Thabiti Anyabwile|1:39 am CT

“Disunity in Christ”: An Interview with Christena Cleveland

Note: Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist with a hopeful passion for overcoming cultural divisions in groups.  She regularly blogs about reconciliation, race and privilege. Drawing from a vast body of research, she uncovers the underlying processes that affect relationships within and between groups and helps leaders understand how to promote an appreciation for diversity and build effective collaborations with diverse groups. Christena earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. from the University of California.  She has published numerous scholarly articles and held academic appointments at the University of California, Westmont College, St. Catherine University and Bethel Seminary. She coaches pastors and organizational leaders on multicultural issues and speaks regularly at organizations, churches, conferences and universities. In addition to speaking, coaching and writing, she serves on the pastoral preaching team at her church and is a volunteer Young Life leader in urban Minneapolis. She recently completed her first book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart

I had the privilege of offering an endorsement of Christena’s book, which I loved as a social scientist. Here’s my plug:

In Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland provides an insightful analysis of why we all say we want unity but find it so difficult to gain it. Combining a humble Christian tone, familiarity with many types of churches and skillful use of social science, Disunity in Christ reveals to us those very human tendencies that keep us divided. Along the way, Cleveland helps us to see, laugh at and rethink our very selves. This book will effectively help any Christian or church wanting a deeper experience of the reconciliation we have in the body of Christ. As a pastor serving a church of some thirty nationalities, I found it an extremely useful analysis of what hurts and helps unity.

Christena was kind enough to answer a few questions for Pure Church.

When and how did you first become interested in diversity issues? What has been the biggest influence on your thinking?

My mom claims that I was born interested in diversity and justice issues! She can tell you some crazy stories about me as a six-year-old, boycotting recess time at school because the kids running the school yard games excluded the blind girl in the class. I guess I’ve always noticed and valued difference and desired to bring everyone into the circle despite those differences.

My neighborhood was my first diversity lab, so to speak.  I grew up in Fremont, California, the 2nd most diverse city in the United States.  With over 9 nationalities represented by the kids of my block, I encountered cultural differences – from holidays and religious observances to food preferences to perceptions of time – every afternoon when we gathered to play kickball in the street.

When I was 8, my dad planted a church in our city – a church that became almost precisely 25% black, 25% white, 25% Asian, and 25% Hispanic. To my young mind, it made perfect sense that I would attend a multiethnic church in a multiethnic city. It was at this church that I began to get a vision for how God desires us to be in relationship with each other, despite cultural conflicts, theological differences and vastly varying worldviews.

The biggest influence on my thinking has been the Gospels. When I examine Jesus’ heart and actions, I see a consistent cross-cultural theme. It seems that everything Jesus did was cross-cultural: the Incarnation, his meaningful relationships with a diverse group of people, his ability to speak to people in a way that affirmed their specific culture, the Cross. By examining the Gospels, I’ve discovered that a significant part of following Jesus involves caring about people whose experiences, cultural backgrounds and problems are nothing like my own.

You begin the book with a delightful discussion of what you call “right Christian, wrong Christian.” What do you mean by that phrase and how does it affect unity in the local church?

I actually went back and forth on whether to include that discussion in the book! In that section, I show my cards, if you will. So, I was concerned that non-discerning readers who identified with my description of “Wrong Christian” would throw my book across the room and never pick it up again!

“Right Christian, Wrong Christian” is all about naming our biases and recognizing that many of us have so succumbed to the tribalism in the church that we’ve started labeling people who are like us as “right” and people who are different than us as “wrong.” The problem is that many of us have little ongoing, meaningful interaction with the people we’ve labeled “wrong Christian.” As a result, our perception of “wrong Christian” more closely resembles a caricature than an accurate and honoring portrait.

Meanwhile, our negative attitudes toward “wrong Christian” blind us to the fact that perhaps we’re not the “right Christians” that we think we are. I see this pattern of instinctively, unequivocally and judgmentally labeling other followers of Christ as wrong or right on a broad level (e.g., in the blogosphere – where cross-tribal engagement only happens when one person/group is protesting another person/group) and on a local level (e.g., in the local church – where individuals within local church bodies stick to people who are like them / agree with them and avoid meaningful interactions with those who are different / challenge their worldview).

Christena Cleveland

Many people feel Evangelicalism has become increasingly “tribal” in recent years. It seems we’ve become adept at placing people in categories. Is this tendency to categorize helpful or unhelpful?

It’s both. As more diverse groups within Evangelicalism gain a voice and a distinct identity, it’s helpful to use categories to keep track of all of the groups! In that way, categories and labels are helpful. But the sinister side-effect is that by using those categories, we erect seemingly insurmountable divisions between us and them.  Before long, we’re no longer thinking of them as a different but invaluable part of the same body of Christ. Instead, we’re thinking of them as wholly and categorically different than us – so different that they are now both wrong and invaluable. What starts out as a mere label to help us distinguish between the wide variety of groups in the body of Christ can easily morph into a monstrous divisions that makes us lose sight of the fact that the most important label is our common identity as Christians.

You write in the book, “The body of Christ is like a bad marriage.” Wow. What do you mean by that?

In my social psychology class, the students and I examine lots of research on satisfied and dissatisfied couples. Some of the most interesting findings show that dissatisfied couples assume the worst of each other, tend to discount positive behavior and tend to attribute negative behavior to global, stable causes like personality.

For example, if a wife in a distressed marriage wakes up early on Saturday to surprise her husband with breakfast in bed, he’s likely to interpret her positive behavior by saying, “She must want something from me.” Or, “She probably couldn’t sleep. She only made breakfast for me because she was bored and it gave her something to do.”

However, if the wife in a distressed marriage commits a negative behavior, say she forgets to tell him that she’s coming home late from work and will have to miss dinner, he’s likely to interpret her negative behavior by saying, “It’s because she’s a selfish person.” He’s unlikely to think that she’s an unselfish person who simply happened to forget to call this time.

