Pastor John MacArthur posted the fourth installment in his celebrated series on “social justice” and Racial Reconciliation (RR) Wednesday evening, “Is the Controversy over ‘Social Justice’ Really Necessary?” First, on a positive note, pastor MacArthur writes,
As Christians committed to the authority of Scripture and the truth of the gospel, we have better answers than the world could ever give to the problems of racism, injustice, human cruelty, and every other societal evil. We have the cross of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit who grows and leads us in all love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
To which I say Amen and Amen! This, I believe, every Christian in the discussion can and should agree with.
But unfortunately, like the three that had gone before, there is very little substance and no arguments provided to support the critical claims of this fourth post—Biblical or otherwise—so there is still not much to interact with. What he does mention (but not substantiate) has been handled in many other articles already. He states, e.g., that “The American attitude has changed. White supremacy and all other expressions of purposeful, willful, or ideological racism are almost universally condemned”; if anything, we have already gone too far in response. I would simply suggest reading, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 6. ‘Color-Blind Racism’.”
He further claims that RR advocates, his “friend” Thabiti Anyabwile in particular, have argued that all white people are guilty of the personal racial sins of past white people. But this is either misunderstanding or misrepresentation; Thabiti has already clarified this in his TGC article, “He Said, She Said.” MacArthur also seems to display a defective understanding of “white privilege” in the piece, speaking as if it were a matter of “white guilt.” This conflation has been addressed here: “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 3. ‘White Privilege’.” Last, the pastor either does not accept, does not understand, or is not acknowledging the difference between individual and institutional/systemic racism throughout the piece. Please see, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 7. Individual vs. Institutional Racism,” if this distinction is yet unclear.
RR Advocates Just Following the Secular Culture?
The one claim I would like to more fully address, though, is MacArthur’s insistence that the current public foray of evangelicals into the RR discussion is really just a response and appeal to the secular culture. He writes,
[A]s the issue of racial division has become more and more a focus in the secular academy and in the news media, evangelicals eager to engage the culture have taken up the issue.
He had written much the same in his previous post, “The Long Struggle to Preserve the Gospel, Part 2,”
Why have so many evangelicals openly embraced such compromises? The answer is very simple. It’s the next logical step for a church that is completely ensnared in efforts to please the culture. For decades the popular notion has been that if the church was going to reach the culture it first needed to connect with the style and methods of secular pop culture or academic fads.
To be perfectly honest, I find this claim simply bizarre—so truly out of touch and unaware, so sunken into the easy chair of majority culture, so disconnected from his own brothers and sisters in the faith. Has he asked RR advocates why they engage on this topic? What reasons have they actually given for their activism?
What Reasons do RR Advocates Give?
Dr. Anthony Bradley has told his own story of turning to activism within conservative Presbyterianism many times. For example, he wrote in his book, Aliens in the Promised Land,
I had a sobering wake-up call in 2004, when I received word that John Calvin-loving racists were beginning to post things about me on the Internet. It continues to this day, but the worst of it emerged in 2006. I learned that some of those for whom the Puritans are precious did not welcome my presence among them. On November 27, 2006, the following was posted on a blog about me: “Afro-Knee Bradley, the PCA darling, is an illiterate nigger.” For several years, while teaching at a Presbyterian seminary in the Midwest, I repeatedly received racial slurs on the Internet and on radio programs from many who aligned themselves with historic Southern Presbyterianism and Calvinism. While I was aware that racism had been a part of Southern Presbyterian history and Calvinism in general, I had no idea that it remained alive and well and unchecked in some Reformed and Presbyterian churches. I was even more surprised to discover that few people were even talking about it. I began to ask new questions about the presence of racism in evangelicalism at large, especially among those who openly boast about the soundness of their theology. (pp. 13-14)
Leon Brown, Pastor of Crown and Joy Presbyterian Church, NC, writes of similar experiences in Presbyterianism:
