race

 

Mar

04

2014

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:42 am CT

Why Did Edwards Miss It and Haynes “Get It”?

Last week I had the privilege of joining Derek Thomas and the saints at First Presbyterian (Columbia, SC) and Erskine Seminary to deliver their annual John L. Girardeau lectures. It was a wonderful and engaging time with both members of the church and many of the professors and students from the seminary.

Since the lectures are named in honor of John L. Girardeau (1825-1898), who pastored a congregation of slaves at the height of the institution and alone opposed segregation in the Southern Presbyterian Church, I thought I’d take a historical look at social justice and Reformed theology. The lectures have the general title, “Bondage or Freedom? Questions in Early American Theology.”

In the first lecture, we considered Jonathan Edwards’ almost complete silence on the greatest social justice issue of his day: slavery. In the second lecture, we considered a theological descendant of Edwards, Lemuel Haynes, and his rather developed abolitionist stance against slavery. We tried to compare and contrast the two men according to their social location, theological preoccupations and biblical interpretations and ask how those factors affected their positions on slavery.

It was a joy to reflect on these questions with the saints there. I heard many touching stories about the power of the gospel and the march of grace in the hearts of people with family histories closely associated with these historical issues. We stood across the street from places that played significant parts in South Carolina’s secession from the Union and the resulting Civil War. Our time there reminded us of this history and also of the progress that has been made through the gospel and a lot of God’s grace. I hope you enjoy the lectures should you listen.

 
 

Oct

31

2013

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!

————————–

FREE BOOK GIVE-AWAY

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!

 
 

Jul

26

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|10:22 am CT

“Don’t Be Talkin’ About My Mama”: The Black Family in Politically Conservative Discourse

Today I’m writing about something I did not expect to write about early this week. Once again it’s something that’s captured my attention in the wake of the Martin/Zimmerman situation, specifically in a couple of conservative responses to the trial and the protests that followed. A couple persons have either tweeted or left in the comments thread video reaction from conservatives responding to what they see as “race baiting” in the Zimmerman affair and offering what they believe to be the unvarnished truth about Black America’s problems. I’m speaking of a Bill O’Reilly “Talking Points” video and a video from Bill Whittle called “Afterburner: The Lynching.” The videos both use a newsroom backdrop and feature a monologue from the hosts. Though there were some differences in what was presented and some details, both videos narrowed their focus at one crucial point: the African-American family.

Essentially, both conservative hosts pinned all the problems of African America on the breakdown of the Black family. In a pretty typical conservative point of view, they emphasized personal responsibility in things like sexual behavior, marriage, and so on. That, we’re told, is really the problem in the African-American community. And both guests wonder, “Why isn’t anyone talking about that?” Civil Rights leaders are castigated for ignoring the real problems and instead bottom-feeding on the country’s “racial” weaknesses. They’re presented as opportunists of the worst sort, unable or unwilling to face “the truth.”

After getting this comment a couple times in comments threads and seeing it passed along in social media, I grew concerned at two basic weaknesses or fallacies in the argument. Let’s look at them in turn.

Is Marriage and Family Structure the Solution to the Black Community’s Problems?

O’Reilly and Whittle get some things correct. One is that there is a near social science consensus (an extremely rare thing–like dodo birds!) on the relationship between family structure and the well-being of every member of the family. You can state this scientific truth in a number of ways. It’s been tested over many years, in many settings, across the researchers’ own ideological perspective with the same result. Children raised by married biological parents are significantly better off compared to children raised in every other family structure. The families that tend to face the poorest outcomes are children raised in single-parent (usually a mother, sometimes a grandmother) poor households. Marriage provides stability in multiple ways, and that decrease in family turbulence leads to better outcomes for children, mothers, and fathers.

As stated, this is a research consensus that, apart from a few important caveats about the quality of the marriage (absence of abuse, etc.), holds across ethnicity and across time. So why the fuss in this blog post?

Well, a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth is a complete untruth. There’s significantly more to consider than just family structure. Reducing the discussion to personal responsibility and family structure, while necessary, doesn’t begin to account for where the story of the African-American family begins in the U.S. It’s rarely said, but single parenthood was not a feature of Black family life until the Transatlantic slave trade. It won’t be popular to say in politically conservative circles, but instability in family structure in the Black community is a direct result of enslavement. And we don’t have to go all the way back to 1619, though the effects of slavery on the African-American family is undeniable. In addition to slavery, the African-American community still feels the long history of personal and systemic discrimination in this country, against African-American men in particular. To jump into a discussion of family structure without at least acknowledging either the long or recent historical context that first created family instability is at least irresponsible and at worst dangerously misleading. There’s much more to the story.

The story of family structure occurs in a broader social and economic context that currently circumscribes the ability to form healthy families in the first place. As we tout marriage for all its worth—and we should—we need to also tell the many other well-researched stories that are relevant. Take, for instance, the story of employability and job availability. The last forty years has seen entry-level jobs simultaneously decline in number and move from inner-cities to suburbs and in many cases other countries. Consequently, there are fewer jobs in the city and less accessibility to the jobs that around the city. This decline in entry-level employment opportunity disproportionately affects African Americans who have a higher rate of low-skilled workers compared to other ethnic groups because of the history of unequal education and discrimination. Employability affects marriageability.

And so does education and criminal history. Here’s the cycle: Boys grow up in sub-par schools whose federal support (already a smaller percentage of support) was cut significantly in the last two decades and whose local support is often times funded by property taxes (which, concentrates resources in the most affluent areas, or, to put it negatively, discriminates against the schools and children who most need resources). The substandard education many receive leaves them ill-prepared for a competitive and tight job market. Many students in this cycle get involved in petty crimes, for which they receive stiffer penalties than their white  counterparts committing the same crime. That criminal history now makes it even more difficult to find employment and pushes individuals deeper into underground and criminal economies. Which, again, makes such a man less likely to marry and less desirable as a marriage partner.

I could go on with other marco-economic and policy issues that have significant deleterious effects on the African-American family. Many of those policies have nothing to do with “race” on the face of it. But they do end up affecting weak families and communities more drastically. If you’re interested to think more about these kinds of issues and their effects on the African-American family, along with a discussion of how some cultural attitudes play into this, I can’t think of a better research-based yet smooth reading work than William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner-City. If you want to be “fair and balanced” in your understanding of these things, I’d recommend Wilson’s internationally acclaimed work over the likes of a ten-minute sensationalized and snarling “journalism” segment.

I should say one other thing before I leave this section. The above story is the story of my family. My mother is a never-married single mother of eight children. She raised us with the kinds of values we describe as “middle class” or even “conservative.” Turns out, according to research on African-American attitudes toward family and personal responsibility, she’s not an exception. She’s just like most African Americans in the country, even in the toughest neighborhoods facing the toughest social problems. And my family follows the research pattern on family structure. Three of the four males are divorced. Two of the three sisters married late in life. Only one of the three sisters married before having children. Their children replay the research patterns so far. So, when the O’Reilly’s of the world rail against “the family,” they’re talking about my mama, my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews, real people with real lives. What people need is the hope that only Christ can give. What they don’t need is another kick by people who clearly haven’t taken a second to enter their lives.