So the husband disregards the wife’s positive behavior and assumes that her negative behavior is fueled by stable personality deficiencies. As you can see, the husband and wife never sit down to have a meaningful conversation. Instead, the husband’s perceptions of the wife are wholly based on his assumptions. In a distressed marriage like this, no matter what the wife does, she loses!

I’m sad to say that I see this dysfunctional pattern of relating in the body of Christ. People from different tribes often act like the disgruntled husband in the distressed marriage. We tend to zero in on the “negative” behaviors that other Christian groups are engaging in and we tend to attribute those behaviors to personality deficiencies (e.g., “They don’t value Scripture” or “They’ve become too worldly”). Meanwhile, we barely notice the positive things that other groups in the body of Christ are doing. If we notice them at all, we often assume that their motives are impure, that they have an “agenda” or that they’re not worth listening to because they’re outside our tribe.

What suggestions would you have for church leaders wanting to lead their churches into becoming more diverse and unified communities?

I think one of the most powerful things that church leaders can do to lead their churches into unity is to model unity in their own personal relationships. A church will never be diverse if the leaders don’t live diverse lives.  Engaging in meaningful cross-cultural contact is scary! But people follow their leaders. If they see their leaders doing it, they will likely follow suit. Indeed, research shows that when a group leader models a relationship with a non-group member, the members of the group automatically begin to perceive the non-group member in a more positive way!

Church leaders should start by building meaningful friendships with people outside their ethnic, political, theological, gender, class, age, and marital status groups. When they begin to do this, they may begin to realize that the people who they had previously labeled as “wrong Christian” are now some of their most trusted friends. As part of this process, their misperceptions of them will begin to come to light.

The work of reconciliation is hard, slow, sometimes costly work. You’ve often encouraged people to persevere in the work and take the risks. Why do you think it’s worth it?

The work of reconciliation is the work of the Cross. I love doing it – despite the high costs – because it keeps me on my knees at the cross, asking our Savior to infuse me with his reconciling love so I can share it with others and participate as an empowered co-heir in His great work of making all things new. There really is no better place in the world to be!

Thanks for inviting me to interact with you and your readers! I love interacting with fellow members of the body of Christ and I’m excited to be on your blog today!



IVP is kind enough to offer five free copies of Christena’s book to readers of the blog. Here’s how it works. The first five people to tweet a link to this interview and plug the book will receive a free copy. When you tweet be sure to include my twitter handle (@thabitianyabwil) so I’ll know you’ve done so. I’ll connect with you to get your mailing details and IVP will send you Disunity in Christ. You’re going to enjoy this read!





Thabiti Anyabwile|10:22 am CT

“I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me”: The Intra-Group Gaze of Race and Identity

Came up for a short break from sermon preparation and should have kept my head in the book!

Apparently the “race and ethnicity police” have infiltrated the ranks of sports broadcasters. One wishes the racial identity police would go the way of Hitler’s Gestapo, but we’ll have to await the end of the world war called “race.”

Veteran sports reporter Rob Parker has raised some eyebrows and caused a stir by questioning whether the Redskins’ RGIII is a “brother” or a “cornball brother.” Parker doubts RGIII’s black bona fides because apparently he has a white fiance, may be a Republican [gasp in horror!], and continues to answer repeated and unsolicited questions about being a “Black quarterback” with equal parts big picture grace and hat tips to his fan base. Parker wants him to just pull out his ghetto card–if he has one–and act “Black.” Parker gives him credit for wearing braids–that’s “urban” after all–but finds RGIII suspect nonetheless. Parker concludes on ESPN’s First Take, “he’s not one of us.”



Stephen A. Smith countered by saying he was uncomfortable with where the interview with Parker had gone. He rightly says that the man’s fiance and political leanings are no one’s business. Credit to Smith for seeing clearly on those issues. But Smith goes on to express his irritation with the tacit requirement of successful Black athletes to “please the masses.” Smith rightly rejects the double-standard that’s long plagued prominent Black athletes. They should be free from the white gaze just as white athletes are. Kudos.

Yet, even Smith has to tip his hat to the identity police. He says:

Let me say this clearly [does he ever say anything vaguely or subtly?]. I don’t know of anybody who goes into something trying to be the best black anything. We understand that. That’s a given. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge a level of pride and a feeling of a level of accomplishment for being somebody who happens to be of African American descent, who competes and achieves and accomplishes things on the highest level while also bringing attention – to some degree anyhow – to the pride that they feel being black. Because they’re allowing themselves to be a reminder to those who preceded them, who worked so hard, accomplished and achieved so much, but were denied the accolades that that individual is receiving. [emphasis added]

Of course, there is nothing wrong with feeling appropriate levels of pride for accomplishing something only 1 in a million dreaming high school athletes will achieve. And there’s nothing wrong with having that sense of accomplishment intensified by the remembrance of obstacles personal and racial. And there’s everything right about allowing your example to encourage and inspire others who watch and appreciate you and share much of your experience–personal and racial. Nothing wrong with that at all.

But Smith’s comment–in its effect–differs only in tact and subtlety from Parker’s. Smith is rightly irritated by the double-standard forced upon Black athletes by a wider society, but he’s not as irritated by the hegemonic gaze of African Americans themselves. He rejects the white gaze but assumes the rightness of the black gaze. Smith’s comment reveals the limits and constraints placed on personal freedom from inside the idea of blackness. Under the black gaze one can only go a certain distance in individual freedom before they’re required to pay explicit homage to race, place, and culture. Or, as Parker put it, “he’s not one of us.” Parker and Smith end up being good cop and bad cop for essentially the same faulty construct–race. Both assume it’s reality and both assume the necessity of incorporating it in personal identity. That they have different degrees of tolerance for outward shows or rest their definitions on more or less substantive factors is irrelevant. The real thing not to be missed is that our friends–like all of us–are plagued with a social construction of group identity that’s killing us–sometimes loudly (Parker) and sometimes softly (Smith).

