Before getting into the racial equivocations, I need to say something about what is meant by “serpentine shepherds.”
I don’t necessarily mean apostate shepherds, though that possibility is not ruled out. I simply mean shepherds who have begun behaving like the enemy (whatever the underlying cause might be). Genuine Christians, and even genuine Christian teachers, can succumb to the seductions of the Serpent for a time. They can adopt the Serpent’s double-tongued way of speaking, which tickles the ears of all who hear. They can learn to slither gracefully— winsomely—around edges, direct questions, and definitions. They can even, while under the Serpent’s trance, mimic the way the Serpent wraps itself around the sheep—slowly, subtly, sweetly—to squeeze the life out of the sheep. All without fully and finally abandoning the faith. Remember, Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders was that ravenous wolves would rise up from among them, not that they would invade from the outside. The greatest dangers to the Church have always been the internal dangers posed by wayward, and possibly apostate, shepherds.
Such is the extent of my charge against those Christian teachers I will discuss below. I am not claiming anything about the eternal state of their souls, or even about their conscious motives (though both will be heavily called into question). I am merely claiming that they are behaving quite Serpent-like, and that it must be stopped. Whether they are fully and finally in league with the Serpent, or merely temporarily under his evil spell, is for God to judge, and the reader to decide.
The Serpent’s primary weapon is his forked-tongue, which gives both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ at the same time, on the same subject, but only as it suits his agenda. And one of the most prominent human expressions of this deceitful weapon is what we call equivocation.
To equivocate means to utilize two different meanings for the same term, secretly switching back and forth between the meanings as it suits you. It’s not a good strategy if your goal is to clearly communicate the truth, but it’s a brilliant strategy if your goal is to confuse, deceive, or manipulate.
When you see widespread ideological confusion, look for the equivocations. When you find them, you’ll take your first step toward clarity. In the ever-growing confusion and turmoil on racial issues today, there are at least two major equivocations which must be identified, and then extinguished.
Equivocation #1: Racism
The first racial equivocation is on the term, racism.
Look up the term racism in almost any dictionary, and you’ll find a definition which may be roughly summarized by the famous line from MLK Jr.: judging people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. Now, keep in mind that dictionary definitions are not arbitrary. Their purpose is to reflect popular usage. That means if you want to know what most people currently, or historically, have meant by the term racism, that rough paraphrase (or something very close to it) is your answer.
But that is not what many evangelical leaders mean when they denounce racism today. They are utilizing an altogether different definition, one borrowed from the secular academy. Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise, and arguably one of the primary sources for contemporary evangelical thought on racism, relies on psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum for his definition of racism:
“What do we mean when we talk about racism? Beverly Daniel Tatum provides a shorthand definition: racism is a system of oppression based on race. Notice Tatum’s emphasis on systemic oppression. Racism can operate through interpersonal systems and not simply through the malicious words and actions of individuals.” (Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise, 16)
What’s the difference between this new definition and the old one? The main difference is that this new definition is concerned with “systems of oppression” rather than prejudicial attitudes or actions. And Tisby even gives us the apparent motive behind the new definition: it covers systems of racism in a way that the old definition didn’t. Or does it?
If you can get anyone to actually admit that they are operating off of a new definition, and ask them for their motive in adopting it, the answer you’ll likely receive is that the old definition doesn’t cover systemic racism. But what ever gave anyone that idea?
On the old definition of racism, systemic racism is a very real possibility. In fact, two of the prime examples of the old definition of racism are instances of systemic racism: Chattel slavery and Jim Crow laws. Both of these are examples of systemic racism, according to the old definition, because they are both systems whose policies assigned an inferior status to black people based on their skin color, regardless of the content of their character. So, the old definition is perfectly sufficient for covering systemic racism.
Why then the new definition? There are two substantive differences. The first is the switch from attitudes or actions, to systems. On the old definition, racism is rooted in attitudes and actions, which (as seen above) may certainly extend to systems. On the new definition, it’s all about the system, which may or may not be rooted in attitudes or actions. The second difference is the switch from prejudice to oppression. The old definition restricted racism to a that which is rooted in racial prejudice. The new definition, however, replaces prejudice with the more vague concept of oppression, which is typically measured by statistical disparities and the perception of oppression.1
Jemar Tisby and Ally Henny elaborated on this new definition of racism in a recent podcast episode on the topic. They spoke disappointedly about the fact that even many black people often don’t “see” racism in their everyday lives because they have not learned about the “adapting” definition of racism. Rather than looking out for objective signs of actual oppression, they encourage people to look for things like being “under-represented” in theology classrooms (the lack of “black theology” in seminary), the “gentrification” of “black movies” (e.g., white people going to see Black Panther on opening night instead of yielding the space to blacks), and voting for Trump. These are the types of things which are now considered racism, under the new, “adapting,” definition.
What’s So Bad About Racism?
