The object of the second greatest commandment in Scripture is people. It would, then, be no surprise to the outsider looking in that the church must be concerned with one another. We know one another by our love for one another. This is a distinguishing mark of the true Church. Love, for my family in Christ and love for those outside the church, even those who look at the church with the most hostile of gazes, should be an essential part of my life as a Christian.
That is why I must address what is being said by Thabiti Anyabwile.
Now, before the reader even gets past this line, there will be snarks, whispers, and perhaps even proclamations that will suggest I’m writing this because I’m not #Woke. Maybe I’m just not credible because, after all, as a white man I simply cannot give up the privileges afforded to me by my white slave-owning ancestors and privileged parents. In any case, opposition will come, but I do hope to find some thoughtful responses to what I have to say.
MLK50 and The Gospel Coalition
The context of my response and Thabiti Anyabwile’s words is the Martin Luther King Jr. Conference sponsored by The Gospel Coalition. It took place April 3rd-4th and sought to speak into issues surrounding race. There were several speakers, including Matt Chandler, John Piper, Trip Lee and others.
The “Art” of the Generalization
I need to preface with what I believe to be most destructive to this discussion on race: hasty generalizations.
I have written a number of blog posts on this topic in which I deal extensively with two types of generalizations. Generalizations are all the rage these days. They’re easy, provocative, and they do make a point. In that series I affirm that a generalization can be made in one of two ways. The first way is hastily. I define a hasty generalization as an unwarranted or unsupported claim about a group of people. The other type of generalization is a warranted generalization. These kinds of generalizations are justified by things like statistics, for example. “Most American citizens above the age of 18 have a right to vote,” is a generalization, but it’s warranted because that pertains to a general law of the land.
Our modern race-talk lacks the nuance necessary to produce many, if any, warranted generalizations. Often times, I have found there to be too much emotion tied up in the discussion which often leads to charged words and sloppy responses. This has only served to substantially degrade the situation. One reason for this is because the side being called to “repentance”—in this case the very general white evangelical demographic—is pushed further away. This doesn’t provide a conducive atmosphere for productive discussion on these issues.
Generalized people, especially when many of them disagree with the proposed warrant on a factual basis, are pushed out of the discussion primarily because they do not find any free air in the submarine! Every breath they take is used for their own demise while a great number of opponents continue to label this dissenting group what it wishes (privileged, racist, uninformed, etc). Anything said in response to the populace in the submarine is a use of the populace’s oxygen, and that has to change.
To be clearer, this movement often decides to write off any carefully thought-out response before the respondent can even be heard. The movement has taken a narrative for granted and any rational questioner of the movement is told they are blinded to their privilege; they are “uncle Toms (in the case they possess darker melanin),” etc. This is an across-the-board dismissal. This movement will write off anyone, no matter their skin color, experiences, etc. They claim a monopoly on the truth.
Thabiti’s Two Articles
Thabiti recently wrote two articles. The first article is about white people and their responsibility in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The second article is a follow-up to the first, as a result of blow back.
The First Article
Let’s start with the first article, ‘We Await Repentance for Assassinating Dr. King‘. Most of the rhetoric in the article does not deliver on the actual title. He does, however, write something pretty disturbing. Were all whites guilty of one man’s sin? Are whites obligated to apologize for their ancestor’s actions or worldviews? Let’s see what Anyabwile thinks:
I don’t need all white people to feel guilty about the 1950s and 60s—especially those who weren’t even alive. But I do need all of us to suspect that sin isn’t done working its way through society. I do need all my neighbors—especially my brothers and sisters in Christ—to recognize that no sin has ever been eliminated from the world and certainly not eliminated simply with the passage of time and a willingness of some people to act as if it was never there. If this country will make any significant stride toward freedom, it must have enough courage to at least make it clear that Dr. King didn’t just “die” but was “assassinated,” “murdered,” “violently killed” and with the approval of far too many in this country.
Seems well-intended enough, right? Thabiti seems to imply the whites of this generation are not guilty. But then he goes on to claim this same group needs to repent. He writes:
Until and unless there is repentance of this animus and murderous hatred, the country will remain imprisoned to a seared conscience. Until this country and the Church learns to confess its particular sins particularly, we will not overcome the Adamic hostility that infects the human soul and distorts human potential.
In the first quotation, Thabiti explicitly said he doesn’t “need” white people to feel guilty about the segregation of 1950s and the 1960s… especially if those white people weren’t alive. But then he goes on to mention repentance in reference to that same group of people. Immediately, a question arises. How do people who don’t need to feel guilty about 50s and 60s also need to repent concerning what happened in the 50s and 60s? Are we supposed to take upon ourselves the guilt of others? Are we guilty and not guilty somehow? What’s he trying to say here? He clarifies:
My white neighbors and Christian brethren can start by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice.
So, young people must incriminate their parents on the basis of someone else’s sin (i.e. James Earl Ray)? I’m absolutely baffled by this article because it takes a completely anti-biblical line of reasoning and cloaks it in biblical language. First, Thabiti wants to say MLK’s assassin is the representative of an entire ethnic group in America. He also mentions the biblical head of sinful people, Adam. Is there another representative we’re missing here? The only other federal representative I know of is Jesus Christ—the new Adam. Second, how in the world would this corporate repentance fix anything? Repentance is followed by action; what action is required here? It would pay lip service, that’s for sure; but how would it fix the problem? Third, how does this work in our contemporary context?
