Thabiti Anyabwile on Race

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Justin Taylor sent me an email asking me to comment on Many Ethnicities, One Race by Thabiti Anyabwile, author of the forthcoming The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Accomodation. This article is a Christian argument for an increasingly-common view today that races are not real, following by a biblical theology lying behind a call to end segregated congregations.

When I saw the links to a bunch of pieces on race on Justin's blog, I looked at a number of them and got a sense of what they were about, but I didn't pursue most of them (with John Piper's as a key exception). This was one I didn't look at in much detail, largely because what I initially saw seemed to me to be pretty far from what I think is the correct way to look at these issues. I must say (now that I've read the whole thing) that the second half of his piece was much more in line with my own thinking, but his initial arguments are very much not. Since Justin asked for my thoughts, here they are, and perhaps they will be helpful to others besides Justin. I'm not going to repeat the arguments in the article but will assume you have read it.

One worry I have is that I see no biblical warrant for taking the image of God to be anything more than being given a mission to represent God (which is what an image does for a god in the ancient near east). It is thus the same as being given the mandate to steward creation as God's representative on earth. Anyabwile rests a lot on his more expansive view of what the image of God is. all the while complaining that people's views of race go way beyond what the Bible actually says about race.

I'm a bit disturbed at the idea that our bodies could have something to do with being in the image of God to begin with. The only reason God has a body is because he incarnated himself in his second person as a human being. But that is in time after the creation of Adam, who is nonetheless made in the image of God. Even if being in the image of God is more substantive than the view I hold, it cannot have anything to do with having a body, since God does not have a body in any sense other than in the second person's incarnation, which is to reflect what human beings are like and not the other way around (although the new creation does reflect what Christ is like, but that's another step removed).

I think his general argument form is fallacious. It basically notes that the modern notion of race isn't in the Bible and thereby dismisses it. But the modern notion of a mailman isn't in the Bible. The modern notion of a refrigerator isn't either, nor is the modern notion of a university or the modern notion of a conservative. But all those things exist.

Another problem I have is that he keeps speaking of "races rooted in biological difference". Most race theorists who accept the existence of races do not think that races are a necessary implication of biological facts. They think social and historical factors have produced racial categories that rely on biological features in terms of how we classify people, but the root is in social and historical factors, not in biology. The fact that they are not rooted in biology doesn't mean they're nonexistent any more than the fact that categories like "conservative" or "university student" aren't rooted in biology doesn't make them unreal.

He states at one point, "the contemporary conversations about 'race' assume a biological definition, or at least assume that 'race' is phenotypically identifiable (skin color)". Not true. Virtually everyone today who writes about this issue in academia denies a biological definition, except for those who deny the existence of race altogether. Most do not assume that race is phenotypically identifiable. Many race scholars think that the one-drop rule is still in operation in the United States, for instance. On the one-drop rule, a black parent and a white parent can produce only black children, even if their skin is very light and their hair like that of most white people. Then that child may marry a white person and have children who look for all intents and purposes to be white. The one-drop rule classifies such kids as black. So how is race, on this view, supposed to be tied to phenotype? This is the predominant view about how racial classification works in the U.S. (although I myself think it's disappearing in some parts, e.g. the northeast and the west coast).

But the idolatry charge really baffles me. Suppose racial categories, as most race scholars believe, are social constructions. Suppose, also as most race scholars believe, that the historical origins of these beliefs depend on immoral actions in the past and even to some degree in the present (and a Christian will rightly trace these back to the fall). How does it follow that recognizing these realities and accepting the existence of these categories as social fact amounts to idolatry? Idolatry is putting something in the place of God. But no one here is claiming anything divine about these categories.

Even more baffling is that Anyabwile goes on to use racial categories as if unproblematic. He pretends he's using ethnic categories, but "black" and "white" are racial categories, as he acknowledges when he goes on to distinguish from ethnic categories. If these terms don't refer to anything, how can he use them meaningfully and be saying true things? If they are immoral to use, why is he using them? I'm not sure he can pragmatically follow through on his view and still say the things he says.

He seems to advocate use of ethnic terms as more precise than racial terms (which assumes racial terms do refer to something after all, just something less precise). The problem with using this as a reason to abandon racial terms is that some real evil is done in terms that line up exactly with racial categories, not ethnic ones. People discriminate against black people, not usually against black Africans or black Americans. People make fun of Asians in general often enough, and to have to refer to that group by listing Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, etc. as ethnic groups would get a bit tedious.