Is It True That African-American Leaders Aren’t Doing Anything about Black Family Issues?

The second thing I want to respond to briefly is the assertion that today’s leaders aren’t doing anything in the African-American community to turn the tide on the destruction of the African-American family. To be frank, anytime you hear someone say that you should automatically conclude that (a) they have no knowledge of the African-American community and/or (b) they’re politically motivated. They’re not expressing a sincere interest in the community or knowledge of the community. If they had any honest knowledge of intra-community conversation, they would know that concern for the family, for African-American boys, crime, education and so on are at the top of everyday community concerns and conversations. They would know that actually what makes you a leader in the community would be your interest in and involvement on these issues.

Off the top of my head, here is the long but very partial list of people and movements that address African-American family concerns:

We could start with Jupiter Hammon’s “Address to the Negroes in the State of New York.” Hammon fills his address with exhortations to honesty and faithfulness, and warnings against profaneness. Despite the vicious onslaught of slavery against the family and human dignity, that’s just what Hammon commends. And he is but one in a long line of antebellum writers and speakers to do so. That’s the 1700s folks.

Or, we could call to mind Dr. Francis J. Grimke (1850-1937), for over 50 years the pastor of Washington, D.C.’s 15th Avenue Presbyterian Church and one of the founders of the Niagara Movement, which subsequently became the NAACP. Peruse the contents of volume 1 of Grimke’s 4-volume collected works and you’ll find a variety of sermons and addresses focused, in part, on the  development of African-American families and character. To Francis Grimke we  could add Daniel A. Payne, W.E.B. DuBois and nearly every other African-American leader of their era.

To cite more recent things, in no particular order, we might name the Boston Ten Point Coalition, the Stop the Violence movement headed by rap artist KRS-1 and others, 100 Black Men of America with its chapters across the country, or the volunteers and staff at Boys and Girls Clubs. Most of these are grassroots movements led by everyday people. In other words, this partial list says nothing about the legions of African-American elites who work on and talk about family issues, like social scientists who focus  on the African-American family, or local politicians who trumpet these issues, or businessmen who sponsor sports teams or the Denzel Washingtons and other prominent entertainers who support mainstream programs like Big Brother/Big Sister and so on.

People think the ruckus involving Bill Cosby and folks like Michael Eric Dyson was some conspiracy to keep the importance of marriage and family structure off the table. To be certain there are ideological differences that surfaced in that exchange. But everyone in the community knows that Cosby didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said in the community for two centuries. What really angered some people was that Cosby, given his stature and the national public platform of the event, took the conversation outside the community where it often has been used against the community by people who have no interest in the community or the entire story of struggle against overwhelming odds.

Which brings me back to Bill O’Reilly and Bill Whittle and other conservatives who speak on these issues. I’m reminded of that powerful phrase in Ephesians 4:15, “speaking the truth in love.” Particularly as Christian people, we should have a dual concern for both truth and love, or to use the words of John 1 we should, like our Savior, seek to be full of both grace and truth. When I watched those videos, it was evident that these men were only concerned about “the truth” as they saw it and very little concerned about love or grace. We can all cite the statistics of out-of-wedlock birth in the African-American community and feel good that “we told the truth”–and that only partially. But unless we cite statistics like that with tears and weeping, we’re not likely doing so with grace and love. If we’re going to speak about these things publicly, we should do so the way the gospel preacher ought to speak of hell: With tears and groaning, not with steely coldness and a “to hell with you” attitude. We should know the difference between self-righteousness pretending to be truth, and truth stooping to love.

So, if you care about these things, use one of the many reputable and scholarly resources. Let’s not be entangled with the civilian affairs and approaches that marry a few facts with political ideology. Let us not fail to distinguish conservative politics from conservative theologyespecially where they appear to have some common interest. There’s where we’re most likely to drift toward the world and away from the Bible. Above all, let’s be biblical–which is to say, let’s be loving in all our speech and let’s be slow to speak in the first place and let’s not wrongly regard me according to the flesh or “racial” stereotype.

 
 

Jul

24

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|10:21 am CT

Why Statistics Don’t Justify Our Prejudice or Our Profiling

Over the past several days I’ve had a number of exchanges with good people perplexed about what to do with “racial” profiling. Most of these persons have focused not so much on public policy but on their own hearts and fears. They’ve been concerned about their own reactions in situations that, to them, require some level of profiling. They think they’re being “rational” in their profiling or prejudice. And that’s what bothers them most. They think the failure to profile represents an irresponsible risk, and yet they see the injustice—potential and real—of profiling and stereotyping.

Most all of these people are white, work in office settings and have advanced degrees. But few of them actually work with statistics for a living or have much training in their use. Yet, the sole factor that makes them feel rational and justified in their profiling are national crime statistics (in fact, it’s not an actual statistic at all, but a general sense that African American men commit more crimes). They’re left wondering, How do I account for disproportionate rates of crime when it comes to my personal interaction with African-American men?

I’ve been asked this enough and seen it on enough media outlets that I thought I’d offer a couple comments. Take them for what they’re worth.

A Few Common Mistakes with “the Statistics”

Do national crime statistics provide any meaningful information for personal safety? Most people would like to assume so. But, depending on how you use the statistic and what conclusions you draw, you’re actually quite likely to further misrepresent people and worsen the problem of “racial” profiling. Here are five ways misusing statistics create more problems.

Aggregate statistics don’t predict actual situations. In introductory statistics classes, there’s usually some illustration meant to make the student aware of the limits of correlations, that most basic of statistics. You’re told about worldwide ice cream sales spiking in December when temperatures are lowest outside. Then you’re asked if winter causes hunger for ice cream. Of course the answer is no. Correlations do not indicate causality. Some further stats are then used to explain why ice cream sales go up in the winter and we get to see the limits of correlation. When people refer to aggregate statistics as justification for their profiling, they’re making unwarranted predictions about their interaction with African-American men. In this case, the statistic neither causes nor correlates with the lived reality of most white people.

Aggregate statistics include redundancies. How many offenders have committed multiple crimes recorded in these aggregate stats? Significant numbers of offenders commit other crimes after their release. Multiple crimes can be attributed to one individual or group of persons. Take, for example, the incredible rates of violent crime in Chicago right now. Those aren’t crimes randomly committed by random individuals. It’s highly likely that a smaller set of people connected by some other factors (i.e., gangs, drugs, revenge) are responsible for the surge in assaults. If the crime statistics include multiple offenses committed by a smaller number of persons, then it’s not rational to view every African-American male as though he’s a likely criminal ready to assault you. This is called over-generalizing. It’s applying a statistic about some people with particular characteristics to all people whether or not they  share the key characteristics.

Aggregate statistics include geographical concentrations. Consider again the statistics on violent crime in Chicago right now. No doubt Chicago’s crime rate disproportionately contributes to any national crime statistics. Yet few people citing statistics as justification for their informal profiling take that into account. They cite the statistic as though the crime that’s likely in Chicago is just as likely in Des Moines or Greenville. But that’s not true in any measure. The reality is that most people commit crimes where they live. We can’t generalize from one neighborhood to another in this way, especially if we’re generalizing to really dissimilar neighborhoods that lie at some distance from Chicago.

