Wednesday, March 05, 2008

This Is Not a Retraction

Since posting some reflections on the Barack Obama campaign (here) a few people have contacted me with concern that whatever influence this blog has has been put in service to a pro-choice, pro-abortion candidate. These have been good brothers; men I hold dear who've taken the risk of faith to speak to what they see as an inadequacy in my post and perhaps my thinking. Others have left shown similar kindness in the comment section of the blog. I'm thankful for every one of the comments, emails, and the 1 or 2 phone calls.

Since there was never an endorsement, I suppose this is not a "retraction." But throughout the discussion there has been the feeling that Barack Obama is to Thabiti Anyabwile... as Louis Farrakhan is to Barack Obama. I've felt that some have assumed a kind of guilt by association, and the need for some distancing. That's been curious to me in some ways. I don't know that I understand it, but at the least I should try to respond with some additional clarification.

So, let me try to say some things fairly clearly so there's no misinterpretation and try to offer one suggestion to my white evangelical brothers.

1. As stated in the original post, the post was not an endorsement of Barack Obama or any particular policy position Obama takes or has taken. Some have essentially said that because I reflect positively or wishfully on what the candidacy means for things like opportunities for all and ethnic self-understanding, I must be endorsing Obama. That amounts to a complete disregard of what I actually write in the post, and, to that extent, is not good dialogue. To be clear, I am not endorsing Barack Obama.

2. I am pro-life. Not because it's the litmus test for the "evangelical" or "conservative" agenda, but because it's the agenda of the Sovereign God who created us, gives life and eternal life, conquers death, and seeks a godly offspring to fill the earth with His glory (Mal. 2:15). To my knowledge, I've never voted pro-choice and I don't have any plans to. Whatever is written in the post is in no way to be mistaken for softness or indifference to Sen. Obama's position on the matter.

A Suggestion:
Well, those are my two clarifications. Now a suggestion that I hope helps dialogue between black and white brothers on the issue of abortion.

A lot of the comments I received, and quite a few of the comments I see on other blogs, tries to approach abortion with African Americans by likening it to slavery. The argument goes: (1) slavery was a heinous sin perpetrated against African Americans; (2) abortion is a heinous sin that claims the lives of black babies; therefore, (3) African Americans should oppose abortion the way they would oppose slavery.

On behalf of some black folks (certainly not all), let me say that that arguments hits many of our ears as a bit heavy handed and self-serving.

It rings heavy handed because it says (or, many of us hear it as): "You black folks should care about this. You need to side up with us. We know what's in your best interest." Now, I know many of the folks who make this argument. And I'm quite confident that's not their heart or intent. But, brothers, I fear you're losing many potential allies because that's the way it sounds.

And it rings self-serving because many African Americans will instinctively respond with: (a) yeah, and where were white evangelicals on the slavery question. Please don't lecture me about the horrors of slavery as though you know something about its effects. And, (b) isn't abortion white folks' problem.

Now, certainly 'b' is false. Abortion is all of our problems. But, please know your audience. Many African-Americans view this as largely a white middle-class issue. So, calling upon slavery in an effort to enlist African Americans seems really self-serving. And evoking slavery while assuming some moral authority just flat sounds condescending and hypocritical to many black ears who assume that white brothers showed no interest in the real lives of slaves when those chips were down a couple hundred years ago. And when coming from many brothers who would act as if--maybe even argue that--racism and discrimination were no problem today, the argument is almost unbearable.

This email is friendly fire, brothers. Let's pray, work, vote, lobby and act to end abortion today. Let's do it in a big tent with everyone who will labor with us. But just a suggestion: please leave the argument from slavery at home, know your audience, and let's work on some better strategies for winning those to our cause who may be willing to enroll.

Grace and peace.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying, Thabiti.

To your last point, that abortion is perceived as a white middle-class issue, anyone who is interested in the long-term disproportionate effects of abortion on the black community should review It's disturbing. Let us hope that this information spreads far and wide.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the post. It offers good perspective to white folks like me who try to make such arguments.

