it takes depends on how quickly we realize that we’ve got things backwards. It’s not “race” that gives rise to racism, but racism that gives rise to “race.” The idea of “race” is what racism made up to cover up its ugliness (see here for this view). The sooner we stop pretending “race” exists and understand that the root problem is racism, the sooner we make some progress as a country.

That Bedeviling Two-ness

So I pause real long before I answer the questions of my Northern Ireland friends. I pause and I think. And I realize a story this old, told in so many ways can’t be easily explained in a few polite moments of conversation. And I realize that rehearsing the story repeats the story,entrenches the story, spreads it farther. So I try to get to the load-bearing wall of the entire problem: The problem we face is a product of the fall, which blinds us to the fact that we are all descended from Adam and encourages us to misdiagnose the problem as anything but our own corruption.

And even as I give that answer I’m experiencing that DuBoisian two-ness, that being an American and at the same time being African, that being a citizen and being outcast, that being torn between “I, too, sing America” and “Ain’t I a man?”

This week I’m singing “Ain’t I a man?” because it seems so many of my correspondents have forgotten.

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I Wonder If Seeing Really Is Believing

Aug 22, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I don’t even know how to write this post.

So I’ll be brief.

Last night I read with much appreciation John Piper’s comments about police restraint. If you haven’t, you should read it, along with posts from Bryan Loritts and Al Mohler and Rachel Held Evans. I didn’t follow the link Piper provided to the actual footage of the other shooting he mentioned. I thought it was perhaps the edited footage from a news segment or something.

This morning something led me to watch the footage.

I’m sitting here weeping, so I’ll let the footage speak for itself.

Please be warned. It’s a live cell phone recording of police 9 miles from Ferguson shooting and killing another unarmed African-American man who has apparently committed a petty theft and who acts in a defiant manner when police officers emerge from their patrol car with hands on hilt. UPDATE: Police maintain he was brandishing a knife. This is not a television show. This is real life.

This video does not suggest this is what happened in the case of Brown and Wilson. I’m not saying that. Perhaps it is; perhaps it isn’t. But I wonder if seeing this unfold before our eyes will help us believe that it’s time for leaders to speak out about the statistics and the multiplying incidents that prove a pattern of unfair and severe treatment. This punishment does not fit the crime. That, too, is a virtue and promise, a public trust, that is supposed to undergird our criminal justice system.

The case I and so many others are making is that the cries of “Injustice!” don’t rest upon the facts of Wilson-Brown alone. The facts there will be weighed and a judgment reached. But then there are the facts piling up everywhere else, sometimes on video, and they cry out for justice quite apart from the particulars of Wilson and Brown.

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Why We Never “Wait for All the Facts” Before We Speak

Aug 20, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Predictably, I’ve received a bit of pushback on my post yesterday calling for leaders of the evangelical movement to organize themselves to provide theological and practical leadership on issues that affect the marginalized and oppressed. Why such a call should ever receive pushback is itself worth pondering, but I want to focus on the chief reason stated for the pushback.

It’s essentially this: “We should not pass judgment on Wilson until we have all the facts.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that in the last couple of days, I’d at least be able to satisfy someone’s Starbucks habit for a week.

The critique has the semblance of wisdom, in fact, some people even call it such. They say that speaking out is “foolish,” rash, inconsiderate of Officer Wilson, even contributory to racial animosity and strife. We would be wise to be silent, they tell us. They’ve always told us that. “Just wait. Time will tell. Justice will be done.” And they tell us this as if they don’t have any assumptions of their own, as if they’re the objective bystanders, as if being “dispassionate” is a virtuous response when someone in any circumstance is killed, as if their rational powers are untainted by what they’ve seen or heard or untarnished by their own experiences, as if there is some moral neutral ground on which to stand, and as if their silence isn’t itself a statement.

To all of that, I want to say several things.

First, I’ve read and re-read and read again my two posts. Do you know what’s conspicuously absent from the posts? Any mention of Officer Wilson or the particular facts that are yet to be disclosed. Not one mention. Yet, everyone who has raised the “wait for the facts” objection has to a person taken issue not with what I’ve written but with what they fear I think about the guilt or innocence of Wilson. There’s a questionable eagerness to read into my words and to defend Wilson. Some deep reflection on why seems to be in order when I think I’ve made a legitimate call for biblical response.

Second, I don’t hear any protestor—not least myself—arguing against facts. From what I can discern the protestors have been demanding facts. We want more facts, not less. But the facts have been withheld or delayed over these past ten days. No one is setting aside any facts. If you want facts then the persons to pressure aren’t those speaking up but those clamming up, who swear an oath that reminds them of a public trust they’re to steward, and who have proven (at least in the eyes of the Governor of that state) that they’re not stewarding that trust well. Ask yourself: Why is it that the first autopsy report the public received came not from the government’s medical examiner but from someone hired by the family? Why, by the police chief’s own admission, did he release some information only after receiving repeated Freedom of Information requests? Why is it that the officer’s name was withheld for so long? I’m quite happy for the facts to be weighed in the particular case of Wilson. We need to insist on it. But in speaking up I’m not the enemy of facts. You have to look elsewhere for that. No one is arguing against the need for facts. We’re arguing for the appropriate and timely release of them.

Third, even though we don’t know “all the facts,” we do know enough facts to speak. Here are four simple facts to consider for all those who think silence is the response. Fact: Mike Brown is dead. Fact: We will never hear his story or see him speak for himself. Fact: His parents are left to grieve. Fact: He has now to face an eternal Judge and receive recompense for deeds done in the body, never again to have opportunity to hear the gospel and be saved. The most profound facts are the simplest facts. Some people want to accumulate “all the facts” so they can then conclude, “It’s too complicated.” That allows them to keep their cozy corners of indifference and inaction. It allows them to move on as if powerless to do anything–even speak. But we all know that the morality of an action isn’t determined by the proliferation and multiplication of facts. Multiplying facts only help us determine whether the particular situation has some exculpatory features. That’s useful in a particular criminal trial. But the basic right and wrong of a situation is as clear as “Thou shalt not kill.” One fact, one sentence above all others roots our moral understanding. Therefore, we can at least speak a lament for the basic wrong of killing that has happened, without suspending the relevance of all other facts in determining the next righteous (we hope) reaction. These basic facts alone mean we should say something—at least “We mourn with you” or “We will pray for you” or “We’re here for you.” Evangelical silence in the face of these basic facts is deafening. The pretension to dispassionate objectivity in the face of a tragic death must itself be the height of privilege, a privilege Michael Brown’s family certainly doesn’t have. When silence is only broken to tell the broken that their speaking is wrong, then you have multiplied the injustice by not listening to the grieving. You’re Job’s friends darkening counsel.

Fourth, we never have “all the facts” in a situation. Ever. The call to “wait for all the facts” is not in keeping with reality as we live it. We rightly speak against the killing of Christians in Syria—and we don’t wait for all the facts to do so. We rightly speak against killing unborn children in the womb—and we don’t wait for all the facts of a particular pregnancy to do so. We take our stand and have our say because we understand that all human life has dignity because it’s made in the image and likeness of God. We understand that all human life ought to be valued and protected, so we speak out in defense of life without “all the facts” and particulars. And we’re right to do so with Syria and abortion, and we’re right to do so when teenagers are killed in the street without clear apology or explanation. It’s hypocrisy to silence the mourning neighbor while we speak so passionately for the unknown sufferer. We ought to speak for both—the basic facts which we do know require it.

Fifth, it seems to me that when people hear or say “Ferguson” they’re understanding different things. For some of my respondents, the mention of “Ferguson” means “Wilson” and the specific events surrounding the shooting—even though I never say a single word about Wilson or the particular case. But for me and a whole lot of people “Ferguson” is emblematic of a whole host of events and experiences. There’s the shooting, of course, which rightly awaits final resolution in accord with the law. But then there’s the police department’s treatment of media personnel and peaceful protestors. There’s sloppy handling of reports and information. And all these things—the shooting, the police response, etc.—look a great deal like other situations we’ve seen unfold this month and over the years.

“Ferguson” isn’t about Wilson. “Ferguson” as I use it is about black- and brown-skinned people and our encounter with this country’s criminal justice system, from the police to the courts. It’s about a long history of being policed rather than protected and served. It’s about a set of experiences so ubiquitous there’s hardly any African American that hasn’t met at least suspicion from police authority and often harassment or much worse. I refuse to allow people to make this story solely about the facts involving Wilson because in doing so they conveniently erase the bigger pattern of facts about injustice. And this, beloved, is why Evangelicalism is teetering on the fence of irrelevance to the lives of the marginalized.