The absurdities of race surface as poignantly in Smith’s comments as they do in Parker’s barber shop rant. On the one hand, Smith says RGIII just “happens to be of African descent,” but on the other hand so random an accident of history and biology should require and result in “the pride they feel at being black.” Put aside for a moment that “being black” is the issue at dispute in the interview and Smith doesn’t bother to define what he means. It’s incongruous to think that descent is happenstance and simultaneously a source of pride. It’s like being proud we had more letter A’s in our alphabet soup than the next guy.

And here’s where we see the problem most clearly. “Race” as an accident of biology, place, time, and social mores provides a monstrously faulty anthropology for understanding ourselves or even expressing appropriate sentiment about personal and group achievement. Had Smith said, “God made RGIII what we call ‘Black’ or ‘African American,’ and it’s no accident RGIII is who he is,” then we all could express glory, thanksgiving and group solidarity in the most important ways. Had someone said, “We’re all made in God’s image, share in His likeness, and are commonly descended from Adam even though God purposed variety in our appearance for His glory,” then the discussion would have been lifted above the narrow human-made confines of “race” and the ridiculousness of either having to prove your “blackness” or to “pay homage to your race” would have been exposed. We owe praise to God. We must all come to belong to God. Indeed, our inspiration must be rooted in God himself.

I know that what I wrote in the paragraph above assumes a Christian point of view. I don’t know whether Parker or Smith would claim to be Christians. But in any event, the entire episode makes it clear that only Christians have a sufficiently powerful answer to the dilemmas of race. For in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. In Christ we’re all being renewed to the image of God in true righteousness and holiness. In Christ, what God made me to be as a __________ [fill in the ethnic blank] will redound to His glory appropriately and intentionally forever. Only a truly Christian anthropology can both affirm who we are in our unity and distinction while at the same time freeing us from slavery to those distinctions. Only the church has the answer to our racial conundrums. Now if only the church would get its house in order on these things so we can raise up Christian journalists and sports commentators who inject Christ into these very important conversations.

Let me get back to sermon preparation. Please pray for my preaching of Micah 4 on Sunday. In the last days God is going to gather the nations to the mountain of the Lord. Men and women from all the peoples of the earth will be taught by God and walk in His ways. Aren’t you glad we’re living in the beginning of the last days and consummation is nearer now than it was when you began reading this post?

P.S.--Some of you will recognize the allusion to Rockwell in the post’s title. Here’s a little something to take you waaay back :-)





Thabiti Anyabwile|1:31 am CT

I Was Thinking of Giving Up Blogging…

Until I saw Church Relevance’s recent Top 200 Christian Blogs list.  This is an annual ranking (though I think earlier years were top 100) that combines several factors to determine a ranking among Christian blogs.  Here’s how the folks at Church Relevance describe the list:

Some focus exclusively on ministry, while others are more like theology or news blogs. Regardless of how you label them, these are the world’s most popular church blogs written by many of today’s most influential church leaders, journalists, theologians, and Christ followers

Seems like too great a claim to me.  But it is an interesting list.  I find it’s main value in the listing of interesting new blogs to follow.

So why did the list change my mind about no longer blogging?

It’s not Pure Church’s #22 ranking.  In fact, I think we’re down a few spots from last year.

I skimmed the list and realized that there are very few ethnic Christians on the listing!  There’s Pure Church, but after that the number of Christians from ethnic backgrounds making the list of 200 gets slim indeed!

Becky Hsu and Jerry Park contribute every few weeks over at Black, White and Gray (T-#57 in the ranking)–a blog name that sounds like it could focus on multi-ethnic perspectives but turns out to be mainly White brothers and sisters.

Bruce Reyes-Chow comes in at #90.

Another African American, Scott Williams, joins the list tied at #98 with his blog BigIstheNewSmall.

DJ Chuang bounces in at #134 and Eugene Cho at #139.

Urban Faith, a mostly African American group blog, comes in at #144.

Skye Jethani hit the list at #155.

It’s entirely possible that I’ve missed some brothers or sisters from ethnic backgrounds in my skimming of the list.  I’d be happy to know that there’s more representation than the 8 of 200 blogs I’ve spotted.

But what does this mean?

On one level, it doesn’t mean much of anything.  I don’t quibble with the metrics used to compile the rankings (I don’t understand most of it).  The list is what it is and we shouldn’t, as we sometimes do, make more of such a list than it deserves.  There are no awards in heaven for a church’s blog ranking.  I suspect some of us might even lose rewards for blogging too much or blogging too sinfully.  That’s the line I’m likely to be in.

But on another level, the small number of ethnic Christian blogs on the list at least suggests that the White evangelical world isn’t reading very broadly when it comes to ethnic bloggers.  To the extent that’s true, it means my White brothers and sisters are impoverished spiritually.  The ethnic church world belongs to the White church world just as the White church world belongs to the ethnic church.  We need to not only belong to one another spiritually but also learn from one another practically.  Most ethnic communities are probably more practiced at learning from the spiritual production of White brethren than White brethren are accustomed to learning from their ethnic kin.

Or, the small representation of ethnic Christians on the list could point to the perceived or real “digital divide” between ethnic lines.  As ubiquitous as computer technology is, it’s still not universal and there’s some evidence that African Americans and Latinos use the technology differently than other groups.

Again, the list ought not be taken too seriously.  But it might be a good prompt for thinking about how to intentionally broaden our reading sources.

As for me, I think I’ll re-think my blogging program a bit and stay in the game a little while longer.  I’m hoping many more folks will show up on the list in the future.  Then I’ll give my complete attention to another list–my wife’s “honey do” list!





Thabiti Anyabwile|12:46 pm CT

T4G Debrief: Where Were All the African Americans?

A couple days ago, David Murray posted a second reflection on T4G where he asked, “Where were all the African Americans?” Murray expressed some timidity raising the question for fear of saying something offensive or incorrect. We’ve all had enough hand-slapping when it comes to reaching into the “race” and ethnicity cookie jar.  I appreciate the courage to press into the issue.  As far as I’m concerned (and who am I to offer an opinion?), it’s okay to ask the question, even though something feels “off” with the question.