While I would agree that in Christ people of all races are one, and racial differences should amount to nothing in terms of spiritual identity, I think that is a far cry from denying the reality of race in the social and historical dimensions in which racial categorization is real and causes real problems. To deny the reality of race is tantamount to denying the reality of racial discrimination, racial hatred, and any other racial evil. It is impossible to address evils that do not occur, and evils based on some purported category that does not exist must also not be real, since there is nothing at all for them to be based on. If racism is real, then race is real. Racism is clearly based on things that wouldn't exist but for the fall. So is adultery, and so are adulterous unions. But no one denies the existence of adulterous unions on the ground that adulterous unions wouldn't exist but for the fall. The fact that it wouldn't exist but for the fall means that it does exist. Why isn't the same true of race?

Now all that being said, I want to emphasize that I am almost in complete agreement with the last few sections of Anyabwile's article. When he discusses his view of what the church should look like and what the local church should look like, he probably says what will cause the most controversy among contemporary evangelicals. Yet that is the part I think he is right about. We should be putting a lot more effort into figuring out how to end the absolute travesty of segregated congregations. Anyabwile has little to offer on the practical end of that, but I don't have a lot of suggestions myself. But I agree that the status quo is extremely bad, and most evangelicals don't want to admit that.

Update: Thabiti has responded. I've posted a reply to his response here.

17 Comments

Hmmm. Well what do you mean by "race is not real". If you mean that it has no effect on our eternal selves, then I would say that is the belief I hold to. Its just a physical thing, so its not like it has any hold on our souls, wouldn't you say? I don't know if this is even the topic you are addressing, but I was just curious.

The view that race is not real is exactly what it sounds like. The claim is that there are no such things as races. They do not exist. There is no such thing as a white race, a black race, an Asian race, etc. It follows from such a view that everything you say using racial terms is either false or meaningless, since there's nothing that you're talking about when you speak of race. The view you're endorsing isn't answering the same question at all.

You say, "Even more baffling is that Anyabwile goes on to use racial categories as if unproblematic." But it seems clear that he uses 'black' and 'white' in the latter half of his article not as racial categories, but as descriptions of outward color.

It's hard for me to see that. In one place, he does discuss people as black, brown, and white right next to speaking of different hair colors. But elsewhere he says, "But what will the watching universe conclude if all the Whites are meeting in one building, all the Blacks in another, all the Asians in another, and so on?" I don't know of anyone capitalizing the color names when referring simply to skin color. That's usually a sign that someone wants to refer to people according to race.

The words used to describe our relationship to God at creation (tselem "image" and dĕmuwth "likeness") are also used to describe Adam's relationship to his son Seth in Genesis 5:3.

The first term implies that we are made as an image or representation of God. The second term implies that we are actually like God and resemble him in an important way. In fact the term implies we resemble him as a son resembles its father. Tantalizingly the term is also used for images that aren't clearly seen (as in Daniel's dreams).

As far as whether races exist? In our minds obviously races exist. As soon as we all forgot about race then the concept would be incomprehensible. Race is the type of idea that only exists as long as we think it does.

Small correction, the term for "likeness" is actually used in Ezekial's dreams more often than in Daniel's.

It's consistent with my view that we resemble God in some important ways. I just don't think that's what it means to say that God created us in his image, and I think at least one of the ways Anyabwile said (the biological one) cannot be like that.

Where are the different words used? I haven't looked at this stuff in a while, but I don't remember anything about two different words having two different meanings.

My question has little to do with your current thread. So... can I email you a question related to race... specifically respecting "caste" in Hindu communities as it relates to believing communities?

Do you know of any recent work done on relating the broader Hindu castes to race, how that relates to an unsegregated Christ-following community? How do contemporary "race" scholars understand caste (whether varn or jathi)?

I know very little about the caste system in India, so I don't know if I would have your answer. I do know someone who might know, though.

There are some parallels in how different levels in the caste system relate with how races relate in the U.S. There are similar affirmative action issues because there are similar gaps in the test scores, for example. I don't know anything about how this works out among Christians.

Jeremy, both words, image:tselem and likeness:dĕmuwth are used in Genesis 1:26 (when man is created) and in Genesis 5:3 (where Seth is begotten and born).