I Want to Be a Fool for Justice

My fellow pastor at The Cripplegate calls for silence, which he argues is wisdom not weakness. He quotes from my previous posts and from a wonderful post written by Joshua Waulk wherein we give two different perspectives. He gives those two perspectives as evidence that we should not have spoken. What he doesn’t cite is my and Waulk’s discussion with each other. He doesn’t mention that Waulk has tweeted links to my post and I to his. That we both have benefitted from speaking—even via twitter—with each other. And we both have had our own positions helpfully challenged and clarified by the exchange. He doesn’t seem to entertain the notion that “Ferguson” could be about both prejudices against police authority and prejudice against African Americans. And so he calls for silence as wisdom. Those who do otherwise, he says, using Proverbs, are “fools.”

But what wisdom would there be in Waulk and I not speaking and winning each other as brothers? What wisdom is there in a silence that risks nothing for the oppressed and grants no opportunity for understanding? What wisdom is there in a call for “all the facts” while ignoring some basic and publicly available facts that give cause to lament? What wisdom is there in a silence that actually speaks volumes about its willingness to not even comfort the grieving? If that’s “wisdom” give me folly. I suppose there’s reason to heed our Lord’s warning about calling others “fools” (Matt. 5:22).

My brother pastor thinks that by speaking before we “have all the facts” we’re putting the gospel on the line. I think by not speaking about about the facts we do have and the patterns of injustice affecting the marginalized we’ve already abandoned the gospel and what it demands of us.

You decide.

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Is It “Goodbye Evangelicalism” or “We Evangelicals Join You in Your Suffering”?

Aug 19, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

When James Cone wrote A Black Theology of Liberation in the late 1960s, he was attempting to provide a theological framework for understanding and guiding the feelings and actions of African-American protestors. He wrote in the wake of a deadly riot in Detroit. He felt a burden, a heavy weight to say something meaningful as a Christian. He felt, as many had before him, that if Christianity had no answer for Black people caught in the roiling cauldron of Jim Crow segregation and state-sponsored terrorism then Christianity had no credibility whatsoever.

I wish the evangelical church felt the same way that Cone felt. Though I find Cone’s answers unbiblical and untenable, he at least raised and grappled with legitimate questions of justice from the vantage point of the oppressed. And until evangelicalism finds the courage and the love to enter those questions with empathy for that vantage point on a quest for better answers than Cone’s, then evangelicalism as we know it is dead.

I’m not talking about the “evangelicalism” of progressive Christians who seem to rarely preach and emphasize the biblical gospel while championing every cause, the “evangelicalism” that has no evangel. I’m talking about the “evangelicalism” of “Bible-believing Christians,” of “gospel-centered people,” of “conservative” movements that pride themselves on not being “those liberals.” I’m not talking about your local church or my local church as much as I’m talking about the movement as a whole, at its highest levels. I’m talking about the “movement evangelicalism” that I run in. That evangelicalism is dead.

Or, to put it another way, you don’t answer oppression, violence, poverty, sexism, corporate theft and a host of other problems with theology alone. Theology alone is not an answer. Nor are vague appeals to the gospel, however true it is that the gospel is our first, only and greatest hope. Action and policy guided by sound theology are answers. When Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of the enslaved Onesimus, he reminded Philemon of the gospel and the duty of Christian love. Then in love he told Philemon to take an action consistent with that theology: release Onesimus and receive him as a brother. Evangelicalism is long on theology (gospel) and short on ethics (loving action).

The Silent

As I’ve watched the situation in Ferguson unfold, I’ve waited to gather my own thoughts and to see what other theologically like-minded persons might say. I waited. And I waited. I thought I’d wait in vain. But several brothers have joined the discussion with perspectives and appeals. I respect Trevin Wax for being among the first to say that our racial wounds are not yet healed. I respect Russ Moore for joining with his always thoughtful reflections on these issues. I respect Matt Chandler for trying to help some understand the difference privilege makes in situations like Ferguson. I respect Ray Ortlund for his gracious, quiet way of reminding us that being nice isn’t always required. I respect Josh Waulk, the former police officer now pastor, who provided a different perspective than my own. And I’m grateful for the many encouraging tweets and retweets following my post yesterday. I know I’m not alone and others are prepared to make shows of support for marginalized people.

