On Monday, January 21, the United States celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For many we pause to remember the deep pain of segregation and hate that have plagued our country. God can teach us from our history, specifically from the oppression of African Americans in our midst. And one thing is certain: he doesn’t waste our experiences.
I corresponded with Thabiti Anyabwile, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman and Council member for The Gospel Coalition, about his perspective on Christianity in decline and what it’s like to be a minority.
Do you believe the reports that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, that it’s declining in America, and that atheism is on the rise? If so, why do you think this is happening?
I don’t know. I’m certain there’s a healthy element of truth in these reports, but also a fair amount of sensationalism attached. For example, we’re reading a lot about the increasing numbers of “nones.” But that’s an incredibly diverse category. It seems to me Christianity is the or at least one of the most persecuted faiths in the world since the days of Jesus. There’s nothing new there. And as for its decline, has there been a time we didn’t lament its decline? Every generation does. It’s a wonder any Christians are left given how often the lament has been voiced!
But we know why there’s still a church, of course. We know why, despite severe persecution, Christian converts are multiplying worldwide. It’s because Jesus made a promise in Matthew 16. He promised to build his church and assured us that even hell’s gates wouldn’t prevail against us. So whatever the reports, our mission remains the same: tell the world about the crucified and risen Son of God who saves repentant believers from the wrath of God to come, and prepares for them an invincible kingdom in which there’s no more dying, crying, or pain—and where the persecuted are the most gloriously rewarded.
Should Christians be alarmed? If so, how should we respond?
Yes and no. Yes, we should be alarmed because human life is being brutalized and taken. We’ll face Jesus with great shame if we coldly steeled ourselves against persecution. The early Christians counted it a joy to suffer for the Name and to have their possessions plundered as they identified with those imprisoned for the faith (Acts 5:41; Heb. 10:32-34). We should be so alarmed that we actually enter into the suffering of the persecuted.
But we can’t be so alarmed that we’re anxious, doubtful, or unbelieving. Christ’s rule is never thwarted. His kingdom is coming. His church will prevail. We must not “throw away our confidence; it will be richly rewarded” (Heb. 10:35).
Christians increasingly feel like the minority in the United States, where African Americans have always been minorities. How can Christians learn from their African American brothers and sisters about being a minority?
There are lots of ways the church needs to learn from the African American experience. In no particular order:
1. Learn how to deal with shame and anger when you should have stood up but didn’t because it was too costly.
One of the most tortuous experiences African Americans have faced is the inability to respond to oppression and mistreatment. Grown men being called “boy” and unable to answer their juniors who used the term. Men being dragged from their beds and lynched while watching families could do nothing. A flood of shame and anger rushes into the heart in the face of such overwhelming force and mistreatment. The church will need to learn how to deal with that. African Americans can help teach us to do so.
2. Learn how to hope in God when life and liberty are in peril.
I’m reading so many evangelical leaders announce the end of the country because President Obama was re-elected and states have passed “gay marriage” laws. There’s concern in cases like Hobby Lobby that religious liberty is in danger. But what I don’t hear is much wisdom on how to hope in God when life and liberty are threatened. African Americans survived the long dark night of slavery and Jim Crow with little more than hope. We believed history bends toward justice and a righteous God would defend the oppressed. The church will need to learn that, and there are plentiful resources in the African American experience.
3. Learn how to suffer.
What American believers are now calling “persecution” is mild compared to the brutality Christians face in other parts of the world. What we’re facing is almost loving treatment compared to what African Americans from the early 1600s beyond the mid-1900s faced. Black people have been a suffering people and have managed to endure that suffering with tremendous dignity. Right now, the church in the United States doesn’t seem to know how to bear reproach very well. The theologies dominating the airwaves are prosperity theologies—of the materialistic word-faith type as well as of the more mainstream American triumphalistic and moralistic type. So when the church hurts it quickly finds the fetal position and whines its way through the conflict. African Americans didn’t have that luxury of meeting suffering with whining—and no one was listening! We had to learn that suffering wasn’t the end, and that our humanity was proven by our suffering even if it was sometimes distorted by it as well. The church must draw from those resources.
4. Learn how to persevere when everything is against you.
Are we going to close our churches, withdraw from the public square, avoid our neighbors, and hide our faith because we’re opposed? We won’t if we’re genuinely Christians. We’ll have to press on in the face of minority status and systemic repression. This also means learning not to whine and to get on with living. So what if the deck is stacked? It’s not going to change by complaining. No one is going to give you anything. If you have a case to make, you’re going to have to make it from the floor of the lion’s den. Everything about it is unfair. Get over it. Get on with it.