Typically the second term "likeness" implies a relationship between an image (a son for example) and what it resembles (a father for example).

As Christ was present at creation as Man (he is by his nature both man and God indivisibly?) it follows that we may resemble Christ physically. However that doesn't impart on us any need to dispense with the idea of race.

Do we want to say that Christ is eternally human? I thought the standard view was that he became human, which is what the language in Philippians 2 seems to suggest.

Oh, okay thanks for the clarification

I think the laws of time likely aren't a limiting factor for Christ. That is while he has an origin in Palestine ~2000 years ago, he exists prior to the Incarnation in the form of the resurrected Lord.

God's "timeless" quality would imply that Christ (if a unified being) would likewise exist without regard to when he was incarnated.

So I agree Christ became human. I simply don't see how that limits Christ in his omnipotence (freedom from time) from existing in his full humanity prior to creation (and prior in a naive way to his incarnation).

That may be an esoteric view but Christ being present at creation implies either he existed as a non-human before the incarnation (which implies his humanity and divinity are divisible) or he existed as the resurrected God-Man prior to his birth.

It's actually a difficult matter to figure out what to say about Christ if God is atemporal. The theory I'm toying with right now is that God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are atemporal but that it isn't clear what to say about God the Son. Perhaps his divine nature is atemporal but his human nature is temporal and came into existence as of his conception. But I'm not going to defend any particular view on this with much vehemence.

I don't want to limit the possibility that he could have taken on a human nature (or one intrinsically just like what is actually a human nature) even if there were no human beings at the time, if he had been incarnated before creation, say. But I can't fathom what it would mean to become human if he already had full humanity, just as I can't fathom what it would mean to enter time if one is outside time, since entering requires temporality.

I don't think Christ's presence at creation requires what you say. Here's one way to think about it. Perhaps if we think of him existing as merely divine outside time and both divine and human for the duration of his existence on earth. Then there's no time at which it's accurate to say that he doesn't exist, just as is true of an atemporal Father. There's a time period during which he's not human. Then from a certain point on he's human and divine. At creation, it's still the period in which his being is not in time at that time. But that doesn't mean he existed in time as a non-human before the incarnation, just that outside time he is just divine, with his human nature existing only in time starting at a later point.

There simply doesn't exist a _Christ_ without both the divine and the human natures in one person. At least that is the standard trinitarian view.

Christ's humanity seems to be necessary for his identity (son of David). Saying "Christ is present at creation" and speaking only of one nature of Christ implies his humanity isn't an essential part of his person.

Typical understandings of salvation require that Christ is actually a man not simply God with a 'mansuit' on.


This requirement implies that for Christ to be present at creation he must have existed as a Man (and God) in order to be called Christ.

Now either our understanding of what Christ is wrong or we must accept that after the resurrection, Christ allowed himself to exist in eternity with God the father.

But think atemporally, i.e. from God's perspective. Since God's actions are all one act, and God's thoughts are all simultaneous, anything that is ever true of God is true of God atemporally and all at once. So it's always true that God's act of incarnating his second person as a human being is going on for God. It's just not manifesting itself in time at all times. At any time earlier than his conception, someone speaking in time could truly say (given some story as to how the person would know how to speak of this at all) that Christ is neither human nor in time. But the same person could say truly that God is timelessly incarnating himself at a human being to appear at a later time and that the Second Person of the Trinity, who is merely divine atemporally, is fully human in time. So I don't think there's any time in which it's not in some sense true that Christ is human. It's just that in some sense he's not human until his conception.

If he became human, then his humanity isn't essentially part of his person. Now maybe I'm wrong and that's not the orthodox position. If so, then he didn't become human. But that's what we both thought was the orthodox view.

Having a human nature means he is not simply God with a mansuit on. It means he has a human nature.

I don't know how it's possible to say that Christ left time to go into eternity. That's logically impossible. Things in eternity don't start to exist, and they don't start to be in eternity. They're unchanging in eternity. There are no moments the way there would have to be for him to be one moment in time and the next moment in eternity.

I do think you could see Christ as being temporal and human only for the duration of his ministry and then again at his return, all the whole being fully divine and fully atemporal in eternity. But the problem with that view is that after the ascension he goes back to being in some sense merely divine and not also human. That doesn't strike me as allowable by orthodox theology.

This is getting far too off the topic for this post. I've posted on it at Prosblogion. You can continue the conversation there if you'd like.

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