Why did you call me the N-word? Don’t you know how much baggage that term carries? Do you really think that if you call me—as your pastor—your prison ministry will flourish because there are more blacks in your state prison than whites? Should you have told me that one of the reasons you’re not going to issue a call as your pastor is because you’re not ready for a dynamic black preacher? Why doesn’t it seem to matter to you that your neighborhood is culturally and ethnically diverse, but your church isn’t? I feel like you’re staring at me when I walk into your church; will you stop? I guess you didn’t realize you were racist until your daughter got engaged to a black man—thanks for being transparent, pastor. I feel like I’m only welcome if I conform to your culture. Is that true? These are the types of questions I had to ask and the issues with which I had to deal once I became Presbyterian. (“Walk in My Shoes: Reformed Means White, But It Doesn’t Have To“)
Ligon Duncan III, Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, describes why he also has repented of racism and indifference and taken up advocacy:
When you get to love someone, you start to care about the things that they care about. […]So many of us live segregated lives. We’re not setting out deliberately to live segregated lives. We’re not living segregated lives out of a conviction that we believe in white supremacy or that we’re against race-mixing. It just happened because of the way we live. We talk about America being a melting pot. Mmhmm, not so much. We’ve got a lot of different cultures here, but we tend to stay to ourselves. And what that does is, it makes you blind to the experience of people who aren’t like you. And so, when you become friends with people who are not like you, and you let your guard down, and you love them, and you trust them … you can see things you didn’t see before. You’re finally in a situation where you can start learning. (“Why David Platt and Ligon Duncan Repented for Racial Blindness“)
And these propulsions to action do not just include the church, but also the racialized society we live in. When pastor MacArthur’s friend, Thabiti Anyabwile, moved to the States to take up his pastorate in D.C., he was asked, “Do you have any fears?”
When asked the question, I’d usually pause. Not because I didn’t have an answer, but because some fears feel too real when you give them words. So I’d pause. Then I’d say two things: “Truthfully, the Lord has kept us from any fears that we can discern about planting the church or living in Southeast. If I have a fear it would be one thing: bringing my son Titus to the United States. He’s so tender and innocent and the States can be very hard on Black boys.”
That’s my one fear. This country destroying my boy. Ferguson is my fear. I could be the black dad approaching a white sheet stained with his son’s blood. I could be the husband holding his wife, rocking in anguish, terrorized by the ‘what happeneds’ and the ‘how could theys,’ unable to console his wife, his wife who works so hard to make her son a “momma’s boy” with too many hugs, bedtime stories, presents for nothing, and an overflowing delight in everything he does. How do you comfort a woman who feels like a part of her soul was ripped out her chest? (“Coming (Back) to America: My One Fear“)
Stories like these also run through conservative Christian academia. Professor Ralph C. Watkins, (Columbia Theological Seminary) summarizes his own experience as follows:
When I started my career in academia, the buzzwords were tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism. Little did I know that these words signaled the foundation of my long-term relationship with academia as “an outsider within.” By “outsider within,” I’m referring to a construct defined by Patricia Hill Collins, who asserts that minorities in the academy are never truly on the inside. They are always the “outsiders” within the walls of the academy, as they are not at the center of institutional life. (Aliens in the Promised Land, p. 117)
Even students from John MacArthur’s own The Master’s Seminary (TMS) tell of the same:
In the entire TMS curriculum, which is 98 credit hours and approximately between 100 – 150 required books to read, not one book is written by a person of African heritage. Additionally, very few people of African descent are even explored within the historical theology classes. We traced the history of Christianity from 100 A.D. to our present day. Of all the historical figures we studied, I only remember Athanasius being identified as someone from African origins. […] You would think that since Dr. MacArthur is such “good friends” with John Perkins we would have read at least one of Dr. Perkins books or even learned about his legacy. However, even our classes that covered the history of Christianity in the United States were void of African American contributions.
[…] You can also ask Dr. Paul Felix (the only full-time African American Professor who is now retired). I ranted in his office behind closed doors many a days with many tears. If not for him and his care for me as an African American student with a heart to one day impact the African American community, I would have surely quit. I specifically remember him telling me after ranting, “Calm down before you get kicked out of school.”
