Urban Apologetics, 2: Origin and Identity

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 . 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 (). 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 ‘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 () 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 () while allowing us to be both concerned about our “kinsmen according to the flesh” () and able to put on and take off ethnic and cultural identity in service to the gospel (). 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.

1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

These are the generations
of the heavens and the earth when they were created,
in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14 And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” 19 Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (ESV)

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (ESV)

3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

17 And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (ESV)

10:1 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood.

The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. The sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah. The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations.

The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. The sons of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan. Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” 10 The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and 12 Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city. 13 Egypt fathered Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, 14 Pathrusim, Casluhim (from whom the Philistines came), and Caphtorim.

15 Canaan fathered Sidon his firstborn and Heth, 16 and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, 17 the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, 18 the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the clans of the Canaanites dispersed. 19 And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon in the direction of Gerar as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. 20 These are the sons of Ham, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations.

21 To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born. 22 The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. 23 The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash. 24 Arpachshad fathered Shelah; and Shelah fathered Eber. 25 To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan. 26 Joktan fathered Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, 27 Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, 28 Obal, Abimael, Sheba, 29 Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab; all these were the sons of Joktan. 30 The territory in which they lived extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east. 31 These are the sons of Shem, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations.

32 These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood. (ESV)

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility (ESV)

9:1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

Romans 10:1-4

10:1 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (ESV)

9:1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?

Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 11 If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12 If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. 13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.

15 But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. 16 For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. 18 What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (ESV)

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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