Most mainstream attempts at apologetics begin by summarizing a non-Christian religious viewpoint, then comparing it to an orthodox Christian view, before finally making the case for the truthfulness and superiority of the Christian view. This approach assumes that all religions are doing essentially the same thing–making systematic theological and world view claims that can be analyzed using the Christian canon as the normative standard.
There’s much to be applauded in this approach and it’s served the Church for a long time. But this apologetic method misses the fact that not all religions seek the same goal or answer the same problem. Take, for example, Christian critiques of the Islamic view of salvation. Many Christians argue at great length that Islam is a “legalistic religion” and therefore cannot produce a righteousness that “earns” salvation. Of course, from a Christian view that’s precisely right. But the goal of Islam is not salvation. Salvation is a distinctively Christian concept. The goal of Islam is Dar al Islam, bringing the “house of Islam” or the rule of Islam to the entire world. So while Christians argue about salvation, Muslims go on about the business of bringing Sharia and Islamic rule to communities and societies where it’s lacking. The would-be Christian apologist defends a doctrine that really isn’t under attack–at least not in the Muslim mind.
A similar thing happens when it comes to urban apologetics. We may evaluate any number of cult or religious groups against orthodox Christian claims while entirely missing the aim of the group in question. So the apologetic work has to begin by truly understanding what the groups are attempting on their own terms.
Seeking an Origin and Identity Older and More Noble than Slavery
Many urban religious movements aim to correct errors regarding the origins and identity of Black people in America. They work to present an origin story that explains the true value, contributions, and dignity of Black people. As Debra J. Dickerson puts it in The End of Blackness: “African Americans are a people with no return address.” The systematic enslavement of African Americans leaves us unsure of where we come from and who we are except in the most general terms. Nearly every religious cult in the urban context attempts to return to Black people what slave masters stole.
For example, the Nation of Islam (NOI) puts forth the Yakub myth. According to the myth, Yakub was a Black scientist who experimented with humanity by grafting from “the original Asiatic Black man” lighter shades and lesser species until he arrived at the most recessive, most depraved version–the white “devil.” These white men were forced from Africa and Mecca until they were contained in Europe and from which they would fulfill their purpose of ruling and oppressing Black people for 6,000 years. This myth serves triple duty as an explanation of racial origin, an explanation of human evil, and an explanation of Black standing vis-a-vis other peoples. This claim counters the racist myth that Black people are sub-human and inferior to White people. Here’s a clip of Min. Louis Farrakhan answering the question, “Who is the Original man?”:
Or, consider the origin and identity story of Black Hebrew Israelite groups. Unlike the mythical claims of the NOI, Hebrew Israelites, beginning in the 19th century, claim to be descendants of the biblical Israel. One group of “Black Jews,” the Church of God and Saints of Christ (there are many groups with differing emphases) claims that originally all Jews were Black. They hold that all African Americans are part of the so-called “lost tribes of Israel.” Some more radical Black Hebrew groups go further, claiming that European Jews are impostors and, like the NOI, regard whites as devils. In making the claim to Jewish ancestry, the groups locate their origin and identity beyond the start of slavery and in biblical texts. The claims join Black identity with biblical and covenantal promises to Israel.
Many urban religious movements understand the deep longing most African Americans have for a connection with original identity. The unknown “return address” (to use Dickerson’s phrase) haunts most of us. Consequently, hunger for a rooted sense of self opens us up to cultic teaching. These religious origin and identity stories finally answer “Who am I?” in a compelling and racially specific way for some people. Until Christian apologists take seriously the existential identity crisis caused by slavery, we will in some sense be starting too far down stream in defending the Christian faith.
What does this mean for Christians doing apologetics in the urban context?
So, imagine you have the opportunity to talk with a member of an urban religious group who treasures their origin and identity story. Or, suppose someone in your church or family appears interested in a cult group because of these stories; they seem to welcome the explanatory power of these myths. How might you begin to defend Christian teaching?
