Some of you have been following the series of email exchanges Doug Wilson and I have been having regarding his book Black and Tan. In my last post I attempted to define “racial insensitivity” and then to cite instances in Black and Tan where I thought Wilson was guilty of that charge.

In one of my citations, I made reference to Wilson cataloging a list of the sins of Black people while not mentioning in comparable ways the sins of White people. I attempted to parody Wilson’s comments with a list of “White sins.” In context, I simply wanted to illustrate what I found insensitive in Wilson’s comments by reversing them. In my list I made mention of Trayvon Martin being killed for “walking while Black.”

A couple of gracious and thoughtful readers wrote to let me know that they were at least caught off guard by the reference to Martin and some were offended. They felt the reference injected race in an unhelpful way and rushed to judgment in the Martin case. It’s plain to me that these persons were coming to the blog to be edified and with that remark were instead hurt. It’s also plain to me that my comments lost me my argument. Rather than illumine the point at hand, the remark clouded the judgment and hearts of some.

This was not a case where only one person felt injured. At least three others responded similarly. So I’m left to conclude that these persons were not being “too sensitive” and to wonder if others might have been wounded but did not reply.

In failing to make it clear that I was putting forth a parody of Wilson’s writing, I replicated not only Wilson’s error but also the harm. I am truly sorry for that and I ask my readers’ forgiveness. I am completely willing to accept whatever consequences come as a result of my words, including the loss of esteem, respect, or support my words deserve. I fully understand if that line costs me the point I was trying to make in that section or costs me your empathy as a reader. I will have earned those losses.

Rather than retract the statement and pretend as though I had said nothing offensive, at the counsel of the readers, I have left the comment in with an asterisk directing future readers to this apology and a similar apology in the comments thread. Going forward, I will endeavor to write more carefully. I will attempt to consider the reactions, feelings, and perspectives of others even when I’m trying to challenge and provoke thinking. It’s fitting that I should take care to do so since that’s what I’m arguing needs to be done for me and others.

Again, I hope that those who read that post can find the spirit’s strength to forgive my carelessness with words. The Lord be gracious to you this Good Friday,

Thabiti

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Comments:


24 thoughts on “I Can Be Insensitive, Too”

  1. Ray Ortlund says:

    You are a great man, Thabiti.

  2. John Sather says:

    Grateful for your humility; your example and your mentoring me from afar!! Blessings brother!

  3. Nigel Hunter says:

    Amen

  4. Chris Beach says:

    You have taken the high road, brother. Bless you for your humble example.

  5. Jack Bradley says:

    Thank you for modeling such humility before your readers, Thabiti. May your tribe increase!

  6. Kirk Jordan says:

    Thank you for showing us how to carry out “stressful” communication.

  7. Pastor Anyabwile,

    I think you’re a more spiritually mature person than I am.
    I’m sure that you’re a much nicer person to be around!
    jc

  8. Darius T says:

    Kudos, Pastor Thabiti. I wasn’t offended in the least (I find taking offense to be a decidedly sinful response), but I did feel the Martin mention was a poorly-chosen reference that took away from your overall point. I hope those who pointed out this issue will do you the favor of accepting your apology without turning it into the same sort of grievance-mongering that has hounded Pastor Wilson for the last decade.

  9. LT says:

    If I can again play the contrarian, might I suggest that we are misusing terms here. Talking about Trayvon Martin being killed for “walking while black” was not insensitive. It was just wrong. I agree that it shouldn’t have been said. But insensitivity is when you are insensitive to the feelings of others. There is not grounds for that in this case. It was just a bad argument that detracted from the point.

    The problem that Doug addressed thoughtfully in his response to the previous post is that some people are oversensitive and need to be told the truth. Doug made a helpful comment about legitimate insensitivity, and he may well have been (I haven’t read the book). But there is certain illegitimate complaints about insensitivity.

    In short, sometimes we need to say (as I do to my kids sometimes) you are being too sensitive. Giving into it without speaking the truth into it fosters it; it doesn’t solve it.

  10. Derek says:

    I read the article and was not nearly as troubled by your comment about Trayvon Martin as I was about this comment: “I find it insensitive toward black life that Wilson and many commenters continually bring up black lives in abortion in this discussion but refuse to countenance the cost of black lives in the antebellum South.”

