It’s hard to talk about race, so we’re looking to Isaac Adams for help. Isaac Adams is the lead pastor of Ironside City Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he recently wrote a book on race for Christians. Tim speaks with Isaac about the origins of the book, the significance of narrative, the wisdom in listening and the importance of mutual engagement, and why God’s Word should be the light that illuminates our conversations on race and racism. This is part 1 of a 2-part conversation on race with Isaac Adams.
Isaac Adams: The fruit of the Spirit is not racially based. All of God's people are to be what? Loving patient kind, gentle, faithful, and so, I don't want to frame these things only in terms of power dynamics or cultural embeddedness, because this Bible transcends culture. It transcends time, and so in the first century, God wanted His people to be kind and gentle. In the 21st century, He wants His people to be kind and gentle.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a Professor of Communication here at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project, which seeks to reintroduce civility, compassion, understanding, perspective taking into some of our most public, and to be honest, some of our most divisive conversations.
I'm also the cohost of the Winsome Conviction Podcast, which you're listening to. My partner in crime, Dr. Rick Langer, is not part of this because today is a special double issue of the Winsome Conviction Podcast. Not only will it be a two-part podcast, but it'll also appear in Christianity Today. We'll certainly alert you via our website when that comes out.
But we are joined by a very special guest tackling a topic that we have found at the Winsome Conviction Project to be probably the most difficult topic to address, and that is the topic of race. The gentleman that we have on today, Isaac Adams, is qualified to speak on this issue. He serves as the lead pastor of Iron City Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where he lives with his wife and children.
He's the co-founder of United We Pray, a ministry devoted to prayer about racial strife, especially between Christians. He's written an amazing book called Talking about Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations from Zondervan Press. Isaac, welcome.
Isaac Adams: Tim, thank you so much for having me, brother. It's good to be on the show with you, man.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, we have been looking forward to this conversation, and Isaac, I really meant what I said. We're two and a half years into the Winsome Conviction Project, and the topic of race is in a different category. It makes people defensive, angry, hurt, shuts down communication faster than any topic that we've tried to address.
Now, I hope during the course of this interview, as we work through your book, I think you're going to have many opportunities to address why that's particularly certain. So, hey, let me jump in with my first question, in explaining your motivation to write the book you state, "Originally, I set out to write a different book on giving biblical and practical guidance on where Christians could begin to combat racism." But that is not the book you wrote. What changed?
Isaac Adams: That's a good question, Tim. Honestly, I had that plan for the book, and Proverbs is very clear, "In his heart, a man plans his ways but the Lord establishes his steps," and Proverbs 27:1, "Do not boast in tomorrow for you do not know what a day may bring."
And so, I didn't know that the news of Ahmaud Arbery was going to break as I was preparing the proposal for the book and everything. But as I was getting that book ready, the original idea, Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down, and now I can say murdered. African American actor Sterling K Brown went live on Facebook after going for a run. If you're familiar with Arbery's case, you know why it's pertinent that Brown was running, but this is also during the COVID outbreak.
Brown testified, he was wearing a mask and he was talking about how, as an African American who's so often in white spaces, he feels like he has to wear a mask of sorts, an invisible mask, albeit he's using it as a metaphor. But Brown is really echoing the experience of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, who a hundred years earlier wrote a poem called We Wear the Mask. We Wear the Mask, it's a beautiful poem. It's a prayer, where Dunbar was effectively saying the same thing.
It really struck me. I was like, this experience is the same over a hundred years. As a pastor who had people from all different ethnicities and racial backgrounds coming in my office, it seemed actually all of us were wearing masks, metaphorically speaking, on some level, and that was really harming the unity of the body. It seemed that before we could talk about action, we would be well served to learn why we couldn't talk, period.
So to be clear, I'm all for action. I hope this book serves people to be more just, to love mercy, to do justice. But I think if we understood the smaller problem of dysfunctional communication across racial lines, we would understand the much bigger problem better of racial strife that has so long divided our churches, our communities, and our nation.
Tim Muehlhoff: Isaac, in some ways, what you're saying is not radical. My wife and I speak at marriage conferences. So, you could go to a marriage conference, and you could receive a bunch of techniques, active listener techniques and how to paraphrase and find common ground. But if you're not dealing with what's causing the marital tension, if you're not dealing with what's shutting down your conversation before you get to listening techniques, those techniques are never going to get used.