Are all black people who are alive today guilty of the infanticide happening to black babies at Planned Parenthood? It sure seems like that’s where Thabiti’s reasoning is taking him. Is Thabiti complicit in the crime of abortion just because a lot of other black people have decided to murder their children? Surely that would be nonsense to any rational human being.
The Second Article
If you thought his words in the first article were rather odd and even unbiblical, the second article might have you scratching your head even more. Thabiti realized people were upset because of his first article. Who wouldn’t be? After all, he did basically incriminate a bunch of people’s parents and grandparents, many of whom were decidedly not racist. But he doesn’t acknowledge any of this in his follow-up article.
Instead, he characterizes those who disagree with him as if they were responding to the more reasonable things he said. The problem, however, is that the majority of people responding to his article were responding to the paragraphs quoted above. He writes:
Yesterday, reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, I wrote that until white neighbors and Christians could admit he was murdered (and didn’t just “die”) and that his murder was the result of 1950-60s white supremacy, racism, etc., we would not heal as we ought and make progress as we ought.
He has only deepened the chasm of division and has obscured the situation to the point where profitable discussion is almost an impossibility. Let’s see if he gets better:
That should not be a controversial statement to anyone familiar with the facts of the country’s history or anyone who has viewed even an introductory documentary on the Civil Rights Movement. What is racial segregation but a society-wide commitment to racism and white supremacy? What is the willful assassination of a Christian preacher because he is African American and opposed to segregation but the forces of hate unleashing itself against the preacher of love and justice? What are the many professing Christians marching and protesting in opposition to other professing Christians seeking basic civil rights but a sneering, shouting, sometimes violent demonstration that the sin of the country was also the sin of the Church?
Demonstrably, this doesn’t get at the heart of Thabiti’s previous article. He did not address the most inflammatory part of his piece, namely, that white Christians need to recognize the sins of their parents and grandparents. And, by the way, he assumes this based on people’s skin color (last I checked, this is textbook racism at work). As I mentioned above, hasty generalizations will get us nowhere. Thabiti is on a downward spiral, headed toward destroying unity rather than restoring it.
He goes on to say:
Admitting the racism and white supremacy of the 1950-60s should not be difficult.
But some people were “angered” by my writing that post. The now customary dismissals and Twitter outrage followed.
But stop for a moment and ask, “Why is this hard to admit?” Why is something so well documented and demonstrable such a difficult thing to acknowledge by some people? Why would a straight-faced denunciation of something so evil be considered unkind and unloving?
Again, Thabiti is inaccurately characterizing his own article. No one is angry because he claimed racism existed in the 1950s and 60s. Everyone knows and agrees with that. No one is denying that it was a racist behind the assassination of MLK. No one is denying the various supremacy groups during that time and prior. People are upset that Thabiti has mischaracterized a biblical definition of sin, making a group of people guilty of the sin of James Earl Ray, without exception.
This is not New Covenant justice, contrary to his claims.
People are upset that Thabiti has virtually condemned a swath of people without warrant. There are many who are offended at these articles for a very basic, emotional, reason. I’m sure many immediately thought of a grandparent or parent who has been influential in their lives, for the better, as they read Thabiti’s harsh (and inaccurate) words.
So, to sum up how this all looks: Thabiti wrote something inflammatory in his first article that actually worked to degrade the situation. Then, in his second article, he soft-peddled his first article to get himself off the hook and to make the angered party look bad.
“Why is this hard to admit?” he asks. Why is what hard to admit, exactly? His second article didn’t really mention anything that was hard to admit. His first article, however, did. It not only mentioned something hard to admit, it was a total mischaracterization of the doctrine of sin and the gospel itself. This is simply not how we hold each other accountable within the Church.
Finally, Thabiti writes:
The gospel begins with “Repent….” All the good of the gospel follows that action of admitting and turning. We wonder why “gospel-preaching churches” aren’t seeing more progress in racial reconciliation. Might I simply suggest that progress–of all sorts–begins with admitting.
If churches truly preach the gospel, they’re doing what they’ve been ordered to do by Christ Himself. Unbiblically admitting corporate guilt and biblical repentance unto new life in Christ are two very different things. This is the earmark of Thabiti’s gospel-distortion. He shifts the responsibilities of Adam and the New Adam upon an ethnic group (white people) based on two things: (1) They’re white; and (2) they, or their loved ones, lived during the 50s and 60s. Twisting the gospel into a social justice experiment is stomach-churning.
First, white people can’t be federal heads. That’s not how corporate repentance works in the Bible. In fact, even the corporate repentance in the Old Testament happened on the basis of Israel’s covenant relationship to God. There are no Scriptural examples of repentance appropriated based upon skin color. Second, if one is in Christ, he’s a new creation and is being sanctified according to the Spirit of God. If there is right preaching over a congregation of regenerate people, change will happen no matter whether or not a particular social issue is mentioned from the pulpit.
This is simply what God has promised. But Thabiti seems to lack faith in this promise, that God will faithfully complete what He has started by various means of grace.
The object of the second greatest commandment in Scripture is people. I think, and I think many others do as well, Thabiti has done more harm than good in his two most recent articles. He’s hurt people and he’s done it by distorting the gospel. It’s one thing to have hurt feelings about something said concerning a parent or grandparent, it’s another thing when the gospel is mischaracterized in order to incriminate people for something they didn’t do.
I think another clarifying article is in order for Mr. Anyabwile. An honest one.