Thabiti Anyabwile: Causes a Ruckus at TGC About Puritans and Racism

"I pity them greatly, but I must be mum, for how could we do without sugar and rum?" William Cowper

For Columbus Day "Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees."-Propaganda
Thabiti Anyabwile from Christianity .com

Today I want to deal with the difficult issue of racism and the tendency of those self-declared leaders in the post-evangelical thicket to raise up flawed individuals as mini-gods. Why do I use the term post-evangelical thicket? The dearly missed Michael Spencer of  Internet Monk fame, the granddaddy of all Christian blogs, referred to our times as the post-evangelical wilderness. I have changed “wilderness” to "thicket" because, no matter which way we  turn, we seem to be bumping into thorns, which cause damage to many of the brothers and sisters in the faith.

Yet, many of today’s leaders appear to blow off their insensitivity to this pain because, as I read in one church document yesterday, unconditional love now means hardcore doctrine and discipline. These doctrines and rules do not involve the gospel, as these men (and it is primarily men) would have us believe. They  involve secondary issues which are now raised to supreme importance (although they would deny it.)

Once again, Owen Strachan started the ball rolling with his dogmatic stridency. Link He quotes from a new rap, Precious Puritans, by an African American Christian rapper called Propaganda.

"Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.

Oh the precious puritans.

Have you not noticed our facial expressions?

One of bewilderment and heart break.

Like, not you too pastor.

You know they were the chaplains on slaves ships, right?

Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?

Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?

Even If they theology was good?

It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn't you agree?

Your precious puritans."

Strachan says he wrote a book in which he condemned Jonathan Edwards for owning slaves. However, his condemnation seems to fall a bit short because he then pats himself on the back while condemning those who would support Puritan bashing.

“Racism is awful.  Horrible.  Reprehensible.  It must be called out and condemned.  But one must do so carefully.  To tear the Puritans down with very little nuance of the kind I’ve offered here is problematic. “

“It would also seem to be counter to the general spirit of Galatians 6:1.  This is not a passage about who to lionize, but there’s a principle that seems to apply here:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”

Here is my problem. There are times for gentleness and there are times for prophetic condemnation. I weary of the Calvinistas who tell us when it is appropriate to be mad and when we are sinful for our views. On this blog, we have received a number of visitors who appear to believe that it is their glorious mission in life to convince us of the purity of Calvin, Puritans, NeoCalvinist, Mark Driscoll, John Piper, etc. They fuss about those who criticize their heroes, present and past.

There appears to be no room in their book for condemnation for serious, institutionally endorsed sins such as slavery or racism. They defend their heroes with a stridency that should be reserved for our Lord.

I believe that the buying and selling of human beings is despicable in all cultures and I am encouraged that some Christians rose to defend the sentiments expressed in the song.

Here is one opinion offered by Steve McCoy on Reformissionary link. He opens with a quote from the rap.

“Don’t pedestal these people, your precious puritans partners purchased people.

Why would you quote them?
 Step away.

Think of the congregation that quotes you.
Are you inerrant?

Trust me I know the feeling.

It’s the same feeling I get when people quote me.
Like, if you only knew!
I get it. But I don’t get it.”

He then comments (I love this quote).

“Allow Prop to play the role of angry poet, to move you to tears as you consider the history of a group of brilliant people who have blessed you so much, to move you to frustration when you realize there are people still repulsed by this part of history, as we should be. And feel his anger and say with him, "How come the things the Holy Spirit showed them in the valley of vision didn’t compel them to knock on they neighbors door and say, 'You can’t own people!'?" And in the middle of that mood and that moment, let him tell you to "step away" and look at the bigger picture. You can't have that anger at the Puritans and not have it at yourself. You aren't any better. For God to use any of us, these crooked sticks, is amazing.”

On another blog, Kingdom in the Midst, here, Marty Duren outlines some African American pastors' responses to Precious Puritan. The full lyrics to the rap can be found at this site by scrolling to the end of Duren's post.

One response addresses how the refusal to speak of the sins of our heroes can cause harm to people of color.