Isaac Adams: That's right.
Tim Muehlhoff: So, I love that approach that we have to get to some harder issues before we get to technique.
Isaac Adams: Scripture talks a lot about talking. It's amazing, so the book is in some sense, a theology of speech applied to the topic of race. I mean, scripture has so much to say about this big hole in our faces and the damage that can result and the life that can result from how we used the tongue. It seemed to me that this is actually a pretty massive area of life where great good can be accomplished and great harm can be accomplished. We've certainly seen the latter in the present day discourse.
Tim Muehlhoff: Isaac, we've learned that with the Winsome Conviction Project, and that it's never just the conversation. It is all the work and preparation and introspection leading up to the conversation. That's where I think a lot of this is going off the rails is we've not done a really good job.
Now, let me be honest with you, when I look at this title, Talking About Race, I can imagine a lot of listeners going, "No, I am not going to talk... I don't want to talk about race. This is going to go nowhere. We're just going to wind up being hurt and even more divided." That's why I found it fascinating that you wrote in the preface, "Understanding the communication breakdown across racial divides and the damage that results from it is not only important for following Jesus amid race relations, it is foundational."
Now, in the midst of so much division, so much divisiveness and divisive topics, why are you saying that this particular topic is foundational?
Isaac Adams: That's a good question. It's foundational because this is at the heart of what Christ has done, Ephesians 2 tells us. To put it a different way, Tim, you said, "There's no conversation like this conversation that divides us." Why is that? Well, it's because Satan has seen fit and seen it even strategic to get at this very core issue of dividing people whom Christ has made one.
You see, because Christ died to make Jew and Gentile into one new man. Praise the Lord, Ephesians 2:11 to 22, couldn't be clearer, and Satan from day one has sought to undo that work as much as he can. Of course, he can't ultimately do that, but this is what I often say. The Lord says in John 13, "This is how the world will know you're my disciples by the way you love," this is really interesting, "one another."
So, Satan has a vested interest in showing our discipleship to be superficial, phony, and in authenticating it by encouraging us to hate one another, to divide against one another, John 17, "Jesus praise to the Father," is striking. The night before is crucifixion, Jesus is praying, "Father, let them be one." Why? So that the world will know that you sent me, so there is an evangelistic witness at stake in our unity.
I often say, if you care about evangelism, you need to care about racism. This is why Satan is so vested in dividing us on these lines, because he knows that this would be striking to a world that is dividing and divisive. This would be striking to see these people together, loving one another.
It would say to the world, "Jesus really is real. He really did come. He really did do this, and Satan doesn't want people to see that witness, and so he has worked hard over the centuries to bring about the exact opposite, hatred across racial lines.
So, it's foundational in that sense of, hey, given not just even historic, I mean, it's foundational even just historically where the Lord has placed us in time and space, providentially, but it's foundational, because this gets at the root of the one new man Christ has made, which is at the heart of what He did in reconciling sinner to God and to each other.
Tim Muehlhoff: Isaac, what I appreciate about what you do, and we're going to do a deep dive into the book in one second, but you do something that Jesus was not afraid to do. That is to evoke spiritual battle. For you to say, This isn't just people disagreeing." Later in the book, you're going to give us criteria for determining if racial blind spots are from others are from Satan, and I love that because 25% of everything Jesus had to say had to do with spiritual battle.
Isaac Adams: Yeah. I mean, it's really, so I'm preaching Colossians right now at my church. It's so interesting when Paul is saying, in chapter two, he's saying, "See, no one takes you captive according to the elemental spirits of the world." I think he's talking about the spiritual realm. In Ephesians 60, he couldn't be Clearer, "We don't wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the authorities, against the rulers, the cosmic powers over this darkness."
I mean, I said it to my church, I know this isn't something we naturally talk a lot, there are real demonic forces at play. If we look at just the level of depravity shown in racial injustice over the years, I think it's actually the most logical explanation. I mean, it is so wicked that you just see, again, Satan's deep investment in terrorizing God's people along these lines and all the people made in God's image.
So yes, I don't think we are accurately entertaining all the biblical data the Lord has given us if we leave out the spiritual realm. As if this is just man not liking man, it's not just flesh against flesh.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, well said, and we see that in Ukraine. I mean, the horrors in Ukraine is not just war. There's something deeper, darker happening when you bomb a train station with refugees, mostly women and children trying to escape, and you choose that as a military target. There's something wicked going on. So, I so appreciated in the book that you brought in that often neglected aspect.
