Isaac Adams serves as lead pastor at Iron City Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and is the founder of United? We Pray, a ministry devoted to praying about racial justice. The following transcripted interview revolves around his book, Talking About Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations.
Bill Melone: Isaac, thank you for participating in this discussion! Your book is a thoughtful and careful work that I hope is widely read, and I hope this discussion will connect people to the book and other work, and perhaps also give insights that connect your work to current issues in evangelicalism.
I wanted to start by talking about hope. You wrote in your book:
I believe we still have an opportunity to stun the world with our love for one another, and I pray that we all are asking, “How can Christians love each other today on matters of race in such a way that the world has no choice but to say, ‘Wow! Look at how those Christians love one another!’
It’s impossible to write words like this without hope. But with all the division in America and in the American Church right now, it’s hard to have hope like this. Can you give a brief pitch for why I should question my pessimism about hope?
Isaac Adams: I think the briefest way I could put it is because you and I don’t live on Good Friday, we live on Easter Sunday. And so I want to speak about the issue as if Jesus really did get up from the dead, and as if the same Spirit that raised the Son is in us, as Romans 8 says. I just refuse to believe that we can conquer death but we can’t conquer racism. There’s a great support for hope. Jesus is coming back. Christians win at the end of the day, the kingdom wins at the end of the day.
Now sure, I’m not a post-millenialist, I don’t think we’re going to usher it in, so things are dark, but Jesus really is coming back. And let me say this; look at the past and how much progress we’ve made. I want to be clear in this conversation: we’ve got so much left to go and look how much progress we’ve made. I think both are true and I think we rob God of glory when we don’t acknowledge the progress that’s been made. Racism is a sin that was so deeply embedded in this country for centuries that it’s not going to be eradicated probably in my lifetime. But looking at all the progress, I think there’s a great cause for hope.
Bill: The book is very pastoral, and it could be easy for someone to think that in writing such a caring book, you are opposed to strong words and strong criticism, but that’s not the case. In some ways your admonishments to speak lovingly and to pray for others are the hardest and strongest criticism you could give in American culture right now. Was that your experience in writing this book? How challenging was it to write about loving speech and loving attitudes in conversations about race?
Isaac: It was really challenging! Because I’m not exempt from the toxic air of social media, and I think Satan hates loving speech. He hates when Christians love each other, so I feel like the time spent writing this book was one of the most acute seasons of spiritual warfare I’ve ever faced. And it’s just easier to be me and to give in to the flesh. It is just easier to burn the house down than it is to build one. It’s easier to rip into someone. But Proverbs 15 couldn’t be clearer: anger stirs up anger, that’s how humans work.
I think what’s also clear is that people don’t change their minds by coercion. So if you’re just going to come at someone with rhetorical weapons, you might modify their behavior for a little bit but you’re not going to actually change their mind, and I’m trying to get at that level. And to do that you need to treat people like image bearers, like adults, like people who actually have a God-given right to think for themselves.
What’s also clear is Second Timothy 2:24, “The Lord’s servant must be kind to everyone.” ‘Everyone’ in Greek means everyone: there’s no asterisk where ‘everyone’ actually means those who agree with you and share your political sympathies and ideologies. It’s everyone. This religion is based on loving your enemies because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
Here’s my fear: I wanted to insert a pastoral word into the conversation because I fear the race conversation has lots of prophets but few pastors. And hear me, I think pastors are to speak prophetically, so I’m not against hard speech. Read the prophets! But I fear people have reduced the prophetic task merely to condemnation and confrontation. And if you actually read the prophets, they gave the people hope!
And so I think I bear a pastoral responsibility to preach as if it’s Easter Sunday, and to speak that way. And because I know that Jesus wins, I don’t want to be all riled up. I love Ezra 5:2: the prophets were there supporting the people in their work. But I don’t see a lot of supportive work in our polarized, tribalized, balkanized culture especially as represented on social media.
Strong Words for Pastors
Bill: One of the hard things you said was to pastors. You said: “And I think the blame for this kind of [unbiblical racial] thinking is largely to be laid at pastors’ feet” (142).
We know that the pandemic has been hard on pastors, which makes these especially strong words. You yourself know how hard it is to be a pastor. Why do you think it’s still important to hold pastors accountable for unhelpful racial conversations in American Christianity?