If racism now means the failure to utilize skin color quotas in theology texts, having white skin in a movie theater on opening night, and voting for the only anti-abortion candidate who has a chance of winning, then what’s so wrong with being racist? Not much. Sure, it’s conceivable that there might be a plausible argument that we should avoid doing those things, but it’s difficult to imagine that such things come anywhere close to the deep immorality of what is meant by the traditional definition of racism.
On the old definition, racism is an extreme moral evil; the kind of sin which should rightly cause us to question whether someone who persists in it really has the Spirit of Christ within them. That’s because, on the old definition, racism is an outright rejection of one or more fundamental Christian beliefs: that all men are created in the image of God; that all men are related to each other through the lineage of Adam; that all men are equally under the curse of sin; that all men are equally welcomed to reconcile with God through Christ; and that all men are to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful together, regardless of their skin color. On the old definition, racism seeks to deny one or more of these central gospel truths about people with certain skin colors, or of certain biological lineages. Thus, the extreme moral outrage against racism, on the old definition, is completely warranted.
Not so, on the new definition. Imagine for a moment that you took the content of the new definition, as described by Tisby & Henny above, but gave it a completely different label: blatarism. Blatarism is the “sin” of not using skin color quotas, of white people going to opening night of a “black movie,” and of voting for Trump. You’d have a really hard time convincing people that blatarism really is a sin—let alone that it is the sort of sin which requires immediate and extreme social attention. But if you instead give it the name of a sin which already carries extreme moral weight in society (like racism), then you won’t have to work very hard at all to convince people to adopt your new moral laws. You can leverage the moral outrage of the old definition of racism to do the convincing for you.
And now the goal of the equivocation is clear: to associate the moral weight of the old definition with the dubious moral norms of the new definition; to make an end run around the mind in order to trick, manipulate, and guilt people into this new moral code. No one wants to be racist. That’s a given. So whatever can be smuggled into the label racism will automatically receive the public’s (and the Church’s) moral condemnation. If you want people to condemn that which they likely otherwise would not condemn, just smuggle it into a deeply immoral concept like racism, and the consciences of the masses will be at your command.
This is the deceitful and manipulative work of the enemy. There is no honest or truth-loving reason to equivocate on a morally important term like racism. There is no righteous motive to shift, or “adapt,” the definition of a word which carries such extreme moral weight in such an ambiguous and equivocal way as we have seen with this term.2
Who Gets To Define Racism?
One of the most damning questions one can now ask is: “But, who gets to define racism?” In asking this question, the asker is admitting that they see the ability to define racism as a source of power or privilege: “Who gets to define racism?” like “who gets to go first?” But getting to define racism wouldn’t be seen as a power or privilege unless it already had the moral weight attached to it by the traditional definition. No one would ask, “who gets to define blatarism?” The obvious answer would be: who cares? The only reason anyone cares about getting to define racism is because they know the moral weight assigned to that term, and they want to be able to wield the moral force behind it against the enemies of their choosing.
The other problem with this question is one which I shouldn’t’ have to point out (though I do). The expected answer to the question is, “those who have been victims of racism.” But this is circular. How do we know who has been a victim of racism unless we already have a definition? And if we already have a definition, then we don’t need the victims (victims of what?) to define it for us. The obvious circularity of this rhetorical question and answer should be another glaring sign that the duplicity of the serpent is afoot. Yet far too many Christians have shamefully fallen for it.
Equivocation # 2: Whiteness As Wickedness
The second racial equivocation which has become popular of late is the equivocation on the term, whiteness.
At the recent Sparrow conference, Ekemini Uwan spoke about the evils of “whiteness,” and quite predictably, this caused no small controversy. Women (it was a women’s conference) got up and left during her talk. The conference organizers issued an apology—both to Uwan and to the conference participants. And almost overnight, the conference became a major topic of conversation among Christians and non-Christians alike. Major Christian teachers, like Jemar Tisby, Jackie Hill Perry, Karen Swallow Prior, and even Thabiti Anyabwile were praising Uwan’s message and lecturing her detractors, while Yahoo! was publishing an article which covered Uwan’s talk about whiteness.
Uwan and her defenders have insisted that they are merely being misunderstood; that they are not referring to white people, but to a mindset which artificially lifts up white people as superior. In other words, they are claiming to have a completely different meaning when using that term from what the vast majority of people would take it to mean. It looks as though we’ve got another instance of equivocation, or mixed meanings—at least on the part of the hearers of Uwan’s message.
But are Uwan and her ideological cohorts utilizing the equivocation (as with racism above), or is it truly a genuine misunderstanding? There are a few indications that the equivocation is being utilized by the speakers at some level. The first and most obvious indicator is the choice of the term for the idea they intend to communicate. Remember, they claim that what they mean to communicate with the term is the idea that people with white skin are superior to others. But we already have a widely accepted term which perfectly describes that idea: white supremacy. In fact, in a podcast interview with Jemar Tisby after the conference, Uwan even says that whiteness and white supremacy are interchangeable terms. So those who want to utilize the term whiteness are fully aware that the term white supremacy is perfectly sufficient for capturing their meaning.