But... I do think there is more to this comparision between the dehumanization of blacks in slavery and the dehumanization of human fetuses. I'll offer a slightly different argument than the one you outlined above and I'd love to hear your thoughts:

Here's the pro-life argument:

a) All fetuses are human beings (their DNA, origin, and progress prove this that they are human, not monkeys, dogs, etc.)
b) All human beings are persons
c) Therefore, all persons deserve equal respect, value and protection.

It seems that the anti-life folks deny premise b) - saying that personhood of human beings is defined by what qualities one possesses, rather than by what a being's identity is. They say a fetus is not a person b/c he/she cannot talk to others, protect itself, sustain itself, love, etc.

It is this denial that all human beings are persons that seems so similar to the past dreadful rationalizations of slavery. (For instance, the constitution originally called blacks 3/5 of a person - at least when voting) And yet, slavery and Jim Crow laws were not the only instance of such injustices - we can also think of how such logic is (and can be) applied to the mentally disabled, elderly, people of other nations, etc.
Of course as Christians we want to affirm that all humans are created in the image of God, and this isn't dependent upon having certain abilities, but is intrinsic to being HUMAN.

So what do you think about this argument?

a) Whatever logic lead to a justification of slavery is clearly wrong.
b) The same logic which justified slavery is now used to justify killing babies.
c) Therefore, the logic used to justify killing babies is clearly wrong.

Do you find that such an argument still causes the same problems you mention above? To me, it seems that this argument is not (at least intended) to be a guilt-trip of African Americans to care about the pro-life movement, but is showing that anti-life folks make an argument that uses the same logic used to justify what everyone now recognizes to be evil: slavery foremost, but also euthenasia, killing of innocent civilians in "evil nations", etc. Would you recommend using a different injustice other than slavery as an example in such an argument?

Thanks again for your thoughts brother. Sarah and I look forward to seeing you when you come to Louisville! (If you're available to come over for dinner, we'd love to have you over!)

- ben woodward

Jeff Fuller said...

Here's an interesting quote from Ronald Reagan )penned in 1983) on this topic:

"Despite the formidable obstacles before us, we must not lose heart. This is not the first time our country has been divided by a Supreme Court decision that denied the value of certain human lives. The Dred Scott decision of 1857 was not overturned in a day, or a year, or even a decade. At first, only a minority of Americans recognized and deplored the moral crisis brought about by denying the full humanity of our black brothers and sisters; but that minority persisted in their vision and finally prevailed. They did it by appealing to the hearts and minds of their countrymen, to the truth of human dignity under God. From their example, we know that respect for the sacred value of human life is too deeply engrained in the hearts of our people to remain forever suppressed. But the great majority of the American people have not yet made their voices heard, and we cannot expect them to — any more than the public voice arose against slavery — until the issue is clearly framed and presented."

wwdunc said...

Well said. Thank you!

FellowElder said...

Dearest Ben and Sarah!

So good to hear from you, brother. For those of you who do not know Ben, he is easily one of the humblest, sweetest men you'll ever meet. And his wife bests him by two!

Brother, I do hope we can connect in Louisville; it's been too long.

Thank you for your comments. I agree with everything you write. I don't the logic of the argument is in error, either in its original form or in the revised form you present. I think the problem is the audience people are using the argument with. Perhaps this particular argument (actually, the example of slavery) should be used with non-African-Americans and the same form of argument with a different example (i.e., people with severe disabilities) should be used with African Americans.

If a white brother uses the argument with slavery as the example with the average African American, who otherwise might be right there with them on the issue and argument, I think he's going to be raising racial barriers, mistrust, and perceptions that actually defeat his cause. Many in that audience will likely think, "But you don't have the moral credibility to talk to me about slavery." And there's the rub. You're not actually talking about slavery; you're talking about abortion. But injected slavery with this audience obligates the white speaker to demonstrate a ranger of sensibilities and capacities on questions of race... that honestly, not many in my experience can offer at a level satisfactory to most African Americans.