Well, as a communication professor and an author, I was really interested in your communication decisions. In the first half of your book, you make the decision to start the conversation by using six fictional characters discussing an imaginary racial shooting of a 22-year-old Black man by police. Well, with so many actual shootings happening, why make the decision to use this literary device?
Isaac Adams: It's interesting. I was working on, I think an... I've been chewing on this idea for a long time, and I was talking to a friend and pastor of mine, [inaudible 00:12:54], and he said, I was talking about, "Hey, I want to write to conservatives and liberals." He's like, "Man, don't use those labels. Give me Matt and give me Mark. This is Matt, this is who he is."
I wrote an article in that vein and the article did pretty well, and what it showed me is that stories are powerful. You talked about the percentage of Jesus talking about the spiritual realm, no small part of Jesus's teaching ministry were what? Parables. They were stories. There's something in that.
When Nathan comes in 2 Samuel 12 to David, David is so invested in the story. He's like, "Let me tell you this story." David is so invested in Nathan's parable, he doesn't even realize he's the villain until the end. There's something with stories that just teach us. They allow you to capture the complexity and the gray in life that you can't capture in a label, because it turns out, Tim, people are more than their political beliefs or ideologies.
People are more than their racial perspectives. There's a whole person under there that's complex and all these things. You look at a book like The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabelle Wilkerson, this tome on The Great Migration. It's 500 pages, but it reads so easily because she did it through the lens of story. I thought, it was funny, the second half of the book is the more straightforward didactic stuff, and I actually felt like that's the gold.
Then, I sent out drafts of the book to folks who disagree with me and folks who agree with me on this issue. They all came back and said, "Hey, second half of the book that's all well and good, it's the story. That's the magic of this thing." I was like, "Well, okay then I guess we're going with the story." [inaudible 00:14:45]
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, as a communication professor, you are speaking my love language,
Isaac Adams: Praise the Lord.
Tim Muehlhoff: Are you familiar with Walter Fisher? Does that name ring bell?
Isaac Adams: Mm-mm, mm-mm.
Tim Muehlhoff: He came up with something called a narrative paradigm, where he argued that we are all Homo Narrans, that we are human narrators, and that that is more persuasive then statistics or just making a propositional argument. So, it absolutely drew me in-
Isaac Adams: Praise the Lord.
Tim Muehlhoff: ... when you went this route. Now, for the sake of time, we're not going to be able to talk about all six characters, but my goodness, you need to read all six characters. But for the sake of time, let's just focus on two of them. One is a man named Hunter. He's a white churchgoer who is best friends with Darius, who's a Black deacon.
Isaac Adams: [inaudible 00:15:36].
Tim Muehlhoff: Now, what's interesting about this is while Hunter, now this is my observation, I want to get your comment on this. While Hunter is concerned, Darius is consumed. Hunter states, "He didn't know what to call it," the racial shooting, "but he couldn't spend much time thinking about it."
Then on the other hand, Darius sits in the church parking lot, forcing himself to breathe, and the quote is, "Breathing was hard for a brother like Darius on a Sunday like today, a Sunday following another Black man being slain." So, I will evoke myself as a white majority person.
I think the biggest part of my privilege, Isaac, is that while you and I are having this race conversation right now, and it will ruminate with me and stay with me, I get to take a break whenever I want to take a break from thinking about it. Where it seems to me that Darius is absolutely consumed, because this is his entire world that he's having to negotiate. Care to comment on that aspect of white privilege?
Isaac Adams: You're getting at one of the many dynamics I try to get at in the book, and not to get into some of the tactics we're going to talk about later, but one reason the conversation is so difficult is because often my white brothers and sisters, whom I love and only want to serve, can entertain the conversation as a abstract idea. What do we do with ideas? We test them, we poke and prod them. We compare them to things that we previously knew to be true, which is not always bad.
But when you're talking to a minority, you very well may be talking to someone who's not thinking in abstractions. So, let me just give you a quick anecdote about this, because you're right about statistics versus story That's one reason I don't entertain tons of statistics is because everyone has their set of statistics that allow them to remain in their predetermined camp. It's just every, on the right or the left, everyone's got their, "Here's my statistic to prove my point."