Isaac: Just to be super clear, I also give pastors tons of encouragement, so it’s not just beat up on the brothers, but I know what you mean. Because James is clear that not many of you should be teachers, you’re going to be held to a stricter standard. We as pastors even hold one another to stricter standards, and pastors are teachers, and churches are some of the most influential places in shaping ethics and mindset and morality.
Now let’s be clear: as pastors, we are not capable or competent to form Christ in someone. This is a supernatural business at the end of the day, so, yes, at times, I can get discouraged. We use ordinary means of grace and pray that the Lord uses them in extraordinary ways. But nonetheless, we’re the ones a lot of people are looking to for guidance. It’s tough because the Bible is not exhaustive about everything. That’s why I tried to give measured words, it’s why I wrote about not binding people’s consciences where Scripture doesn’t bind them.
At the same time, we pastors are to stand for what’s true and right and biblical. Pastors are shaping their people and we bear responsibility in helping our people understand that they are to be kind. And so Paul, when he’s writing to Titus—it’s so interesting—says, ‘Remind people to be gentle.’ What an interesting command! Paul didn’t say ‘Remind them to think this way about Critical Race Theory,’ but rather there’s a whole demeanor which the people are to have, and whose job is it to remind them? It’s the pastors.
It’s my job to point you to Jesus when you fail but also to be clear that I’m here to confront people on some level; like ‘Sister, what you said on Facebook was wrong, the way you went about it was wrong. Is that helping the body? All things are to be done for building up, we agree on this so how can we get there?’ That’s on pastors, if we’re not going to say this, who’s going to say this to them?
We’re the model, elders are to be an example to the flock. We better be doing it right because they are watching. Part of our job is to be watched in some sense, so that’s why I’m saying we do bear some responsibility here, and if we don’t want it, we shouldn’t be pastors.
The Problem of Balance
Bill: A misconception that some people can have about a pastoral book on race is that you are seeking to be moderate and balanced. But you’re clear about the asymmetry of suffering; that Black people have primarily borne the brunt of suffering, not white people. You’re not seeking to just be balanced or moderate as a default, you’re seeking to speak the truth, and the truth isn’t always symmetrical. So how do you see balance and moderacy playing out in unhelpful ways?
Isaac: You’re right, I’m not seeking to just be centrist, because if the truth is on the left, then I want to be on the left, and if the truth is on the right, I want to be on the right, and if the truth is in the middle, I want to be in the middle. I like what Ray Ortlund says, to the effect that Christ did not come from left nor right but from above. I want to be heavenly minded as Colossians 3 says. I’m not aiming for balance, I’m aiming for faithfulness. There is an unhelpful way to be positionless, as if the truth is always in the middle when it’s not. Call a thing a thing, the left is right about this, the right is right about that.
I find that sometimes it can be easy for me to be timid, and that’s why Paul put some backbone into Timothy, telling him to stand up and rebuke and exhort with all authority. Centrism as virtue is misguided, and I think people can get there unwittingly and say, ‘The Bible punches right and left’. That’s true but that doesn’t mean it’s always symmetrical.
People go to Jesus flipping tables in the temple for a reason but the danger of just looking at that account as instruction for us is, first, it’s Jesus, so he’s always right. But second, I heard a sister say this: Jesus sat at a lot more tables than he flipped.
As a sinner, the line between righteous anger and self-righteous anger is real thin. There is a godly outrage. Even with the Jayland Walker case, I wonder, have we just become numb to this? Have we just accepted that Uvalde is going to happen? That Highland Park is going to happen? I fear we might have. That’s why the prophets are loud about it, saying, ‘Wake up! This is wrong!’
But man, rage is addictive, and exhausting, and it burns like gasoline and you’ve got to be really careful with it. I’m not about the position of rage that so many people posture on Twitter as a functional starting place, a working assumption that this is the moral position. Christ has called us to peace.
The Challenge of Tone
Bill: Given how hard it is to write a pastoral book about race, I imagine you’ve wondered if you were too hard or too soft at different points. How did you handle that tension of saying something softly enough that someone would hear it deeply, but also strongly enough for it to command their attention?
Isaac: The thing about being a pastor is that what is not hard enough for Bill (for example) is way too hard for Steven. This is what we see in First Thessalonians, Paul says, ‘To the idle, say this, to the discouraged say this’. Different people need different responses. So in this conversation I could be like, ‘Bill shut your mouth, you shouldn’t say that about Chicago,’ but when I’m writing that to thousands of people who are going to read the book I’m going to err on the side of gentleness because I think it’s more winsome.
