29 August 2018

"Complicit Silence"

by Hohn Cho



Reader Graham and I have been having a fruitful exchange, and during it he said he was "stunned by the online reaction to a piece by Thabiti Anyabwile in The Washington Post in which Pastor Anyabwile argued that it was unwise for evangelicals to offer political support to Donald Trump." The original piece is here, and one reaction to it is here. Although the piece itself is now a couple of months old, I told Graham I'd try to offer some reasons why Anyabwile's article may have provoked the response it did. Besides, the general topic of the President's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court will surely remain highly relevant throughout autumn, especially with debate scheduled to begin in the US Senate imminently.

The title of Anyabwile's article was, "Overturning Roe v. Wade Isn't Worth Compromising with Trump, My Fellow Evangelicals." Even from the very top, questions spring to mind. Wouldn't overturning Roe v. Wade be a very good and important thing to most Bible-believing Christians, worthy of significant prayer and personal sacrifices? And if so, what does Anyabwile mean by "compromise"? Who is the target audience? Is it self-identifying evangelicals, constituting over 25 percent of America according to this poll, or only evangelicals who actually voted for President Trump, or perhaps evangelicals who currently support the President?

Regardless, even with some answers forthcoming in the article, the title alone could be received as thought-provoking and even somewhat controversial, especially coming from a left-of-center secular publication like the Washington Post. I don't doubt this could have been one of Anyabwile's reasons for choosing or consenting to the title, which is certainly within his rights to do, although I hope he would then understand why some reactions to it might be similarly inflamed, especially as readers reviewed the remainder of the piece. Because to me, the article as a whole came across as a finger-wagging scold, from a presumed position of moral superiority, regarding an issue—strategy and tactics relating to political engagement—which seems the very essence of adiaphora, or "disputable matters" as they are sometimes called, of the type described in Romans 14:1ff.

But if the title could be construed as somewhat controversial, Anyabwile's lede was even more so: "We are going to give an account to God for our complicit silence before the immoral policies and actions of the Trump administration. By 'we,' I mean the entire country, but I have a particular concern for pro-life evangelical Christians, because I am one."

Based on reading many dozens of his articles and hundreds of his tweets over the years—some of which I have appreciated, by the way[*]—I believe Anyabwile has an unfortunate habit of using sweeping, broad-brush rhetoric that treats certain groups as monolithic, and lumps them together in ways that are often accusatory, unhelpful, and would certainly be condemned were the groups reversed. For example, he has frequently decried the 80 percent of white self-identifying evangelicals who voted for Trump, but seldom has a mention for the over 90 percent of Black self-identifying evangelicals who generally vote for the Democrats. Are they also complicit via their vote when the Democrats routinely support certain issues that are antithetical to the Bible?[**]


"Complicit Silence"

But let's dig into the lede itself, specifically the claim of "complicit silence." This is a common accusation, but in all seriousness, are we biblically mandated to speak up in specific situations, or perhaps even required to become social activists? In asking the question, please note that I am not claiming that certain appropriately manifested forms of speech and activism are somehow prohibited in our Christian stewardship and liberty, of course. But the argument of Anyabwile (and others) appears to be quite different, specifically that Christians have some kind of overt obligation to speak out against certain "immoral policies and actions" which are arguably perceived.

Candidly, I've seen little Scriptural support for this argument. Anyabwile himself has previously cited Proverbs 31:8-9 for the proposition that "refusing to speak up for the voiceless is a sin." But that passage is in the wisdom literature of the Proverbs, which lends itself more to what courses of action in life are wise or foolish. Moreover, this particular passage is directed to a future King with the power and authority to make decrees and decisions in theocratic Israel.

But despite those distinctions, let's accept for the sake of argument that Christians today are commanded to speak up for the voiceless and the destitute. How are we then to balance that command with other commands, such as the ones in 1 Thessalonians 4:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:12, 1 Timothy 2:1-2, Proverbs 24:21, and Titus 3:1-2, among others? These verses speak about living a quiet and peaceful and dignified life, minding your own business, fearing the King and not associating with those given to change, and praying for and submitting to the governing authorities rather than getting into quarrels or even worse, maligning or speaking evil of the rulers and authorities, a command that we have often seen Christians break with great regularly as it pertains to the United States Presidency! Ultimately, how are we to navigate the course of wisdom in determining this balance, when all over the Proverbs, silence is commended as wise, as in Proverbs 10:19, 11:12, 13:3, 17:27-28, 21:23, 26:17, 29:11?

Even when we consider the example of Jesus, He healed everywhere he went, but He did not abolish poverty, far from it . . . He acknowledged that the poor would always be with us in Mark 14:7, and emphasized the importance of the good news for the poor in Luke 7:22, prioritizing the spiritual over the temporal. He never sought to overthrow the oppressive Romans, He did not compensate the pig owners for their dead livestock in Matthew 8:32-34, and He declined the request of the crowd to always give them bread in John 6:34. Even when unjustly persecuted, He remained silent and did not retaliate, as we see in 1 Peter 2:21-23.