Nevertheless, most of what’s been said by evangelical leaders thus far (including my post yesterday) has been a general lament. It’s been the expressing of sentiment. There were similar reactions to a similar post I wrote following the Zimmerman verdict. However, there’s not yet been anything that looks like a groundswell of evangelical call for action, for theology applied to injustice. It’s possible that I’ve missed a call for action from my colleagues and peers in the evangelical world. But I don’t think I’ve missed our most influential leaders with the widest reach. They’ve been silent en masse. Today I think we need to be pushed a couple steps ahead.

The Dead

Otherwise, orthodox evangelicalism is dead. It’s dead to oppressed folks in our back yards who need to hear the word of God spoken into their situation with all the prophetic unction our Lord would give. It’s dead to grieving parents required to have closed casket funerals for their children because racist systems and people so disfigure the body it can’t be shown. Orthodox evangelicalism is dead to the marginalized because it’s so allergic to the margins. It wants its mainstream, its tree-lined streets of cultural acceptance, its reserve and respectability. So it’s dead.

To be clear, evangelicalism’s quietude is not a case of not knowing what to say, how to say it, or being too distant from the problem. It’s not merely a case of leaders and people staring into an isolated incident and needing to collect data before they act. It’s not a case of not having media outlets and channels of its own. No. In incident after incident—proving a pattern, a systemic problem that requires eyes-and-mouth-wide-open denouncement—the church has turned her head, closed her eyes, and pressed tight her lips. The problem dominates local and national news. But evangelicalism changes the channel and carries on with regularly scheduled programming. Even if the revolution is televised, evangelicalism ain’t even willing to watch much less join.

And this call isn’t an attempt to guilt people who have nothing to do with some far off situation. No. This post is a recognition that evangelicalism is useless in its own back yard, with its own neighbors, while it changes its twitter avatars to identify with persecuted Christians half a world away. Evangelicalism should show outward solidarity with persecuted Christians. But it should also be the good Samaritan religion, a religion of justified people who demonstrate their justification in practical acts of compassion for its beaten, robbed and left-for-dead ethnic-other neighbors. Do we see that from national evangelical ministries and leaders? No, we don’t. Ours appears to be the religion of the Pharisee who asks, “Who then is my neighbor?”

Who is evangelicalism’s neighbor? Is Michael Brown? How about Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Amadou Diallo, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury, Jr., Sean Bell, Orlando Barlow, Aaron Campbell, Ronald Madison and James Brissette, or Oscar Grant? Or let’s just take the unarmed persons shot and killed in the month of August: Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford and Dante Parker. Has evangelicalism recognized these men as neighbors? Does it recognize that their being made in the image of God requires the protection of their lives and the expression of our neighborly love? An evangelicalism that does not know its neighbor is a dead evangelicalism, an unjustified evangelicalism.

The Hypocrisy

We pretend the world is large when the suffering of “others” is in view, but it’s small when it comes to the promotion of our ministries, the establishment of multi-sites, or the size of our conferences. We board planes, as I’m about to do Saturday, and cross oceans to preach in distant lands. Proximity isn’t a problem when it’s time to preach; why is it a problem when it’s time to protest?

Around the country evangelical leaders participate in “racial reconciliation” conversations and repeatedly ask, “How can we diversify our church?” or “How can we attract more African-American members?” Why would diverse groups want to belong to an evangelicalism that does not acknowledge their diversity where it hurts when it matters? You want diversity in your membership roles? How about forgetting your membership statistics and further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights? We don’t want to be your statistics—whether wrongful death statistics or church membership statistics. We want a living, breathing, risk-taking brotherhood in the gospel lived out where it matters. Until evangelicalism can muster that kind of courage and abandon its privileged, “objective,” distant calls for calm and “gospel”-this or “gospel”-that, it proves itself entirely inadequate for a people who need to see Jesus through the tear gas smoke of injustice.

It can no longer be the case that to be “evangelical” means to care about either the gospel or justice. Evangelicalism must come to understand that justice and mercy flow inextricably from the gospel—both at the cross of Christ as well as in the daily carrying of our crosses. Micah 6:8 is still God’s requirement of us. And it will not do to position one injustice against another, as if to say we need only focus on one thing, or as if to say until this one “greater” injustice is dealt with then all “lesser” crimes need not be attended. Don’t place abortion in opposition to persecuted Christians in Syria or persecuted Christians in Syria in opposition to the Mike Browns. Can not the evangelical heart and mind expand to care about and act against all these things? Should not we risk a bursting heart in order to live a vibrant Christian life? If we can’t, then we should confess and repent of our hypocrisy and partiality, else be done with calling ourselves Christians. True religion cares for widows, orphans and the like.