For anyone interested, here are my quick responses:

1. Murray guesses that African Americans made up about 1-2 percent of the crowd.  That might be correct.  But here’s the question for me: What percentage of the Reformed Christian world do African Americans comprise?  I’d think we’re not much more than 1-2 percent–tops!  The Reformed world is small and the African-American Reformed even smaller.  Perhaps this is what seems “off” about the post to me.  On a percentage basis, I wouldn’t be all that concerned even though I’d love all my kinsmen according to the flesh to adopt this robust, God-exalting, and biblical theological world and life view.

2.  Murray mentions that the Man Up! conference was happening at the same time and might have attracted some who otherwise would have attended.  That might be true.  I know a couple guys who opted for Man Up! over T4G.  And I think they made the correct decision.  Here’s why.  Man Up! represents an important movement with more application to the African-American community and more popular appeal among young African Americans than does T4G.  Don’t forget that T4G is unashamedly a pastors’ conference.  Though many are welcome to come, the conference has always had as its aim to primarily address and encourage pastors and aspiring pastors in their role.  If you’re a young African American Man Up! likely seems more relevant and important a theme and topic.  Would I rather they attend a conference with one panel on complementarianism and no specific reference to African-American applications or attend an entire conference contextualized on the theme of manhood for African Americans?  No brainer.  The fact that some might choose a unique conference like Man Up! is no indication that we’re not together.

3.  R.C. Sproul and John MacArther are probably the T4G speakers that Reformed African Americans most often identify with.  Sproul and MacArthur are the human means the Lord used to introduce many of us to Reformed theology.  Just check the appendix of Tony Carter’s Glory Road for an indication of their influence.  In retrospect, I’m guessing Sproul’s and MacArthur’s inability to be with us must have weakened interest among some African Americans (and not just African Americans).  I’ve already written about how I personally missed them.  I’m guessing I’m not so weird that I’m alone in that.  We were without the two Christian radio ministry leaders that many African Americans would know.  There’s far less familiarity with the rest of us as speakers.

4.  My impression is that in absolute numbers the attendance of African Americans seemed stable.  I can’t say I noticed a big drop off over the years.  There weren’t a ton in 2006, 2008, or 2010.  However, the venues and the audiences were smaller in each of those gatherings.  In social psychological terms, what we might have here is a case of “the visibility hypothesis” at work.  The visibility hypothesis is simply the notion that the smaller a group is in the general population the more noticeable they are and the more attention they attract.  The attendance grew over the years, the absolute numbers of African Americans remained relatively constant, and so the visibility went up for some.

5.  The speaker rostrum at T4G, unlike most other conferences, is built on friendships.  I noticed in the comments of Murray’s post that some speculated that a more diverse representation of speakers might help attendance.  It might.  But speaking invitations aren’t “managed” that way.  At the heart of the conference are four friends with like passion for the gospel.  Over the years, they’ve invited 3-5 other friends to participate with them.  Everything that happens with the conference–from speaking invitations to meals with the speakers to retreats before and after–is aimed at deepening friendship.  That’s not to say any of the men lack close friendships with people of other ethnic backgrounds.  They all have many.  It’s simply to say, as far as I’m aware, though everyone would like to see greater diversity, such diversity is not the main strategy for organizing the conference and speakers.  The main goal or strategy is to rally around the Good News.  Would we ultimately have it any other way?

In all of this, one thing seems abundantly clear to me: The greatest ability to strengthen and diversify friendship in the gospel probably comes not from the speaker panel’s ethnic make-up but from whether or not we attenders intentionally invite and reach out in our own circles of influence.  We could ask ourselves: How many African Americans (Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc.) did I invite to come to the conference (any conference) this year?  If we didn’t invite anyone not like us, then at best we have the same blind spots or limitations we assume conference organizers to have.  One result of past conferences is that we’d regularly hear from people that they came alone the first time and committed to bringing others the next time (usually staff or elders or young guys from the congregation).  I think that’s great.  Maybe we should modify that commitment just a little to ask: What brother from a different mother has the Lord placed in my sphere of influence to invite the next time?

Maybe that makes things a little more diverse?  Maybe it helps our friendships?  Maybe not.  Either way, we still have the gospel of our Lord and the Lord offered in the gospel.





Thabiti Anyabwile|11:59 am CT

Where Does “Blackness” and “Whiteness” Come From?

I don’t know what I expect when I write some blog posts.  Usually I’m just in my own little head trying to get some coherent thoughts out so I can learn and think.  So, I write what I’m thinking.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I do hope it’s helpful to someone else.  But sometimes it stirs up questions and comments I didn’t anticipate.  Like the post “This Black Leader or That Black Leader.”  I suppose I knew it would stir conversation, but I didn’t anticipate being accused of furthering Black-White divides, especially when I’ve written so much to challenge the very question of “race” itself.  Outflanked on the right, I suppose.

Then there was this great question: “Where does the idea of ‘blackness’ come from anyway?”  Hmmm.  That’s a fine question.  It revealed my assumption that everybody had a working notion of “blackness” or “whiteness” and some sense of where it comes from.  I’m glad for the question for two reasons: (1) It proves not everybody does–that’s good news; and (2) it suggests real progress on this front–also good news.

But, perhaps it’s good to attempt a short answer to this question before resuming the schedule of posts I have for this week.  Perhaps answer this question will help make some sense of the previous posts and make the subsequent ones more helpful (at least understandable).  So, where does “blackness” (and for that matter, “whiteness”) come from?

Not from the Bible

First, we ought to say something about where it does not come from.  It does not come from the Bible.  As I understand the Scripture with what light the Spirit has given me, the Bible’s story line emphasizes our great continuity with one another.  To be sure there are different families, clans, nations, languages, and religions, but there is one humanity, descended from Adam, made in God’s image and likeness.  Genesis 10 tells us of the fracturing of peoples into various clans and regions.  But note that everyone there descends from one family, Noah’s.  Acts 17:26, a favorite text of early African American Christians fighting to be regarded as human, reads: “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (KJV).  I suspect Paul had Gen. 3:20 and Gen. 10 in mind when he preached those words in Athens.  So, if by “whiteness” or “blackness” we mean something approaching “race” as biological other, then that idea finds no support in the Bible.