At the end of the day, especially when we consider the context of desperate poverty and routine oppression of the Ancient Near East, whatever obligation that we might have to speak up for the voiceless and destitute is greatest in our own personal lives, with the people who cross our paths, in our immediate proximity. As we sweep outward from there, injustice and poverty multiply exponentially. Are we somehow obligated to personally and publicly condemn every social ill and inequity, even those which we know next to nothing about, and thus have a high chance of rushing to judgment with an incorrect determination? I believe the answer is not only no, but plainly and obviously no.

I simply do not see how a Christian who is committed to charity and good works and speaking up about injustice that he or she might encounter daily, who is perhaps especially mindful about the wisdom of silence and not maligning or quarrelling in political or societal matters, is somehow guilty of "complicit silence" as Anyabwile accuses. There is no command to speak publicly about perceived injustice, and there are no plain Scriptural directions as to the time, place, or manner of such speech. And to the extent that one opts to speak out publicly, in one's own stewardship and liberty, care should be taken to avoid the real danger of "virtue signaling" like the publicly praying Pharisees in Matthew 6:5.

Finally, here are a few questions to consider for the person who does choose to speak up in the public sphere for the voiceless and destitute. Who is more "voiceless" than an unborn infant? (And in contrast, is any adult in a free country truly voiceless in today's era of social media?) And who is more destitute than the poor of the world who are genuinely starving to death? (And in contrast, is any able-bodied person living in a wealthy nation like the USA truly destitute?) Meanwhile, in other cases where the extent of voicelessness and destitution are at least matters subject to debate, as people who stand for truth, points of factual dispute are important for Christians to investigate and acknowledge, as Gagnon's response to Anyabwile sets forth in considerable detail.

Two Other Objections

Anyabwile also said, "In sheer numbers, more lives are ended by legalized abortion. Christians are correct to focus energy and concern on ending the practice. But in quieter, sometimes less observable ways, the carnage mounts in racial injustice and discrimination." I'm glad he recognizes as proper the desire among many Christians to end abortion, but the rather understated way in which he does it reminds me of the old saying, "But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" As I said in point E of an earlier article, in the US, abortion kills nearly one million unborn babies a year, a disproportionately high percentage of which are the children of ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, more people (189 in 2016) die in the US each year of constipation, than unarmed people of all ethnicities are killed by US police, despite much ink having been spilled by Anyabwile on that specific topic.

Finally, Anyabwile said, "Some Christians appear to have made a Faustian bargain for the mere price of a Supreme Court nominee. The Devil gets the better end of that deal!" Aside from the clear insult directed toward evangelical Christians who voted for President Trump—and indeed, it's hard to think of a worse accusation for a Christian than to be cozy with the Devil—the entire line of thought appears to relitigate the 2016 US election, a painful and acrimonious time for many Christians, to be sure.

Rather than recap this myself, I'm going to link to three articles that I believe are among the best I've read on this topic. First, we have Kevin DeYoung from 2012, on the topic of a functional (a.k.a. pragmatic, consequentialist, utilitarian) view of voting. Second, we have Dan Doriani from 2016, on an endorsement (a.k.a. principled, deontological, purist) view of voting. And third, we have Kevin DeYoung again, from 2016, on some thoughts from a functional voter who was practically confronted with the choices before us in that Presidential election.

In early-mid 2016, I personally maintained the endorsement view of voting, to an extent that, in retrospect, was overly dogmatic. Over the course of time, persuasive arguments from my friends Lance (a missionary in Europe who is routinely faced with multiple horrible electoral choices), Todd (a local pastor who I greatly respect, who took the other side of the debate), and Phil (a pastor in Omaha who summarized it all in a way that just "clicked" with me[***]) moved me more to the center, although I still find the endorsement view of voting to be best for me personally. Ultimately, with all California polls showing a blowout for Clinton in the state, Christians here perhaps had an easier decision to make than others who happened to live in battleground states.

What the entire raging debate convinced me of, however, is that as I alluded to earlier, trying to bind a person's conscience on matters of adiaphora like these is a clear violation of 1 Corinthians 10:29-30, and against God's explicit moral command in Deuteronomy 12:32, and could even be pharisaical pursuant to Matthew 23:4. And so acting with contempt or judgment toward a brother or sister on these "disputable matters" is clearly sinful as Romans 14:3 describes. This remains true whether a man confidently declares that supporting Trump is the moral choice, as Wayne Grudem did, or the immoral choice, as Anyabwile did.

The reality is that the moral and ethical calculus a person utilizes on a choice like this is between that person and the Lord, as Romans 14:10-13 clearly states. And perhaps we would all do better if we paid closer heed to Romans 14:19-23 and worked toward peace and edification, not causing each other to stumble, and keeping certain decisions between ourselves and God. Regardless, branding brothers and sisters who might have voted for Trump and celebrated his appointment of Kavanaugh and the prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade as making deals with the Devil, and accusing them of helping to commit a crime or do wrong (which is the very definition of complicit), falls far short of both civil discourse and the standards for Christian liberty to which Scripture clearly calls us.