But beyond that, I really appreciate that question. I actually feel like I was too soft on the more left-leaning character in the book, because if I’m being transparent, my inclination and sympathies are more the way of that character. I could have said more, but it’s kind of like preaching a sermon: it’s after you preach the sermon that you feel ready to preach that passage. Now that the book is published, maybe in God’s grace I’ll get to do an updated and expanded version.
There are things that I would have tweaked or just pushed harder on, but on the other hand, I’ve had people who resonated with that character say they were super convicted by what I said to that character.
The Challenge of Considering All Members of a Church
Bill: Another point of tension that I’m wondering about, is how much consideration ministers and leaders in the Church should give to the viewpoints of those who tend to be conservative and take an antagonizing approach to racial injustice, like CRT, diversity and inclusion etc. You illustrated this with the character ‘Pastor Bruce’ which I wanted to dig into a little bit. Pastor Bruce gets an email from a member of his church, and you wrote:
Doing the pastoral calculations in his head, Bruce took a breath and took heart. He knew these Monday emails, especially Brother Mack’s, didn’t speak for most of the church. Most of the church loved and supported their pastor and one another. Most of the church genuinely wanted to grow in racial reconciliation and their understanding of these matters. Which meant he needed to do something to spur on that growth.
This is a tension that leaders are experiencing, and it’s really hard. On the one hand, they know diversity is a beautiful and God-given thing, but they are also called to maintain unity. To what extent should a discordant, member play a part in how a leader leads in their church?
Isaac: I love ‘how-to’ questions because they serve up the simple answer: How do you do this? With God’s help!
But to dig deeper, on one level, we can say that if someone is in sin, Scripture has given me clear instructions in Matthew 18. If that person won’t repent of their sin then we’ve got to deal with that on some level within that framework.
If he’s just wacko, if this is ‘Brother Bill’ and he always complains, then I’m not losing sleep over it, but the thing about feedback is that it necessarily calibrates you. Feedback is always good for us because even if he’s wrong about 99.9%, but that 0.01% is right then I will trust God’s Spirit to calibrate me.
But if he is saying ‘I have a legitimately different perspective that people whom Jesus bled for can have in a Christian church’ then I think it’s actually probably worth listening to. And it’s not the case that if I punched left, now I need to punch right next week, because then it’s just all like a punching bag and we’re not here to punch each other. We’re here to worship the Lord, to display his beauty to the world.
So how much should a person’s view factor into pastoral calculations? It just depends on the person and the time and the level of seriousness, but I’ll tell you: I’ve had people to my far right who I’ve been scared of at times. But Paul says, ‘If I fear man I can’t be a servant of Christ’. So I refuse to be afraid of you over there on the left or the right. I love you, I’ll be as gentle as I can with you.
It’s also the case that pastors may need to tell such a person to find a different church. If a pastor is worried about losing particular people, especially if they donate a certain amount, that is a sure recipe to be controlled and manipulated, and James would condemn the practice.
At our church, we tell people in our new members class, ‘We talk about racial justice stuff here, and if it rubs you the wrong way, I’m not saying Christ didn’t die for you, just that you might want to think about joining a different church.’ My goal is not to build the biggest church I can, as if it was all about having as many people as we have can have, and therefore we’ve got to think super carefully about what might make people leave. My approach is, ‘Brother, I love you, see you in heaven, this probably isn’t the church for you’, and that’s okay. He might need a different kind of church, and that’s fine, but we’re going to talk about these things in so far as I’m at the helm here. That’s how I think about it.
Setting a Bar for Unity
Bill: On the topic of managing disagreement, I wanted to discuss how to set the bar for unity. You wrote that we need to “Keep making space for differences on matters that are not the Gospel” (104), but isn’t agreeing on the gospel a lower mark of unity than what is necessary in some situations? If, for instance, a member of a church repeatedly speaks of Black people as if they are inferior, but that member agrees on the nature of the gospel, doesn’t the church need to make unity about something more than what is and isn’t the gospel?
Isaac: I would sum up the Gospel as the good news that God is redeeming the world through Christ, in that He commands everyone everywhere to repent of sin and trust Jesus Christ for salvation.