Not from Genetics

Acts 17:26 (KJV) is also interesting for another reason.  At least in terms of American views of “race,” there has been the long-standing “one drop rule.”  That’s the idea, at first social and then legal, that one drop of African blood made a person “black.”  This is why we ask insane questions like, “What color is Johnny?” or “Is Barack Obama black?”  And this is why we make the equally insane conclusion once we find out that somebody in Barack Obama’s family was black-skinned that, in fact, Barack Obama is “black.”  The one-drop rule resulted in terms like “full-blooded” (as in the case of “full-blood Cherokee”) or “half-breeds” (a pejorative if ever there was one), and “mixed-race” people.  The one-drop rule rests upon a faulty genetic premise: that there is sufficient genetic difference to constitute different “races” (read, “species”) among the peoples of the world.  The mixing of these “bloods” resulted in, it was assumed, real genetic differences between the “races.”  However, you’d be really hard-pressed to find one genetic scientist today who would argue for any genetic basis for different races.  The genetic difference between blacks, whites, browns, etc. is so marginal that we’re left to affirm Acts 17:26: “He made from one blood all nations of men.”  So, race (and therefore “blackness” or “whiteness”) has no genetic foundation.

From Society

So where does “blackness” and “whiteness” come from?  There are four interlocking sources, if you’ll let me speak in general terms.  First, it comes from society.  ”Race” and attendant ideas like “blackness” and “whiteness” are social constructs, made up by people and cultures everywhere.  One thing many people don’t realize is that there has never been in worldwide consensus on precisely how many “races” there are.  Different societies developed different definitions.  In America, most of the history focused on two “races”–black and white.  But in South Africa, that society classified people into three “races”–black, white, and colored.  Early Chinese ethnographers argued for ten racial classifications.  We could go on.  If you want more about this, read the introduction to Colin Kidds excellent work, The Forging of Races.  The point is that “race” and “blackness” or “whiteness” are socially constructed identifiers.

What’s fueling these social constructions of racial categories?  That brings us to our second of the three interlocking sources: spiritual alienation from God and one another.

From the Fall

Read Genesis 3-4 and 10 again.  What was meant to be one humanity under the reign of God subduing the earth and filling it with His glory became a alienated, hostile, murderous, dispersed, confused, and separated mass of peoples.  The effects of the Fall are real, and it’s our fallen nature that drives us to not only classify ourselves along racial lines but also to join feelings of alienation, hostility, and xenophobia to those classifications.  What’s the first thing Cain says when God pronounces his banishment?  “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen. 4:14, NIV).  Do you see the alienation from God and other peoples in Cain’s speech?  It’s an alienation he received from his parents and that we receive from his parents.  The spiritual “other” or “alien” really emerges from sin’s entrance into the world.  And it’s partly what explains the existence of “blackness” and “whiteness.”

From Psychology

The Fall touched every part of man, corrupting him at his root.  The rational faculties of man are no exception.  That’s what I mean when I say “race,” “racism,” “blackness,” and “whiteness” come from our psychology.  There’s a theory in social psychology called “social attribution theory.”  Simplifying a bit, the theory teaches that basically all of our minds are pretty quick stereotyping machines.  We recognize certain characteristics in others and then our minds–often so quickly that we’re not conscious we’re doing it–begins to make attributions.  You’ve perhaps heard of the famous (though flawed) psychological study that showed a black baby doll and a white baby doll to little children and asked the children to describe what they thought about the dolls.  Routinely the children rated the black doll as dirty, dumb, and so on, while rating the white doll as pretty, desirable, etc.  That study was pivotal in the Brown v. Board case that led to the end of racial segregation in the United States.  I point to the study simply to illustrate the point: we are assigning attributes to one another all the time based upon things like skin color and hair texture.  It’s not simply that we have a category of “races” in our minds, or simply that we notice skin color.  That’s not how the mind works.  We notice skin color, file the person into a racial category, and then our minds take over by filling in assumed attributes (positive or negative) about the person.  We do it and we often don’t even know we do it. The mind is a mercilessly efficient stereotyper.  That’s why we have the notion of “blackness” or “whiteness.”

From Interaction

Now, there’s a fourth source of “blackness” and “whiteness” we need to consider: cross-ethnic interactions.  Our experiences with one another have a lot to do with forming, reinforcing, and shaping our notions of “blackness” and “whiteness.”  Part of what it means to be “black” or “white” gets formed in the crucible of shared pain, suffering, joy, hope, failure, success, loss and so on.  Despite our various categorizations, we share one planet and occupy one social world.  There are places in this social world where we may retreat with others who share our identity, but even then we’re aware of “the others” and that awareness shapes how we’re together.

Now, here’s an important point under this category of interaction: White people helped define “blackness” for Black people, and Black people help define “whiteness” for white people.  The entire argument for slavery which depended on defining “blacks” as inferior and subhuman had and has a tremendous effect on how others see Black people and how Black people see themselves.  Many others bought and buy the lie.  So, too, did some Blacks.  And those Blacks who did not nevertheless had to forge a definition of “blackness” in response to the negative definitions of whites.  There’s a dynamic negotiation and struggle for the control of “blackness.”  Where does “blackness” come from?

But the truth is: White people created “blackness,” and Black people have returned the favor.  ”Blackness” and “whiteness” come from the conflicts and interactions of black-skinned and white-skinned people fighting for that most absolute power of defining self and others according to your own social location.  In the same whites, Blacks have mounted counter-strikes to define white-skinned people, so that “whiteness” in the Black imagination includes certain things.  To be silly and very stereotypical, “whiteness” includes the inability to dance, strange tastes in music, no ‘cool’ or ‘soul,’ and so on.  Or, to be more serious, “whiteness” represents risk to one’s Black self, oppression, marginalization, and so on.  We are simply one lifetime away from a social setting where mistakes with Whites ended in lynchings, cross burnings, and so on.  That’s ugly, real, painful history.  It illustrates how “blackness” and “whiteness” result from a fallen social world where attributions and interactions happen at the speed of thought and carry enormous consequence.