The Call

So here’s my call: Let there be the founding of a new conservative evangelical body with the aim of (1) providing clear, understandable, biblical theological frameworks for the pressing problems of the marginalized coupled with (2) organized calls to action and campaigns consistent with that framework. Let there be a body tasked with answering, “What does the Bible say about justice and mercy for the vulnerable and weak (of which there are many such groups)?” and stating, “Here then is a biblically-informed campaign for a genuine evangelical church living out that faith.” Let the leaders of the movement stand as leaders in this moment.

Beloved this is critical for at least three reasons. First, it’s critical to the credibility of evangelicalism’s claim to be true biblical religion. Second, it’s critical for the many other church leaders and church people who look to such leaders for what to say, how to think, and how to act in these moments. And based on many of the twitter comments I received, people in evangelical churches need a lot of clear thinking and direction here. They show up saying the most uninformed things on the most sensitive issues.  Third, not least in importance, it’s critical for the made-in-the-image-of-God suffering and marginalized people in communities throughout this country and the world who have no organized, biblically-consistent prophetic voice challenging the powers that be. Above all these things, it’s critical for the glory of Christ in and through these situations.

Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the most eloquent expression of the weariness of marginalized people and rejoinder to white evangelicalism’s apathy in his poignant Why We Can’t Wait. The book itself is the outgrowth of his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But it’s perhaps a 1965 interview that best states King’s indictment against evangelicalism, an indictment that sounds prophetic today:

“Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structures. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned.” (HT: Austin Channing Brown)

I’m tired. That soul-deep tired that comes from asking, “How long?” In this case, “How long evangelicalism before you show deep Christian love for your neighbor?” “How long evangelicalism before you both preach the gospel and show compassion?” “How long evangelicalism before you stop putting people on trial before you grant them your mercy?” “How long before you turn off the television and turn on the porch light for a neighbor?” “How long before you weep openly for someone that doesn’t look like you, earn what you earn, live where you live?” “How long before you stop reflexively identifying with the perpetrators and system administrators and at least show equal empathy for the outcast?” How long? How long before you come on out and say with loud unequivocal voice, “This is wrong!”

I pray King’s mistake isn’t a mistake we continue to make. And the truth is, given the dire circumstances that continue to affect our communities we still can’t afford to wait for evangelicals to join us where we live. Some of us are tired of waiting. I’m one of them. In that fatigue I’m thinking, Goodbye evangelicalism. But I hope there’s finally an organized, thoughtful and zealous response from the leaders of the evangelical movement that says, “We join you.

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Coming (Back) to America: My One Fear

Aug 18, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

When my wife and I announced we would be moving back to the States to plant a church in Southeast DC, we met three reactions. People who loved us over these past eight years and appreciated our ministry expressed their love and sadness that we were leaving Cayman. Those same people and many others then quickly sent us tremendous amounts of encouragement, prayer and practical help. Then there were those who had a question. They asked, “Are you afraid?” or “Do you have any fears?”

My elders in Cayman asked that question. The elders here at CHBC asked that question. A few individuals asked that question. And some people have worn their concern on their faces.

When asked the question, I’d usually pause. Not because I didn’t have an answer, but because some fears feel too real when you give them words. So I’d pause. Then I’d say two things: “Truthfully, the Lord has kept us from any fears that we can discern about planting the church or living in Southeast. If I have a fear it would be one thing: bringing my son Titus to the United States. He’s so tender and innocent and the States can be very hard on Black boys.”

That’s my one fear. This country destroying my boy. Ferguson is my fear. I could be the black dad approaching a white sheet stained with his son’s blood. I could be the husband holding his wife, rocking in anguish, terrorized by the ‘what happeneds’ and the ‘how could theys,’ unable to console his wife, his wife who works so hard to make her son a “momma’s boy” with too many hugs, bedtime stories, presents for nothing, and an overflowing delight in everything he does. How do you comfort a woman who feels like a part of her soul was ripped out her chest?

I’m not alone. We moved into our townhome in the heart of historic Anacostia about a month ago. We met utility men at the place to turn on the gas, install the cable and do light repairs. I’ll never forget one utility man named “Mike.” He is a large brother, hulking really. He spent about an hour troubleshooting problems with our gas line. When he lay on the floor he almost sprawled across the entire living room. We talked as he worked. He loves his job and works long hours. As he walked to the door, having finished his job with some pride, he paused and asked, “Aren’t you a rev?” I said, “Yes.” Mike’s entire body shifted, transformed from quiet pride to melting pain, and he said, “Pray for me, Rev.”

