07.31.18

Urban Apologetics, 4: Suffering and Evil

It’s been a minute since we’ve contributed to this series. If you’ve missed the earlier posts, you can find them here:

What we’ve tried to make clear thus far is that urban religious groups and world views are partly responses to Black existential crisis. Participants in urban religions seek ways to make sense of the world Black people inhabit. That means forging answers to the questions like “Where do Black people come from?” and “What does our identity teach us about our true nature and purpose?” Once those questions are answered, urban religions and world views move on to consider the question, “How do we restore our people and foster a wholistic sense of well-being?”

There’s an almost linear logic in these questions.

  • Step one: Admit that the world Black people in America inhabit is jacked up and has done a number on us.
  • Step two: Figure out how to redefine ourselves and our origins so we have a healthy sense of identity.
  • Step three: Spread the message of identity and return to “origins” as a means for recovering all Black people.

In our earlier posts, we attempted to engage this world view by suggesting some biblical ways of answering these longings. The problem is not that people have these longings; the problem is that urban religious groups answer the longings with the wrong answers. If we are to be successful at reaching inner-city communities where alternative religious groups thrive, then we must be conversant with these issues and know something about how to engage the world views from which they arise.

To do that, it’s helpful to also know something about the various views on evil and suffering in this context.

Cosmic Origins of Suffering

You never have to convince Black folks that suffering is real. Black Buddhists are rare. And I have to believe they’re rare because the history of our people is so steeped in real pain. If nature or history is “red in tooth and claw” then Black history is blood red from head to toe. If we date the origin of African Americans with the Middle Passage or the landing of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown in 1619, then we must conclude that African Americans were birthed from the womb of “daemonic dread” as one writer put it.

So, you almost never have to spend time debating the traditional apologetic formulations of evil and suffering with African Americans because it’s so inextricably tied to our sojourn.

But you do have to be familiar with the explanations for that suffering. You will find a variety of explanations, beginning with cosmic claims. For example, the Nation of Islam claims that evil and suffering begin with a mad demi-god scientist named Yakub. Yakub, as the myth goes, created the White race. In the process, he sought to create the most evil people that he could. As a consequence, evil and suffering entered the world. For members of the Nation, “hell” is right here on earth living under the oppressive rule of White people.

Social Origins of Suffering

Hebrew Israelites have a similar conception of evil and hell as that of the NOI. They differ in an important respect, however. Hebrew Israelites do not believe in a literal heaven and hell and don’t seem to emphasize an actual devil.

While “Hebrew Israelite” movement has many branches that differ at important points, some maintain that this present earth is the Caucasian heaven. White people are seen as agents of Black persecution and subjugation. Applying ‘s use of “the times of the Gentiles” to Europeans and this present earth, some branches of Hebrew Israelites believe the Messiah’s return will feature a gathering of Black people (the true Jews) to a promised land near Israel. Between 1967 and 1969, Ben Ammi Ben Israel led some 400 African Hebrew Israelites from Chicago to immigrate to Israel and escape “the Lands of the Great Captivity.” In many respects the problem of evil is defined as a struggle between Black and White, with White people having a temporary upper hand in causing much of the suffering of Black people.

Personal Origins of Suffering

Other groups tip their hats to an essentially Christian understanding of evil’s origin. They at least formally believe in the existence of a personal devil. However, many of them will stress personal choices and responsibility as the cause of a lot of suffering. Even groups like the NOI with its Yakub myth will place heavy emphasis on living a clean life of moral integrity and responsibility.

But most groups do not frame personal responsibility in the typical way ideological conservatives do. They do not deny historic and systemic racism in explaining Black suffering. In many cases, the historic and systemic injustices provide causal explanation for black self-destructive and self-hating behavior. In other words, they explain, Black people engage in self-destructive behavior and self-inflicted suffering as a result of the learned behaviors, devaluation, and “slave mentality” developed after centuries of oppression at the hands of Whites.

Reading History

Most urban religions thrive on a rather basic reading of African-American history. In very broad strokes, this reading emphasizes three elements: oppression, resistance and ultimately victory or freedom.