Imagine that…being in such a state of anger over how whitewashed your seminary education is that you say things that flirt with the possibility of getting you kicked out of school. (Pastor Terrance Jones, “The Truths That Dr. MacArthur’s Social Justice Series Won’t Change“)
In response to pastor Jones, fellow TMS graduate Fred Butler perfectly confirms Jones’ concerns while actually attempting to defend the seminary:
[L]ets face the hard truth: the white, European, Western Society Christians are truly the ones who not only preserved Christian orthodoxy for everyone, including recapturing the Bible in the original languages, they are the ones who shaped the course of Protestant Christianity throughout the world and specifically here in the United States.
I don’t mean to be dismissive of their contribution, but African-American Christians are a small portion built upon the main foundation, that just so happens to be, according to God’s providence, a white, Western European/English one. (“Who Would’ve Thought Reading the Reformers Was Racist?“)
And former OPC minister Rev. C. Herbert Oliver reports in a 2013 interview that not much had substantially changed from his time at Westminster Seminary in the early 1950’s until now:
All these examples are just from memory—things I have happened to read over the years. I’m sure if I asked and searched around I could find hundreds more. Every author in Aliens in the Promised Land has a similar story. Austin Channing Brown wrote a whole book about it, I’m Still Here. We could in fact make this post itself book-length, full of such testimonies. Now tell me, do these men and women appear to be “ensnared in efforts to please the culture”? Are they motivated by narrow focus on the “secular academy” and “news media”? Are they speaking out because they are bound by the agenda MSNBC? If we can believe their own words, the answer is clearly no.
My own entrance into the discussion was much like theirs, though of far less import, pain, and alienation. When I was first challenged by a friend to find the slew of articles and books written by white Reformed authors condemning racism, articles and books I heartily believed existed, I found just the opposite. I found nearly a whole theological tradition more interested in attacking the likes of Thabiti Anyabwile, Anthony Bradley, and Kyle Howard. I found scores of folks energetically defending their racist heroes like George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, J. H. Thornwell, R. L. Dabney, J. Gresham Machen, Morton Smith, etc. When I wrote my first article, “Why Racism is Material Heresy and Ought to be Formal Heresy : Outline 1,” I was dizzied by the negative response—claims that I had “thrown in with the Marxists,” had adopted the “Social Gospel,” and had all around lost my way. I was shocked, truly shocked. I believed the piece would garner full support from the Presbyterian and Reformed community. Instead, it earned blocks, unfollows, closed doors to former opportunities, and certainly no more requests to appear on P & R podcasts. So I set to work to learn, engage, and develop true empathy for those who have experienced this times 1,000 for centuries in this country.
So, Why the “Recent” Divide Over Race?
The reasons these issues have more recently come to the fore—to the shock of John MacArthur—is not because the divide is new and burgeoning; not because folks are following the culture; and not even because of the many political changes over the past 15 years or so. What we are really seeing is the entrenched, encultured, hundreds-of-years-long racial divide that has been baked into this nation’s institutions and churches, finally being questioned—by conservative black evangelicals themselves. This may look like a new division to those who have found comfort in the old explanations for continuing church segregation and society wide racial disparities. But I believe (Lord willing!) it is the beginnings of actual substantive progress within evangelicalism. Conservative Christian seminaries have been open to African Americans for a couple generations now; African Americans have “dared” to step out of their white appointed “lane” and enter historically white churches and white institutions; and African Americans are increasingly finding their voices heard, not only as laymen, not only on social media, but as pastors and leaders. The fruit of these positive changes has been the illusion of brand new divisions, but only for those already living comfortably within the status quo. The illusion of new division, I would argue, is rather a positive step along the long road to healing the centuries old, pre-existing, and still festering racial divide; to be clear, a racial divide of white Americans’ own making.
I ask then, in conclusion: please do not assume that RR advocates are culture-bound rather than love and gospel-bound; especially not just because a popular pastor has said so. Read the many books and articles available. Get to know these courageous and godly Christian men and women through their own words. Even better, ask them directly why they do what they do. I believe if John MacArthur had done this with his friends John Perkins and Thabiti Anyabwile—and humbly believed their answers!—we’d be able to conclude that at least this aspect of the “Social Justice” conversation isn’t “Really Necessary.”