The transition was so sudden I asked how I could pray specifically. Here’s what he said: “I buried my son right before Father’s Day. I haven’t been able to sleep since then. I work insane hours so I won’t have to stop, because when I stop I can’t stop thinking about my son.” Cautiously I asked, “What happened?” Up until that point Mike had been looking off into the distance with that vacant look that sees something perhaps in another world, or perhaps sees nothing at all, only feels or tries not to feel. When I asked what happened, he came back to this realm. His eyes slowly focused on mine and his face suddenly contorted and he hissed out with that kind of hiss that can’t believe what it’s saying, “Somebody shot him in the head in Baltimore.”

We both nearly fell apart right there on the stoop. My worst fear. His realized.

So I’m watching Ferguson and I’m thinking about Titus. And I’m thinking about the long list of African-American men shot to death for no good reason. And I’m mad as hell. And I’m scared to death. For my son. For me. For the possibility that my son could witness this happen to me.

I don’t care about the color of the hands that pull the trigger. They could be pink, brown, sandy. What I care about is the value of my son’s life. What I care about is the dignity and life-destroying devaluing of his life because in this country he is “black.” And the absurdity of it all is that he’s not “black” in every country. Only his own. In Cayman, he was Titus. In Cayman, he was free to be Titus. In the States, he’s “a little black boy” long before he’s “Titus.” And that calculation, the “racial” attribution that happens at the speed of sight, is deadly. It’s deadly.

Deadlier still are the many persons who seem not to recognize it. Who carry on without pause, who empathize with the shooter rather than the shot, who express concern for the family of the living but little to no regard for the family of the deceased, who talk of obeying lawful authority while witnessing the unlawful use of authority, who keep resetting the conversation to call into question the teenage victim while granting the benefit of the doubt to the grown up perpetrator. Whatever else teenagers are, we all know they can be incredibly stupid at times. Whatever else a grown up is supposed to be, we all know we’re supposed to be responsible and level. It is the adult who should have put away childish things. But we ask of the teenager what we should ask of the adult, and we accord the adult the latitude only stupid teens should receive. When the teen is large and “Black,” then he’s not a teen any more. He’s a menace. The calculation is faster than a speeding bullet. And it’s deadly.

And I’m almost powerless as a parent. Were I not a praying parent I’d lose my mind. Were I not a believing parent the absurdity would be crushing.

I have more to say. Perhaps tomorrow. But I’m already choking back tears. So I’ll stop. Unlike usual, the comments are closed. In our much speaking there’s bound to be sin. Far better to sit with our hands over our mouths, silently thinking deeper thoughts than the soundbites gathered from “news” outlets.

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The Elder’s Vows, 3: The Scriptures

Aug 13, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

When a church ordains a man to the eldership, they call him to make certain commitments to God, to the congregation, to his fellow elders, and to himself. Those commitments provide a foundation for mutual service, understanding and accountability. Without such vows… well… what would it really mean to be an elder and vow nothing to anyone?

Making such promises ought not be done lightly. God witnesses the vows. The congregation and fellow elders depend on the faithful fulfillment. The elders integrity hangs on his word.

But not only on the elder’s word. God’s word also comes into play. The second question and answer in the vows we use read:

Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, totally trustworthy, fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, the supreme, final, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice? I do.

The Question

To put it simply, the elder is asked if he believes God’s word is completely true and truly complete. Does he receive the Bible as it really is, the very word of God.

Here’s a question that cuts against the spirit of the age, which loves a certain ambiguity posing as humility. To claim belief in the Old and New Testaments as the Word of God is to put yourself against the wisdom of this world, to take a stand at odds with the scientism of our day, and to risk being called a “bigot” or “neanderthal” given the way the world feels about the Bible’s morality and ethics. To take this vow is to swear off popularity and worldly acceptance.

But everything the elder entertains and undertakes finds its basis in the Word of God. The community of God’s people is formed by the word. The elder is qualified by the word. If he is faithful he must teach the word and defend the word (Titus 1:9). He leads the people in worship in accord with the word. The word is the source of his counsel–to others as well as himself. He finds comfort, guidance, hope and promise in God’s word. He has no authority apart from the word, and must lead in accord with both the spirit and letter of the word. Pastoral ministry is word ministry.

