A few weeks ago, Thabiti contributed to our ongoing discussion of the presidential election and race relations with this post. I responded briefly here, and promised to say more about it later on. It is now later on, and so here I am.
Thabiti said that he and I manage to have “good conversations about difficult things.” I have the same sensation, and have greatly appreciated his willingness to interact with me as much as he has. It sometimes feels pretty jaggedy, like the two of us were running a three-legged race in the fair, but somehow or other we get across the finish line.
I actually happen to know the kind of pressure that people receive whenever they agree to do anything with us, and after the charitable comments Thabiti made in his last post, I wouldn’t be surprised if his inbox had actually burst into flames. The fact that he would say what he said about me publicly was not unappreciated, especially when I think I know what kind of grief he had to put up with behind the scenes because he had said it. I do not know if we will ever get a chance to have a beer together, but if we do, it would only be right if I were the one to buy. This conversation has to have been far more costly to him than to me—although I am not a full pariah, I can be somewhat pariah-ish—and from this distance the only reason I can think of for him to do it is summed up in the one word integrity.
A Couple of Important Agreements:
I am grateful also that Thabiti and I agree fundamentally on the fact that we have no political solution to the political disease that afflicts us. Christ is our only possible Savior, and the only way out of the terrible place we have gotten to is massive repentance. Our problem as a nation is not that we have differing opinions about politics—our problem is that our consciences are seared. Nothing will do but reformation and revival.
I agree with Thabiti that he and Wayne Grudem are not doing the same thing, only on opposite sides. Thabiti told us how he was going to vote; he did not in any way indicate approval of Hillary, at any level. Thabiti believes that we have narrowed our choice down to two evil options. He believes that we have some kind of expertise in resisting one of them, and no proven skills at all in dealing with the other. That is the kind of stand which could be productive to debate, whether or not you agree, which I don’t.
When someone says he wants to fight a particular evil differently than you do, that is a tactical matter. When someone says that an evil isn’t really evil, that goes beyond tactics.
Suppose someone said that he was going to vote for Saruman over Sauron because he thought Saruman was a “wizard with flaws.” That is a description of someone who is in the process of being seduced. Suppose someone else voted for Saruman, not because he supported Saruman at all, but because he would rather have the final fight with Saruman. This is quite different. It goes without saying that we were going to be in a fight whichever bad guy won. This is a position I strongly differ with, but it is not a position that gets maneuvered into calling evil good and good evil (Is. 5:20).
No Problem Passages:
It is very important for me to reiterate again how much I appreciated Thabiti’s acknowledgment that Scripture contains angular texts on the subject of slavery. This means that Christians who profess that every dotted i and crossed t is part of the God-breathed revelation to us—these texts included—are people who must take this angular reality into account.
I have said this before, but I am not an historical romantic. I am not a sentimentalist about the old South. I do enjoy grits, but that kind of thing has almost nothing whatever to do with why this subject keeps coming around to me. From my perspective, the basic reason I get into these imbroglios is because I want to insist that politics, public-shaming, blog-trolling, name-calling, zeitgeist-riding, luge running down the right side of history, and so on, are all absolutely irrelevant when it comes to the exegesis. The text says what it says, and it would have said that same thing had none of us ever been born.
For one example among many, Hillary has said that on abortion Christians have to get with the program. “Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” Let me think about it, no. The Word of God comes to us from outside time and history. It has a transcendental authority. We don’t get to tinker with the truths of God in order to reduce friction for the agenda of liberals.
If we ever admit the principle that a show of progressive hands can determine what Scripture actually says, then we are done. I submit that when Christians start to cave on this principle, it will be a whole lot easier to cave the tenth time than it was the first time. I believe that we are in the process of discovering this grim reality. We are at #7 now and picking up speed. I am wanting to get back to #1or #2. When did we first start apologizing for the Bible? Repentance will have to go all the way back so that conservativism will cease being the “shadow that follows radicalism to perdition.”