So what I’m looking to do is to kind of frame it as ‘gospel issues,’ meaning, to be a Christian is to agree on this so the person who’s saying Black people are inferior–let’s just say they are explicitly saying that–the bar of unity here is not, ‘You and I can get along even though we disagree about the image of God and we have fundamentally different doctrines of anthropology.’
So much of the kind of baptized racism we see in the world is so sub-Christian because it’s just a false anthropology, it’s an unbiblical anthropology. You can’t be a member of our church and think any specific group is inferior; that’s anti-christian. We have to agree on those basic things: all people are sinful, all people are made in God’s image.
I want to say this as best as I can. There is the message that is the gospel, and I want to preserve that and so I don’t want to say flippantly, ‘This is a gospel issue, that is a gospel issue’ etc. But remember what Paul says to Peter in Galatians 2: your behavior is out of step with what? The Gospel! And so that’s what I’m getting at. Someone saying that Black people are inferior is out of step with the Gospel because Christ made us one new man. So I’m just as inferior as you: we’re in Christ, so in a sense, we’re all superior in Him.
Christ the Lord has been super clear about the equality of humans. He’s not been super clear about tax brackets and how that affects different communities, and so that’s the rub and that’s why racism is so hard to talk about. Racism is the velcro sin, so many things stick to it: economics, housing, education, real estate, community-social dynamics, cultural dynamics, religious dynamics, what hasn’t it touched?
It’s really easy to talk about something super clear like the equality of human beings, but people aren’t just saying, ‘Black people are inferior’. Racists are more subtle these days: ‘Well I just think they need to pull their pants up and get to work.’ If the person thinks it’s just simply their fault, we’re in for a hard conversation. But it’s tough because I also think it’s a legitimate thing to say that fathers are part of the problem. Talking about fathers is a hard conversation and that’s why it matters how how you say it.
Quoting from Diverse Perspectives
Bill: One of the things that I really appreciated about your book was the diversity of people that you quoted from; people like James Baldwin, John McWhorter, Kevin DeYoung, and Brenda Salter McNeil. Is that intentional? Is there something about unity that you’re seeking to communicate by quoting these different people?
Isaac: That’s a great question. I don’t know that I was that intentional about it.
Someone who read my book said, ‘I’m not sure all the people you quoted like each other.’ I am trying to show that I think we can learn things from Jemar Tisby and Kevin DeYoung and Duke Kwon and John McWhorter and James Baldwin.
Ultimately I think we should learn from our Bibles, and that is the standard by which all those other voices and quotes are judged. And I just don’t operate with the framework that my quoting them on this one thing is an endorsement of everything this person has said. The person who operates with that assumption will struggle with the quotations.
Bill: I was particularly interested in your thoughts on James Baldwin: I’m not used to seeing James Baldwin quoted by someone who is as theologically conservative as you are. What do you appreciate about Baldwin? What should white Christians seek to learn from him?
Isaac: I certainly disagree with aspects of his life that are so evidently out of step with orthodox Christianity, but the quotes I used were just–in my perspective–so haunting and so accurate. My Christian sensibilities can get mixed up with my own sinfulness, which can give way to an inordinate desire for pleasing Christians, but James Baldwin ain’t worried about pleasing Christians. He’s going to call a thing a thing in a way that sometimes a lot of our own pastors won’t.
The book is not meant to proclaim James Baldwin as the prophet we need, but his words confronting segregation are like two plus two equals four. And the world does have permission to comment on the church’s love. John 13:35: By this the world will know you are my disciples by the way you love one another. So James Baldwin was asking, ‘If that’s true, then why won’t y’all [white believers] worship with us [black believers]?’
He grew up in church, and so I think we should be willing to hear that question. To be clear, I’m not quoting him on Sunday morning. I know one preacher skillfully used a quote saying, ‘One writer said it like this…’ and quoted something the writer wrote about depravity that’s really true, and the way the writer put it was striking.
I’m not quoting James Baldwin for solutions, but his diagnosis? A lot of non-christians can speak very powerfully about the reality of depravity because that’s the one thing you don’t necessarily need to be Christian to agree on. Even Paul quoted some of the Cretan prophets (Titus 1:12); I was trying to do the same.