How can he be faithful if he wavers in belief, if he stumbles at the inspiration of the Scriptures, if he seeks another authority, or begins to suspect error? How can he be adequate if he thinks the word is not sufficient?

The Answer

The question calls for a simple but profound response: “I do.” I do believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, totally trustworthy, fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, the supreme, final, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.

But this is more than intellectual assent and theological precision. To answer “I do” to this question implies that you do this. You, in fact, trust the word of God. You treat the Bible as divinely inspired. You humble yourself under the word of God as though under the very scepter of God. This is what the elder must do because the elder must be an example of these thing to the flock. Imperfect though he be, he must nevertheless be someone the faithful can follow with reasonable confidence that they are at the same time following Christ’s word (1 Cor. 11:1). Such a man will be a blessing to any congregation.

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Spoken Word Monday: “Ready for Love” by Paris the Poet

Aug 11, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Here’s a piece meditating on love. I enjoyed the contrast between the ways people typically think of waiting for romantic love and the need to receive the love of God offered in the gospel. Nice rhyme play throughout. I pray it encourages you!

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The Elder’s Vows: Personal Faith

Aug 07, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

What would you say is the first and most essential thing for pastoral ministry?

I think often times I’m guilty of assuming this thing. I jump right to other important issues: teaching ability, meeting the character qualifications, and so on.

But the first and in some sense most essential thing is that an elder be a Christian. I know. That goes without saying. But it needs to be said. How can a man preach the gospel to others without first having laid hold to Jesus Christ himself? Richard Baxter put it so well in The Reformed Pastor:

“Take heed to yourselves lest you should be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others, and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach; and lest, while you proclaim the necessity of a Saviour to the world, your hearts should neglect him, and you should miss of an interest in him and his saving benefits. Take heed to yoruselves, lest you perish while you call upon others to take heed of perishing, and lest you famish yourselves while you prepare their food. Though there be a promise of shining as stars to those that turn many to righteousness (Dan. 12:3), this is but on supposition that they be first turned to it themselves: such promises are made caeteris paribus, et suppositis supponendis. Their own sincerity in the fiath is the condition of their glory simply considered, though thier great ministerial labours may be a condition of the promise of their greater glory. Many men have warned others that they comen not to the place of torment, which yet they hasted to themselves; many a preacher is now in hell, that hath an hundred times called upon his hearers to use the utmost care and diligence to escape it.

“Can any reasonable man imagine that God should save men for offering salvation to others, while they refused it themselves, and for telling others those truths which they themselves neglected and abused? Many a tailor goes in rags that maketh costly clothes for others; and many a cook scarce licks his fingers, when he hath dressed for others the most costly dishes. Believe it, brethren, God never saved an my for being a preacher, not because he was an able preacher; but because he was a justified, sanctified man, and consequently faithful in his Master’s work.

“Take heed, therefore, to yourselves first, that you be that which you persuade others to be, and believe that which you persuade them daily to believe, and have heartily entertained that Christ and Spirit which you offer unto others. He that bade you love your neighbors as yourselves, did imply that you should love yourselves and not hate and destroy both yourselves and them.”

Amen.

The Question

Perhaps this is why our recent ordination vows began with the question: “Do you reaffirm your faith in Jesus Christ as your own personal Lord and Savior?” What an important question!

First, the question assumes the elder “reaffirms” their faith. It’s not a first profession. As Paul tells us in 1 Timothy, the elder must not be a novice, a  beginner, someone new to the faith. Instead, he must be a man that already possesses a solid understanding of the things of God and now stands to affirm once again that he has tasted the goodness of God in salvation.

Second, the question roots that faith in Jesus Christ. The elder’s faith must not be general and misty. His hope of eternal life must not rest on shoulders other than the Lord’s. He’s not just a positive thinker or a vaguely spiritual person. His trust is in Jesus, the only Christ, the promised Messiah, the Son of God, God the Son, the only Mediator between God and man, the Savior of the world, the crucified and resurrected Lord, the coming King, the reigning Sovereign, the One who lives to make intercession for us, the Alpha and the Omega. The elder reaffirms that he has faith in this Jesus–not the Jesus of Tom Brokaw specials, not the Jesus of seminar groups, not the Jesus of Islam or Christian cults. He must believe on Jesus as He offers Himself in the gospel.