So, if what you really want to talk about is abortion, then don't with this audience use the slavery parallel. Use the logic; just find another example. Otherwise, many African Americans will sense a kind of hypocrisy about the conversation ("you act as though you care about slavery and black life, but all you really care about is this 'white' issue of abortion"). That's a lot to overcome, and probably is an inefficient way to win allies who might otherwise gladly enroll in the cause.

Grace and peace,

FellowElder said...

Great quote.

Honesly, it reads like something Obama would say in his speeches. :-)

As long as we're on the "know your audience" theme: most African Americans think of Reagan as the anti-Christ. There's great dislike for the man because he's seen as enacting a host of policies that hurt black communities deeply. Probably not someone you want to quote to a "typical" African American.

Anonymous said...

I want to ask a question, with the exception of the eight years of the Clinton presidency and the four of the Carter administration, we have had Republican pro-life presidents. My question is this: has abortion ceased under these presidents? Is the election of a pro-life president the litmus test for evangelicalism? If John McCain is elected president it will not alter the landscape as it relates to abortion. The argument is that he will appoint pro-life justices and they will overturn abortion is a stretch. No one knows what a justice will do once in that position. In 1992 there was before the Supreme Court a case brought by a pro-life Democrat Gov. Casey against his own state [Casey vs Pennsylvania]this would have crippled abortion in this country Sandra Day O'connor (a Reagan appointee) voted not to limit women's rights as it concerns their bodies. My point is this Clinton, Obama, McCain will not put a dent in abortion until the nation is ready to change it and Almighty God decrees it so. That will only happen one 'heart' at a time.

ajcarter said...

Brother, as usual your words are full of wisdom and challenge. Your clarification, while not necessary (as far as I am concerned) does show a willingness to submit to brothers who have myopic views concerning broader racial issues. I suppose they need loving too. So, I commend your humility, seeing that we are called to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21 :-).

Also, to anyone who contacted Thabiti and decided that they could determine the nature of the influence of this blog, I say, "shame on you." TA's opinion on Barack Obama was just that, opinion. The free exchange of ideas has never hurt the cause of Christ and never will. And to believe that TA must speak in lock step with some pre-judged evangelical culture in order to have influence upon the Body of Christ is not only shameful, but it continues to illustrate to divine that white evangelicals still can't seem to understand, or better yet, don't want to.

Thabiti is one of the most humble and gifted brothers I have ever met. And while he would not say this in his behalf, let me say it. If Thabiti did decide to throw his support behind Barack Obama, while I would not agree with him, it would not stop me from reading his blog and listening to his voice. And for anyone who would make that leap after all the other worthwhile and edifying material TA has produced, I would simply say again, "shame on you." And I would hope that you would be as diligent and consistent in your assessments of others with whom you find one or two disagreements.

Love ya bro.

Stephen Ley said...

Thanks for continuing to respond and interact on this issue. I'm learning a lot. This kind of dialogue will be essential if Obama does in fact become the Democratic nominee. Without wisdom and humility, we could see further racial/cultural/age polarization within the church. Keeping in mind that it's not just among African-Americans that Obama is widely seen as a hero and iconic figure, but also among 20 and 30-something whites. I know, because some of them are my friends and brothers in Christ. I will need to make the case against Obama (if that case needs to be made) without calling into question their status in Christ.

Many of Obama's positions are troubling to me (esp. relating to pro-life and sanctity of marriage issues) but I realize that all of us have our own moral blind spots. I pray that God reveals mine to me and will reveal Obama's to him.

ajcarter said...

By the way, the word should be "divide" and not "divine." Oh, the difference one letter makes :-).

Todd Pruitt said...