In God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis said this: “In fact, we must at all costs not move with the times. We serve One who said ‘Heaven and Earth shall move with the times, but my words shall not move with the times.’”
That is the issue here, and as far as I am concerned it is the only real issue.
On Stumbling the Brothers:
And that brings us to the penultimate point.
Thabiti’s exhortation to me, and the one that I wanted time to reflect on, amounted to this. He believes that I have some weight in my argument about Scripture and slavery when considered in certain contexts. He wishes that I would show greater awareness of the fact that there are in fact other contexts. When I am dealing with homo-jihadists, who argue that the Bible can’t be reliable about sexual ethics because Scripture was wrong about slavery, Thabiti understands (and sympathizes with) my desire to not back away from the reliability of Scripture in any area. Since this is my central motivation, the fact that Thabiti sees what I am attempting means a lot to me. At the same time, Thabiti (rightly) believes he is much more aware of the apologetic barrier that the legacy of slavery presents to evangelism among blacks.
“So I wish Doug wrote in a way that attempted to disarm that audience so that those of us serving in those fields would have a slightly easier time offering an apologetic against slavery’s historical abuses without having a co-belligerent in the gospel seemingly giving contemporary credence to the evil.”
I am genuinely willing to do what I can to make this happen, to get to this result. In the next section, I want to commit to certain things that would demonstrate that I am endeavoring to hear responsible Christian voices like Thabiti’s from outside my circle. I agree with Thabiti that it is a desirable result. But before getting to that, I do want to say that I have been writing to disarm critics on this subject for many years. That might produce the objection that I am not very good at it, which is as may be, but that is what I have wanted. So believe it or not, the rhetorical stance I have taken has for many years been attempting this. Now if Thabiti knew that I have a picture of Stonewall Jackson on the bulletin board in my office, this claim might be, to use Thabiti’s phrase, “a special multi-flavored variety of insane.” But here is my thinking, at least a part of which I believe Thabiti recognizes. In his post, Thabiti said this:
“And, there’s a side of me that likes talking to Doug because he stands flat-footed on what he thinks.”
When I am dealing with black adversaries, black friends, and black parishioners (and yes, I have all three), the one thing nobody thinks after our exchanges is that I am blowing sunshine at them. This is a real problem I have seen many times, and the thought of doing this myself gives me the fantods. This is a running characteristic of whites who are racked by the pleasures of white guilt—they lie for the greater good. They don’t tell the truth. They fudge. They maneuver to the preferred outcomes. They run the affirmative action office in such a way as to cast a shadow over every genuine black achievement. They blow sunshine.
How many black brothers in Christ have walked away from yet another universally-affirming conversation with an unctuous white guy feeling like they were just handed a participant ribbon? How many times has this thought suddenly appeared in the thought bubble over their head—I wonder what he really thinks?
In books on writing, one of the pieces of advice that recurs is advice that warns writers away from vanity publishers. How do you know you are dealing with this kind of trouble? The answer is easy—the feedback you get always runs along the lines of “this is fabulous!” It doesn’t matter what you turn in to them, so long as they think you have the money, it keeps on getting fabulouser.
This illustration is from the world of writing, but the larger point is about flattery. The same problem arises, for example, in the sexual arena. “To keep thee from the evil woman, From the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman” (Prov. 6:24). Flattery works in every area because people like to hear it. But they also usually know that something is off.
But in this area, we are not just dealing with things that occur on the tawdry side of town. The same temptation arises in ministry (including the important ministry of racial reconciliation). The apostle Paul reminds the Thessalonians that his approach to them was not like that. “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness” (1 Thess. 2:5, ESV).
It is my view that a significant part of what now goes under the name of “white privilege” is actually the suffocating fog of white flattery. When I have a conversation with a black man, I want it to be a conversation with a man who could be wrong by a man who could be wrong. We find out which it is by talking, and in that talking by trying to say what we actually think.