The history has protagonists and antagonists. In general, White or European peoples and countries are the antagonists who unleash undeserved and unprovoked suffering on people of color. Colonization, imperialism, white supremacy, slavery, apartheid, segregation and their variants begin the story and color everything that follows. To some people this may sound too much like conspiracy theory. But for adherents and many Black people in general, it’s simply what history looks like from inside the experience of African Americans. The apologist who tries to treat this like a conspiracy theory is more likely to be treated like a co-conspirator in the history than a defender of truth.

Black people are both victims and heroes in this story. They’re a resilient people who found quiet and overt ways to survive, fight back, and in times and seasons even thrive against the overwhelming onslaught of oppression. The cultural pantheon includes Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, Mary McLeod Bethune,  Malcolm X, Shirley Chisholm, and every person who defies the forces of suffering. The final chapter of the history, the undying hope, is that Black people will overcome, will find that “Eden” of Black progress and well-being that’s been stolen from them. This is history’s terminus.

In urban apologetics, people who do not know and accept this basic accounting of history are either pitied for being deceived or ignorant of one’s history or vilified if willfully opposing this reading of history. From the perspective of the urban religionist, the mission is to help the masses of Black people learn and accept this story so they may be first intellectually freed and subsequently materially freed.

A Bigger History

From a Christian perspective, the main problem with this reading of history is not that it’s incorrect in its basic facts about suffering at the hands of some white people, but that it’s actually too local or small. Some urban religionists make African American history and culture a ghetto of sorts. There they live trapped inside a reading of history that doesn’t allow enough light from outside itself. That approach to history can become not only suffocating but idolatrous as well.

But the story of African Americans occurs inside an even larger narrative where the Hero is not Black people but the God who made Black people–and White people; indeed, all people. The main villain in this larger narrative is not White people but a very real personal Devil, Satan, that great deceiver and accuser of God’s people. It’s been said that Satan’s greatest deception is convincing people he does not exist. Where he’s been successful the truest, deepest root of evil and suffering has gone unnoticed and responses to evil and suffering have have been unfruitful. For example, the most necessary response to black self-destruction and self-hatred, whether or not its rooted in centuries of slavery and oppression, is not black self-help. Nor is it finally blaming White people, however much justice may require a reckoning. Our sin cannot be plucked out by our hands. If our war is with Satan and our sin imperils our soul, we need a Savior who atones for sin and defeats the Devil. That is Jesus, not our Black selves.

In this larger story, the greatest evil was the crucifixion of God’s Son. The hands of sinful men nailed him to the cross. In those hours on “Good Friday,” Jesus Christ suffered for all the sins of the world. However, the great evil and immense suffering Jesus endured was also the moment of God’s greatest redemption and display of mercy. In His death and resurrection Jesus completes the decisive victory over evil and suffering. Now evil and suffering walk with a severe limp. It’s real, but it’s falling powerless.

The end of evil is not an escape to a Black colony in Israel or elsewhere. The end of evil comes when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. When the Great White Throne judgement is held, all injustices will be punished if not atoned for by Christ and all of suffering’s tears will be wiped away by the hand of God. Jesus has already initiated the reign of righteousness and will bring that reign in its fullness in the new heavens and new earth.

God our Father’s purpose in history is not merely that Black people be brought to an earthly promised land, but that people from every nation, tribe and language be brought back to Him through faith in Jesus Christ.

The story of Black suffering, resistance and triumph is actually the story of God’s grace, providence and goodness even in the midst of evil and suffering. The source of Black suffering isn’t finally white people, but a very real Devil who through man’s disobedience has twisted God’s good creation. The Christian can affirm the suffering but also maintain hope for African Americans as well as those who have caused our suffering. We can name wickedness accurately because we can also proclaim redemption hopefully.

The best apologetic for questions of evil and suffering remain (a) an admission of evil and suffering, (b) an appreciation for Black perseverance despite evil and suffering, and (c) proclaiming the cross of Christ where evil and suffering are defeated by the God who loves us. Not until we get to the cross have we offered a reason for the hope that’s in us and that urban religionist can also share.

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Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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