Aggregate statistics include systemic anomalies. The disparities in criminal justice procedures are well-documented. African-American men—especially poor black men—receive stiffer penalties and are convicted at higher rates than other men committing the same crimes. If you want to think more about this, you might consider reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. When we tout “the statistics” we need to recognize that we’re citing systemic biases as well as criminal behavior. Doing so likely inflates the informal probabilities we’re using to justify our profiling.

Aggregate statistics don’t predict inter-”racial” interactions. Again, people tend to commit crime where they live. People also tend to commit crimes against people they know. That’s especially true with assaults and violent crimes where roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of such crimes are committed by people known to the victim. Most of us are more likely to suffer at the hands of someone who looks like us and is known to us than we are by the stranger walking down the street. So, if we’re white, taking aggregate crime statistics about African Americans and applying it in some informal profile is less rational than doing the same with other whites you encounter. It turns out that African Americans are more rational if they profile other African Americans from their neighborhood. Aggregate crime statistics simply fail to justify the profiling that’s happening.

Better Data for Profiling

I think it’s impossible to avoid all profiling. And I think it’s irresponsible to try to avoid all profiling. We all categorize information and draw conclusions. The human mind seems to do that efficiently and automatically.

The issue is whether or not we’re using the appropriate data when we draw our profiles and calculate risks in any given situation. A blanket and imprecise appeal to “statistics” seems to me an improper approach to either protecting ourselves or treating others with respect and dignity.

We might be better off using a simpler set of data: our own personal experience. In your last ten interactions with someone of another “race,” how many times have you actually been verbally accosted or physically threatened? How about the last 50 interactions or 100? It’s not that it never happens. It does. When it does, we understand why persons would be afraid and more vigilant. But for most of us it hasn’t happened–at least not to the level that we can justify our fear and our profiling.

And that’s the heart of the issue for most people–fear. What do I do with my fear? Do I justify it? Do I reject it? Do I act on it? And what must I think of the “other” in a way that responsibly addresses my fear?

The first step would be to admit just how powerfully our fear may be acting upon us. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we’re being “rational” with these statistics when deep down inside we know we’re trying to soothe our fear and justify its existence. Better to face our fear and conquer it with a legitimate use of statistics and information. We don’t want our fear to make a lot of bad decisions for us. We’ve not been given that spirit.

 
 

Jul

22

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:08 am CT

Before Leading Your Congregation in a Discussion of “Race” and “Racism,” You May Want to Check a Few Things

The past couple of months have afforded the United States ample opportunity to discuss “race” and “racism.” Most of the opportunities surfaced in response to significant and problematic events in the country’s life. Cheerios found itself harangued and harassed by viewers who objected to an adorable commercial featuring an “interracial” couple. Czarina of Southern cuisine, Paula Dean, touched off a firestorm with racially derogatory comments. And most recently, the Zimmerman verdict has elicited a range of emotional responses from people on every “side” of the issue. Even from the distance of the Cayman Islands, it feels as if we’ve been swimming in a vortex of racial confusion, despair, hostility, protest, grief, and anger.

Not surprisingly some people have turned from their initial reaction to now ask tactical questions: What next? What solution? How…?

That’s an appropriate, if daunting, turn. There are no easy solutions. Even the President, in his excellent personal reflections on the Martin-Zimmerman situation, struggled to put forth decisive next steps. He’ll have the brightest people in the world at his disposal. Yet, he’ll have little more wisdom than you and me. That’s why I think President Obama was absolutely correct to offer a friendly word of caution when it comes to forums on “race.”

And then, finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching.  There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race.  I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations.  They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.  On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?  Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?  That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy. (Full text and video)

I think the President nailed so many things in his off-the-cuff and sober reflections. I agree with President Obama about the potentially “stilted and politicized” nature of many discussions that further lock people “into the positions they already have.” So many conversations simply reify our prejudice. I’m convinced that we can do little more than retrench ourselves if we have these conversations assuming “race” is a meaningful or at least natural social construct. In other words, we’re stilted and make so little progress because the very idea of “race” keeps us locked into scripts of division, hurts, mistrust, suspicion, power, privilege, and alienation. If we keep doing the same things we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting the same results. We’re insane if we think otherwise.

That’s why I’m concerned about the President’s recommendation that this conversation be delegated to the local church. I realize that many will think that a good recommendation. After all, the church has the gospel. Where else will we see reconciliation worked out?

Where else, indeed?

But has the local church modeled the reconciled life where you live? I suspect that in most communities we’d have to say, “No.” If I had to judge by the comments left in posts on this blog, I’d have to say that even among Christians purportedly holding the same theological convictions, “race” seems to upset our happy little theological carts. We witness—not to Christ—but to our “racial” groups and their perceived interests. There’s a significant gap between what Christ achieved in our reconciliation (1 Cor. 12:12-13) and what the church lives out (1 Cor. 1:10-12). When it comes to “race,” most all of our local churches resemble Corinth more than Ephesus (Eph. 2:11-22).

In fact, a simple scan of the blog world on the question of the church and “race” reveals that just as many folks believe the church has failed on this issue as believe the church needs to do something on this issue. A person can hold both notions without contradiction. But it raises a question: What makes us think the leaders and people of local churches are any more competent to host this discussion than the leaders and people of the world? Are we any more effective?

Some Things to Check Before the Church Begins Talking about “Race” and “Racism”

Personally, I don’t think most Christian leaders are equipped to lead these discussions. That’s not to say they shouldn’t attempt to do so. That, of course, must be left up to local elders and pastors. But before you lead your entire church into conversations about “race” and “racism,” it might be helpful to run through a diagnostic self-check. Here are a few that come to mind for me:

Check your motive: Are you really zealous about “race” and “racism” or do you feel guilted or embarrassed into discussion? If the latter, you won’t last and will likely find yourself worse off after attempting to speak or host a forum. If the former, then be sure to couple your zeal with knowledge. Few people are more destructive than those who have great burning passion but little prayerful, informed knowledge about these issues. Maybe the best place to start isn’t discussion but listening and reading.

Check your strategy: Open forums promise much and deliver little. People may need a forum at some point. But people always need to be shepherded on this. Think long and hard about whether an open forum really provides the best shepherding. Will you host town halls, preach a sermon or series, start book clubs and discussion groups? How will you broker conversation? Who will lead these conversations? Does your strategy help or hinder your main responsibility to shepherd the people of God? Before you act, give some time to thinking through your overall strategy.

Check your goal: What do you want to achieve with a discussion? Is it understanding? Unity? Empathy? Reconciliation? If you’re not clear on the goal, you’re not ready to talk. One person or group of persons may only expect a hearing, or an opportunity to vent. Some others may expect the conversation to be two-way with some give and take. Another person or group of persons may expect a “solution” or “fix” to be implemented. Being clear on the goal helps you set realistic expectations. Otherwise, the competing expectations will either undermine the discussion or set you up for failure.

Check your timeline: Are you rushing, or are you procrastinating? Rushing into a poorly conceived conversation could be worse than not having the conversation at all. Procrastinating in the face of significant need may be cowardice and neglect. Elders need to prayerfully set the pace of the conversation. And we need to ask, “Are we prepared to commit to a long-term series of conversations in various settings in order to [state your goal]?” This will take time and lots of energy.