The Struggle for Emotional Health
Bill: One of the really important issues you addressed in your book is lament. You wrote:
I hope our churches are places where it is okay to be sad. In other words, before we rush to hope, let’s make sure we sit in the sadness. Our God will sit there with us. He is near to the brokenhearted. And so we grieve freely. We lament deeply. American churches, frankly, are bad at this.
Why do you think it’s so hard for us to imagine God sitting with us in our sadness?
Isaac: Let me connect this to something we were talking about earlier; the bar for unity. The challenge with the bar for unity is that God seems to be more glorified in two people being in the same church if those people disagree on something, than if both of them have the same answers. And the reason I think that connects to the question about lament is that we often we have assumptions that we kind of project onto God, where we think God wants us to fix everyone’s wrong opinion. That’s not going to happen until glory. Ecclesiastes is very clear, not everything in the fallen world can be fixed, including our church family, including yourself.
So I think one of the reasons it’s so hard to imagine God sitting with us is because, especially as Americans, we think it can be fixed. We want to get to the fix. We think there’s an app for that. I’m all for progress, but wow, we all know sometimes all you can do is lay on your back and look up.
I’ve been really bothered by this Jayland Walker situation, and then there’s this shooting in Chicago and that guy is apprehended alive, and I know these things are still being adjudicated, but I was in Psalm 4 today, and read:
‘Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress…
Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.’
And you know what? That’s the word I needed for today. As I think about Jayland Walker, how much longer do we have to keep seeing these shootings? What can I do to stop these shootings? I’m in Alabama, that’s in Ohio; I can tweet, I can write a book, I can start a organization devoted to prayer, but what can I do? Psalm 4 had a word: put your trust in the Lord, He is with you.
So why is it so hard to imagine God sitting with us? For Americans, we think we can fix everything and we think we can fix it quickly. We’re not used to hearing ‘no.’ We’re impatient, we live in an instant society, instant messaging, insta-pot, insta-this, insta-that, Instagram; I’m not condemning all those things, it’s just a question of what is shaping us? These things shape our intuitions and our expectations of everything, including God and how patient he would be in sitting with us.
And we don’t like sadness. We don’t want to be sad. We want to just get over things, but we forget that God is actually in the valley. He is teaching us lessons we can only learn in the valley. So many of us want to get through our through our trial that we forget that God is teaching us something in the trial. If we would just sit there and receive the lesson we might be better off.
Failures in Racial Reconciliation
Bill: One of the saddest things about the last 20 years is the failure of evangelicals to make progress in the racial reconciliation movement. That’s one of the issues that you addressed strongly, noting the primary direction of the racial reconciliation movement; that white Christians placed expectations on Black Christians that they didn’t try to live out themselves:
The trend toward multiethnic evangelical churches is that minorities attend predominantly white churches, not vice versa. Until we see the trend going in both directions, where whites will attend faithful gospel churches where they are not in the racial majority, conversations about race will continue to be difficult.
In some ways, I’m not sure that this problem can be overstated. So many white Christians, including myself, for decades, never even gave a thought to joining a predominantly Black church, or moving into a predominantly Black neighborhood. This is a major problem that needs widespread repentance, right? You spoke to the issue of lament and how we want a quick fix, how would you encourage white people who are becoming more aware of this hypocrisy?
Isaac: I wouldn’t encourage them to flog themselves and go burn down their church as a bastion of white supremacy and think, ‘Our congregation hates Black people because we haven’t burned our church down and moved into a Black neighborhood’. But I don’t want to get in the way of any godly grief, and if the Spirit’s working it, I hope you’re sad. Why is that kind of change so implausible? Why is it just not even a thought?
How would I encourage them? This is where it’s tough because God doesn’t say you have to do that with your life. It would be really simple if he just said, ‘My people are to move into low-income neighborhoods.’ But gentrification is a hard beast; by the time everyone obeyed such a command, there isn’t a low-income neighborhood anymore, you force other people out.
So it’s tough. I would just encourage people to talk to their pastors about it and if their conscience is burdened, don’t sin against your conscience! I would just encourage them to at least read about their community and understand why all the Black people live in particular places.
A book written about where I live in Birmingham, called Some of My Best Friends Are Black, by Tanner Colby, asks a haunting question. It’s such a good question: ‘Why is it easier to vote for a Black man than it is to get a beer with one?’ I’m sure Colby and I disagree on a hundred things, but that question sums up so much. He said in a few words what I was trying to say with a thousand words.