Thanks for the clarification. When I first read the post in question I was concerned that it might be perceived as an endorsement. But a careful reading proved that it was not and your positive words were limited to specific aspects of what the Obama candidacy might mean to those who never thought a black man could gather such wide acceptance. That's legit.

Also, I always thought the abortion / slavery comparison was a bit off. It has always seemed to me that black people should be against abortion for the very same reasons that white people, indeed everyone ought to be against abortion.

Anonymous said...

This is a remarkbable set of dialogues.

And such as is needed to help underscore the complexity of issues resident among the evangelical community, with regards to the differing views, and opinions as to what is important, and how to forge alliances to accomplish the greater goal of God's glory, in the Church, among whites and blacks.

I shared with my brother over at black tulip a few weeks ago, the danger of getting too giddy about Obama, because of this very thing.

Brothers, I truly believe that for all that Obama may repesent concerning the advancement of colored people to the throne:

The reality that is evident concerning the unfinished business of slavery: the deep, psychological, emotional, and underdeveloped discovery of it's yet prejudicial influences among the vast majority in our nations, will only serve to create a storm, which, if it should occur may or may not be a blessing, should our people, on both sides, not be willing to look at the hard, cold, soul searching truth,in ourselves.

We have yet to scratch the surface, of the truth , in the heart.
What has guided us for decades, are preexistant arguments, carved out by other generals, whose view of the landscape, I'm afraid had other objectives in view, than winning the war , for Jesus.

We often take up their arguments, only to achieve the same dismal results:division, by design.

This blog affirms my concerns.

And Yes with A,Carter, T,A is a gift, to the body!


David said...

I genuinely appreciate both of the main articles on this subject (haven't read all of the comments), and the basic point of them. Helpful to me in many ways.

While I appreciate the clarification of the second article on the question of endorsement, the question was raised, it seems to me, by the use of one word in the first article, "necessarily." By writing "this is not necessarily an endorsement" you actually left a wide open door.

Also, it seems to me that the main point of your first and second articles actually argues against itself. Specifically, to argue that Obama's campaign should be looked at in a positive light only stands if race is the basis on which it is being examined. I look at Obama and see a liberal, not a black man. Your articles seem to reflect a perspective that sees Obama as a black man first and mainly.

To state it another way, if Obama were not black, I don't think you'd be writing anything positive about him. So, if we are aiming to make race a non-issue, why is it that his race becomes the most compelling part of his candidacy?

I will grant that I stand in awkward place to make this observation (a white male), but it seems to me that we have to avoid the ditches on both sides of the road--making Obama's race either a disqualification or a qualification for the presidency. He needs to be evaluated just like every other candidate, on the content of his character and positions.

FellowElder said...

Hi David,
You're absolutely correct. If you read the two posts I've done on Obama, they do read contradictory in many ways. The first post is more critical, followed by another that is a collection of ramblings really. The last post does indeed consider Obama as an African American (because he is) and what that means for current opportunities and relations between ethnicities in the country. However, I'm not certain that I'm thinking of Obama as a black man first and mainly. In the exchange with those leaving comments, I make it clear that we could just as easily argue he is white because of his mother as we could argue he is black because of his father. It's that ethnic ambiguity that is intriguing. And it's the fact that as a "black" candidate he has not run a "black campaign" that helps people black and white and brown escape the old "race" paradigms. At least it gives room for such an escape. My point very simply is that we've never had a candidate offer that or create enough space in the consciousness of the electorate that allows for this.

In that sense, I don't think it's inconsequential that Obama is an African American or that that fact needs to be ignored. I don't think it should be determinative, and I don't think "race" exits in the way most folks use the word, but I don't think that his ethnicity is without import in this historical situation. If his ethnicity needs to be mentioned, it needs to be mentioned precisely because of the biased history of the country. In other words, when it comes to relations across ethnicities, we're not starting from some neutral starting point; we're in the negative. And where some positive indication of advancement is possible we should acknowledge it... especially where the potential positive overturns the very real negative history as this election could do (at least on a symbolic level).