Check your terms: Are you talking about “race” and “racism,” or are you talking about the specifics of the Zimmerman case? Those are not necessarily the same discussion. One may provide opportunity for the other, but they’re not coterminous. And do you have a clear enough set of definitions to help people talk about the same things in the same way? Nothing can be quite as frustrating and divisive than two groups of people both saying “racism” and meaning wildly different things. Well, perhaps one thing could be more frustrating and divisive: Two groups of people both using the term “racism” and meaning wildly different things and telling the other side they’re racist for not holding their definition. If you don’t understand the terms, their underlying concepts and their use, you probably don’t want to broker an open forum on the subject. Start smaller. Work slower.

Check your theology: What do you believe the Bible teaches about the nature of humanity, especially as it relates to “race”? Will you simply accept the common concepts—though, actually, we don’t all mean the same thing when we use the same words? Or, will you attempt to give your people a new, more biblical way of thinking and speaking about our humanity? Will you deconstruct the myth of “race” or watch it deconstruct your church? Do you have a robust enough theology of the cross, reconciliation in Christ, union with Christ and the new humanity to battle with fallen, sinful notions of “race”?

Check your feelings: Don’t think you can have a conversation without heat—from everybody. Everybody has a “race” story or a “racist” incident in their past—either suffering because of “racism” or being accused of committing it. Many people underestimate how emotionally charged and personally loaded these conversations are. As a consequence, they’re unprepared and then discouraged when emotional flares shoot up. Then, worse, some people start to say things like, “Let’s not get emotional”—as if emotion is the same as irrational, and as if they are the detached rational ones. When that happens you’re seconds from becoming the next Pompeii.

Check your competence: Are you and your leadership team really equipped to lead this discussion? Have you done your homework, reading the literature and listening to your people? Do you know other resource persons who may be better equipped that you can consult or bring in? Being a pastor doesn’t make us equipped to talk about everything. Sometimes we need enough humility to stop long enough to ask, “Can I really serve my people well on this topic?” If not, tell your people this topic may need to be addressed in the future and ask them to pray for the leadership as you think and prepare.

A Final Word

Nothing can become as divisive and toxic as “race” and “racism.” This topic was mixed in the darkest alchemy of hell. It’s insidious. Serpentine. Hear the “hiss” in these words before you start this conversation. Be courageous. Follow the Lord. But count the costs before you go to battle.

 
 

Jul

16

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:39 am CT

Some Different Advice to Those Raising African-American Boys in the Wake of the Martin Shooting and Zimmerman Trial

If you use social media–or any media really–it’s impossible to escape the reactions to the recent Zimmerman acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Understandably there are a lot of questions and a lot of emotions prompted by a “not guilty” verdict in an undisputed shooting of an unarmed youth.

One observer tweeted a link to a column called “How to Talk to Young Black Boys about Trayvon Martin,” authored by journalist Toure nearly a year ago. I missed this piece when first published. The person leaving the tweet thought the piece prescient and pertinent in light of the verdict. I found it deeply problematic. I find it so troubling that I’d like to post the opening lines of the eight talking points Toure proposed (for the full text follow the link above), interact with them, and then suggest an alternative message.

Toure’s Talking Points for Young Black Boys

1. It’s unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition. …

2. If you encounter such a situation, you need to play it cool. Keep your wits about you. Don’t worry about winning the situation. Your mission is to survive.

3. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re amazing. I love you. When I look at you, I see a complex human being with awesome potential, but some others will look at you and see a thug — even if their only evidence is your skin. Their racism relates to larger anxieties and problems in America that you didn’t create. When someone is racist toward you — either because they’ve profiled you or spit some slur or whatever — they are saying they have a problem. They are not speaking about you. They’re speaking about themselves and their deficiencies.

4. You will have to make allowances for other people’s racism. That’s part of the burden of being black. We can be defiant and dead or smart and alive. … The best way to counter them involves not your fists but your mind. … The best revenge is surviving and living well.

5. Be aware of your surroundings. Especially when it’s dark. Or bright. Some people are on the lookout for muggers or rapists. You need to be on the lookout for profilers who are judging you. Don’t give them an opportunity to make a mistake.

6. If you feel you are being profiled and followed or, worse, chased by someone with a vigilante streak — if you are hunted in the way it seems Trayvon was, by someone bigger than you who may be armed and hopped up on stereotypes about you — then you need to act. By calling the police. That is the exact time to snitch. I know there are times the cops will be your enemies, but sometimes calling 911 and letting the threatening person know that you’re doing so could save your life.

7. What if it’s the cops who are making you feel threatened? Well, then you need to retreat. I don’t mean run away. I mean don’t resist. Now is not the time to fight the power. Make sure they can see your hands, follow all instructions, don’t say anything, keep your cool. Your goal is to defuse things, no matter how insulted you are. We’ll get revenge later. In the moment, play possum. Say sir. They may be behaving unjustly, but their lives aren’t in danger. Yours is. If you survive, you will be able to tell your lawyer what happened. If you don’t….

8. Never forget: As far as we can tell, Trayvon did nothing wrong and still lost his life. You could be a Trayvon. Any of us could.

Some Reactions to Toure’s Counsel and Point-of-View

At places, Toure’s counsel is spot on. We must teach our boys–all boys–to play it cool and keep their head (#2). We must teach African-American boys and all little boys that “there’s nothing wrong with you” (#3). As my mama would say, “God didn’t make no junk.” And we must teach our boys the ability to be calculating, to observe the odds and to respond appropriately, to use their minds to the full  (#4-7). In one sense, all Toure advocates here is wisdom, the kind of savvy with people and in situations that could de-escalate very volatile circumstances. We want our boys to be peace-loving and to survive to fight on their own terms. I commend all of this.

But at other places Toure reveals a view of life that simply cannot and should not be tolerated, much less taught to our children as though it’s a norm they should accept.

First, it is most likely that our children will not be killed today. That’s a fact. Praise God! Even in some of the most crime- and violence-ridden neighborhoods, today, most children will walk into the front door of their homes and live. Eeking by in morbid fear is neither living or surviving. It’s simply another kind of death, self-imposed, darkened by the dousing of hope. Toure offers children nihilism and despair. He says “it’s unlikely but possible,” but that’s putting a smiley face on a death threat. He may have felt such hopelessness or anguish in the immediate aftermath of Martin’s death. But the first rule of responsible adulthood must be to pass on life to our children, not death and nihilism. We pass on life and the hope of the “good life,” and we encourage our boys to use each day to both enjoy life and better it. If, then, their lives should be tragically cut short they would have been caught in the process of enjoying it. If an officer appears at my door bearing the news that my son has been killed, I do pray he can also say, “It seems he was doing and enjoying the very best things possible at the moment.”