That’s why any discussions of “race” almost immediately move to discussions of our experiences.  It’s in the interactions that these things get defined in powerfully personal ways.  Now the problem with the quick move to experiences is that (a) we can’t change our histories, (b) our histories can enslave us, and (c) our personal histories often blind us to the underlying issues of the Fall and the social attributions we make.  So, our histories keep us from doing the harder, deeper work of forging a biblical view of ourselves and others.  And this is very important: Because these ideas are formed through interaction, it’s going to take massive levels of interaction to undo the damage that’s been done and to forge a new path.  We won’t escape the quagmire by waving a wand or by fiat.  Nor will we get there by simply decrying the fact that others “still think this way.”  We have to roll up our sleeves, reach into our hearts, pull out the old and plant the new.  I pray the Lord will allow us to do this more and more by His word and His Spirit.


Some References for Those Who Might Like to Read More:

Collin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge, 2006)

Joseph L. Graves, Jr., The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America (Plume, 2005)

Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (Norton, 2010)

Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968)

David R. Roediger (ed.), Black on White: Black Writes on What It Means to Be White (Schocken, 1998)

Debra J. Dickerson, The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners (Anchor, 2004)

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Belknap of Harvard, 2005)

Mia Bay, The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas about White People, 1830-1925 (Oxford, 2000)

Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton, 2006)

Mark M. Smith, How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses (Chapel Hill, 2006)

Scott L. Malcolmson, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000)

Amitai Etzioni, The Monochrome Society (Princeton and Oxford, 2001)

Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (Pantheon, 1998)





Thabiti Anyabwile|1:24 am CT

Evangelicalism in Black and White

Urban Faith has an interesting 30-minute discussion of Evangelicalism in Black and White Communities with Dr. William Pannell of Fuller Theological Seminary. For those new to him, William Pannell…

was the first African-American to serve on Fuller’s Board of Trustees. In 1992 he was appointed as the Arthur DeKruyter/Christ Church Oak Brook Professor of Preaching, served as dean of the Chapel from 1992 to 1998, and also served as director of the African-American Studies Program. A gifted preacher and professor of homiletics, Pannell has nurtured several generations of Fuller students from the classroom to the pulpit. He currently serves on the board of Taylor University in Indiana and is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Coming Race Wars? A Cry for Reconciliation (1993); Evangelism from the Bottom Up (1992); and My Friend, the Enemy (1968). [From the Fuller website]

Here is the video:

Here are the interview questions and their time frames:
1. What is Black Evangelicalism? [00:03]
2. What was your relationship with the late Tom Skinner and the rise of Black Evangelicalism? [2:05]

  • Reconciliation, Billy Graham, and the White community [6:05]
  • 3. Why did you write My Friend, The Enemy (1968)? [7:55]
    4. What is the Obsidian Society? [12:53]
    5. What are the challenges facing young black evangelical scholars? [14:17]
    6. What is the state of preaching as we move deeper into the 21st century? [16:46]
    7. What lead to the development of your book, The Coming Race Wars, published in 1993? [20:00]
    8. Dr. Pannell on President Barack Obama [23:38]
    9. What implications does race in America have on President Obama? [25:48]
    10. Dr. Pannell on the Tea Party [27:35]

    Books mentioned in the interview:

    Tom Skinner, Black and Free
    William Pannell, My Friend, the Enemy (1968)
    William Pannell, The Coming Race Wars: A Cry for Reconciliation (1993)





    Thabiti Anyabwile|8:38 am CT

    Colorblind Is Not the Same As Justice-blind

    I enjoyed this conversation between Colin Hansen and John Piper regarding John’s new book, Bloodlines. I deeply respect and admire John’s faith in the Lord, willingness to risk, and courage to stand on this issue. And in these videos you can see his passion and investment in arguing for a blood-bought reshaping of our thinking about ourselves.

    Confronting the Racial Sins of Our Fathers from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

    Can’t Afford to Be Color Blind from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

    I think John nails the colorblind issue in the second video. He captures the tension and dynamic very well, showing both the pros and the cons of the issue.

    If I might, I’d want to tack on one footnote to what John has said extremely well. Sometimes the appeal to being colorblind masks a deeper issue of being “justice blind.” That is, some people have called for a colorblind society or positioned themselves as colorblind people as a means for willfully ignoring justice issues that themselves are predicated upon color. Examples abound. Fill in the blank.

    So, there arises a suspicion of the notion because of very real justice or injustice issues attached to color. We don’t want a naive movement toward colorblindness (in the positive sense) when it gives room for “justice blindness.” That’s part of the tension and concern. In a society filled with systematic statistical disparities on the basis of skin color on everything from educational achievement, employment rates, internet access, incarceration, banking access, poor health, home ownership, poverty, and so on, we cannot afford a blindness to color that perpetuates a blindness to justice.

    I’m grateful for Piper helping to make this plain. The move toward a post-race society must include movement to a color-just society. This is better known to us as judging a man by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin–whether that “judgment” be the charitable interpersonal judgments that help to eliminate prejudice and racism or the charitable judgments of “justice for all.”

    P.S.–I’m certain someone will wish to point out that I’ve at least intimated that “justice” looks like “equality of outcome” and not “equality of opportunity.” Fair enough. But before you dismiss the thrust of this post with that critique, how about defining “justice” yourself and attending to the color-based injustices and disparities so plentifully around us before/as you point out your disagreement with my definition. Until then, I need to let you know that I kinda like the definition of “justice” that I use and pursue over the definition of “justice” you don’t.





    Thabiti Anyabwile|11:58 pm CT

    Anyabwile v. Wake

    Protesters took over a Wake County Public School board meeting in Raleigh, N.C., during a protest of the school board's decision to eliminate a busing policy focused on diversity.

    You’ve heard of Brown v. The Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that began the dismantling of “separate but equal” in public education.  Well, it seems that the gains of the Civil Rights movement are imperiled in at least one jurisdiction, Wake County, North Carolina.