5. Learn to be a community.
Stop having juvenile debates about whether church membership is required by Scripture. That’s a conversation you only have when enjoying extreme privilege. If you’re part of a persecuted community, life and death are bound up with making your place in that community real, secure, and meaningful. The American church is still too individualistic. She still has problems creating and sustaining community boundaries—inside of which are hope, healing, and help in times of trouble. If the black church has been anything, it’s been a community of refuge for black people throughout our sojourn in America.
6. Learn how to tell your children it’s wonderful to be black (or Christian, in this case) when the world says it ain’t.
How will the church raise its children? How will we shape their thinking in a hostile environment? That’s a challenge African Americans have faced and continue to face. One overarching theme of the black experience is self-definition and self-determination in a hostile context. We have fought and struggled to seize control of labels and definitions (Negro, Black, African American) and re-appropriate symbols (“Black is beautiful”) in a way that dignifies African American people. Those efforts where the thoughtful push-backs against a society that devalued and demeaned black people. The church can learn from African American experience how to create resistance by fostering identity.
7. Learn that being a Christian isn’t a matter of lifestyle or preference—something you can lay aside—but an identifying mark everyone notices the moment you walk in the room.
Our white evangelical friends enjoy a privilege African Americans did not. By virtue of skin color, No African American could escape his or her identification with the African American community. Nor did they want to. But “Christian” is not identifiable by visible physical markers. You can declare yourself a Christian or remain anonymous. The ability to “pass” as something other than Christian will create tremendous pressure in settings of real persecution. The church will need to learn that it’s better to identify with Jesus even if it costs your life than to keep your life and lose your soul (cf. Matt. 10:28; 16:26)—just as African Americans chose to embrace themselves sometimes at the cost of their lives.
8. Learn how to effectively use the courts to address oppression for all.
In a tragic irony, the persons against whom evangelicals line up in the “culture wars” have consistently advanced their cause through the courts. The decisive battles of the “culture wars” are not happening in the culture. Perhaps we should re-title them the “court wars.” Evangelicals have mistakenly taken a defensive position in the courts and largely focused on public opinion, while their opponents have focused on the courts and effectively disdained opposing public sentiments. Consequently evangelicals find themselves increasingly on the losing side, while their “opponents” now appear to be using governmental machinery to limit them. It’s as if the church hasn’t read the civil rights history of the country—and I suspect it hasn’t. The advances of African Americans would likely never have happened without winning major decisions in the courts and then bringing the government machinery to bear on opposing public sentiment. The church will need to advance a positive court strategy and win public support later. And the church will need to be the champion for freedoms and rights rather than the miserly keepers of a privileged and fading “majority.” I’m afraid the church sounds too narrowly self-interested, fearful, and sometimes negligent in defending the dignity of others. If persecution is the church’s future, she would do well to consider the black experience as a case study in fighting not only for its own privilege and way of life but also for the dignity, freedoms, and appropriate rights of all.
Ethnic persecution isn’t foreign to African Americans. Have you ever experienced discrimination or racism?
Sure I have. It would be hard to imagine an African American who hasn’t. In fact, the instances are too numerous to recount. One of my earliest recollections of my father is having him teach me in the mid-1970s to enter the still informally segregated kitchen side of a local barbecue restaurant. The city swimming pool maintained that same informal segregation, backed by racist slurs and threats for those who trespassed. There was the high school guidance counselor who insisted I shouldn’t apply to a major university. She suggested I’d be better able to perform in a smaller, predominantly black college despite the fact I was an advanced student making A’s while sleeping through most classes. Then there’s the time I was detained and questioned at the major “white” university I attended since I matched the description of someone who accosted a white coed. The description? “Tall and black.” Never mind that I had 40 faculty witnesses to the fact I’d been playing basketball for the past hour, was clearly drenched with sweat from the games, and had only stepped outside two minutes prior to put money in a parking meter. That’s a random sampling of typical experiences.
How do you think that experience could prepare others for what’s being predicted?
I don’t know. I used to think greater awareness would help the problem, as if it were a matter of familiarity and education. But depravity is too strong to be cured by education alone. The gains in interethnic personal understanding and acceptance seem marginal in most cases. The seismic shifts have all occurred as a consequence of major legal victories that, in time, changed public and personal attitudes. I’m not sure we can easily move from personal anecdotes of mistreatment to lessons for others. I suppose there are the kinds of experiences that inspire and motivate. That’s good. But when you’re really oppressed, there’s nothing in another’s experience that quite prepares you for your own. We should try to convey it, but there’s a shudder and terror that lies beyond imagination and vicarious experience. There’s no way to effectively describe waking up to a burning cross in your yard so that others can adequately “get it.” Some horrors have to be lived to be understood.
It seems to me any preparation for true persecution will come from a higher place, namely the Lord. Drawing close with him in his suffering readies the soul. If only the church would desire to share in his suffering.