Second, Black maleness is a beautiful condition. Toure writes, “Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition.” But there’s nothing about being “Black” (leaving aside any definition of the notion for a moment) or “maleness” that is “potentially fatal.” People don’t die from melanin count or Y-chromosomes. Toure goes on to explain: “There are people who will look at you and see a villain or a criminal or something fearsome. It’s possible they may act on their prejudice and insecurity.” He’s right about that. People will sometimes look at Black boys this way and “they are speaking about themselves and their deficiencies.” But the fatal condition is not “black maleness” but their prejudice and insecurity. The fatal flaw that ruins the American mind is not “Blackness” but “race” and “racism.” That reflexive color-coded living, multiplying attributes and stereotypes at the speed of sight–that, is the fatal flaw. And it kills America, not just Black youngsters. It kills the soul, not just the body. The toll is much higher and the disease more widespread than the number of actual killings or beatings. To be “Black” (again, leaving aside definitions for a moment) is to be beautiful. It is to be as God designed us. It is to possess a certain nobility forged by God’s hands and polished by suffering and struggle. Historically our suffering has lead to our glory. We ought not diminish or change that for one moment–much less when we’re teaching our boys how to navigate the world. “Black” is still beautiful. That must be passed on and re-articulated in light of God’s sovereign design and Jesus’ trans-ethnic reign.

3. Racism must not be allowed. Ever. “The Black man’s burden” must be redefined not as “allowing other people’s racism” but as ending both racism and “race” in pursuit of a world where culture, clan and character matter. We’re not stuck with “race.” Just as it was invented it can also be deconstructed. The “burden” then becomes choosing something else at the potential cost of both the familiar and the opportunism of the racially-invested. The “burden,” should we choose to accept it, is to now reject the category of “race” altogether–even when racists lurk and look to hurt. We’ve stared down racism for centuries. And by God’s grace we’ve won. It’s time now to stare down the very root of “racism,” the idea of “race.” We’re sending our boys out into the world to do more than merely survive. We’re sending them out to forge a future, a new reality, a world of both possibilities and achievements. We’re sending our boys out to defy the sociological standards that divide and oppress. We’re sending our boys out to fight against the world’s pathology in order to fight for the world’s sanity. In that fight there can be no easy cease-fire with racism or racists. We seek to capture the very ideological and sociological ground such men and women stand on–the ground of “race” and associated “superiority.” I’m praying for an army of such Black men and women, boys and girls. I’m praying for an army of such people from every ethnicity.

4. The “beloved community” is still our goal. Toure’s goals amount to little more than survival, lawsuits, and “revenge” by “living well.” But especially as Jesus followers, we live for something more. We live for redemption. We live for reconciliation. We live for forgiveness. We live for justice–yes–but the kind of justice that takes account of the cross of Calvary. Toure’s proposal leaves our boys all the more disenfranchised, endangered and homeless. Where will they find peace or love in such a world? Who will create it for them and call them to it if not us? We need to take the risk of faith that fights for both the civil justice that courts can grant but also the reconciliation that only Jesus can provide. Toure’s teaching strikes me as utterly antithetical to the long Black Christian tradition that has “brought us this far by faith.” And it is only that tradition–speaking the language of the gospel and dressed in the work clothes of social action–that has delivered us. Our Great Lord calls us to the creation of something more than mob justice and balkanized communities teetering on the brink of racial explosion and violence. We’re not admirably stewarding our spiritual and social legacy if we can imagine with this hard-earned freedom little more than a vigilante society. Our children deserve more from us.

The world view that seeps through Toure’s writing provides no hope or redemption or empowerment for our children and communities. It’s not a vision of the future worth our life’s energies. We need another way.

Old Paths for Our Feet

Toure does see something clearly, though. He sees that all of our angst and grief and protests and fears come down to one seemingly mundane but extraordinary privilege. Parenting. The rubber meets the road at our dinner tables, in our living rooms, on the drive to school and work, and during our bedtime routines. What will we tell our children? Here’s my take.

1. You are made in God’s image. That can be difficult to explain and understand. But you need to try to grasp this fact. Nothing else in all of creation bears the stamp of God but you and all other human beings. You are no mistake–nothing about you. You’re unique. Your dignity comes from your likeness to God. You’re not God. You’re not even close to being God. But you’re unique among His creation and He loves you.

2. Part of how God made you is “Black.” People try to define that in all kinds of ways. But it can’t be easily defined. To be “Black” is to be a lot of things all at once. But “Black” or African American is simply another way of saying “made in God’s image.” God determined where you should live and when. He tells us that in Acts 17:26. He determined that mommy and I would have the parents we have. He determined that out of the sea-graves of the Atlantic and the cotton fields of the South and the tough cities of the North a brand new people would come into existence. We’re part African, descended from that great continent. And we’re part American, sons of this soil. Both heritages are ours and yet we’re something more than just the adding of the two. And here’s what you need to know: You get to define what it means to be African American or Black. You get to give it dignity and purpose, beauty and joy. You get to interpret its sorrows and failings. It’s yours. Don’t let anyone rob you of it. God means for you to wear it and enjoy it.

3. Now, everybody doesn’t like Black people. Shoot… there are even Black people who don’t like Black people! Once it seemed like no one liked Black people. But now those folks are the minority. You know, there’s a much smaller minority in the world than African Americans. Oh, yes. The real minority are those people so blinded with sin that all they can think of is how much they want to be better than everybody else and how much they want to hurt people that don’t look like them. These people are blind. They’re small-minded. They worship idols–they worship themselves and their skin color and their culture. If they die in their sins God will judge them something fierce. They’re so blind they can’t see the blessing that people unlike them can be to them. They can’t even see that we’re all part of one human family descended from the same parents–Adam and Eve. That’s in Acts 17:26 again. Don’t be like them. Don’t let them hurt you. “A man can’t ride your back unless you’re bent over.” Their not liking you cannot limit you unless you let. Don’t let it. Be who God has called you to be. Do what God has called you to do. God himself will see you through even their idolatry and hatred. Don’t return hate for hate; it will kill you. Return love for their hate and two things will happen–you’ll heap hot coals on their heads and you’ll change this world we live in. Love cannot be crushed. It keeps rising like the sun. Everybody doesn’t like Black people. But you love everybody with the love God gives through His Son.

4. Realize that this life includes suffering, but this isn’t the only life there is. You know, you may lose some battles with the world. There are strong enemies out there and sometimes you’ll find yourself in difficult situations. If you have to suffer in this life, be sure you suffer for doing what is right and not what is wrong. Be sure to suffer like a Christian. Christians suffer like Jesus. Jesus was mocked and ridiculed, spat upon and beaten. They nailed him to a cross and danced over his grave. He was sinless but he suffered. In this sinful world we’re bound to suffer. Don’t be surprised by it. Don’t let it knock you off your game. Remember: Those who hope in Jesus have another life that does not end and where suffering can’t reach. Live this life in anticipation of that life. Lay hold to Jesus by faith. Follow Him. Trust Him. Give yourself to Him. Hope in Him never disappoints. Even if some fool takes your life in this world, you’ll go immediately to that world Jesus prepared for us. If you suffer in this world for doing Jesus’ will, you’ll earn a reward in the next world for that same suffering. Your suffering is your slave. It works for you a great reward with Jesus. Don’t be thrown off by suffering. This life will never be perfect. But the next one will. Hope in Jesus.

5. Son, be smart. Be wise. Choose your friends carefully. Think. Especially think before you act in scary situations. Don’t just react. Obey the authorities so long as they don’t try to force you to disobey Jesus. Respect everyone, son, and you’ll find most people respecting you back. A good name is to be desired above wealth.

