Following, especially, the MLK50 conference a couple weeks ago, and then further provoked by some articles by Thabiti Anyabwile and, to a lesser extent, by some T4G talks (especially by David Platt), there has been a flurry of writing and speaking on race and the Church. As someone else said it felt sometimes also to me like someone flipped a switch somewhere and Reformedom suddenly decided to go all-in on racial identity politics. The Gospel Coalition in particular, I think pulled along by some of its senior editorial staff, has been trending this way for years and I’ve occasionally expressed my concern about that – here is a group of mostly-Presbyterians trying to sound an alarm about the matter (not just as regards TGC) last September.
To speak generally, I find it concerning that a lot of this stuff sounds like it was ripped from a modern sociology journal (if not, indeed, a Salon.com article), with a couple Bible verses sprinkled on top. I know that is a visceral thing to say, but the question it raises is, what is really driving our thinking on this topic? When you sound basically just like the world, if everything you have to say would be applauded on any college campus if you just delete a Bible reference or two… it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong of course, but it is worth asking the question. When I look at a lot of this stuff I see much more of identity politics and victimhood culture than I do of Christianity.
But if there is any good thing about conflict it is that it does tend to clarify thinking… on that note, here are some links I appreciated and some of my reactions to them.
Via Phil Johnson, a long post by a police officer who, after many personal meetings and trying to “do something about it” first, eventually left Matt Chandler’s church because of the way he dealt with topics of race, especially when that topic intersected with police behavior. This post is from last Fall, but still relevant to the current discussion – and along with all the other links here, if you have the time it would be better to read the article first before reading my comments on it (or read the article and forget my comments entirely!). But some thoughts:
1a. Some of Chandler’s excerpted tweets here are remarkable, and so irresponsible. One of the problems I have with the race-and-the-Church discussion is that a decent amount of it, whatever other complaints you might make of it, is just careless thinking. Snap judgments are made, big sweeping conclusions are claimed on little evidence, vague and often accusatory terminology proliferates – and when you don’t have enough evidence to really make a conclusion, but you make one anyway, you might say that *is* prejudice. “Have you noticed almost everyone at this conference is white? Institutional racism.” No, we could probably sit down and come up with a hundred other possible explanations of that fact, you might be right, but you are far indeed from demonstrating that claim. “I learned about a police shooting 30 seconds ago that occurred 10 minutes ago, based on knowing almost nothing about it besides the skin color of the participants, I can now clearly conclude – look, another example of police racism.” And these false (or at least unsupported) accusations cause real harm to people, in the case of police (as this post shows) might put them in increased risk of real violence. I was especially struck by the author’s question of how his own church would receive him if he himself was involved in an incident (a real possibility for him) – it seems likely they would judge him guilty until shown otherwise, and pat themselves on the back for their commitment to “justice”.
1b. Assuming this post is correct – Chandler saying early on that people who didn’t like the way he was approaching the topic of race should just get it over with and move their membership to a different church. How is that for Christian unity? Must be mega-church privilege when you can just casually tell people to leave like that.
1c. The author says he asked Chandler in one meeting why he was so aggressive in confronting supposed police racism, but “walks on eggshells” when it comes to pointing out that high crime rates are the reason officers spend so much of their time in those areas of the city in the first place, and that several of the men killed by officers were resisting arrest or attacking them. Chandler reportedly said he didn’t want to push too hard on those topics for fear of losing the African-Americans in the church. I find that quite the indictment… that is getting very close, if not indeed already there, to saying we’ll distort the truth to keep people in the church.
1d. Why are we being so careless in our associations on this topic? I’m wouldn’t say that *everything* captured by a term like “white privilege” is wrong (though actually that term itself is almost designed to obscure important distinctions), or that *everything* a group like Black Lives Matter stands for is a problem, obviously. But “white privilege” is, clearly, used to “justify” a lot of hate and prejudice – do a Twitter search for that term and you can find unashamed racism and hatred any time day or night. And Black Lives Matter has, for example, taken radical stands on many topics that are clearly opposed to Christian teaching. It would be quite acceptable to say, “I’m going to use this term because it captures this important truth, but it can also be misused, and I don’t mean this or this or this by it.” And on other topics, people like Chandler are clearly capable of exercising that kind of care – so why does it seem to be missing on this topic? The word “social gospel” has been used… that feels to me like social gospel. If you’re on the right team, almost anything can be overlooked in the name of accomplishing the mission. And if you ask serious questions that might threaten the mission, no matter how much truth there might be to them, you’re part of the problem.
And notice where this goes for many people – I remember this post. Among the data points produced by Lawrence Ware to support the supposed “institutional nature of white supremacy” in the Southern Baptist Convention is the fact that “many churches are still hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement”. That’s the standard? (And why do I have this suspicion that even if, somehow, they did all come out and endorse BLM, the goalposts would just be moved, and that still wouldn’t be enough.)
On a related note… to even have an “MLK50” *Christian* conference seems a little odd to me, at least if done, again, uncritically. It seems pretty clear that King had unorthodox opinions on many matters central to the Christian faith (and pretty abominable behavior on matters of sexual morality, though that seems more widely known), and from what I’ve read although he spoke less on these topics as he got older, there is little evidence he changed his mind on most of them. (Sorry for the 1990s-looking website there but it’s a nice collection of quotations.) At a secular conference celebrating his contributions to American society, I would not expect King’s theology to be mentioned. At a Christian conference, to spend nearly no time on it at all is curious indeed.
(Read the whole thing.)
