What to Know about Urban Apologetics and Why It Matters

Black Hebrew Israelism is making significant inroads within America’s urban communities and is persistently one of the top five subjects visitors search on equip.org. Vocab Malone is one of a growing number of Christian apologists who seek to address many of the challenges faced by urban churches. His focus involves urban apologetics, worldview analysis, and pop culture. Vocab has done a number of debates and dialogues with Muslims, atheists, and Black Hebrew Israelites, and he has written for the Christian Research Journal. Hank Hanegraaff recently had a great discussion with Vocab Malone on the Hank Unplugged podcast. The following is a snapshot of that discussion.

Hank Hanegraaff: I have listened to some of the stuff you have done with Black Hebrew Israelism. This is a topic that is transcendently important, and we are going to cash that out, but I love the fact that you have a focus on urban apologetics. This is not apologetics proper; rather, this is a particular species of apologetics, and you have to get primed for this pump.

Vocab Malone: This is true. You know it has been around; Lemuel Haynes way back during the Revolutionary era was a Black pastor, actually, of a White congregation, which is substantial if you think about it back then in the United States, and he tackled universalism. He was doing apologetics in his context as a Black pastor. You’ve got guys who have come out with loud voices, like Tom Skinner, who have touched some of these issues, and Carl Ellis, Jr., who may not be a familiar name but should be to a lot of people. So, here I am just sort of on the train, but, here is the thing, a lot of these did not come to the forefront of other people’s attention outside of an urban context until the Internet, and now here we are in a new era. As far as specifically Hebrew Israelism within a context of urban apologetics, there has really been no Christian response, for the most part, for decades.

Hank: This is something that is really important. There is a whole segment of the American population that is being pulled into what I think you can rightly call a cult.

Vocab: I do. Let me tell you something real briefly, which I think you will find fascinating. One of the largest groups of this variety is called IUIC (Israel United in Christ), and they are the most successful organization out of all the camps — that’s what they call themselves, camps — they are starting to take a page from the playbook of the Church of Scientology. They won’t debate any of us. They won’t engage us on the streets for the most part. What they are doing though now is flagging YouTube videos and threatening legal action — sometimes veiled, other times not so much veiled — against the apologists who are starting to criticize their doctrine. I think you are going to see that type of behavior grow from some of the more successful camps. Basically, a lot of them play down and dirty, not all of them, but a lot of them do play that way.

Hank: This is not some kind of a fringe movement, either. I mean, if you think about the movement as a whole, there are some incredibly influential people who are involved, like Kendrick Lamar.

Vocab: Yes, Kendrick Lamar is a platinum rap artist. He is sort of the thinking millennial’s rapper. (You know, I’m a hip hop fan. I kind of cut my teeth listening to Christian hip hop.) There is an intellectual component to what Kendrick does, but he always had this kind of Christian glaze over it, which some people took as a hopeful sign, right? Well, he has taken a turn straight into the doctrine of Hebrew Israelism to the point where his last album title — which, again, we are talking a platinum album, right — this thing was titled DAMN. Its concept was that Black Americans are damned by God because they are not keeping the law, statutes, and commandments; therefore, they are suffering the curses according to Deuteronomy 28 because they are the true Israelites.

Hank: What I am really interested in, before we get into all of that, I’m interested in you. How did you get involved in the Christian faith? How did you get involved in urban apologetics? What spurred you on? What was the impetus for all this?

Vocab: Sorry, yeah, I jumped the gun.

Hank: No. Perfect. I do want to get back to this, but I think people really want to know who you are. You said you cut your teeth on hip hop, for example, I mean that was a passion for you?

Vocab: Yeah. When I was in the fourth grade, I got transferred to this different school. On the first day at the school, during show-and-tell, a kid stood up and did an acapella rap, and I was just floored. Ever since then, I was just floored, and the kids at school who were popular were not the athletes, believe it or not, it was the kids who could beatbox and rap.