    I was bothered by this comment because, while I realize it wasn’t your intent, it feels dismissive of those concerned by the ongoing carnage of abortion today. Doug Wilson speaks for many who are incredulous that there is so little concern about this issue [among some evangelical whites and most evangelical blacks]. We can’t do anything about the carnage of those who were loaded onto slave ships like livestock and treated so horrifically. But we can do something about abortion. Matter of fact, if black Christians would seriously weigh this issue at the ballot box, abortion would be toxic policy for both political parties and we could end this genocide in our own generation.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Derek,

      Thanks for commenting and joining the conversation. I’m glad you realize that I was not being dismissive of any concern about abortion. Rather, I was pointing out the apparent inconsistency of chastising African Americans about abortion today while at the same time saying you would fight for the government that enslaved and killed African Americans in the 1800s. You’re certainly correct that nothing can be done about those lives in the 1800s and much needs to be done in every way to end abortion today.

      I take your reference to “evangelical blacks” and the “ballot box” to mean African Americans who really care about abortion should not have voted in such large numbers (any number?) for President Obama. Perhaps you’re correct. But on what basis would you say “there is so little concern about this issue” among “most evangelical blacks”? How would we know that most Black evangelicals are “little concerned”? And why zero in on “black Christians” who surely are a minority in the voting box? Why not zero in on “most” white women, for example?

      Now, I ask those questions not because I disagree with your point, but because I think it’s telling how easily our discussions of spiritual things get intertwined with secular politics which gets intertwined so often with “race” and what we think the other “race” is like. I don’t know all African Americans or know any number approaching “most.” But I don’t know any who are blase about abortion. I know plenty who are blase to skeptical about white evangelicals and their politics. And that skepticism, along with whatever attitude you’re expressing, is what makes the kinds of discussion Wilson and I are having so important. There’s so much to be gained (whether in united support against abortion or cooperation in the gospel) and we’re missing it because we can’t stop long enough to listen, or we’re too tired to raise an issue again, or we’re tired of hearing the issue yet again, or we’re sensitive to some hard truth, or insensitive about our phrasing, or afraid of being attacked, or afraid of being dismissed, and so on.

      Man, it’s so easy to walk away and point the finger and feel really righteous about ourselves. I know it’s easy for me to do so. But if we live like that we live well beneath our inheritance in Christ. So, friend, hang in there with us. Overlook an offense. Seek redress for an offense. Change your mind about being offended. All are good if we’re really pursuing one another in love. I suspect we won’t end abortion in our generation unless we are compelled first of all to love one another and then together to love those not yet born.

      Grace and peace to you, friend.
      T-

      1. Derek says:

        Thabiti,
        By way of context, I will tell you that I am a white man in my 40’s. In my 20’s I regularly attended two different churches that were predominantly black. My experience and perspective here is shaped well before Obama came on the scene. When I attended those churches, you could say that I was very much motivated and inspired by the civil rights movement and resonated very strongly with the churches and ministries that were still engaged in civil rights. I also went on marches in solidarity with my brothers and sisters of color. However, it began to trouble me some years into this that the historical evils of racism (which continue to echo into our own day) did become an unhealthy focus for many – certainly not all, but many – of my brothers and sisters. It kept them in a nearly constant state of outrage and victimhood. Slowly, this became more and more troubling to me, to the point that I could no longer attend worship services where I could expect this state of outrage and frenzy to become such a strong focus of our worship time and liturgy. Meanwhile, I began to have conversations with many of my friends there about abortion and what I discovered then and continue to see to this day, is that there is no real outrage or elevated concern about it (except for a few exceptions from my own anecdotal experience). This too has continued to sadden and trouble me over the years. Now, you say that may Christian blacks are concerned about abortion, but in my experience it simply does not factor in voting decisions or activism for the vast majority of my black friends, including the ones I worshiped with for a number of years. Bear in mind that the perspective I’ve shared is that even if you do vote for Obama and the Democratic party, my question has consistently been, please work for change on this part of your party’s platform. But not even that is happening in any significant manner. So I’m not looking at this as simplistically as though a vote for Obama equals capitulation. It is much broader than that. So I share Wilson’s incredulity at the tone deafness that exists in the black community and church on this issue. It is another kind of insensitivity that has profound impact and I believe, allows a genocide to continue in our own generation.

        1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

          Hi Derek,

          Thank you for these very helpful comments. And thank you for being an example of loving justice and pursuing what’s true and right.