1. “Propaganda’s point is that if white evangelicals do not talk about the bones of their heroes they run the risk of doing great harm to people of color. Many of us are beginning to wonder why white evangelicals do not seem to care much about this and seem willing to trade off “honoring” their forefathers for their own comfort over doing what is necessary to build racial solidarity. Some of my liberation theology friends, in the end, would see Strachan’s critique as a dismissal of acknowledging the importance of caring about how the Puritans are presented to African Americans and would constitute a racial microaggression or a micro-invalidation.

Another speaks of some important, and under-quoted sins of the fathers.

2.“Here are some historical facts that aren’t talked about:
George Whitfield campaigned to have slaves at his orphanage.
Jonathan Edwards owned slaves as well.
The Southern Baptist Convention made Negro inferiority a theological conviction amongst its convention.”

What happens when one of the TGC bloggers, Thabiti Anyabwile, walks off the reservation and condemns the racism of the Puritans. As you will see, hell hath no fury like a Calvinsta scorned.

According to TGC,

“Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition.” (Note to self: I need to find a gig in the Caymans!) He served previously as an elder/assistant pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (Washington, DC) and as an elder at Church on the Rock (Raleigh, NC). Thabiti holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in psychology from North Carolina State University. (Ed. note: Go Wolfpack!)

TWW wrote an article on Thabiti awhile back called Salsa Dancing our Way to Complementarianism link in which we good-naturedly renamed him “Twinkle Toes” Thabiti.

Recently, however, we have noticed some interesting developments in Thabitit's thinking.  In fact, he wrote one post that could have been written at TWW  and we discussed it here. Thabiti bemoans the overuse of the term "gospel" with his post I'm Tired of Hearing the Gospel (Warning:  Mild Rant)

Anyabwile rants:

"…someone has sent me another note chastising me (mildly) for not concluding a post with “the gospel.”

It doesn’t matter what the topic is.  Men and women struggling to get along in their marriages?  ”The gospel.”  Someone struggling to find work in this economy?  ”Believe ‘the gospel’.”  The mechanic just “fixed” your car–again–and charged you–again–for the same problem you noticed last week?  Think of “the gospel.”  The Russian high court sentencing a punk rock band to two years in prison for a flash mob performance in a Russian Orthodox cathedral?  ”They need the gospel.”  Want rock hard abs?  Try “gospel” aerobics.  I smashed my little toe against the dresser?  All together now, “the gospel.”

It’s ubiquitous.  And it’s becoming an inflexible law.  We dare not face any issue without the requisite hat tip to “the gospel.”

On 10/2, Thabiti wrote a post for The Gospel Coalition which prompted quite he dustup over there. It is called Puritans Are Not That Precious. Link

In the near future, I plan to explore subsequent posts in which Thabiti expresses his views of the American political process which are not sitting well with a number of the Calvinistas. Suffice to say that Thabiti is not a “Puritan" when it comes to Calvinism or political party affiliations.

Here is why I believe Thabiti's voice must be heard in the discussion of racism.  He has played by the "rules" of TGC up until this point. But some things have got him concerned. He is willing to discuss his concerns even though it may cost him something amongst his TGC friends.

Many of us grew up in white culture. Even today most of us go to churches that, for the most part, do not include large numbers of African Americans. Most of us also believe that racism is a horrible sin. But we appear to brush off the long term effects of that horrible sin. As one commenter under the post said

“In fact, one might be inclined to conjecture that the view that slaves were of lesser human worth than whites, may have contributed to the overall disregard to life which has led to widespread abortion in all communities, regardless of race. Perhaps we are reaping what our forefathers sowed.”

We read history through the eyes of today’s culture and elevate flawed men to the status of “just about untouchable.” We pretend that they were just a bit more holy than the rest of us. This shows a profound misunderstanding of the gospel (ironic, isn't it?) which clearly shows men continuing to sin after conversion. We pay lip service to sin by flippantly proclaiming that  “Of course they weren't perfect” and then hastily adding  a qualifying “but…”

We have another problem. It is very easy to view ourselves as part of the Puritan ethos because we are white. So were they.They left persecution in Europe and England and set up a society in which they, but not others, could not be persecuted.The Puritans did not set up a democracy. They set up a "Puritan" version of Calvin's City on a Hill and it was "abide by our rules or else."

Here are the main points of Thabiti’s post. he is the "I" in the comments.

