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T4G - Thabiti Anyabwile
April 15, 2008
After dinner we gathered for the second session and the second panel. Prior to the session we sang “O For a Thousand Tongues” and a new adaptation of “Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” drawn from “Come Weary Saints,” the most recent project from Sovereign Grace Music. Bob Kauflin has added a chorus which says, “Oh the deep, deep love / All I need and trust / Is the deep, deep love of Jesus.” The session was followed with “All the Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.”
This session was led by Thabiti Anyabwile, the only speaker added to this year’s roster. He began by saying that “Thabiti” is a Swahili name that, loosely translated, means “Sure, invite the black guy to talk about race.” That invoked a few laughs, needless to say. From there he began with something that he was sure would prove quite offensive. Our entire outlook on life, he said, is so misplaced, so wrong-headed, so inadequate that we either need to change it now or commit ourselves to the closest mental health institution. Most of us operate with some working idea of race and racism that is foundational to our worldview. But believing in race is a bit like believing in unicorns, because race does not exist. His task this evening was to convince us that we’ve all been looking at the world with an unbiblical set of assumptions. We’ve ordered our lives on these assumptions and we’re in urgent need of acquiring a biblical set of assumptions that will change how we do pastoral ministry.
His talk was structured, like baseball, around “three bases and home plate.” First base is our unity in Adam. Like in baseball this is the most difficult base to reach. Second base is our unity in Christ, third base is our unity in the church and home plate is our unity in glory.
The primary purpose of the talk was to say this: what we call race does not in reality exist.
He began by showing how Genesis does not support race. Solidarity in Adam is usually meant to refer to our sin. But there is more to it. We are all genealogical descendants of Adam. We are also all equally made in the image and likeness of God. The Christian adoption of race as a category was at least in part a response to a crisis in biblical authority. This category was adopted as a response to Europeans encountering Native Americans and eventually attempting to justify slavery. Genesis 10, the ordering of the nations, became a way of explaining race. The table of nations came to be understood as a table of discontinuity—of differences and otherness. But the emphasis of Genesis 10 is sameness—our oneness in Adam. “From one man came every nation of men.”
Genesis 10 actually speaks to the rise of ethnicities, not the rise of races. Race, commonly speaking, posits that there is an essential biological difference between people groups. The difference is rooted in biology. But ethnicity is a fluid construct that includes language, nationality, citizenship, cultural patterns and perhaps religion. Race and ethnicity are different in that ethnicity is not rooted in biology. We can artificially impose categorization on people based on their color. The most fundamental recognition in Scripture is not our difference, labeled as race, but rather our similarity in Adam. Race in the way we use it, as a proxy for explaining differences in appearance, as biology, does not exist. We have accepted the idea of race and are now trying to make it work. But we need to dislodge from this false idea.
Thabiti outlined six problems that may not be immediately apparent that prove that we need to abandon race as a category:
- The abuse of people and Scripture that have come from the whole idea of race.
- It is a short walk from admitting the category of race to actual racism. The trajectory of the category is not toward unity but disunity. Distinction becomes a matter of degree, not kind, so that the difference between Thabiti Anyabwile and Louis Farrakhan is not a difference of kind but of degree.
- It hinders meaningful engagement with others. If we believe in race we’ll never be able to get to the more fluid and useful foundation of ethnicity. The idea of race is inherently ad hominem.
- It undermines the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. If we agree that the Bible teaches there is only one race—the race of Adam—but continue to hold on to the idea that race is biology, we undermine Scripture’s authority and sufficiency to define and shape us.
- We resist the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is at work to work within us and to teach us the truths of Scripture. If we cast off His work when it comes to race, we resist His work in our hearts.
- It undermines the gospel itself. If we deny our common ancestry in Adam we may be pulling apart the fabric of the gospel itself. And in so doing we may negatively affect missions.
As Christians we need to emphasize common ancestry in Adam and deny anything that sounds like race as biology. This has been an automatic assessment for most of us, but one we need to remove. We need to jettison the idea of biological otherness, the idea of race.
With time running out, Thabiti turned to the second base, third base and home plate of his talk.
Second base represents our union with Christ. It is this union that gives us the basis for a great commonality with other Christians. How does your union with Christ shape you and shape how you see others? Christ’s blood creates a deeper lineage than our genes. Our doctrine of man must be informed by our union in Christ.
Third base represents unity in the church. Where is this newness of unity and of thinking to be displayed and observed? The unity in Christ is to be displayed penultimately in the church. This is the display before the ultimate display. Jesus is not impressed by our unwillingness to love others unlike ourselves. In the church we are to display the unity in the new humanity created in Jesus Christ. Christ calls us to a breadth of love that is to be displayed in the church.
Home plate represents our unity in glory. We are headed to perfect unity in Christ in glory. This is the promise and the dream. Why not live like this now?
In the panel discussion, Thabiti recommended a couple of books that deal with issues similar to this: