My ongoing thanks to Thabiti for his gracious and intelligent disagreements with what I have written on this subject of race and slavery. He says that he has been delighted to see the Lord’s blessing on the exchanges, and I have to say I share in that delight. Thabiti has been grateful for the charitable disagreement, and wonders what more we could hope for. He then goes on, “Well, we could hope for some agreement.” I agree that this has to be the goal. If we fall short of it, it shouldn’t be through a lack of trying.
Too often we get to the level of charity, and then give up discussing the hard subjects, settling for an “agree to disagree” sort of truce. But the Bible commands us to go beyond this, and to strive for likemindedness.
“Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5-6).
“Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Phil. 2:2).
Thus far the discussion has revealed some wide swaths of agreement, which has been somewhat surprising to some observers — including perhaps the two of us. This is always to the good. No sense disagreeing where you actually agree. But while we have made good progress, faithfulness to the Lord requires that we keep going. We still have some work to do.
So having rejoiced in what agreement we have gotten to, Thabiti moves on to two basic areas of remaining disagreement, which I think are good selections on his part.
The first concerns the degrading nature of slavery itself. Having been brought up to love liberty as I have been, I cannot imagine being a slave, and I cannot imagine wanting to own any. Thus far, Thabiti’s instincts and mine line up completely. “But the abuses of human spirit, including the innate desire for liberty, were more significant crimes. That one man would constrict the liberty of another man at his whim and for his pleasure violates every natural inclination of humanity.” I know what he is talking about here, at least when it comes to my natural inclinations. I share them.
The second issue has to do with why people believe that I “defend slavery” when I repeatedly deny doing so. Thabiti suggests that it is because that these denunciations of the institution of slavery are woven together with various expressions of support for the cause of the South in other ways and in other areas. “His clear denunciations of racism and ‘racial vainglory’ and white supremacy would be heard more clearly if they weren’t spoken in this din of potential counter messages.”
He makes a similar point at greater length in his conclusion.
“So much would be gained if Wilson dropped those points or restated them in a manner more consistent and proportional to his true views of slavery and its abolition . . . with the apostle Paul, I would appeal to Wilson on the basis of love for future writing that continues the kind of measured and charitable tone he has used in our exchanges. It would make a significant difference for the unity of the church and learning from one another when we differ on important but secondary matters.”
So let me respond to these two concerns that Thabiti raises, but in reverse order this time. One of the reasons that I have been so glad to have this exchange with Thabiti is that it has given me a clear opportunity to do just what he asks for here. I believe that we should be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and that we have a true responsibility to strive for this. I accept the encouragement to go further in this direction. I will do what I can. And in the spirit of the apostle Paul, who was discussing his intentions in another ethnically charged situation, I will say that this is the very thing I have been eager to do (Gal. 2:10).
At the same time, defusing a bomb in the movies depends on more than just good intentions. You also have to know whether you are supposed to snip the green wire or the red one. These things can be volatile, and some of it is out of our hands. In my case, a good deal of it is. Paul acknowledges that our ability to be at peace with everyone will sometimes depend upon the others (Rom. 12:18). I really am happy to cultivate the opportunities that Thabiti has created in this exchange, and I hope this leads to more opportunities. But as I said at the beginning of our interaction, Thabiti is the first critic of any note who has actually taken the time to interact with what I have actually been arguing, and he has done it without flipping out, and so I am taking it as a golden opportunity to demonstrate that I mean what I say. Racial reconciliation between brothers in Christ is highly to be desired.
Now I grant Thabiti’s point that if I would treat the sins of racial vainglory, all by themselves, I don’t think I would be in the conflicts I get into on this subject. But because the racial situation in America has gotten so inflamed, people like me are not allowed to treat issues in isolation. Writing Black & Tan was racially insensitive? But so is orthodox Trinitarian theology anywhere in the neighborhood of T.D. Jakes. If allowed to speak on racism in a vacuum, I think I would do fine. But we don’t live in vacuum; we live in this messy thing called history.
I have said before that I would have fought for the South, despite the convictions I hold on the ungodliness of racially-based chattel slavery. I would have done this for various reasons — for limited constitutional government, against the Whig/Republican drive toward centralized federal government, against the tax/tariff policies of the centralizers, etc. Someone might urge me, “Why don’t you just drop the whole issue? Slavery is gone, man.” Right, and I never would have fought to defend slavery as such. Right, slavery is gone, but the centralizers are still here. The anti-constitutionalists are still here. The federal government is still here, as arrogant as ever. All the taxes and then some are still here. The Bible is still here, and its description of homosexuality as an abomination is still here. Fifty million Americans, 30% or so of them black, would have been here if somebody hadn’t twisted the Constitution into a surgical device for dismembering babies, red and yellow, black and white.
Around the time of the Civil War, there were about 3.5 million slaves, and about half a million free blacks. Since Roe v. Wade, about 15 million black children have been summarily executed before they ever had a chance to learn the color of the skin God gave them. So in our day, in our generation, we have killed four times more blacks than were even alive during the Civil War. Now I cannot talk about what Roe did to all of us without talking about states’ rights, constitutional law, and how we got into this mess.