    My wife served in a Wake County high school for three years as a history teacher.  I coached junior varsity and varsity basketball in the same system.  In North Carolina, Wake County schools were the gem of the state.  And with good reason.  The system managed an integration policy that to some extent ameliorated some of the wide income and resource gaps between various neighborhoods in the system.  It was a busing strategy that had some challenges (many of our students were bused past three or four high schools in order to attend school, leaving home sometimes as early as 6:30am).  But on the whole, the system worked to give greater opportunity to all.

    Thanks to the backing of sibling billionaires, what was once widely regarded an effective system for ending both segregation and class disadvantage may now be dismantled.  Black Voices, an internet newspaper associated with The Huffington Post, reports on the community’s response to the election of five school board members bankrolled by Charles and David Koch (not N.C. residents), the Tea Party, and State libertarians.  Those school board members received millions in support from the Kochs on a platform to end the school district’s policy of diversifying student bodies and returning the district to neighborhood schools.

    Following Brown v. Board of Education, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus deployed the state national guard to deny the "Little Rock Nine" entry to Little Rock's Central High school. President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to escort them into the building.

    Critics rightly understand this to be a return to segregation along ethnic and class lines.  Neighborhood and class segregation remains a stubborn reality in most places around the country.  Poverty concentrates, and so does wealth.  And while neighborhood segregation no longer holds sway in the country as a matter of law, we’re nowhere near the level of meaningful social interaction we might like to see across class and ethnic lines.  The new proposal for neighborhood schools just might be a giant step back to the 1940s.

    Do we really want that?  Do we really want armed soldiers escorting students into schools?  Do we really want to strategically limit opportunities by zip code, skin color, and income?  Surely the lessons of Jim Crow are not already fading from public memory and conscience.

    Don’t make me dust off my red, black, and green!





    Thabiti Anyabwile|8:59 pm CT

    Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege

    Senator James Webb (D-Va) offers an interesting op-ed at The Wall Street Journal entitled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege.”  Webb questions the validity of viewing white America as a monolith along with the continuation of government programs originally designed to remedy slavery’s legacy but not serve all “people of color.”

    Here’s Webb’s conclusion:

    Where should we go from here? Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.

    Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white. The need for inclusiveness in our society is undeniable and irreversible, both in our markets and in our communities. Our government should be in the business of enabling opportunity for all, not in picking winners. It can do so by ensuring that artificial distinctions such as race do not determine outcomes.

    Memo to my fellow politicians: Drop the Procrustean policies and allow harmony to invade the public mindset. Fairness will happen, and bitterness will fade away.

    Read the entire piece.  This isn’t typical Democrat speak.  And it’s a certainly a rare opinion in Northern Virginia.  Webb gets points for breaking the party line with a dissenting opinion.

    But is his reasoning solid?  I’m curious; what do you think?  Does Webb’s point of view hold?  Is white privilege a myth?  Ought tenure in the country privilege someone to government support or resources?  And curiously, are southern white Baptists really an ethnic group?





    Thabiti Anyabwile|9:13 am CT

    Demographics, Diversity, Leadership and the Church–Mega and Mini

    This morning, I read with interest Time Magazine’s David Van Biema’s article, “Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide?“  It’s a positive look at Bill Hybels’ and Willow Creek‘s efforts at diversifying a once all-white suburban congregation.  The article gives great attention to Hybels’ leadership on this issue at Willow, his steady “drum beat” approach to identifying racial issues, the work of small groups in building community across racial lines, and so on. Hybels has apparently shown a level of repentance and leadership that few have.

    “I hadn’t [preached] about it in 24 years.” So he promised his congregation, “I’m not going to overwhelm you.” Yet he persisted, sermonizing repeatedly about America’s racial history and continuing inequities. He pledged to open Willow to every ethnicity. In 2003, he recalls, he threw down the gauntlet, telling his flock that the church’s racial outreach was “part of who we are, and if it can’t be part of who you are, you probably need to find a church that doesn’t talk about this issue.”

    Amen.  I was encouraged with the read, and I hope you will be also.  Still, the article raises a number of questions worthy of further consideration.

    Is It Demographics and Probability, or Is It Leadership and Gospel Change?

    For example, why should “megachurches” be lauded as the possible bridge over troubled racial waters?  Is there something “mega” about their teaching and Christian ethic, or is the apparent ability of megachurches to achieve some diversity simply reflect economies of scale?  If you grow a church large enough (20,00+ in this case), are you bound to have some measure of diversity as a matter of probability if not intent?  Willow’s history teaches that you can be a big church and not be diverse at all.  Indeed, that history could be cited in other megachurches, I’m sure.  So, leadership matters.

    But I’m still left wondering whether the success at Willow has more to do with the Chicago-area demographics, the church’s size, and the probability that if you’re even a bit friendly and welcoming the church will start to “brown.”  More impressive, in my opinion, would be to see this same kind of leadership and dynamic occur in small town churches, historically and socially bifurcated along ethnic lines.  Megachurches tend to be in “megacities” or at least in significant metropolitan statistical areas where cross-ethnic interaction is at least more probable and generally more frequent.  Leave the urban hubs, how effective is the church at crossing these lines?  I tend to think there are a handful of smaller churches in smaller areas doing about as good as Willow.  And it’s clearer in many of those examples that what’s at work isn’t probabilities but gospel sanctification.  I’m not saying that the gospel isn’t at work at Willow (please don’t misunderstand me), just that it seems clearer in a different setting with a different racial history.  So, the work of God among the saints at Redeemer Presbyterian in Jackson seems more brilliant in its power and display among that band of Christians than in this article.

    I’m thankful for the work of God on this issue wherever it occurs.  But I wonder if there aren’t some confounds in this article and in the assumption that megachurches are the “saviors” on this issue.

    What Is the Best Measure of Congregational Diversity?

    Van Biema cites Emerson’s 20% as the threshold for diversity.  He writes:

    By February 2009, Willow had hit the 20%-minority threshold that signifies an integrated congregation. Today its membership is 80% Caucasian, 6% Hispanic, 4% Asian, 2% African American and 8% “other” ethnicities. Says Bibbs: “The church would never be the same again.”

