Opposing abortion across racial lines

Rick Hogaboam pointed out a series of posts by Thabiti Anyabwile that reacted Brian Kemper’s defense of comparing abortion to slavery and the Holocaust.  Kemper believes that we must make the comparison because of the horrible reality of abortion that parallels slavery and the Holocaust and the denial of personhood that has taken place in defense of all three.  He believes that people take offense to these comparisons because “we have elevated what they consider to be a blob of tissue to personhood status.”

Rick posted a good quote from the first three posts.  Anyabwile’s consideration of this issue spanned four posts:

I wanted to focus on his first post, and you can read his others for his opinions on those topics.  Here are Anyabwile’s central objections to Kemper’s article:

Okay, the argument is basically fine.  But read Mr. Kemper’s opinion piece and tell me how many times he seems to deeply affirm the human pain and suffering African Americans endured in slavery.  He seems quite aware of the Jewish holocaust, referring to monuments and observances dedicated to never forgetting that human tragedy.  But how many such monuments and museums exist in honor of African people treated as chattel?  How many institutions work to ensure there is a deep, abiding recollection of those centuries of torture?  Not many.  Kemper certainly doesn’t mention many.  Now, here’s why some of us say “how dare you?”  Without demonstrating any genuine empathy, any continuing affirmation of the humanity of African people, the comparison simply seems to lack authenticity, familiarity, and empathy.  It merely sounds expedient.  Those who use the argument don’t really sound like they care about black people as such, but only about exploiting the pain of black people as a political expedient….

There’s one more element to this I’d like to highlight.  When I say, “How dare you make this comparison?” I’m also identifying someone who hasn’t shown up to support a lot of other causes I care about.  Not only have you not shown up to support, you really haven’t shown up to dialogue, understand, or persuade.  Most of your political and social positions lie across the river from my own, and though you own a boat you’ve never tried to row across.  Now you show up saying how much I ought to support your cause.  And you tell me how much this cause ought to mean to me, how I ought to care about the death of black babies.  You tell me this as if I don’t already care about the death of black babies.  But when I talk about the death of black babies due to crime, or poverty, or drugs, or slow death from a sub-par education, you tell me that’s my problem.  When you do that, you seem to care more about your political issue than you care about my black life.  You need to know that’s how we see you.  Your comparison reminds us of all of this.

So, yes, how dare you compare abortion to slavery?!  I love you.  But I’m afraid you don’t love me… at least not long enough to hear how your comparison affects me.  I’m in the trenches with you–at least I want to be–but the shrapnel from your rapid fire makes it hard for me to fire with you.

I think that these two objections both deserve attention.  From everything that I know, Anyabwile is first and foremost an evangelical Christian who doesn’t have a vested interest in racial politics and doesn’t subscribe to Afrocentric theology.  He wants to proclaim the gospel to all people, and knows that God is creating a new, multiracial people in Christ.  If he is right about how many black Christians will react to Kemper’s defense, then what he is pointing to is a fundamental mistrust and disconnect between white and black Christians.  I think that’s largely the case in American Christianity today; white and black Christians have such separate institutions and cultures that we often don’t register on each other’s radar.  Anyabwile’s thoughts here highlight the perils of white tonedeafness, but I think that both circles share some of the blame.

I also want to note something in Anyabwile’s article that I’m not so sure about.  We may not have monuments and museums about slavery, but I think that our educational system and the public presentation of history do pretty well with making people aware of slavery and the civil rights movement.  I think that it’s necessary sometimes to point out that America didn’t invent slavery, but that societies across history have had different forms of it.  This is not, of course, meant as a justification, but context is important.  We’ve got a long way to go in having a really just society or even agreeing exactly what that would look like here.  But to me this criticism, while it is surely sincere, does not describe the cultural reality.

Perhaps the bigger problem is the perceptions that white and black Christians have about the other group’s racial attitudes.  Anyabwile thinks that white people aren’t meeting black people in their pain that’s rooted in American history and seems afraid that they don’t care unless they specifically connect with black history.  He even says, “If you have an African American audience with whom you’re using this analogy and you have 30 minutes to win their support, spend the first 20 minutes showing your familiarity with the brutality of suffering and affirming the humanity of the sufferer before you employ the suffering and the sufferer in your cause.  Otherwise, I’m guessing most of your audience is saying, ‘How dare you?!”

On the other hand, I think that white Christians can sometimes be afraid that black people simply want to make them feel guilty about the past.  I can give an example of this.  When I was preparing to go on the Justice Journey in the summer of 2009, a friend from church said that he couldn’t do it, because he wasn’t going to told for a whole week that he should feel guilty.  It seems, although I only have anecdotal evidence at this point, that some white people are afraid that they’re going to be subjected to black indignation and even black rage.  From my experience on the journey, my visits to a few different black churches, and my current involvement in my mostly black church in Kankakee, that doesn’t happen.  I have always felt welcomed and have begun to form good friendships rooted in Christ across racial lines.  Notice, too, that Anyabwile’s comments are not based in rage or the desire to make people feel guilty, but rather in wanting white people to cross a gulf created by the perception that white people don’t care about historical black suffering.

I think that the two perceptions also feed each other.  White people afraid of black indignation can appear uncaring about history, and black people who feel that whites don’t care can appear resentful.

I’m afraid that I’m getting too speculative, so I want to wrap up by saying that we probably need to have some idea of what healing is going to look like.   I hope that at some point black and white Christians will be able to come together without these suspicions.  Right now, it seems like we might need to reverse the attitudes if we want to move toward biblical reconciliation.  Reconciliation will be closer at hand when more white Christians don’t mind exposing themselves to indignation because it’s a part of the cost of healing, and more black Christians explicitly say “slavery and Jim Crow were horrible, but they are in the past — we’re trying to move on in forgiveness.”  Reconciliation would help us to better work together on tackling not only ongoing racism and discrimination (yes, they’re still around), but also abortion.


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