          Just a couple quick replies:

          1. I don’t doubt your experience one bit.
          2. But I don’t know that your experience amounts to “tone deafness” and insensitivity.
          3. One reason I say that is that historically and wrongly African Americans have considered abortion a “white issue.” I remember hearing that from my mom when I was growing up. Whenever Roe dominated the nightly news or something, she’d sometimes say, “Black people don’t abort their babies; that’s a white person’s problem.” Now she was guilty of believing a stereotype about whites and probably still doesn’t know the history of a Sanger or the statistics today. So, one rival way of interpreting your experience would be to say that many African Americans need education in this area.
          4. Now, I do think there is a kind of tone deafness. And that is this: there’s still high amounts of frustration, fear, mistrust, etc. among African Americans toward “conservative evangelicals.” The perception is that to be a conservative evangelical–whose primary political issue is to end abortion–is to be a political conservative who cares little about, perhaps even opposes, the well-being of African Americans. If you’re tagged with those labels then your message does hit steel ears for a lot of African Americans. In that sense, I think the tone deafness is often toward a messenger, not the message, which few know a great deal about and perhaps still think is a “white problem.” Consequently we’re in this spiral of white evangelicals being perceived as anti-Black and sometimes saying hurtful things, and Blacks being perceived in stereoptypical ways and sometimes saying/doing hurtful things (the kind of things that led you to feel uncomfortable and leave two congregations). And on it goes. We have to break this spiral.

          There’s a lot of work to do here. And I’m encouraged by the groups and individuals in the trenches working on it, particularly in the African American community. But we can’t be ahistorical about all of this. We’re all speaking and hearing or not hearing in a historical milieu, where persons and messages get filtered through learned connotations. And this is why I think Wilson’s approach and rhetoric in Black and Tan are counter-productive. To put it bluntly, he sounds like an old Confederate defending slavery and demeaning Black people with stereotypes and condescending “you people” tones. So, I’m afraid he loses support on the issue and loses an audience that you and I think is key.

          Much has been said about the pragmatic importance of African Americans. If that’s true, pragmatically speaking, it would seem honey is better then vinegar. And we can sweeten our conversation without at all abandoning any part of the Bible or giving ground to the enemies of the Bible. But unless the words and tone changes, I fear Wilson’s approach will continue to sound like enemy fire to people we claim to want to be allies with.

          Again, friend, I’m grateful for the experience you’ve shared and the contribution it makes. It’s a real contribution. Grace and peace,

          T-

          1. Derek says:

            Thabiti,
            Thanks for your thoughtful and honest response here. I appreciate the conversation because it is rare to have a thoughtful and honest dialogue on such an important topic, even on this kind of format.

            Here are a few thoughts from what you’ve put forward:
            1. Even though I resonate with some of Wilson’s concerns, I do share many of your objections to his rhetoric. I’m convinced that he violates a principle I see in Romans 12:17, 18. Nevertheless, I credit him for having the gumption to speak plainly about these very explosive issues. For this, he certainly knew that the charge of insensitivity and even discrimination was as certain for him as a prediction of rain in April.
            2. Where can we get some of this honey you speak of? I’d like some of that. It’s hard for me to come up with an example of where I or any white person can even approach these topics, much less address it in a diplomatic manner, without it being interpreted as vinegar. Even you implied that I was under the persuasion of right wing politics (though I came to these conclusions when my views were largely shaped by the civil rights causes I supported). I suspect that Voddie Baucham and the few like him would love to know where they can get some of this honey too!
            3. I’m not trying to suggest that the abortion issue is a root issue. It is fruit of a much deeper problem that I encountered in the experiences I described. There are probably several “bad roots”, which I think you well understand, being the author of “The Decline of African American Theology”. One of those roots, which I regularly encountered, is that those who are supposed to be shepherding are actually the ones kindling resentment, coveting, anger and an assortment of things that indirectly lead to a tone-deafness on abortion. So this is a fruit, not a root, in my estimation. Now, I have friends who are definitely exceptions to this part of black church culture that breeds these heart hardening vices and these friends are great examples of those who resist the pattern of this world. Now maybe this unbiblical cultural pattern can be partly addressed or confronted with honey, but Jesus (and virtually all of the prophets) did after all take a strong tone and posture with those who should have been nurturing a house of prayer and instead misused their high office as shepherd, overseer and teacher.

            I could say more, but those are some of my reflections based on years of personal experience and Bible study, even as I read your own thoughtful response. Blessings to you.

            1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

              Hi Derek,

              Thanks for your comments. I think that “honey” is better known as love, humility, patience, kindness, and so on. I suppose we get it by being filled with the Holy Spirit. Pragmatically, I think we acquire honey when we’re less concerned about being “right” in disputable matters (Rom. 14-15) and more concerned with things that matter. For my part, I don’t know if there’s any upside to trying to get folks to re-narrate the history of the country up to the Civil War. I’m not saying folks shouldn’t do it, just that apart from well-written academic pieces that document the evidence and dials down the rhetoric/politics (on either side), I don’t know what the upside would be. Some things are better left alone, and I think love makes that decision from time to time.