But I'm a pastor in Birmingham. I'm not from Birmingham, not from the South. My mom, who just recently went to be with the Lord, the one of the godliest women I know, beside my wife, I went to mom and said, "Mom, I think I found a church." She said, "Oh, that's wonderful. Praise the Lord." I said, "Yeah, it's in Birmingham." Mom, very uncharacteristically, recoiled in horror, in horror.
She said, "Oh Isaac, I told the Lord I would never step foot in that city after what they did to those four little girls." Now, do you see? Mom is old enough to have been one of those girls. Do you see how immediately we're not talking in, "Well, what's the economic output of this ethnic group in the United States, post the Reagan era?" Or whatever it is.
We're talking about a very real experience. Mom had avoided a city, because if it's Birmingham, often called Bombingham right. In that instance, I'm trying to care for my mother, who's watching her son go to Nineveh, as she feels it. It's just a very different conversation than, "Oh, don't worry about that. The past is the past. That was a long time ago. Birmingham's a pretty welcoming place. "
Well, for my mother, it's not that. I need to care for her well, and not only look to my own interests, but also to hers. So, there's an anecdote getting to your question.
Tim Muehlhoff: Isaac, that made me think about, my dad was a factory worker in General Motors in the heart of Detroit his entire life. He went in at 18, and I did it for one summer because I needed money to go back to college, so think about those two experiences. My dad's never getting out. He's a lifer. The job took a toll that he had to take medical disability and retire. I was there for what, two and a half, three months, and I knew I was getting out.
So on one hand, did we have the same experience? Sure. We worked at the same factory, but under a different perspective, and context did we experience-
Isaac Adams: That's right.
Tim Muehlhoff: I had an out that I could take anytime I wanted to, and he had no out. That was his reality and he couldn't escape it.
Isaac Adams: That's right. That's good. That's a good illustration.
Tim Muehlhoff: You have some great quotes, and you're such a gifted writer, but you really use quotes well when you want people to bring up a certain issue. I found the one by Lance Morrow to be particularly-
Isaac Adams: So good.
Tim Muehlhoff: ... it stood out to me. He said, "The most tragic impediment to an honest conversation about race in America is fear." So, let me mention what Hunter feels like and what he fears. I'd like for you to comment on what he fears and then what Darius fears. So, Hunter feels like there's an unwritten law that states he must always be the student and Black people the teacher.
Here's a quote, "He knew if he transgressed this unwritten law, everything he said would be used against him." So, I'll be honest with you, as a white majority person, I do feel that tension, that fear that I cannot enter into the race conversation and offer my opinion, my observation, or even God forbid, my critique, because I'm a white majority person.
It's almost like there's a rhetorical fence around the issue of race, which is like, "Hey, I'm sorry. You will never be able to speak into this issue." You always have to be, as Hunter says, "The perpetual pupil and perpetual learner." So I just, I wonder if you could jump in and address what Hunter's feeling and maybe many listeners are feeling.
Isaac Adams: I wanted to get at, Tim, what people are actually feeling, because that's what I understand for many of my white brothers and sisters. I tried to make clear in the book that that's a legitimate feeling on some level. I want to be clear like this book is not, "White people, sit down, shut up and listen," and I make clear, but I try to also get at the like, "Hey, here's why it might serve you well to listen."
Even given the two factory illustration you just gave, here's why it might serve you well to listen. It's not because Black people are always right. Spoiler alert, we're not, we're not always right. We too have fallen short of the glory of God, but that because Black voices have been marginalized for so long. It's like, ah, okay, well, then that changes the dynamic in the conversation. If we're understanding, hey, there's been a historical asymmetry here, and it will really serve the conversation if you recognize some of those dynamics at play.
So, the reason I want to get at this fear is because it is that kind of fear that Satan will use to stoke suspicion and hatred in the body of Christ. It's like, we are actually to be brothers and sisters, not afraid of one another, but who love one another, not who are doubting one another, but who are working for the benefit of one another.