Pretty early on, someone actually introduced me to Christian hip hop. Really, my main influences are actually Christian hip hop. I’ve got to tell you, you know, there is some silly stuff in it, but it was really saturated with the Word and a strong evangelistic impulse. So, of course, I had begun doing Christian hip hop myself (you know a very mediocre attempt) but what it led to were conversations in urban contexts, as I would be out and about rapping in different churches and on the block.

What does that lead to? Objections! These are not the objections that your average mainstream evangelical hears all the time. Because, all of a sudden, you hear, “Well, that is for White people.” “That’s a White people’s religion.” “Why do you have that picture of Jesus portrayed when He was not a White man?” “What do you say about the justification of slavery by Christians?” I got a slew of questions like that and even getting into the idea of Christianity is really a rip off of ancient African religion, which is an idea that is now resurgent. I was hearing all of this, and that led me to further study, because I did not want to just talk, I wanted to know. Believe it or not, the way I basically got into apologetics is by beginning off conversations rapping to people. It really began rapping to people, the conversations, to wanting to know what I was talking about, that is why I ended up in seminary, and now after being a retired rapper — I do not really do that anymore, except when the kids want to have some fun — now I am really trying to take all that and bring it to bear, realizing it is a huge field. My specialty is on one area of concern and need, out of many.

Hank: You know, I think this is one of the coolest things I have heard in a long time. You got into apologetics exactly how someone ought to get into apologetics. You got involved in rapping, rapping Christian stuff, then people hear the Christian stuff, as a result, they start asking questions, as a result of them asking questions, you start finding answers to the questions, and in the process, you become an apologist, an urban apologist at that!

Vocab: I never would have guessed when I was in the fourth grade and saw that kid stand up and do that acapella rap during show-and-tell that this was the journey that the Lord would lead me on, but here I am. The beauty of it is the Internet is bringing a lot of young Christian urban apologists together, and some of the churches are starting to wake up. There are starting to be conferences that specialize in urban apologetics. Now, it is still few and far between; by and large, the church is asleep to a lot this unfortunately, but they are starting to hemorrhage members. Yes, some of it is because of the secularization of the culture, but a lot of it has to do with these new alternative urban spiritualities that are populating the city landscape. I don’t really think the churches in those contexts by and large are paying attention. There are exceptions: Eric Mason in Philadelphia, and a number of other men I could name, and I do think it is increasing, but there is a bigger problem that is being recognized right now, because the millennials are extremely dissatisfied with the current state of the church and they are turning to these new alternative urban religions within a city context.

Hank: Yeah, I think this is really fantastic. I mean, you are hitting on a note that needs to be sung pretty loud and clear. It is a clarion call for the church. We are talking about the church being infiltrated, and in many ways, as you point out, people are leaving the church in droves, but the people in the church do not know what the heck is going on. They are whistling as they walk past the grave yard. There is a big attrition going on because we cannot answer the objections that have been raised. This is particularly significant in the urban church, and we know at the Christian Research Institute how significant it is because if you look at the interest in Black Hebrew Israelism, the interest is absolutely staggering. We are bombarded with requests for just one article that we wrote in the Christian Research Journal, and even that is just scratching the surface of a pandemic that is stripping the urban church of its Christian witness.

Vocab: This is correct. I mentioned IUIC earlier. They are what we in the field call a 1 West variety of Hebrew Israelism. That is a certain sect kind of along the lines of Salafi Islam (an ultra-conservative sect of Sunnis); however, there are also different mainstream varieties of Hebrew Israelism. There has actually been a number of churches (these would be traditional Black churches a lot of times, some small, others bigger) who are either grafting this theology into their ministry, and it is really changing the whole character and nature of their church, or there have even been a couple of cases, I thought it was a hoax at first, where pastors were actually handing over their keys to these camp leaders in these Hebrew Israelite cult groups and basically pledging allegiance to some of their leaders.