White Identity and Color Consciousness
Bill: One of the big ideas that you argue in your book is that “Scripture is not color consumed on one hand or color-blind on the other. It is color-conscious” (63). I’d like to try relating this to an important but touchy subject: whiteness.
With whiteness, most people agree that white identity is a social construct, and some people would say that it is a false social construct and should be rejected. For instance, John MacArthur said at a conference recently that he is not white, essentially because his skin isn’t technically white. And a few years ago, Ekemini Uwan said that whiteness is something to repent of. Both of them are coming at the issue from different angles, but both would seem to agree that white identity is something to be rejected in one way or another. How do you approach this issue? How do you think those of us who are white should understand ourselves?
Even the concept of a social construct is hard concept to get your mind around. We know as Christians that identity–who we think we are–really influences how we live. How would you encourage a white person to think through these things?
Isaac: My one word answer to that would be, ‘biblically’. What I mean is, we want a biblical anthropology and I do think the Bible at least gives us identity categories: ‘You were this, now you’re this.’ First Peter 2:9 says, ‘Once you were not a people, now you’re a chosen race’. I want to dive into how the Bible uses race. I was reading Romans 9 this morning and it reads, ‘from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.’
I agree with much of the social construct conversation, but there is this idea of lineage, of ethnicity in the Bible. I’m sure I could talk about whiteness in a very refined way as an understanding of a social construct; it’s true that I call for deep thinking in my book but at the end of the day I’m a pastor, I’m not a scholar about whiteness.
So how would I encourage you to think about this? Be more biblically basic. The Bible would understand that we all come from Adam and yet there’s a race of the Jews and then there’s the Gentiles and there are people groups. And any given person is a part of a certain people group historically; they deserve respect as an individual, but we all need to understand that the social dynamics at play are real.
While you may not be directly responsible for the events of the past, you should ask, ‘As a Christian who has Luke 10 in their Bible, what can I do to be a Good Samaritan?’ You should ask ‘What can I do to adhere to the weightier matters of the law, as Matthew 23 says: justice, mercy, faithfulness?’ You should ask, ‘How should I live as a Christian in the present moment, in light of the past that’s brought us here?’ If we can have these kinds of simpler conversations, (even though these things can be super complex), we might be helped.
MacArthur is going to give one definition of whiteness and Ekemini is going to give another definition of whiteness, and I don’t think they’re going to be the same. That’s why I’m not trying to be centrist. Those terms feel so malleable right now and I fear they are misrepresented and misunderstood. And they are so easily misunderstood that you do have significant responsibility as a teacher or the preacher. Good teachers break things down. I think that’s more the angle I’m going to take on the conversation.
Justification and Whiteness
Bill: I also wonder if justification is an important theological concept to bring to bear on the issue of whiteness. You quoted John McWhorter as saying:
Today’s consciousness-raising on race is less about helping black people than it is about white people seeking grace. . . . Fifty years ago, a white person learning about the race problem came away asking, ‘How can I help?’ Today the same person too often comes away asking, ‘How can I show that I’m a moral person?’
Is it possible that the reason many white people are asking ‘How can I show that I’m a moral person?’ is because deep down they have constructed their white identity in a way that (rightly or wrongly) associates it with sinfulness? And if the doctrine of justification is brought to bear on this tendency that McWhorter identifies, could it be that Christians have a strong opportunity for discipleship if we engage more often in conversations about whiteness?
Isaac: In some ways, this is what Kevin DeYoung was getting at in his T4G 2022 address.
Justification means we don’t need to carry around any sense of white guilt or Black guilt or whatever it may be, because we’ve been justified.
I think for no small swath of my conservative white brethren (and I mean politically as well as theologically), they’re going to say ‘It’s not me carrying around the guilt, it’s the culture telling me that I need to repent of whiteness, that I’m the problem.’ I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, just that that’s what I’m trying to deal with in my book: how different people understand things.
So what I want to say is, ‘Yeah, you have been justified, so don’t listen to the cultural noise. But that also doesn’t mean you get to opt out of the whole conversation.’ So let’s let grace abound because I’ve been justified, and now, as Paul says in Romans 3, ‘Do we overthrow the law? Do we get rid of the law? No, we uphold it!’