So why use the more ambiguous term which will obviously lead to people thinking they are condemning white people when they condemn whiteness? Why risk the confusion if there is a perfectly sufficient alternative term which leaves no such room for confusion? One answer is (and I can’t think of any others): they want the confusion. Or perhaps the more charitable reading is that the demonic forces influencing them want the confusion. I won’t pretend to know what these Christian teachers consciously intend, but the obvious must be stated: the clear and unmistakable telos of this word choice is confusion and controversy.3
“So, what happens to whiteness when Black theology confronts its idols and takes up room in its sacred spaces? It claws for its purse in the darkness, storms quietly out of the theater, and asks to see the manager because it demands someone pay for failing to protect it from conviction and discomfort. When confronted, whiteness crumbles, falls on its face, head and hands breaking off like the statue of Dagon in First Samuel. We see it for what it really is – an idol meant to destroy us.”
Because of the equivocal use of the term whiteness, Dee Dee Roe is able to pretend to herself that white women left because they were offended by denunciations of white supremacy. In reality, it is far more likely that those women were offended by the inflammatory language which seemed to unnecessarily and unfairly associate having white skin with being a white supremacist. The result is that innocent women are falsely accused of sympathy for white supremacy, and the equivocators are able to pretend to themselves, and their hearers, that white supremacy has a grip on far more people than anyone would have realized.
Incidentally, it’s helpful to note that in Roe’s account of how women with white skin reacted, she doesn’t speak of “women with white skin.” She speaks of whiteness. Whiteness “claws for its purse in the dark”; Whiteness “storms out of the theater”; Whiteness “asks to see the manager.” Not white women. Whiteness. No matter how much she, or Uwan, or their defenders want to insist that they aren’t talking about white people when they talk about whiteness, their language and their equivocations betray them.
As if this mess of deceit and equivocations isn’t enough, it all comes full circle in the end. Remember that Uwan claimed that whiteness and white supremacy can be used interchangeably? In her subsequent elaboration on what constitutes white supremacy, one example she cites is people who vote against expanding Medicaid. That’s right. According to these Christian teachers who are leading the evangelical Church in discussions about race and racism, voting against certain government programs is now considered white supremacy—just like going to the wrong movie on the wrong night, or voting for the wrong political candidate, is now considered racism.
This, I submit, is true wickedness.
It is difficult to imagine a more nakedly manipulative ploy than the act of smuggling all of one’s chosen vices into the definitions of white supremacy and racism. It is difficult to conceive of a more abusive and divisive rhetorical scheme than the act of utilizing intentionally inflammatory language in order to hurl false accusations at those offended, and to then buttress one’s position with their offense. But then, to feign shock at their offense; to clutch one’s pearls and to say in self-righteous condescension that you’ve obviously been misunderstood—that is a level of wicked deception (even if it is self-deception) which can only be explained by demonic influence.
We cannot speak for the souls or conscious intentions of these Christian teachers, but we can and we must speak for their teaching, which shows every sign of coming from the father of lies. At every turn of their teaching, their words positively drip with deceit and duplicity. Every attempt to objectively distinguish between what they do and do not mean is met with the twisting, shifting, evasive maneuvers of the Serpent. Whether they are, themselves, soldiers of the Serpents, or have merely been taken in by his trance, their forked-tongues must be silenced.
This country, and the Church, desperately do need to “have a discussion” about race and racial reconciliation. But it cannot—it must not—involve (let alone, be led by) the serpentine types of teachings examined above. The more controversial the issue, the more clarity is needed. These Christian equivocators will not bring that clarity. They are, in fact, its greatest enemy. For the sake of the Church, for the sake of the glory of God, and for the sake of true racial reconciliation, these serpentine shepherds must be shamed into silence and ignored—until and unless they fully repent of their duplicitous rhetoric.4 May the Lord make it so.
Bachelor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. M.A. in Philosophy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.
Bachelor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. M.A. in Philosophy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.
- See Neil Shenvi’s post on the new definition of racism.
- I’m not saying that there is never an honest reason to change the definition of a word. However, if you want to advocate to the public for a different definition than the one that is already widely accepted and assumed, honesty demands making it clear that you really are advocating for a different definition; that you explicitly reject the old definition—with all of its moral implications, and that you labor to explicitly make the distinctions between the old definition and your proposed new definition as clear as possible. It would also need to involve a good amount of reasoned debate about why the proposed redefinition is necessary or helpful.
- See this helpful piece by Neil Shenvi & Pat Sawyer for more on the dangerous confusion around this topic.
- Thomas Bradstreet has also written a good piece analyzing the dubious rhetoric of these teachers.
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