I want to get at that very real fear to say, "I understand that is a legitimate feeling. I understand that. Yet, we want to grow. We want to overcome the fear, and here are some ways to do that," because if we just give into the fear, it's like, "Well, you go to your church, I'll go to my church, I'll see you in heaven. We'll have a sanctified Booker T. Washington. We'll be separate fingers all on the same hand." It's like, "Ah, that I think Jesus died for more than that." I don't think Jesus died, so we could be suspicious and doubtful and not believing the best in all of these things.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, and I love that, and we'll get to this in just a minute. You do give advice specifically to Hunter and Darius, we'll get to that in a second, but I want to identify Darius's fear. He says this, "If he said anything, he had to say it perfectly. That is, he had to speak on Hunter's terms."
Now, this is what we found Isaac at the Winsome Conviction Project, that people are pushing back in saying that civility is what the white dominant culture establishes to keep minority perspectives in check. So, it's used as a silencing technique. Like, "Hey, Hey, let's not get overly emotional. Let's not get angry. Let's keep this thing civil." We're seeing that some people are interpreting that as a silencing technique. I would love for you to comment on that.
Isaac Adams: One thing I think that's useful that you're highlighting is notice both Hunter and Darius have fears. I think we can always treat our fears as if they're paramount, but if we both come to the table, and be like, "Hey, man, here are my fears." "Well, here are my fears." It just does something to the conversation. I understand what people might be saying in terms of that's just a technique of the white majority dominant culture.
I'm like, look, maybe, but all I know is that this Bible in front of me, that we all agree is from God to His people, that it is the chief authority in my life, says 2 Timothy 2:24, "The Lord's servant must be kind to everyone," and in Greek that everyone means everyone. There's no asterisk of everyone who happens to share my political sympathies. There's no asterisk of everyone who happens to be within my own ethnic group. It's everyone.
And he is like, "Who knows? God might lead someone to repentance," which is actually Romans 2:4, "God's been patient with us to lead us to repentance." The fruit of the spirit is not racially based. All of God's people are to be what? Loving, patient, kind, gentle, faithful. I don't want to frame these things only in terms of power dynamics or cultural embeddedness, because this Bible transcends culture. It transcends time.
In the first century, God wanted His people to be kind and gentle. In the 21st century, He wants His people to be kind and gentle, and I just can't get around that. That's why, Tim, I try to say in this book, "The word of God is going to be the lamp to our feet, the light to our path." I'm not primarily going to be driven by statistics or cultural analyses. Not because I don't think those things are helpful, I do, but because there's a higher authority, and I just want to see what that says for me.
Tim Muehlhoff: Isaac, can you paint a picture for our listeners and our readers, what would it look like if we lost what you just said? The North Star being God's authoritative word, but let's say we lost that. Wouldn't it just be rhetorical power gains to see who could evoke conversational rules that you had to follow?
Isaac Adams: Yeah, it would be that, and I think God in His kindness, He paints the picture for us time and time again in scripture of like, "This is what it's like without me. End of judges. Everyone does what's right in his own eyes." Ephesians 2:12, "Remember," he says, "that you were at a time separated from Christ, alienated from the Commonwealth of Israel." He's talking to the Gentiles, "Strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God."
So what would it look like? It would look like we're without God. It would look like we're without hope. It would look like the end of judges. It would look like the Tower of Babel. God's like, "You know what? Y'all want to talk to each other. Go ahead, and let me just show you what it would look like. It would like look like this confusion, where we're at each other's throats."
And what happens in Christ is that we no longer take each other by the throat, we take each other by the hand, or at least we should. So, I think Babel is a fantastic picture of what it looks like, and what the race conversation so often feels like, Tim. It often feels like we're trying to build something together and maybe even something good, not a tower for our own glory, but we are speaking past one another, we're speaking different languages. We're frustrated. We are under the condemnation of God, which is why so many people are like, "I don't even want to talk about it."
Tim Muehlhoff: What I love about your book is you don't leave us here. I love how you step in as a pastor, as a thinker, and you offer advice to both Hunter and Darius. So ,we're going to get to that in our next episode. Thank you so much for listening into the Winsome Conviction Podcast, a group of us who are trying to find different ways of talking about issues like race, like politics, that so easily divide us.
If you want more information, go to the Winsome Conviction Website, just go to Winsomeconviction.com. We have a bunch of free resources there for you. Thank you for supporting this podcast, and we are going to continue this conversation with Isaac, because he's about to present us with some ideas.
Now, I will tell you right away, these are not easy suggestions. These are not quick fixes, but the race conversation doesn't lend itself to quick fixes. So, we are going to come back with Isaac, and thank you for joining us for this episode.