              I’ve argued elsewhere that talking about abortion in a winsome way probably involves ceasing any slavery analogies. See here, here and here. My white evangelical friends didn’t much appreciate my saying that. But, I think the proof of this particular issue is in the pudding of pretty widespread negative reactions.

              And, honestly, I don’t know why some White brothers and sisters feel so compelled to comment on the culture of the Black church and community. I’m not saying that they can’t or shouldn’t. Just as some have commented here. I’m asking, “Why the compulsion to do so?” “What drives that?” and, “Is there any heart issue affecting their view and comments?” For example, some of the comments I’ve read in various threads or Black and Tan just don’t resemble the AA community except by way of caricature and media images. There continues to be a basic ignorance of one another. In truth, most haven’t had as much interaction as you have had, and yet some can be very strident and negative in their opinions. That’s curious to me. I don’t pretend to know the root of it. But I do know this: Strident opinions of others without some affinity and connection does tend to be met with skepticism and hostility. And it happens both ways.

              So, all that to say, there are some things across cultures (all cultures) that require real sensitivity and wisdom. Generally, the internet is not to place to have those discussions and most folks who feel hot around the collar about the “other” group are not the persons to have the conversations. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Some hearts aren’t ready to speak.

              Just some general reactions with no real solutions :-). Grace and peace to you,
              T-

            2. Derek says:

              Thabiti,
              I just read your blog entries “I’m talking about abortion and slavery” and I really resonate with everything you said there. When I scanned the comments, it seemed like there was also pretty good agreement from your readers, so I assume the negative reaction you got from evangelical whites was from outside the blog?

              I also agree with your definition and prescription of honey, though my question was mostly rhetorical because even though I largely agree with your critique of Wilson’s tone deafness, would you not agree that one part of the solution here is to address the tone of the speaker and the other part of the solution is to dial down the sensitivity meter (in some cases)?

              Now, you ask why many whites feel such a compulsion to address this and there are multiple facets to this. One facet certainly is our innate pride and sin nature, which naturally tolerates high levels of sin in our own lives, yet exaggerates the sins of others. But another facet is that many of us would love to break down these walls between us, especially with those whom we may be able to partner with in the Gospel. I would add that a facet for me is that I know how much positive energy and power for change can happen in the AA community because I was a part of it and it was energizing! Hundreds of times, I have lamented in prayer and thought over the missed opportunity to channel that energy in common cause against abortion, as you articulated so powerfully in your linked posts. I want to be a part of the great civil rights battle (and victory) in my own generation! Yet I feel that time is slipping away and my eyes may not see it. God forgive me if I am largely motivated here by the log in my own eye, but I do feel compelled to share my frustration regarding the manner in which many shepherds in the black churches I was a part of, stirred much of the acrimony that prevents us from having a healthy dialogue and partnership in the Gospel.

              One final question, returning back to a comment on my previous post: do you not agree that there is occasional need to directly confront these matters in a prophetic fashion, as Christ and the prophets did? Particularly when it is spiritual leaders who are a fundamental part of the problem? Granted, a prophet must do all in his power to restrain unhelpful rhetoric, I accept this, vis-a-vis Romans 12:17, 18 and many other passages we could draw upon.

          2. Darius says:

            Pastor Thabiti,

            Grace to you this Easter day!

            I think you hit on a very important point regarding education, and I don’t think it is just black Christians who need it. Both white and black evangelicals need to be educated on why Christian conservatism is pro-black, pro-poor, pro-white, and pro-everyone on BOTH abortion and economics. Blacks need to be shown that voting for conservative economic policy is not actually voting against their best interests. They need to realize that liberal economic policies like those of President Obama are rife with envy and entitlement and all sorts of sin, and worst of all, don’t actually help the black community in the long run. They also need to realize there are more important things than voting for one’s own self-interest.

            Conversely, white evangelicals need to be taught that, should abortion ever cease to be the law of the land, the modern welfare socialist state will still be an evil enterprise. I know so many fellow Christians who would switch their political leanings if abortion was no longer on the table. That speaks to a terrible lack of education on other political issues, largely to be blamed on the false idea that Jesus doesn’t care about our votes except for abortion. The lack of socio-political education in both the black and white “camps” is one of the great issues of our day, one that has to be remedied if the American Church is going to speak prophetically into our culture.