6. Avoid trouble when you can. Sometimes it comes looking for you. When it does, play the man. You stand your ground–not angrily or out of control, but bravely, confident in the presence and power of God  who will never leave you nor forsake you. Care as much or more about the welfare of others as you do yourself. Look out for the weak and vulnerable. When you serve them you actually serve Jesus. He will receive you with joy when you do. This is our Father’s world, and He is making something beautiful of our lives. He began a good work in you and sometimes trouble is the way He inches it on toward completion.

7. Finally, know that I am here for you and will walk with you as long as I have life. You’re my son and I love you. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you–especially when you’re pursuing righteousness or facing enemies. Every day I want you to know that you are not alone. God promised He would not forsake me. Now, with His help, I’m promising that I won’t forsake you. Come hell or high water I’m going to be right there for you. So you do your best and never settle. Momma and I will catch you if you slip and we’ll cheer you as you strive.

Have I ever told you my favorite poem? It’s called Mother To Son.

Conclusion

Of course, none of our parenting conversations can be scripted. And rarely do we have the perfect answer to our kids’ questions. Perhaps the most debilitating feeling as a parent comes from the look on our children’s faces when we can’t find a satisfactory answer for the toughest problems. Even so, we can give hope and we can be there. Besides pointing our children to Jesus, giving hope and being there lie at the heart of parenting. I pray the Lord gives us better wisdom each day as we parent for His glory.

 
 

Jul

15

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:31 am CT

Yet One More Personal Take in the Aftermath of Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman Verdict

It’s almost too risky to join the chorus of reactions in the wake of the Zimmerman trial. It seems everyone has an opinion–most strongly held and some volatile.

Some voices loudly declare justice has been thwarted. Some other voices quietly doubt the injustice is as great as claimed. These latter voices tend not to speak up for fear of being labeled and harangued. Christian voices make excellent appeals to Scripture, to forgiveness, prayer and a host of other spiritual virtues–all of which can sound hollow to unsatisfied viewers hungering for justice, for a verdict that seems to affirm Black life and exonerates the country of its racist past.

Words fail us. World-renown columnist Nicholas Kristoff tweeted pictures in place of prose:

 

I suppose it’s twitter’s version of that powerfully moving closing argument in “A Time to Kill.”

President Obama offered prose instead of policy:

The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.

Charges of racism are met with quick agreement or stony fatigue. Calls for peace get met with skeptical stare and suspicion. Calls for action get met with anger and apathy. Calls to empathy are met with hardened face. It’s a situation that defies an easy match of feeling and action. It’s a situation where feeling becomes an act–and for some an end–in itself.

But We Need More Than Feeling

We cannot do less than feel. But somehow in our corner of the world we’ve got to do more than feel. We cannot do everything, but we must not do nothing. But what?

I shouldn’t write this post because I don’t have any more answers than you. I have as many questions as you. I’m likely as suspicious as you–suspicious of the verdict, suspicious of a system that seems to miss the obvious, suspicious of the obvious, suspicious of race and class and geography and how they conspire to create situations like this, suspicious of my own heart–but not nearly enough. So what to do?

I’m thinking of several things for my own soul’s sake. I’d be happy to hear what you’re planning to do, how this might make things different for you.

1. I’m going to play with my son.

I neglect this too much. And I know how deeply broken I would be if I expected him to come home from the store or the basketball court or a ride with his mother only to open the door to uniformed policemen telling me he had been killed. The words would be an atomic bomb in my ears and heart, its blast radius multiplied by the many moments I missed with him. It’s not that I feel more vulnerable or that I fear more for him in the wake of Martin and Zimmerman. I don’t. It’s that I’m aware of how precious he is and how precious little time we have in this life. It’s also time I realized how precious his little friends are and played with them, too. Some have dads. Some don’t. All can use one more arm around their shoulders. So, first, I’m going to play with my son and his friends.

2. I’m going to remember 1950.

It could just as easily be 1940 or 1850. But I’m going to pick a year not that long ago and remember what it was like for African Americans and White Americans then. In 1950 there would not likely have been a Zimmerman trial. In 1950 there might not have been an opportunity for Trayvon’s family to bring suit or seek justice. In 1950 Martin wouldn’t have been able to walk as freely in a White downtown area or neighborhood, and his parents would not have been free to move in those areas either. In 1950 there would have been zero media coverage. And though you can’t tell it by the widespread public reactions in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, in 1950 there would have been no outcry or protest. Most likely deflated Martin supporters would have only been able to huddle with their grief in very quiet homes or church services filled with muffled sobs and primordial groans of “How long, O Lord?”. I’m going to remember 1950 because we couldn’t vote, assemble without repercussion, or tell a White person to their faces what we thought without being another Trayvon. In 1950, many (most?) Whites would have hardly noticed Martin’s death. Many might even have co-signed his death with a “Serves him right” or “He shoulda kept his place” or “He shouldn’t have sassed a White man.” I’m going to remember 1950 because while Whites were suckled on the breast of racism then, it’s not the same now. I’m going to remember 1950 because we–African Americans and America as a country–have traveled an incredible distance. I need 1950 to help me with the distance left to travel and to help me with my perspective.

3. I’m going to finally commit myself to a Quixotic quest to rid the world of “race” as a category of human identity.

I’ve been avoiding this… all the while knowing its inevitability. I’ll be jousting one of the largest and longest operating windmills in human history. To mix metaphors, I’ll be spitting in the wind–especially as so many right now have recommitted themselves to the seeming reality of “race.” I suspect I’ll be largely alone. And I suspect that any Whites who join this cause will make the cause suspect in the eyes of angry racialists, and any African-Americans or ethnic minorities who join will draw the ire of the same. But what does my Bible tell me? And how does our fixation on “race” square with its pages? “From one man God made every nation (ethnicity) of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth…” (Acts 17:26). African-American fathers and mothers valiantly used that same passage to fight for the full humanity of both African Americans and every White people in this country. Now it seems we need a fresh appropriation of it to fight for a human self-understanding free of the lie of “race,” a lie that poisons everything. I’m tired of drinking that poison. So I’m committing myself to an open campaign of resistance–resistance to the tired old social script that never gets rewritten and always gets replayed, like reruns on the classic TV channel. I’m committing myself to being rigorous and tenacious in appropriating an ethnic and cultural identity free of race-based theory, intolerant of it, and hungry for a greater immersion into my identity in Jesus Christ. I’m committing to disentangling “race” from ethnicity and culture, to rejecting the former as a fiction and bringing the latter under the lordship of Christ. I’m committing to disentangling class, privilege, and cowardice. And I’m committing to being misunderstood by others so in love with the current categories they can’t imagine life differently. But what will I have lost if I’m misunderstood? Because men currently view skin the way we do, most of us are already misunderstood. I’m seizing a chance at a new understanding.