  • First, I really like the song.  In fact, I absolutely loved the entire album.
  • Second, I find defenses of the Puritan’s reputation a bit curious, especially when the charge involves race-based slavery.
  • Third, the defense of the Puritans does, it seems to me, draw upon a fair amount of privilege.
  • Fourth, it’s possible to overlook the pastoral implications of the song in all the discussion of the Puritans
  • Fifth, good theology does not mechanically lead to good living.
  • Sixth, we’re terrible at critiquing our heroes.
  • Seventh, are there many people who actually read the Puritans anyway?
  • Eight, it’s very easy to slip from disagreement to opposition

Points to ponder:

I think it is always worthwhile to view racism through the eyes of an African American, especially one who would, until this moment, be considered a card-carrying member of TGC. This question needs to be raised. Why is he going off reservation and inspiring the wrath (see the comments) of the very people with whom he associates? He has made this a hill to die on and we must ponder why.

I was startled by the comments. Many of them demonstrated the hero worship discussed in the post. I was fascinated by these good “gospel” boys pulling their dogmatism out one of their own. One commenter used the word “Negro’ in his comment. Another decried the abortions in the African American community. Why? This is another subject entirely and could be perceived to be an attempt to go off the difficult subject of racism and point to the problems with "those black people."

There is evidence of slavery amongst the early Puritans. Here are a couple of quotes from Puritan writings from the National Humanities Center. Link

1. "Give Ear, ye pitied Blacks, Give Ear!" intoned the Puritan minister Cotton Mather to the enslaved members of his Boston congregation. "It is allowed in the Scriptures, to the Gentiles, that they may keep Slaves," he told them, yet they could aspire to be "Freemen of the Lord" after death: "It will be but a little, a little, a little while, and all your pains will end in everlasting joys."1 In 1696, Mather's sermon expressed the prevalent opinion among most white colonists. Four years later, also in Boston, appeared the first American anti-slavery tract, Samuel Sewall's well-known and widely opposed The Selling of Joseph."

2. "From a pamphlet war in Boston in the early 1700s, we glean the major religious arguments for and against slavery at the time.When judge Samuel Sewall condemned slavery in his essay The Selling of Joseph in 1700, his incensed colleague John Saffin published "a brief and candid answer," refuting Sewall's arguments one by one. Sewall didn't respond until 1705 when, opposed to an anti-miscegenation bill under consideration in the colonial assembly, he arranged for the printing and distribution of an English antislavery tract. A year later, the Puritan leader Rev. Cotton Mather published his own views in The Negro Christianized. Opposed to the slave trade but a slave holder himself, Mather aimed his contempt at those who failed to educate their slaves in Christianity, and dispelled their fear that baptized slaves would warrant freedom."

In fact, the slave Tituba was at the center of the maelstrom of the Salem Witch Trials, another Puritan atrocity which has been dealt with at TWW. Here is a link to a post I wrote over two years ago called Puritans-Hypocrites Like the Rest of Us. (Get ready for the Puritan Rescue Cavalry to ride into Wartburg).

How can we forget the history of the SBC when it came to the issues of racial integration? Better yet, do you know some people in your churches who would be upset if their white daughter married a black man? I do and it upsets me deeply,

Today’s church leaders talk a whole bunch about racial reconciliation. But, when an African American man, one of their own, challenges them on the issue, the reaction, on the part of some, is neither compassionate nor humble.

We are all flawed vessels. We seem to be able to ignore the Holy Spirit if, on the part of a group of “religious” people, it is deemed OK to support such things as slavery, witch trials, the Inquisition, bigotry against Jews, and racial segregation. Christians, throughout the ages, have been guilty (I include myself) of “group think."

No, the Puritans don’t get a pass and neither do we. I, for one, am glad that Thabiti is speaking his mind and challenging the pants off the status quo in TGC land.

Let me leave you with Thabiti’s closing point.

“The Puritans are not so precious that they’re beyond criticism. We ought not be reduced to Gollums, defending our “precious” at any cost. Instead, we ought to observe how our “precious” actually emaciates our souls and our understanding. And we ought to see that we become what we worship. In the  final analysis, just as in the final verse of the song, we’re not that different from the Puritans. It’s no small thing that we’re just as crooked. We’re just as full of contradiction and partial sight. And God uses us for His glory even when we can’t see all that we should. Praise His name!”

The song that started it all!