Third, this profession must be personal. Jesus must be the elder’s very “own personal Lord and Savior.” The pastor must have a saving interest in Christ. He must possess the Lord. He cannot preach “the Jesus that Paul preaches” lest he gets beaten by every demon that knows Jesus and knows Paul but has never heard of the preacher! He cannot profess the faith by proxy. Mom and dad’s faith won’t do. Another pastor’s relationship with the Lord won’t suffice. He must reaffirm that indeed he has fellowship with the living Christ–not merely as a subject of the King but as someone in communion with the King. It’s not merely that the elder belongs to Christ; that’s accomplished by the mere fact that the Lord is the God who already owns all things. But Christ Jesus must belong to the elder as well. That requires the elder have been born of God, receiving the gifts of repentance and faith, and living in holy communion with the Lord.

The Answer

The question calls for a simple affirmative answer: “I do.” Stop now to consider what a wonder it is to be able to answer the question that way. “I do” know Jesus. “I do” have a personal relationship with Him. “I do” claim Him as my Lord and Savior. “I do” reaffirm it, before all on in the assembly and all in heaven. Not everyone on earth can say “I do” to that answer. The elder can say it only because God in Christ has redeemed Him, set His love on him before the foundation of the world, and made him His own through the cross work and resurrection of Christ Jesus. So much is confessed about both the elder and the Savior in those two words.

“I do.” With those two words on this first question the entire ceremony is transformed from ordination to marriage. We witness the renewal of vows far deeper than those of office holders. We see and hear the bride of Christ pledge herself again to the Groom of heaven. And with that “I do,” the elder pledges to make ready the entire bride for that glorious day when she shall descend the aisle of the heavens from God to meet the Bridegroom for eternal consummation in holiness, love and joy. We read this first question and answer and we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

 

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The Elder’s Vows

Aug 05, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

This past Sunday I stood with four other men to be ordained as elders at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. I’ve had the honor of being ordained an elder on four occasions now, twice at Capitol Hill. Each time it’s been a sobering and joyful experience. Each time I’ve been reminded of the seriousness of shepherding the Lord’s people, sheep purchased with His own blood. For me, the most solemn part of the day is the taking of vows before the Lord, my fellow elders and the congregation.

I’m reminded of Ecclesiastes 5:4-7

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 6 Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? 7 For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.

I think also of Hebrews 13:17

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Yeah, that “have to give an account” part should make anyone think carefully before making a vow and perhaps letting their mouth lead them into sin. Ordination is a time for fearing the Lord, trembling in His holy presence even as we expect His lavish grace. The making of these simple promises remind us of a far more profound reality: God cares about how His sheep are tended and will ensure they are tended well. The difference between the hireling and shepherd comes down to whether they take and mean these vows.

Here are the questions of promise we were asked and the commitments we made this past Sunday:

1. Do you reaffirm your faith in Jesus Christ as your own personal Lord and Savior? I do.

2. Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, totally trustworthy, fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, the supreme, final, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice? I do.

3. Do you sincerely believe the Statement of Faith and Covenant of this church contain the truth taught in the Holy Scriptures? I do.

4. Do you promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the statements in the Statement of Faith and Covenant you will on your own initiative make known to the pastor and other elders the change which has taken place in your views since your assumption of this vow? I do.

5. Do you subscribe to the government and discipline of Capitol Hill Baptist Church? I do.

6. Do you promise to submit to your fellow elders in the Lord? I do, with God’s help.

7. Have you been induced, as far as you know your own heart, to accept the office of elder from love of God and sincere desire to promote His glory in the Gospel of His Son? I have.

8. Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in promoting the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise to you on that account? I do, with God’s help.

9. Will you be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as elder, whether personal or relative, private or public, and will you endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, and to walk with exemplary piety before this congregation? I will, by the grace of God.

10. Are you now willing to take personal responsibility in the life of this congregation as an elder to oversee the ministry and resources of the church, and to devote yourself to prayer, the ministry of the Word and the shepherding  of God’s flock, relying upon the grace of God, in such a way that Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and the entire Church of Jesus Christ will be blessed? I am, with the help of God.

What do you think of such responsibilities and promises? If you’re an elder or an aspiring elder, what have you vowed or are preparing to vow before the Lord?

Lord willing, over the coming days I hope to expound these particular vows as a way of burrowing further into my own heart with them. I welcome you to join me and I hope it might be an encouragement.

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Spoken Word Monday: “The Hardened Heart” by Nick Vitellaro

Aug 04, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

This young man has remarkable insight into the deceptiveness and callousness of the human heart. Let it search you today!

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