4. I’m going to pray and preach.

It’s what I currently do. It’s what I can do. The airwaves will be filled with proposals and solutions. Some will be good. Some won’t work. I applaud them all and say, “Let a 1,000 flowers bloom!” But I can pray. And I have the privilege of preaching. And I believe those are the two most powerful weapons in the world. I believe God hears my prayers in Christ. I believe he makes my words powerful when I preach Christ. I believe mountains get moved, hearts get changed, hands are put to work, and heaven comes down again when I pray and when I preach. I’m so weak. I’m so foolish. I’m so limited. But God is not. The Lord is so strong. The Lord is all-wise. The Lord is unlimited, unstoppable, unshakable, unchanging, and un-anything else that might be a human handicap. So I’m going to God. Not as a means of escape or simply to lament and mourn. Lamentation and mourning have their place. I’m going to God because He is God. He can fix it. He does all things well. He is great. He reigns. And He will do all what I can’t. He’ll even do what I can do far better than if I did it in my own wisdom or strength. Actually, apart from Him I can do nothing. Apart from Him I don’t want to do anything. In fact, I don’t want to be apart from Him. So with faith and desire I’m going to God in prayer and gospel preaching.

No doubt there are better plans. Certainly there are folks with stronger feelings and louder voices. But this is what I can do living on a Caribbean island and looking for the coming consummation of the Kingdom of God when Jesus returns. Because He is coming, I’m hopeful.

 
 

Apr

18

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|5:00 am CT

A Final Wrap-Up: Thabiti Anyabwile and Douglas Wilson

Introduction

When our discussion first started, we were both surprised at how well it went, and both of us are very grateful to God, and to one another, for this great blessing. We have also been grateful to the readers and commenters who participated in this discussion in the same spirit, praying with us, and laboring to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).

Agreements
We wanted to bring our discussion to some sort of formal close, and so this is it. As we understand it, our points of agreement are:

1. Mankind is one in Adam, which means we share a common humanity, and a common slavery to sin. We together believe that mankind cannot come together in a true unity until they do so in the second Adam, the only one who is capable of overcoming the sorts of things that divide us.

2. We both believe that racism is a grievous sin, and we believe that it is a sin that has the practical effect of undercutting the gospel. Jesus came to cast down the middle wall of partition, not only between Jew and Gentile, but also to cast down any other walls that exist between any other races, nationalities, tribes, or tongues. Worthy is the Lamb, for only He could do this. But even He had to do it with the price of His own blood (Rev. 7:9).

3. The logic of the gospel is jubilee logic. This means that the messianic promises all looked forward to the day when the liberation of the world from every form of slavery would begin, and the arrival of Christ was the inauguration of God’s kingdom. This liberation from slavery begins with liberating men from their slavery to sin, but it necessarily and inexorably includes all other forms of slavery as well—whether the forms of slavery as they existed in the ancient world, or the more recent forms in our country.

4. We agree that the letter of Philemon is saturated with the idea of koinonia fellowship, one that Paul and Philemon and Onesimus all shared, and that Paul uses this spiritual reality as the foundation of his argument, urging manumission for Onesimus.

But Differences Remain
In the areas where we continue to differ, those differences are significant, although some of them may well be differences of emphasis.

Thabiti continues to believe that:

1. The history of slavery—even the existence of American chattel slavery, especially among Christians—represents a far more egregious transgression of love, the gospel, and humanity than represented in Black & Tan, which attempts a dangerous revision without sufficient historical evidence. He believes privileging man-made constitutional arguments over the liberty and full flourishing of fellow human beings betrays the gospel, betrays the command to love our neighbor, and fails to consider the balance of all the relevant biblical texts. That combination of revising the record of slavery’s inhumanity and privileging only the prima facie reading of texts compatible with one’s position leads to gross misjudgment and siding with the oppressor against the oppressed in the case of American chattel slavery.

2. A defense of “state’s rights” or the South’s withdrawal from the Union is tantamount to a defense of American chattel slavery. The inevitable consequence, had the South won the War, would have been the perpetuation of race-based slavery and all its concomitant evils. There’s no way to credibly defend the South’s position without also providing means for the continuation of its sins and oppression of Black people. There’s no way to credibly defend the South as a “Christian nation” while tolerating its practice of race-based chattel slavery, even if we hold to an emancipative gradualism. Only an immediate end to slavery would have been consistent with the “jubilee logic” of the gospel and repentant of the “grievous sin” of racism upon which the practice was based.

3. We need an unembarrassed and stalwart acceptance of every jot and tittle of the Bible, including difficult texts that pierce and challenge our own favored positions and cherished histories. After all, the word of God is a piercing double-edged sword which heals by slashes and cuts. We need to embrace what Wilson calls the “angular texts.” But we need not do that in a way that makes us impervious to charges (i.e., racism, insensitivity, etc) that we ought to hear or forgetful of the fact that different “angular texts” challenge each side of a dispute. “Angular texts” and all, as servants of the Lord we must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and certain that what we’re defending is the truth of scripture rightly understood and not just our favored positions or our pride.

4. The Constitution of the United States was never a perfect document. Its guidance then (antebellum South) as well as now (battles against abortion) is insufficient and in need of modification from time to time. To assert that the Constitutional issues at the time of the Civil War are directly contributory to the Constitutional issues surrounding abortion is a massive logical mistake. Despite some parallels, it’s better to recognize that the document has and continues to fail us at various critical points in history—slavery, women’s rights, and now the protection of unborn life. The Liberty Bell has been cracked from the beginning, a crack put there by the hypocrisy of ringing for liberty while holding slaves. The fix is not to root our current discussion in debatable matters involving the country’s racial past, but to pursue “a more perfect union” by more fully applying and defending the high ideals and values the Constitution does embody. We don’t need to look back to go forward, especially if we’re looking back with a biased eye to a “history” that did not exist. We need to be faithful in our own day, and that means not sticking your finger in the eye of people who would and ought to be cobelligerents but showing genuine love “in word and deed” (1 John 3:18) as we work together on life-and-death matters of mutual concern.

Douglas continues to believe that:

1. The “angular” texts of Scripture must be handled and understood in a way does full justice to them on their face. I believe this is possible to do in the light of redemptive gradualism, but this in turn means that not every Christian slave owner was bound to the duty of immediate manumission. After all, how do we interpret the text that says that the Israelites could hold foreign slaves forever? We can’t just agree to face these texts in principle — we have to actually face them and say out loud what they mean. Are these some of the words that are profitable for instruction (2 Tim. 3:16)? Further, because in our present day, such commitment to all the texts of Scripture is sufficient to get any Christian tagged as a racist, any a priori commitment to avoid charges of racism at all costs will necessarily morph into a regrettable softness when it comes to the issues of biblical authority on the controversies of our own day — abortion and homosexuality chief among them.

2. We have allowed our indignation at sins committed one hundred and fifty years ago to hide our complicity in the atrocities of our own day. I believe that the constitutional implications of the War and the Reconstruction amendments paved the way (in the realm of constitutional interpretation) for Roe v. Wade, and has resulted in a far greater evil being perpetrated on blacks in the 21st century than slavery ever was in the 19th. While it is good to be correct about idols toppled long ago, it is far better to be right about the idols that are currently demanding the blood of innocents, including many millions of black innocents. Our obedience before God will be reckoned in how we dealt with the sins of our own era, not the sins of another. My central interest in all these historical issues has to do with how the legal principles that were laid down then are being understood and applied today.