Lydia's Corner: Exodus 30:11-31:18 Matthew 26:47-68 Psalm 32:1-11 Proverbs 8:27-32


Thabiti Anyabwile: Causes a Ruckus at TGC About Puritans and Racism — 414 Comments

  1. “I don’t ‘fear’ anything being raised and debated here, and I don’t think others here do. Perfect love drives out fear and all that. We disagree with things, sure, but those of us here are of the opinion that we should talk about these differences, not just try and shout them down with a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude. The ‘sound doctrine’ crowd seem less willing to have discussions.”

    Bingo Pam. The “sound doctrine” (their version of it, of course) crowd are not pleased that the wrongs committed by the Puritans is being outed. They have used the Puritans as examples for us to follow. They sell their prayers on CD,s write books borrowing from :Puritan lit. There is not only reputations at stake for looking ignorant but also money.n The YRR buys books like crazy. They are a great market.

  2. I did not mean to make a happy face Puritan. Hee Hee. I don’t know how that happened. A stern face would have been more appropriate. (wink)

  3. Gavin

    Good night! Such a sweeping generalization of ALL the people here-no edifying, no building up, etc. Look a bt deeper, my friend. We may surprise you.  

  4. Gavin’s problem is that he is sold out to Calvinista doctrine, much of which is only supported by stretching the truth of scripture beyond the breaking point. So, like others of his ilk, he must attack anything that holds one of his heroes to question.

    Gavin, if you ever say the Lord’s prayer, asking that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, or if you believe that prayer is ever effective, then you are contradicting strong Calvinist doctrine, what we call Calvinista.

  5. I finished my last post with a Navajo prayer which none of your bloggers noticed or try to fulfil. That says it all.

  6. Oh and for the record I have Navajo friends as well. Do you still think I come from the UK? (Not that it matters). And for the record as well not only have I visited death camps I’ve held dead children in my arms and brought some of the guilty to justice. I live my faith.(Bad mouth that if you dare)

  7. Gavin, your lack of insight is only matched by your temerity. Time to zip up into your one-z and have a nice cup of tea from the former colonies.

  8. Afraid of sound doctrine? You miss the point. navel gazing at your own sinfulness (as if that ever changed anything) is not sound doctrine. It is a kind of emotionalised legalism. I am a great sinner. I have never fully loved God with all my heart mind soul and strength or my neighbour as myself. So what? My Saviour is greater. He took all my sin, all my human fallenness and nailed it to the cross, then He said, ” it is finished!!” He has buried it, why should I keep digging it up again? for freedom Christ has set me free. I will not be perfect until I stand before Him in glory, but meanwhile I will press forward, learning to love by richly receiving His love, learning not to judge by knowing that I have been delivered from judgement. It was your own Calvinist hymnwriter who said “Could my zeal no respite know/ Could my tears forever flow/ All for sin could not atone/ Thou must save and Thou alone.” perpetually mourning our sinfulness achieves nothing.

    Of course the Puritans were flawed, just as all men are who walk the earth, except for One. Whenever we see systemic behavioural flaws, we know that there is a loophole somewhere in their systemic belief system which allows that evil in. If we are wise we will learn from the mistakes of others and root out the faulty beliefs that lead to unloving behavioural choices, for as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.

  9. Caleb and Haitch – those indigenous environmental books sound great. I’m a geographer, so that sort of stuff is right up my alley.

  10. @Pam, check out the critques by Geoffrey Blainey, John Mulvaney and Timothy Neale too. There’ll be lots of future arguments about his premise which I don’t think has been fully grasped yet.

  11. Can I just say that I greatly dislike systematic theologies of any kind. I love scripture but fail to see how you can systematize God. You can systematize what man thinks he knows about God, but Truth comes by new birth and the indwelling of Holy Spirit not by systematized theology. Why not study the scripture without the lens of the reformers or the puritans? Many of these men, pastors, and teachers, just push other people’s ideas.

  12. Bridget

    AMEN. The attempt to have a systematic theology (which is hyper-CalvinisM, btw) results in concepts that so constrain God’s love and grace, and makes God the author of evil. I cannot worship the God the hyper-Cals believe to exist; there is insufficient love and too much punishment of his already adopted children, children who have accepted and testified to the gift of grace and love that has resulted in their adoption.