My fear is that some of my white, conservative brethren will say, ‘Justification, justification, justification.’ And I would say, ‘Yes and amen! Obedience, obedience, obedience. Repentance, repentance, repentance.’ Martin Luther, the justification guy, said the whole of the Christian life begins with repentance. This is where we get into the ‘just preach the gospel’ conversation; Jesus told me to do more than that. I want to protect the fact that the gospel is a message, but I also want to point to what Jesus actually said: ‘Teach them to obey everything I have commanded’. I’m glad for justification and how it assuages our sense of false guilt, soothing our consciences, praise God for this. Romans 8:1 is clear: there is no condemnation.
I would hope none of my brethren would say that holding to justification means we have no responsibility for compassion, justice, mercy, love; that’s anti-Christian and I reject that in the strongest of terms because it’s just antinomianism at that point: no law, all grace, pretty sweet deal.
And that’s not actually what many people are advocating for, but somewhere here on the issue of justification and obedience, we’re missing each other. This issue is the heart of the Christian life, it’s the heart of this discussion, it’s a conversation about grace and repentance, duty and freedom. There’s something the different groups are missing each other on with this.
Non-racist vs. Antiracist
Bill: There are a couple of ‘hot-button’ issues that I would love to dig deeper into with you. Hot-button topics get a lot of tweets and attention, but words and terminology matter, and part of talking about race is talking about these hot-button terms.
So in one of your stories, a character is struggling with her church’s leadership, because the leaders are presenting themselves as non-racist rather than antiracist. How can we talk better about these terms, ‘non-racist’ vs. ‘antiracist’, especially in the context of the church?
Isaac: We always have to use language, we always have to use terms, right? So one way to get at this is to say, ‘What is the idea or the principle represented by this term?’ So with terms like non-racist and antiracist, the character in my book was saying was, ‘Y’all present yourselves in a passive way, where you’re saying to not be something, that you don’t want to be racist. I want y’all to actually be against racism, and in that sense, to have an active stance.’
With preaching a sermon, you may only have really two minutes for any given application, so it’s easy to say, ‘So brothers and sisters, let’s be antiracist instead of non-racist.’ But there are two things to say about a simple statement like that. First, you need to recognize the problem that you’ve got non-Christian authors like Ibram Kendi using the same language, so you’ve got to recognize that some people are going to hear it that way, and might be confused. Second, you really can give a bit more context–and by that I mean, ‘Brothers and sisters, let’s not shoot to just not be racist, let’s shoot to be about justice, to loathe and deplore racism and to actively work against it, versus trying to just escape it or dodge it.’ The term ‘non-racist’ is about dodging a bad label–really it’s about yourself. Being antiracist is your disposition toward your neighbor.
I’d like to think even the most conservative person who heard me explain that would say ‘Yes and amen.’ But if I just stopped at saying ‘Be antiracist’, and they had been out at lunch that week and an antiracist protest group was coming down the street, endorsing all sorts of things they don’t agree with, and yelling at them saying ‘You need to be anti-racist,’ well, then they might struggle to hear that from me, their pastor. More explanation is required.
It’s very common to see this because we use the same terms but have different dictionaries. This is why I put a small dictionary at the back of my book: you might disagree with my definition, but at least here it is.
Evangelicalism: Social or Theological?
Bill: Another key issue dividing American Christians recently is the meaning of the term ‘evangelical’. Some people speak of ‘evangelical’ in more of a theological sense, others use it in more of a social, historical and political sense. I think many people would agree that it can function in both ways, but there is still disagreement. How do you think Christians should talk to one another about this tension? What are some talking points for brothers who disagree on this?
Isaac: I would encourage them to do a lot more listening than talking. Harold Senkbeil’s book, The Care of Souls says:
It amazes me that the medical profession depends on something that we pastors in recent generations have tended to dismiss: quiet, probing conversation accompanied by a great deal of attentive listening.
What I would say to the two brothers disagreeing on the nature of evangelicalism is: ‘Have you all listened to each other’s definitions? Do you understand that there are multiple ways to see something like that?’ It can be at least helpful to know we disagree on our definitions and to share our concerns with particular definitions. Both sides probably have legitimate concerns, and I know that just sounds like centrism, but I think we want to we want to be clear about what we mean. Whole books have been written defining what an evangelical is.
This is why the way Twitter is discipling us is so damaging, because we think we should be able to speak in ways where I can use one word and assume mass understanding of that one word. You can’t assume that! For a lot of words you can, but the less you know the person or the more you disagree with them, the greater the responsibility to be clear about what you mean.