3. I do understand the point that support for the South would have had the downstream effect of continuing the institution of slavery, at least for a time. While the point is easy to make from this distance, it imposes, I believe, an extra-biblical requirement, and furthermore, it is one that nobody practices in our current situations. I believe it is too simplistic and is unworkable. For an American soldier to go the Middle East today and fight for “democracy” is also to fight against nations that don’t allow abortion-on-demand, and it is to fight for a nation that does. To help America is therefore to help abortion. Well, we would say, quite rightly, it isn’t quite that simple. I completely agree . . . but would also add that it wasn’t that simple in Virginia one hundred and fifty years ago. We really must use equal weights and measures. The Lord was quite insistent upon it — the judgment we use will be the judgment that is used against us (Matt. 7: 1-2).

Conclusion
In conclusion, we believe a fair summary of our conclusions would be this. It is possible for Christians to disagree about volatile issues. Moreover, it is possible — indeed necessary — to do so charitably. The strong disagreement makes us feel like enemies and strangers, while the charity reminds us of our brotherhood in Christ. The strong disagreement tests the bonds of our fellowship and love for one another, while genuine love covers over a multitude of sins and holds all virtues together. We believe we have experienced both the testing strain of strong disagreement and the preserving bonds of biblical love. We thank God for it even as we disagree about some things, agree about others, and hope to be faithful to our common Master in it all. We believe that this is what it looks like to labor to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace — it is kind of messy sometimes, but we believe it pleases God.

 
 

Apr

04

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:15 am CT

The Current Battle for Richmond

HT: @davidmbailey and @cscleve for tweeting out this article on racial reconciliation efforts in churches in Richmond, VA. Here’s a city that has its own ugly past regarding racial issues. So it’s an awesome testimony to God’s grace and the power of the gospel to see the Lord at work to  heal the old wounds through Christ.

The article does a good job of bringing out both the blessings and challenges of being the diverse people of God united in Christ. Mention is made of privilege, power, equality and the like. As we’ve seen in many posts of late, reconciliation work ain’t easy, but it’s worth it. Moreover, the article helpfully illustrates one of the concerns Wilson points out in all of this: the way even good efforts at something like reconciliation can be seized upon by things contrary to Scripture. For example, one pastor commented, “Multicultural worship is an image of the kingdom of God, and in the kingdom of God everybody is included — black, white, gay, straight, young, old, liberal, conservative.” Interesting to note how “gay” sauntered into the list as an aspect of “multicultural worship” as an “image of the kingdom of God.” We’re always in danger of righteousness being abused by unrighteousness.

The article reminds us that the number of diverse (more than 20% from a minority group) congregations has grown but remains low. I’m encouraged by the progress but there’s still work to do in living out the reconciliation Christ purchased (Eph. 2:14).

Which brings me to a question asked somewhere in the comments thread in my exchanges with Wilson. Someone asked something along the lines of why “diverse churches” tend to be churches where African Americans and others attend predominantly white evangelical churches. The sense of the question, as I remember (or misremember?) it, was something along the lines of “if White pastors and churches were so ‘racist’ or ‘racially insensitive’ then why are most of the ‘diverse’ churches predominantly white and led by white pastors.” I hope I’m remembering this correctly because if I’m not then this will be a needlessly contentious issue.

But here’s my answer: I reject the premise. I could list a long list of African American pastors and largely African American congregations that have substantial numbers of white members and members from other ethnic groups. It’s a significant overstatement to say “all” or “most” of the diverse congregations are headed by White pastors and then conclude there’s no problem with ‘racial sensitivity.’ If anything, most of the pastors I know who lead diverse congregations would say they’ve been made more aware of their blind spots and thereby more lovingly sensitive to people from different backgrounds. And the relative higher numbers of African Americans willing to integrate into predominantly white churches compared to the relatively few white Christians going to Black churches might actually be a measure of African American willingness to sacrifice for integration. Lots of leaders remain discouraged that by-and-large white Christians don’t demonstrate their heart for reconciliation by intentionally seeking ethnic churches to join. A great memoir on this theme is Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line. Wilson-Hartgrove, a White brother in Christ, tells his story of joining and serving on staff at a traditional Black church in Durham, N.C. Good read. But the Wilson-Hartgroves of the world remain few in number it seems to me.

But there’s something else to say about all this. I don’t have any empirical evidence. This is just an observation that could prove false, but I think I’m not far from the truth. Whether predominantly Black or White or Asian or Hispanic or whatever, the churches that experience the most integration across ethnic lines are likely to be the churches with the ‘thinnest’ cultural layers surrounding it. The ‘thicker’ the cultural requirements for fellowship the less likely cultural ‘others’ can get inside and fellowship fruitfully. Or, to put it another way, the more “traditional” the church is–whether “traditional Black” or “traditional Southern Baptist” or “traditional Dutch,” etc–the less likely people from other cultural backgrounds will be able to stick it out in those worship communities in any significant numbers (20% or more).

Why is that? It’s likely because such churches have something in addition to/apart from Christ and the Scripture at the center of their congregational lives and their worship experience. The closer “tradition” or “culture” lies to the center of things, the less room on the periphery for those who don’t share that tradition or culture.

Now, it seems to me that all of this means we have to be careful with our interpretation of diversity statistics even as we pursue the reconciliation Christ has purchased. A church that fails to reflect the diversity of its community might be less diverse than we’d hope, but that doesn’t mean its ‘racially insensitive’ or ‘racist.’ It may be, but there may be other factors that better explain things. The traditional Black church is not a ‘racially insensitive’ or ‘racist’ church (though surely there are racist persons in these types of churches just as there are racist persons in every type of church). Yet, the traditional Black church is still called the ‘traditional Black church’ because that tradition is pretty prominent in its self-understanding and identity. That valuing of culture and identity, in part a self-protective response to the wider church’s historical practice of racial segregation and refusing church membership to African Americans, no doubt alienates some who don’t know the ways of being, speaking, and worshiping very well. But it doesn’t necessarily amount to ‘racial insensitivity’ or ‘racism.’ In the same way, I have a pastor friend who loves to talk about the Confederate heroes of the Civil War, attends re-enactments, and gives out Civil War books. It’s a passion for him. I’m sure others in the church share that passion. But the man is no racist. His church isn’t very diverse even though he ministers in a pretty diverse city. Might culture and tradition play a part here? I think so. After all, when most of us say “Southerner” we tend to think of White people, not the many others who live in and love the South as well.

Okay, I don’t have an eloquent way to end these ramblings. So I’ll just stop. Let’s keep battling in faith for a deeply reconciled church.

 
 

Apr

03

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:40 am CT

Black Bodies and Public Texts

One of my absolute favorite professors in undergraduate school was Dr. Karla Holloway, a funny and brilliant woman. She taught me to “stay in the text,” which later the Lord would use in my approach to preaching. Dr. Holloway now serves as the James B. Duke Professor of English, Professor of Law, and Professor of Women’s Studies at Duke University. Her work focuses on African American Cultural/Literary Studies, Biocultural Studies, Ethics in Law and Medicine.

Recent discussions about history, race, perception and sensitivity, etc. were fresh in my head as I watched this lecture from Dr. Holloway. In “Black Bodies and Public Texts,” based in part on her book, Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics, Dr. Holloway talks about the way our bodies get “read” and how that “reading” affects public policy, bioethics, and how we consume media and history. It’s a wide-ranging lecture, but I thought some folks following the conversation might enjoy it.