So this is analogous to a point someone once made about ethnic wars — you don’t have to choose up sides in an ethnic war. The other side does that for you. If you take a biblical position on any number of issues, you will be accused of racism or racial insensitivity almost as a matter of routine. It is rapidly approaching a meaningless dog-whistle kind of charge; it has become a clown car distraction.
Now I still think it is my obligation to be crystal clear on the racism issue — because I believe genuine racism is a gospel-threatening sin — but our public discourse in these troubled times is structured in such a way that it is virtually impossible to speak God’s truth in a number of areas without incurring spurious charges of racism.
Those qualifications made, I have heard Thabiti’s exhortation, and I take it to heart. I will do my level best to keep this conversation where his clear-headedness has allowed it to come. I can’t promise the moon because for all I know someone is preparing an attack blog right now accusing me of some outrage or other.
Thabiti’s first point had to do with our natural inclinations, and how averse we are to the very idea of slavery. This concern has to do with the very nature of slavery. But I want to make sure my natural inclinations are shaped and governed by the Scriptures. This includes particular texts and laws, and it includes the grand sweep of God’s redemptive purposes, which will eradicate every form of slavery. God will wipe away every tear, and all manner of things shall be well. But on the way to that glorious finish, we do have to be honest with some of the angular texts that we are sometimes tempted to gloss over.
I share Thatbiti’s natural recoil away from this kind of servitude. But I also know, as a student of Scripture and history, how much my “natural inclinations” have been shaped by the course of the gospel through the world. I don’t see this shaping as a bad thing — but it can become a bad thing if I allow my Scripture-created sensibilities become a retroactive judge of Scripture. Once that happens, we have moved from an orthodox understanding of progressive revelation to a liberal and evolutionary approach. This issue really is crucial to me. If we allow the latter, it will be about ten minutes before we are “evolving” on same sex marriage.
For example, I have said in other settings that slavery as governed by the law of God under Moses was a form of indentured servanthood, which I do believe and hold. But my accusers have not really pursued me into the tall weeds for details on this point because, at least for my Christian accusers, my point as stated gives them a pass as well as giving me one.
In my apologetic work, I have to answer unbelievers who have read their Bibles. They often know what is “in there” better than some Christians do. When I call them to faith in Christ, and to a complete acceptance of His holy and infallible Word, a number of them know what I am asking them to do. They know about the guy who was stoned for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. They know David’s method of taking scalps. They know what happened to Adoni-bezek’s thumbs and toes.
We have to deal with the text of Scripture as it stands. We have to reverence it as it stands. But this next thing is important to note: In pointing to some of these angular texts on slavery (texts that challenge how “natural” our current natural inclinations might be), I am in no way looking for a false return to them — as though Christ had not come. Redemptive history cannot be rolled back up again, like it was a carpet.
That said, our enjoyment of the liberty that the Spirit has given to us now should not have to rest upon a denial of the words that this same Spirit gave to His people then. In other words, I want to accept what the Spirit has given us while at the same time remembering what the Spirit has said to our fathers and to us — and without apologizing for any of it. And getting the context right is not the same thing as apologizing for it.
In short, I have a theology of progressive revelation that I believe gives an honest account of all these issues. But too many Christians don’t give an unflinching account of these texts, but rather give rather a glancing and oblique account of them.
That said, here goes:
“If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself. And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever” (Ex. 21:2-6).
“And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property” (Ex. 21:20-21).
“And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake” (Ex. 21:26-27).
In the first instance, a man certainly might feel pressure to indenture himself to his master for life for the sake of keeping his family intact. Sure, he became a slave for life freely, but the alternative was leaving his family. This law makes my natural inclinations go gakkk! but in the ancient Middle East, it was an instance of astonishing liberality. In the second case, a master is punished for killing his slave, but he is not punished if the slave survives for a day or two. Under those circumstances, his behavior was not to be treated as criminal. Sinful, perhaps, and I would say even likely. But the Mosaic code made a rough justice sort of distinction here that I do not see operating between Philemon and Onesimus (which came later in redemptive history). In the third case, the law is rightly placing limits on the abuse of slaves, but again it is a rough justice kind of scenario. As I have consistently argued, these sorts of restrictions have a pedagogical role, and over the long run they subvert the worldview that makes these untenable situations possible. But there is my gradualism again — the “long run.”
After the closure of the canon, we have the same sort of difficulty. Thabiti and I agree completely on the logic of the book of Philemon, and we agree that Philemon also “got it.” But blind spots are not eradicated all at once. There were Christian masters, then and more recently, who didn’t “get it.” They were true Christians, but talk to them about the unfolding of redemptive history, and they were likely to ask you what that had to do with the price of cotton. Suppose such a man, not an ogre, but not a profound Christian either, had some Christian slaves in his household. Suppose that those Christian slaves had been taught to read, and they had read Philemon, and they “got it” and their master didn’t. What do we tell them? We tell them not to despise their master (1 Tim. 6:2). And we, a century and a half later, should take care not to despise them either.
We should consider them our brothers, faithful and beloved, and we should seek to learn from their mistakes. We should consider ourselves, lest we also be tempted (Gal. 6:1). But we should remove the beam of abortion from our enlightened eye before taking up the task of removing the specks, or the beams, from the eyes of other generations.
In other words, I believe our Christian brothers 500 years from now we look at our behavior now, in the present crisis, with as much consternation as they look at our brothers at the time of the Civil War. History really is a mess.