The post is not "necessarily" an endorsement because it doesn't follow logically (necessarily) that because we can speculate about some positive benefits from his candidacy that we would recommend him. Reflecting on the positives is neither a positive endorsement or a negative one. The door is meant to be left open for readers/voters to decide what they wish to do. That's all the word "necessarily" is meant to communicate.

thanks for the helpful comments,

Anonymous said...

Thanks for opening up the communication lines on this topic. It looks like some discussion is beginning to take place, and for this I am thankful.


Darryl said...


We have never met but I trust the Lord will make that happen shortly. I am an MDiv student at RTS and I've read your "Decline" and read your blog with interest and admiration. And I echo positive sentiment for Anthony Carter.

However, I am an Obama support and find it curious that so many have come forward to challenge what may appear to be an Obama endorsement. Would these individuals embrace a McCain an endorsement or a Romni endorsement?

However well or illstated, the Obama campaign attempts to articulate a new set of principles along two primary axes: a) Government accountablility to the electorate, and b) a 21st century foreign policy that is loosened from the rhetorical baggage of the cold-war is an attempt to confront the reality of a burgeoning economic force from China and India which threatens to diminish American influence and indeed challenges the viability of the American democratic model as the basis for economic growth. This is a very important election and I think we have to move beyond the easy labels which are applied noncritically to these candidates.

I think you have done just that, but its unfortunate that so many choke on Obama's support for abortion rights and don't choke on Bush's war, indeed the legacy of this inconsistency can be found as far back as Reagan's inexcusable support for South Africa's apartheid regime. My point? It is legitimate for Christians to support Obama and no one should lose spiritual credibility because they see these political issues much more broadly.

One of my heros, John Piper, made a comment on his web site years ago explaining why he was a one issue voter, i.e. abortion is preeminent. I disagree. I oppose abortion and think we need progressive and insightful strategies to make this a completely unnecessary recourse for pregnant women and girls. But, there is a lot of other considerations in this election and its fair for Christians to discuss these items openly without being even lovingly derided by others.

As for my support of Obama, I am quite capable of defending why I think that it is in the best interest of the future of our country to support his candidacy above any of the others that remain.

Obama's Christian confession is no doubt very immature given his church membership, but we also know there is a trend in our community to listen to lunancy in the pulpit. However, I believe Obama is open to sound gospel teaching and when he encounters someone to provide true, biblical mentorship, I believe he'll embrace it wholeheartedly. If getting that teaching in our churches was so easy to locate, than both your book and Anthony's would have been wholly unnecessary.

Anyhow, I appreciate your labors, pray for your work and delight how forcefully the Lord is using you.

draslanson said...

I think your point is a good one. I am a pretty gullible white guy. I was mentored by John Perkins in college. I believe in the three Rs. But I have tried and failed in so many ways regarding race relations because I didn't understand either my white or black audience at the time. I think the slavery - abortion union is an attractive and powerful one. I think it is very innocently made. There are very many white folk (ok maybe just some) who weep equally for both and it is easy to unite them in our thoughts, prayers, and spoken words.

I wonder how this sermon struck you in light of your above arguments. Was this an unwise approach by Piper? Or is Piper one of the few who does "demonstrate a range of sensibilities and capacities on questions of race."

Thanks Thabiti,
matt jones

Daniel said...


I think you have misunderstood the argument that sees an identity between slavery and abortion.

The argument is that abortion sees a fetus as some kind of life, just not the kind of life (human beings) that possess all the rights of a human being.
The argument that many used to prop up slavery was that slaves were some kind of life, just not the kind that possess the rights of a human being.

Slavery was the foremost moral issue of the 19th century (and before). The holocaust was the foremost moral issue of the 30's. Abortion is the foremost moral issue of our day. All three were supported with the same line of reasoning. Christians MUST learn from history that we can't be slow to respond. Of all people, African American Christians should be leading the charge.