What Mr. Johnson Apparently Doesn’t Understand

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I do not know Phil Johnson the man. Apart from one conference and one panel discussion in the early years of Christian blogging, I have not shared any public or private space with him. I don’t know Phil Johnson the man, only Phil Johnson the blogger and tweeter.

But, assuming the best of Phil Johnson the tweeter and blogger, I have arrived at a few assessments. He strikes me as a person who cares deeply about his family. I imagine he’s a good husband and a decent father, struggling like all mortals but doing a good job. I suppose he’s industrious at work. His behind-the-scenes ministry to John MacArthur has helped to make “John MacArthur” a household name in many Christian circles around the world. He is an elder at his church, so I infer that godly men and an entire congregation regard him as an example-setting, faithful servant of Christ and one who loves the sheep. It’s no stretch of the imagination for me to envision lots of people praising God for this man. And I assume they have a better perch than I do to make judgments about his character, confession, and calling.

I have zero interest in disparaging Mr. Johnson as a person—especially not based on the shards of information I have about him and his thinking from his online footprint. Despite the volume of blogging and tweeting he’s done over the years, I still don’t know the man. I don’t know what things he keeps to himself that make him who he is. I don’t know what tributaries to his personality carry clear water and which muddy. I don’t know the man, and I’m unwilling to judge him unrighteously, rashly, or in any other fleshy way.

Further, I pray the Lord shows Mr. Johnson and all his kith and kin the greatest blessings of grace, mercy, and love. I really do.

Though I don’t know Mr. Johnson personally, he does see fit to communicate with me on Twitter. Since he’s taken the time to address me directly in a couple of recent tweets, and since it’s generally my habit to respond when I can, I want to say a couple of things here.

First, for context, Mr. Johnson’s recent comments take issue with an op-ed I authored at The Washington Post (see here).

For a little added context, Mr. Johnson’s comments take issue with a Twitter exchange I had with someone who has always been both charitable and forthright with me:

Of course I disagree with @ThabitiAnyabwil here, too. No one but a racist schlub would blame all black evangelicals for the evils of Obama’s presidency. To single out & castigate an entire ethnic group for sins of which many of them are innocent is the quintessence of racism. pic.twitter.com/g4fliNUrMD

— Phil Johnson (@Phil_Johnson_) June 29, 2018

Mr. Johnson continues:

Furthermore, @ThabitiAnyabwil, I suspect you yourself don’t REALLY believe that (at least not with any kind of passion), judging from your silence on the issue during eight years of the Obama administration—and the lack of any such balance in the things you are writing now.

— Phil Johnson (@Phil_Johnson_) June 29, 2018

So, that’s the totality of what’s been said so far. What seems evident to me is that Mr. Johnson either willfully or mistakenly confuses issues in his responses to me. In either case, he demonstrates a growing list of things he apparently does not understand. Here are a few:

1. The “quintessence of racism” is not demonstrated by statements of statistical fact or consistent moral reasoning but by assigning superiority or inferiority status on an entire group of people. Apparently, Mr. Johnson does not understand that saying a group of Christians—black or white—are morally responsible for supporting immoral policies is not “racism” by any definition.

2. Further, apparently Mr. Johnson does not understand that neither “white evangelicals” or “black evangelicals” are a “race.” These are religious subgroups of larger ethnic groups or “races” if you prefer. A comment about a subgroup’s voting behavior or citizenship responsibility is therefore not “racism.” We’re not even talking about a “race” as such. Not all white people are Christians, and not all white people voted for Trump. The same is true of black people. Mr. Johnson apparently does not understand that he’s the one generalizing here and that generalization obscures communication, understanding, and progress.

3. Apparently Mr. Johnson does not understand James 3:5-12. In all our interactions, he’s the one tossing around slurs and labels rather than intelligently discussing or rebutting a point. In his tweets, a man who does not know me, but should know that whatever else I am I am someone made in God’s image, manages to insult me in two languages. As James puts it, these things ought not be so.