2a. By James White – it is accurate, I think, to identify a “racialist lens” as the “problem-behind-the-problem”. White, who travels the world regularly, has said more than once that he is not even aware of race when he interacts with people, and I think that is true for a decent number of Christians (and non-Christians too, but anyway this post is about the Church). Meanwhile, academia pumps out many people who see race first and largest, and view almost everything they witness through the lens of race – it is obvious if you listen to them speak on any topic, every other sentence from their mouth brings some reference to race. To then approach the Church, find a decent number of people still not wearing those lenses, and insist they put them on, is a terrible, terrible thing for unity. We have the disunity of our culture and academia as existing witness, why would we want to import that into the Church?
2b. Other thing – witness here Kyle Howard’s (MLK50 participant) comment that as a black man, he would be scared to be alone in a room with James White. White calls that comment slander, which it is – it’s also ridiculous. If Howard actually believes White is a violent threat toward black men, that’s his problem, there is certainly no evidence to support that view. But this is typical of the hyperbolic language that infects so much of US political discourse and academia on this topic – shall we import that, also, into our churches? How can anyone believe that’s a good idea? This is the division and suspicion identity politics promotes. Again, where is our thinking on these topics actually coming from?
In a Facebook comment Mr. Howard had indicated that he, as a black man, would not feel “safe” with me alone in a room. This kind of rhetoric has no place in the Christian church, but given the inroads that have been made in many sectors of the church by ideologies born not in the Scriptures but in the leftist schools of Europe and in the writings of Marx, many “resonated” with Howard’s unfounded accusation and came to his defense. So, if you are slandered in this fashion without foundation and without evidence, you are still “guilty” of having “micro-aggressed” someone. This kind of activity comes straight out of the play book of the political left, and is experiencing sad, but real, success within the confessing faith.
And lest you think “oh, come on, microaggressions, at least, have nothing to do with this”, listen to the beginning of this podcast (1:30 and following) by White where he goes through at least one of the “worship” songs at MLK50 that, yes, actually mentioned microaggressions. Apparently put together by the worship team of Matt Chandler’s church, if the reports in link #1 are correct, that is probably not a coincidence. (As White rather humorously said, exclusive psalmody is sounding pretty good right now!)
Harder for me to comment on this because it’s a podcast – if you want something written on a related topic by one of the hosts, see “Races Don’t Reconcile, Hearts Do“. But I found this quite an encouraging listen, especially the second half… it is probably more surface level than the articles above, but sometimes you can get so bogged down in details that it makes it hard for you to see what is most obvious of all… I’ll just leave it at that, if you need something encouraging after the two posts above, listen to this.
By Joshua Sommer, the first piece I read on all this – just want to say, Thabiti has gotten a lot of personal criticism here, but he himself is not really the problem. In fact the reason he is getting so much criticism is just because he was clear, and explicit, in his thinking, and many others are not, and it is easier to critique someone when they are clear and explicit in their thinking. And that much, at least, is a good thing. But the author here takes great exception, as many did, to Thabiti’s statement that,
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.
Even as I quote it again here that is such an astounding statement. Sommer responds,
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 head of an entire ethnic group in America. He does mention the biblical head of sinful people, Adam; is there another head we’re missing here? Second, how in the world would this fix anything? 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?
Part of the problem here, which many many people have now critiqued, is the idea that people are somehow guilty for the sins committed in the past (or present) by other people who looked like them – Harrison, in the podcast above, calls it “sin by proxy”, and it’s a nice way to make sure we shall all be angry at each other forever. But “how in the world would this fix anything?” is another excellent question. We are told an apology should be offered, but many apologies have been offered already. Apparently they were not good enough? How do we know when one has been good enough? It is the very nature of identity politics to produce conflicts that *have no end*.
As Harrison points out above, this discussion is also always one way – “white people”, “white neighbors”, “white evangelicals”. Is racism a sin that is restricted by skin color? The world thinks so because “only white people have power’ (which is also false, but that is the statement that is regularly made). Is that Christian thinking? One might also see Rod Dreher again here (mainly quoting other people), in “God v. Identity Politics“.
Worth sharing at least one article by Thabiti himself to show this thinking… what to say, what to say. He takes gigantic issue here with a side comment James White made about how “many in the country were only tangentially aware of, or concerned about, MLK and related matters”. First of all – I don’t know if that’s true or not, but given how uninformed surveys show modern Americans to be about stuff happening right now, even stuff those of us “in the know” think to be pretty significant, I can at least believe that a decent number of Americans at the time were only “tangentially aware” of MLK.
More problematically though, Thabiti uses this as a launching point to talk about the problem of white Christians being unwilling to tell the truth about “that period” – which is almost certainly false and also so, totally, missing the point. I have no doubt that White, or almost anyone, would happily admit that all kinds of terrible, racist things were done in the history of America, and indeed that we still suffer the results of those sins today. That is an entirely different thing from saying those alive today, or their ancestors, somehow bear the guilt for them. If “we’re stuck” until people are willing to admit the truth about *history*, I am pleased to report we are now unstuck.
And then at the end here… he essentially doubles-down on the framing that *is the problem*:
But you simply do not get to unilaterally set the terms of the discussion when you’ve chosen to represent the “side” of those who have committed the historical wrong over against the “side” of those who have suffered the wrong. It’s doubling the infraction. It’s like allowing (forgive the analogy) an abusive husband to set the terms of counseling and reconciliation with his battered wife.
So White is part of the “side” that has committed the historical wrong (even if they weren’t alive at the time, or their ancestors were in Hungary running a coffee shop), as against the other “side”. And, because the comment wasn’t bad enough already, analogy is then made with an abusive husband and his battered wife. This is the division of the world, not the unity of the Church.