  11. Rick Myers says:

    Pastor Thabiti,

    I appreciate your humble and gracious mea culpa and apology. I was one who was taken aback by the comment – not so much offended as disappointed – especially after the God-honoring display of grace, patience, and courage in your commitment to truth and unity for the sake of the body that these blogs have been. I admit that I missed that your comment at that point was parody – of course, subtlety can be an important element in good parody, and I’m sometimes a bit more dull than I wish. I also admit that I did not read Pastor Wilson’s comments in the section you quoted with the same sense of inequity in his attribution of sin to black and white. Perhaps this is another illustration of the difference that perspective can make in how we approach and interpret another’s words and actions.

    I hope it is not inappropriate to point this out here, but the paragraph you quoted speaks of “white” sin as much as “black” sin –and that as prior and specific.

    “None of us is clean in himself. So do whites need to seek and receive forgiveness for their treatment of the black man? Absolutely. But blacks also need the cleansing blood of Christ—some of it for treatment of fellow blacks, some for responding to white hatred with hatred, some of it for taking mistreatment of a great-grandfather as a license for crime, and so on. We are, all of us, sinners. And it is not fitting for a sinner to look sideways at someone else and say, ‘Well, I’m less of a sinner than you’” (pp. 29-30).

    Whites need forgiveness for their treatment of blacks; blacks need cleansing for their treatment of blacks.

    Whites have been guilty of hatred against blacks – which has provoked hatred of blacks against whites.

    The prior white sin of mistreating black ancestors – becomes an excuse for some for black crime.

    And the opening and concluding sentences put us all in the same boat – no gradations, simply sinners.

    So, it seems to me he was quite equitable in his attribution of sin. Now, I have not read the book or the context of this statement, but I have difficulty seeing the problem here.

    With that said, I realize that I have been reading these blogs and comments from the comfort of the safe seats, far removed from the conflict (though I have wrestled for you both in prayer), while you, no doubt, have felt the chafing, frustration and fatigue that an endeavor of this sort entails. I offer these comments for the purpose of furthering the good work the Lord is doing, and I thank you for the faithful fulfilling of your calling in your service to the Prince of Peace.

    Grace to you brother,

    Rick Myers

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      hi Rick,

      Thank you for your comments, brother. And I certainly want to thank you for your prayers! They are greatly appreciated.

      I’m glad you asked about the paragraph I quoted regarding “white sins” and “black sins.” I’ve wanted to avoid a long back and forth about those instances I cite and Wilson’s response. But I think his response and your comment here actually miss something crucial.

      Wilson, in his response, refers to a “long” section on page 32 of his book where he confesses “white sins.” When I read that I thought to myself, Lord, did I miss something that vital and clear?! So I went back to read it again. Here’s what I think Wilson misses. When he confesses “white sins” in any detail, they’re almost always the sins of liberal Northeners and unbelievers that he thinks is the problem. On page 32, he’s talking the Sangers and Hitlers of the world, not white people as a class of people. He usually has a very specific kind of white person in mind when he’s confessing “white sin.” That, I think, is why I “missed” page 32. It wasn’t the same kind of comment on whites as a group. But when he confesses “Black sins” it tends to be as bald as that. It’s not a specific class or category or subgroup of Black people, but Black people in general.

      Now, you’re quite right to see that Wilson begins and ends with putting us all in the same spiritual position before a holy God. And he does that in a few places in Black and Tan. But notice how mere his statement is with regard to whites. “Whites need to seek and receive forgiveness for their treatment of the black man.” But why the elaboration for blacks? Why the specificity? And why the insinuations? If all he wanted to do was put us in the same category he could have achieved that with the first and last sentence. And that’s the problem with Black and Tan, there’s so much unnecessary and unnecessarily offense material sandwiched between sometimes wonderful stuff and sometimes debatable stuff.

      I would say he’s been “equitable” only in the most general sense. A reading of the book would give you a very different sense of tone and (im)balance on these issues.

      Again, brother, thank you for your prayers!

      T-

  12. Trina says:

    I am commenting as someone who is white, and blind, and whose father’s family survived both Nazi and Stalinist opression in Poland.
    My husband and I have been barred from buses, hotels, and restaurants with our guide dogs.
    I find most blacks feel that my sufferings should give me empathy for their suffering, but rarely do they think to use their experience of suffering to empathize with mine.
    As a blind person, I am regularly treated as an idiot and worse.
    2 Cor 1 teaches us that our sufferings are to draw us closer to the Lord so that we might extend that comfort to others.
    The politicization of the black cause is interfering with this calling.
    Blacks are not the only people who suffer.
    This should be obvious, but often it does not seem to be.
    Praying that we can learn to comfort each other.

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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