4. Apparently Mr. Johnson does not understand where we are in history. News flash: Barack Hussein Obama is no longer president of the United States. Hasn’t been for 18 months now. The policies with which we have to contend as citizens and Christians are not Mr. Obama’s, but President Trump’s. No amount of Obama-bashing, and no calls for “balance” in criticizing Obama is relevant to what is actually happening today. Mr. Johnson accuses me of being silent for eight years on President Obama. Here are a few receipts for the interested, I just chose a couple quick things from Obama’s candidacy in 2007 down to the Freddie Gray issues near the end of his second term in 2015:

Sen. Obama, Race, Faith and Elections

During the rash of police shooting videos, especially during the Freddie Gray debacle, here are a couple of tweets:

Strong words vs rioters from Pres. Obama; soft words vs police brutality.

Riots are “senseless” but police brutality raises “troubling ?s”

— Thabiti Anyabwile (@ThabitiAnyabwil) April 28, 2015

We don’t need another lecture from the President blaming victims; we need to see real courage from a man elected by these very victims.

— Thabiti Anyabwile (@ThabitiAnyabwil) April 28, 2015

Mr. Obama your presidency may well represent the single biggest heist of the Black vote in American history. Get it together, Mr. President.

— Thabiti Anyabwile (@ThabitiAnyabwil) April 28, 2015

I do not hate Barack Obama. I love him. I do not agree with Barack Obama about abortion, homosexuality or drone warfare. But I love him.

— Thabiti Anyabwile (@ThabitiAnyabwil) July 22, 2013

Because I love Barack Obama, I will not speak of him in hateful ways, slander him, refuse to give him credit where it’s due, or vilify him.

— Thabiti Anyabwile (@ThabitiAnyabwil) July 22, 2013

That’s a sampling gathered with just a quick search on this site and Twitter. Perhaps it’s the case Mr. Johnson just missed these comments and many, many others. Or, perhaps there’s a confirmation bias at work. It doesn’t fit his narrative of me, so these things get omitted. In either case, it seems clear to me that Mr. Johnson does not understand my political commentary over the years and especially during the period since I’ve moved back to the States. I am aimed at the current president, not the previous guy or the rivals he beat in the election. It’s the current president who wields the power of the highest office in the land and the current president we have a responsibility to address.

5. Apparently Mr. Johnson doesn’t understand or respect moral consistency. If I answer differently for whites and blacks then I’m sure to be called a “racist” and morally inconsistent. If I answer honestly and consistently, I’m still a “racist schlub,” and my passion openly questioned based on his perception of what I have or have not said online. All the while Mr. Johnson finds it easy to identify “racists” who are black-skinned but can’t seem to spot a white-skinned racist even when the conversation was about 1950-’60s America. It appears that Mr. Johnson’s true problem with moral consistency is not whether I am passionate or earnest in my comment. His true problem with moral consistency lies in his inability to examine his own tribe by the standard he holds for others.

6. I suspect what Mr. Johnson truly fails to realize is that the moral compromise of the evangelical church is deep and devastating. I suspect he fails to realize how his online behavior and “arguments” aid that compromise by giving it the patina of biblical orthodoxy garnered largely by his association with Dr. MacArthur. Mr. Johnson seems to not understand that pretending the compromise (say, with President Trump’s policies) isn’t there or that it lies in another direction (say, with “social justice warriors” focusing too much on racism) isn’t a solution to the problem. Nor are uncharitable tweets toward someone with whom you disagree. A solution requires we actually focus on the merits or weaknesses of an argument in order to advance understanding and action. A solution requires we address the problematic behaviors of specific people and groups, not act as if any reference to a group is “racist,” even if the same is said about other groups in other situations. Mr. Johnson’s reaction is an example of what I think the kids nowadays call “fragility,” not an example of what he likely believes to be defense of theological orthodoxy and truth.

In conclusion, Phil, I wish you the very best. I pray the Lord gives you grace to complete every labor prompted by faith, hope, and love. I am sorry you think your disagreement with me is occasion for personal name-calling and venom. I am sorry you think that’s even worthy of a Christian, much less a Christian leader. I do not feel the same for you, and I won’t return the same to you. But from this point on, I’ll leave you to sort with the Lord what things are so abundantly in your heart that they spill out in this kind of rhetoric and what things are in your eyes that they block your vision. Grace to you.

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