    In an area like Chicago, would you call this an integrated congregation?  For the record, I think most African Americans and Hispanic and Asian brethren and the 8% other might say that this is not feeling like a terribly diverse experience.  If 80% are white, chances are the variegated others are still feeling very much like “minorities.”

    Using an arbitrary percentage as the measure of “diversity” is all the more troubling because it doesn’t work everywhere.  There are still places where certain ethnic communities barely exist.  A flat statistic like this is imposing and perhaps unattainable.  And in other areas, like Chicagoland, one suspects the ethnic percentages to be more diverse than Willow’s congregation.  A better measure for how well we’re doing might be to suggest that a church should look like the community it lives in.  If the community is 50/50 black and white, the congregation should be 50/50 black and white.  If the community is 30% white, 20% African American, 35% Hispanic, and 15% Asian, the church should look that way.  We should expect that the gospel raches the nations without prejudice, and that the church created by the gospel would know the same tendency.

    It’s great to celebrate the work at Willow.  I certainly do.  Hybels could have continued on his 1975 track, and no one would have criticized him one bit.  I think the Lord has done a gracious work in our brother’s heart.  But sociology shouldn’t define this for us.  Theology should.  And the heart of God beats for all the nations.  If all our friends look just like us such that we’re not connected enough with the nations to reach the nations, then we’re shamefully off mission.  We need the grace of repentance the Lord appears to have given Hybels, and we need to work for a church that includes all the nations in its location.

    Is Diverse Preaching Leadership the Litmus Test?

    A while back, the venerable, Puritan-reading, cross-over dribbling, golf-club-swinging, church-planting Tony Carter observed that genuine integration and diversity wouldn’t be possible until white brethren submitted to the leadership of men from ethnic backgrounds.  Carter: “Most of my white evangelical and Reformed brothers and sisters speak positively and eloquently on racial diversity. For this, I commend them. However, until we see white men and women doing what black men and women have long learned to do—namely, sitting under and submitting to the leadership and authority of those who are ethnically different—we will not see real diversity.” (see here)

    Add prophet to Tony’s list of titles and achievements (honestly, though, I don’t really know how good his cross-over is; one day, we’ll see).  The Willow article illustrates Tony’s observation:

    Most disturbing, according to about a dozen minority congregants, was that Hybels never promoted a nonwhite member to a pulpit pastorship or senior staff position at the main Willow campus. (Bibbs, never a “teaching pastor,” now advises other churches on multiculturalism at the Willow Creek Association.) An African American recently joined Willow’s elder board. Curtis Sallee, a black 15-year “Creeker,” comments that while “what Bill has done racially has been nothing less than miraculous, there needs to be someone who speaks for the church, a teaching pastor or staff, who’s a minority. That’s the next step. I don’t know whether they are ready to take it. But they’re going to have to address it sooner or later.”

    Hybels acknowledges the situation as “extremely frustrating” and attributes it to the fact that paid leadership is drawn from the longest-serving church volunteers, who are still mostly white. The argument, however, doesn’t account for the homogeneity of Willow’s pulpit pastors, the past several of whom have been out-of-church hires.

    Do you find it difficult to believe that among a 20,000+ member congregation, with networked resources of hundreds of like-minded churches, there is not one qualified ethnic minority who could participate in the pulpit ministry at Willow?  I do.  Especially when among the teaching pastors of Willow there is, contrary to Scripture, a woman listed.  Willow’s failure to find gifted and qualified ethnic teaching pastors is all the more disappointing when Van Biema points out that “the past several [pulpit pastors] have been out-of-church hires.”  One wonders if a deeper dynamic isn’t at work.  The article maintains:

    Willow’s predicament is hardly surprising. To some white congregants, naming a person of another color to tell you what Scripture means, week in and week out, crosses an internal boundary between “diversity” (positive) and “affirmative action” (potentially unnerving). Daniel Hill, a former Willow young-adult pastor who founded his own fully multicultural River City Community Church in Chicago, says, “There’s a tipping point where the dominant group feels threatened.” Consciously or unconsciously, Hybels stands at that point.

    I’d be curious to know what some of you think about this last quote as an explanation for the absence of ethnic leadership in the pulpits of predominantly White congregations.  Rutland, Vermont figured this out in the late 1700s and early 1800s in the ministry of Lemuel Haynes.  And again, churches like Redeemer Presbyterian with its pastor Mike Campbell, an outstanding preacher, seem to be doing a good job at cross this “tipping point.”  And to date, we’ve not experienced an exodus of white members here at FBC.  Quite the contrary, whites join this church in numbers comparable to other ethnic groups even though both of the main preaching pastors here are black men.

    I’m hesitant to conclude that having ethnic representation among the teaching pastors ought to be the marker or “tipping point” of genuine diversity.  Obviously, the Scripture places emphasis on godliness.  But I’m also hesitant to conclude that there are no godly, qualified, gifted and interested men from Willow’s ethnic membership or in the larger Chicago-area who could not serve faithfully among Willow’s teaching team.  So, the work goes on.


    I couldn’t agree more with Van Biema’s assessment of the scandal of ethnically-segregated churches.

    [T]hose many who desire a transracial faith life have found themselves discouraged — subtly, often unintentionally, but remarkably consistently. In an age of mixed-race malls, mixed-race pop-music charts and, yes, a mixed-race President, the church divide seems increasingly peculiar. It is troubling, even scandalous, that our most intimate public gatherings — and those most safely beyond the law’s reach — remain color-coded.

    And yet, there is much to be encouraged by in this day of the Lord’s grace and work.

    But in some churches, the racial divide is beginning to erode, and it is fading fastest in one of American religion’s most conservative precincts: Evangelical Christianity. According to Michael Emerson, a specialist on race and faith at Rice University, the proportion of American churches with 20% or more minority participation has languished at about 7.5% for the past nine years. But among Evangelical churches with attendance of 1,000 people or more, the slice has more than quadrupled, from 6% in 1998 to 25% in 2007.

    We dare not despise the day of small things, even as we pray for a fuller communion with God and with all His people.