If you and I are friends and we’re grabbing a beer, we probably know what each other means in the nuances, but if I’m tweeting or writing a book for 60,000 people, you know I’ve got to be clear about what I mean. There are relationships in which the amount of clarity required is less than in public, but even then, how often do we find married couples saying to each other, ‘I meant it this way, you took it that way’?
Bill: One more hot-button issue: reparations. Not too long ago, there was a conflict among Presbyterian brothers over the issue of reparations. I think that conversation was carried out in a thoughtful and respectful way overall, but it’s certainly not the end of the conversation about reparations. Do you have any insights into how we might continue the discussion of reparations in a helpful way?
Isaac: We talked about so much of this already in a sense, because a big part of it is this question of guilt. Has guilt been imputed to someone, and therefore do they bear responsibility? So I think one useful way to have a good conversation is to just lay out questions as simply as we can without being simplistic. This helps us to see how much we agree on.
Let’s say you and I are on two different ends of the spectrum on reparations. Do we agree that Christians should help people? Yes. Okay, that’s good, that’s a lot right there. Do we agree that Christians should help people even when it wasn’t they who wronged them? In most cases, yes. Okay, good.
If you lay out the questions like this, it clarifies your thinking. Ask yourself, ‘What question am I answering right now?’ So that’s one way to have a more fruitful conversation about it. And it’s also good to read Duke Kwon’s book and read Kevin DeYoung’s response.
I’ll put my cards on the table: I’m for this nation recognizing its wrong and making amends for it. I do fear that reparations may cause a bunch of white people to say, ‘Stop talking to me about this, you got your money, I’m done.’ Now, does that mean you shouldn’t do the right thing? No, it just means like the problem is not merely financial, it can’t just be fixed by money. And if we’re actually trying to come together, yes, justice is required. But that certainly is not the last step.
Bill: One of the ways that the early church handled challenging conflict is seen in Acts 15, where Jewish leaders gave some simple but helpful directives to Gentile believers. Could it be possible for Black Christians to do the same for white Christians? If you could articulate three items that white Christians ‘not be burdened beyond’ when it comes to racial justice, what would those items be?
Isaac: Well, just to be clear, as a Baptist I’m going to read Acts 15 in a less prescriptive way, so in my mind it’s a unique thing happening, touching upon the nature of salvation.
Where I would go in Acts is Acts 6, where there’s the problem of serving Hellenist widows and they seem to pick six to seven Greeks: they seem to default to the minority. I think that’s a good and fine thing to do, what a statement! ‘We’re not making this 50-50, y’all are in charge.’ I think with the historical asymmetry of race in America, an approach like that can and will be useful, and it just depends on what the thing is. But I also think that in a sense, the Acts 15 approach has already happened, where Black people have said ‘Here is what we want to see’ and many Black people have not felt heard.
Bill: Let’s end by talking about prayer. You wrote:
The prayer list—not the Sunday service elements, not the preaching style, not even the ethnic makeup of the leadership of the church—is often where the battle for diversity is won or lost. What makes the prayer list is often a reflection of who’s praying and whose problems are seen as real, relevant, and important.
I have to admit that I struggle with this – prayer is hard, and prayer for diversity and reconciliation is hard. Are there models you would point us to for how to pray for these things, particularly in a church service? What different ways would you recommend churches involve prayers for racial justice?
Isaac: So United We Pray is a ministry I began, devoted to praying about racial strife between Christians. On there, we have kits that we make for small groups, for churches, it’s just a bundle of resources with different articles, podcast episodes. And we have one about racial tragedies, and in there we have some sample prayers that people can pick up. The website is uwepray.com, and just click the ‘Racial Tragedies’ tab. What we are trying to do is talk about race in a way that’s clear, biblical, helpful and hopeful.
On a basic level, I would just point to Psalm 62, pour out your heart before God and sit in the sadness and just don’t move on too quick. I can’t fix everything and I’m going to pour out my sorrow. This is Jehoshaphat’s prayer, Second Chronicles 20: ‘Lord, we don’t know what to do but our eyes are on you.’ We don’t come to God because we have the answers, we come to God because we don’t have the answers and so bring him your ignorance. We don’t know what to do but our eyes are on you.
Bill: Isaac, thank you for your book and the labor that you poured into it. And thanks so much for engaging in this discussion!