Conclusion

So, Graham, I hope that will help explain why quite a few Christians took exception to Anyabwile's article. And I believe it would have been just as inflammatory had the lede instead said, "We are going to give an account to God for our complicit silence before the immoral policies and actions of the [Obama] administration. By "we," I mean the entire country, but I have a particular concern for [Black] evangelical Christians, because I am one." Perhaps Anyabwile genuinely believes that; he seems to say that very thing in this tweet.

If that's the case, I pray that he will have the candor and integrity of speech to say so (or similar things) from time-to-time, and in his higher-profile writings and speeches, perhaps, rather than merely in the depths of Twitter mentions, or what might be even worse based on his own apparent convictions, remaining in "complicit silence" about it. After all, to avoid the sin of partiality from James 2:9, we need to be especially mindful of displaying favoritism toward groups of which we ourselves are members. This is one reason that I often call out the sin of partiality that exists among many Asians, particular from older generations, when they object to interethnic marriages.

You see, I am adamantly and ardently opposed to actual sin displayed within the Body of Christ. The problem is, so much of what many "social justice" advocates are calling or implying is sin, is really just attempted heart—and motive—reading in violation of 1 Corinthians 4:5, or the "complicit silence" variety along with other perceived sins of omission, which is for the Holy Spirit to convict.

Speaking for myself, I'm far more grieved over my own many sins of commission, as well as those sins of omission which are commanded at all times, such as rejoicing, praying, giving thanks, and preaching the Word and the Gospel in season and out of season.

I've already outlined why I don't believe there's an overt obligation to speak out against specific immoral policies and actions, but if there's one that burdens me more than any other, it's the immoral policy that targets the most vulnerable, the most voiceless, and the most period, and that is abortion. And I will understand if some Christians might want to disagree with me on the importance of that particular fight . . . but what I pray you will never see me do is to seek publication, to the broadest possible secular audience, of a hit piece accusing my beloved brothers and sisters of making immoral deals with the Devil, merely for failing to sufficiently prioritize my own most cherished adiaphora.

Hohn's signature


Notes

[*] My impression is that the convention these days is to praise up front the character and contributions of a fellow Christian whose public works one is critiquing. Although I appreciate the graciousness that I trust practitioners of this intend, it has become such a convention that I personally feel it can sometimes come across as a distraction and/or insincere. So I'll simply say that I loved Anyabwile's 2008 and 2010 messages at T4G, I've appreciated some of his writings, in particular I think he had the better argument in his back-and-forth with Doug Wilson on the topic of the South and slavery. But I strongly disagree with many of his comments and emphases more recently. I've never met the man, but I'd be glad to greet him as a brother should I ever come across his path. I do think that some have gone over-the-top in their criticisms of him, and I personally believe that taking shots at his chosen legal name is an exercise in pettifogging which reflects poorly on Christian disagreement.

[**] Phil pointed this out in point #2 of his article responding to Anyabwile. Perhaps he never saw or read it, but since I mention it, I think it's important to reiterate that Phil clearly stated that he was not referring to Anyabwile as a "racist schlub" prior to the posting of his critique, which was predicated on that very (erroneous) assumption. Even though he was explicitly informed of this both on Twitter and in Phil's response, Anyabwile's critique of Phil remains posted and unedited to this day. Disagreeing strongly with an article published in the secular media, and its implications, is not uncharitable . . . but allowing a false critique to stand, even after being corrected about it? That certainly does seem uncharitable.

[***] The quote was, "If both candidates are unacceptable, then so be it. I don't have to "win" to be faithful to my convictions. And you don't have to agree with me to be faithful to your convictions, thankfully. Politics involves complicated ethical decision making and it is understandable that good people will differ . . . I respect [others] who differ with me. What I do not respect is those who demonize the opposition and who paint Trump as far better than he really is. From the comments of some of my friends you would think that Trump was Saint George the dragon slayer. I know you don't take that position, but I say this just to explain myself."

4 comments:

trogdor said...

This was excellent. Very clearly laid out. Conscience-binding over adiaphora is such an easy trap to fall into. The difference between declaring which deeply flawed candidate Christians must vote for and banning dancing in your town is just in the details.

Luke 13:1-4 makes for an interesting read in light of the current debate and charges of complicit silence.

Jim Pemberton said...

I've thought this, but not focused on it as a primary talking point, more often preferring to argue that forgiveness is paramount against sin real or perceived. What you have here is an excellent point, though, and well worth publishing. It draws a distinction between real and perceived sins, which are often not sins at all. It's like a Christian father getting bent out of shape that his son isn't keep his room picked up when what his son has littering his room is pornographic material and illegal drugs. There is a need to properly prioritize things.

Ministry Addict said...

On a completely different topic, but similar reasoning concerning the problem of virtue signaling: https://swimthedeepend.wordpress.com/2016/08/23/post-flood-church-services/

Hohn C said...

trogdor, great point as usual, love the passage!

Jim, thanks for reading and for your encouragement, the prioritization part is so important, I believe.

Ministry, thanks for the link, I will check it out!