I will be very specific, one is called ISUPK (Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge). There is a video where the pastor hands over his keys and at the end of it, he stands in formation with the other “soldiers” and gives a salute to the commanding general Yahanna, who is the authority of ISUPK. Granted, that was a smaller church, but some of these bigger churches are sort of having a fusion of traditional Black church Christianity, evangelical theology, and Hebrew Israelism. The end result is not really Hebrew, Israelite, or Christian; rather, it is a mess. It is almost like some kind of modern mainstream version of the old-school Ebionite heresy. Some people may be listening and thinking, “Only a fool would get suckered into this based on what I know of it.” Don’t speak so quick, because the moral needs, the felt needs, is what I mean by that, and some of the existential crisis going on in the urban community are leading people to have open minds about ideas like Hebrew Israelism, and we’ve got to take that into account.

Hank: You mentioned this whole idea of someone falling back into the ranks of the soldiers. When you watch this on YouTube or on television, you can even listen to it on the radio, or if you are actually there in the urban communities hearing the rhetoric, this is very militant. This is martial stuff.

Vocab: Yes. The camps tend to be organized along those terms. If you noticed, I mentioned the leader of ISUPK, he calls himself General Yahanna. He is not an elder or pastor; he is a general. Then one of the main men under him is a man named Captain Tazaryach. They wear military black boots, cargo black pants, lots of times a black leather jacket, some kind of shirt with the Star of David all over it, then spikes and studs in gauntlets on their arms, and different types of headbands, which look like something from an old-school Bible movie or something. It looks wild, but it is a uniform to folks, and it is bringing order where people are seeing chaos, so people are gravitating toward it. They feel like it gives them meaning and purpose. Lots of people describe the process wherein they realize they are a “Hebrew Israelite,” and they call it waking up. That is the way they describe it.

Hank: Lots of people listening in are going to say, “What in the world is a Black Hebrew Israelite?” Give us some kind of an idea about the origins of this movement. It is obviously multifaceted, not monolithic, but share about some of the leaders like Frank Cherry and William S. Crowdy, along with how all this got started.

Vocab: Back in 1896, the first known for certain documented case of someone who would be called an African American saying that they are actually an Israelite was Crowdy. He was out chopping some wood, got this vision, and the vision said, “You know, you are actually an Israelite, and you are a descendent of Abraham.” He was scared, but basically, he went around the country preaching this, and his earliest followers were both Black and White. He did not have the exclusion aspect that some of the more modern groups have, where they not only say that African Americans are the true biblical Hebrew Israelites, and as a corollary, the Jews in Israel and whatnot, are all frauds, but lots of these modern groups say you can be saved only if your lineage can be found on their twelve tribes chart. So, the Chinese whom they call Moabites — I know it is ridiculous, I am just telling you what they say because they have their own table of nations chart — the Japanese whom they call Ammonites, White people or European descendants are Edomites, Arabs whom they call Ishmaelites, and Indians from India, all those folks are doomed to a lifelong eternal slavery when Yahawashi (that is what they call Jesus) returns. The only groups under this particular rubric of Hebrew Israelism who can be saved are Native Americans, Black Americans, and Hispanics. That is one particular brand. However, there are lots of other branches of Hebrew Israelites that believe you can be grafted in, but they still practice a form of ethnic hierarchy within their ecclesiastical structure. A great example of the more inclusive is Israel of God out of Chicago. They are probably one of the biggest churches of the Hebrew Israelite variety around; they have a 6,000-seat church, and they are moderate, believing that so-called Gentiles can be grafted in; however, they cannot teach Israelites, so there is still an ethnic hierarchy even among the nicer groups.

Listen to the full interview here.

For further related reading, please see:

The Origin and Insufficiency of the Black Hebrew Israelite Movement (Jimmy Butts)

Christian Hip-Hop: A Generation’s Words (John K. Wells)

Christianity and Black Slavery (Jeffrey B. Russell)

Putting Race in Biblical Perspective (Jemar Tisby)

Is Christian Orthodoxy Strong in the Black Church? (Jerry Buckner)

What’s Wrong with Black Theology? (La Shawn Barber)