What we must admit. The first thing to do is admit rather than defend. We must admit everything that’s true about the origin and identity of Black people. Failing to admit, for example, the debilitating and traumatizing effect of three hundred years of enslavement is a non-starter. We’ll be viewed as at least “deaf, dumb and blind” and sometimes viewed as complicit in our own oppression. So we must acknowledge the widespread identity crisis happening in our communities and our people. These cult groups are correct when they assert that if we do not know who we are then we will engage in all manner of self-destructive behavior (which, ironically, includes joining these cults). The psychological and spiritual damage of the Black sojourn in America cannot be calculated or over-stated. We lost more in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade than we know. Gospel ministry in the African-American context has to take this loss seriously by first acknowledging it. So, start with admitting in greater detail than your interlocutor the problems and legacies of slavery and oppression for Black personhood and identity. Establish not just your awareness of the issue but genuine concern about the issue. Apologetic work cannot progress without bona fides in this area. These are real life issues that should not be treated as intellectual fodder for debate.
What we must heal. But we must do more than admit the tragedies of history. We must prepare ourselves to engage the traumas of the persons we meet. This means the apologist must commit to healing the broken. This may be as simple as asking “Why did you start believing these things?” or “Has believing these things finally healed the things that have been hurting or missing?” These are diagnostic questions for determining where there’s still hurt or where identity formation is still lacking. Then we have to listen. Do not underestimate how listening can heal and how much about the person’s lived life gets revealed as we listen. Let the person talk. Commit to asking good questions. When they have finished telling you their story, hold out a vision for perfect healing and restoration to their true original identity and purpose.
We must set a table for healthy identity formation and psychological adjustment. We frustrate the gospel’s work and we wrongly assimilate people to unexamined western standards if we do not recognize and address this longing for origin and identity. Faithful disciple-making will involve helping people form a whole and integrated sense of self (individual and group) in the American context. We will need to be familiar with mental health resources and well-adjusted ourselves in order to be useful.
What we must defend. The implicit and often explicit charge is that Christianity is not appropriate for Black people. The Nation of Islam claims it’s “the natural religion for the Black man.” In many cases, the Christian faces the allegation that they’re complicit in the self-hate and self-destruction of Black people. A blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, we are told, does nothing for the self-worth and identity of African Americans. To be effective, we must offer a defense against these charges by offering a view to origin and identity that’s both relevant to the concerns of African Americans and accurate to the Bible. The good news is the Good News does precisely that.
We must preach the gospel in ways that emphasize the true biblical origin story of Genesis 1-2. The Bible actually answers our longing for a story that explains where we come from and who we are. It was not a human scientist that made humanity but God himself. Moreover, we are not most fundamentally defined by our ethnic group but by our being in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). Our imago Dei creation provides the font of significance and dignity. If we would help people adjust well, then we must start where the Bible starts. Most gospel preaching begins with Genesis 3’s recounting of original sin. That’s a mistake for a people keenly aware of their brokenness but unaware of who they truly are. Starting with the imago Dei helps us understand who/what we were supposed to be and better able to understand how badly our sin and the sin of others against us has broken us. As we provide this biblical anthropology, we will need to demonstrate how the Bible answers the question of “racial” or ethnic origin (Gen. 10) and how the Bible–though used by others to support racism–actually condemns it.
Along the way, we will have to address racial prejudice, black supremacy, and black racism head on. We must address this sin head on because cultic teaching appeals to an instinctive logic that wants to “answer fire with fire” and gives pride a foothold. The well-known evidence of white racism feels like justification for a similar black response. But we don’t want racism of any sort embedded in the identity of the people we serve and reach. So the Christian apologist needs to clearly provide a biblical anthropology that both names the sin of white racism while challenging incipient and full-blown versions of black racism. Anything less is less than Christian. Anything less will not produce healing from white racism or protection against black prejudice.
In the end, we want to offer an identity that transcends “race” and ethnicity–by which I do not mean we want to deny these aspects of ourselves. Rather, we want to offer more than revisions to the broken historical and racist narratives of origin and identity. We want to offer an altogether new identity or new creation in Jesus Christ. We want to be clear about how Christ makes us one new man in himself (Eph. 2:14) while allowing us to be both concerned about our “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:1-5; 10:1-4) and able to put on and take off ethnic and cultural identity in service to the gospel (1 Cor. 9). In other words, our preaching of conversion must include a radical reorientation away from race and culture to Jesus Christ as the main source of identity and purpose. This radical reorientation is the 400-years-long failure of mainstream Christianity in America but it’s the radical solution of the Bible.
We have the truth that answers the longing for identity and knowledge of our origin. But we must free that truth from its mishandling over the centuries and apply it freshly to the existential needs of people in our communities.