This is what it means to speak the truth in love. It may seem inflammatory to some, but I have had good experience in seeking to speak to my black brothers in Christ with a deliberate combination of love and honesty. Everyone these days is good with the love part, but they freak out over the honesty part. You could be, they say, honestly mistaken. Should you risk it? Your mistake might hurt a feeling out there. Yes, that’s right. I could be mistaken, and often have been. Sue me. I may not always be accurate, but I always want to be. I am always trying to be.
We live in a time when many people (including many Christians, sad to say) are as indignant as a room full of wet cats about anything. Just go on Facebook. People had their feelings hurt because somebody was publicly insensitive about: introverts, adoptive parents, lactose intolerance, breast feeding, and so on, and so somebody writes a long screed setting a bunch of other people straight. But this approach actually keeps such issues inflamed. The swelling never goes down. People are rude and thoughtless sometimes. That’s no reason to get counseling for thirty years.
When the issues are more objectively serious (race relations, transgenderism, etc.) the same inflammation techniques get similar results. The way we are currently handling race relations in this country is precisely what is keeping those relations inflamed. I believe that all of us need to stop taking lessons on how to deal with racism and the fallout from racism from the secularists who do not know God, and who do not want to know God. Their approach is not reliable.
I want to stand with Thabiti in the resurrection, and I want to have been in fellowship with him before we get to that resurrection. I want to stand with Thabiti now, for the gospel, and I never want to throw an unnecessary stumbling block in the way of that gospel—for anyone, black or white. I believe that I have trusted voices in my life that would tell me if they believed I was doing that. But thus far that has not happened.
So here it is in a nutshell. If we do not have an infallible and absolutely authoritative word from God in Scripture, fully authoritative on everything it addresses, angular texts included, then we have no gospel at all.
Yeah, But . . .
But someone in Thabiti’s position could say that it doesn’t help responsible black Christians to know that Wilson is “a straight shooter” if they can’t shake the feeling that I am shooting at them. So what do I intend to do that would demonstrate that reasonable cautions and admonitions from someone like Thabiti really matter to me? And that would of course include this last set of admonitions.
The first would be my personal assurance that my interactions with Thabiti have affected the way in which I have sought to tackle this topic. I know that this is simply a self-report, but I do believe that I have shown a willingness to take public action in this regard—for example, here and here.
Second, I want to give a public assurance that whenever I write on race relations, I am not “winging it,” typing whatever comes into my head. I am seeking to be deliberate, careful, and constructive. My interactions with Thabiti have really been helpful to me in how I write. There really are angles that don’t occur to me beforehand, and I am committed to being quick to listen for them. I do confess that I am not quick to listen to men who spend their time yelling about my racism, but I do listen to careful men (like Thabiti).
Third, if someone ever puts together a Christian conference on racial reconciliation that commits to a genuine conversation about race, and I am invited to it, I would make every effort to be there. I know that some people would say that this is like inviting Typhoid Mary to address the attendees at a Center for Disease Control conference, and so I know that I will never be invited to anything they put together. But that works out, because I don’t want to be part of the racial reconciliation industrial complex. You can’t really have a conversation with a hustler, or with someone whose income depends on things staying inflamed. Eric Hoffer’s comments come to mind—first a movement, then a business, then a racket. But if biblical people decide to risk having a conversation about what we really need to do to advance the biblical imperatives concerning racial harmony, I would love to be part of it. Deal me in. Racial harmony? I am for it.
And last, when it comes to this topic we have sought to maintain a public and standing invitation to bring our critics here to Moscow, pay their way, provide them with a good venue for addressing our people, provide them with an honorarium, put no restrictions on what they would say, and show them good hospitality. This kind of invitation has been extended to hostile critics like Anthony Bradley, and so of course if someone like Thabiti were ever willing to come, we would love to have him address us.