Harder Than It Looks

In his next to last post in this exchange, Thabiti said some things that were no fun for him to say, and I appreciated him saying them to me anyway. I appreciate it as much as I appreciated the things we agreed on. He says, “I pray this post has made even incremental progress to that end [working through these differences charitably],” which, speaking for myself, I believe we have. As has been obvious, where we differ, we do differ considerably, but I count it an honor to finish this exchange with the same eye toward true edification that I am convinced Thabiti has.

Thabiti accepts my rejection of racism, which I am very grateful for. But he goes on to outline why he believes that I am guilty of racial insensitivity. In his usual, careful way, he wants to begin with the definitions.

“It seems to me that discussions of this sort require definitions, lest we descend in a spiral of allegations, dismissals, and counter-allegations.”

The definition he proposes is this:

“I would suggest it’s a certain inability or unwillingness to sense and lovingly consider the concerns, feelings, and perspectives of others across racial lines.”

I would like to amend this definition, but I will put my alternative definition forward later, after I interact with Thabiti’s particular citations of my purported insensitivity. Suffice it to say for now that Thabiti’s definition does not leave room for those situations where “the other person’s feelings” are hyper-sensitive, manipulative, or tyrannical. Although it is not in the definition, Thabiti does appears to leave room for the possibility of this kind of problem in this statement:

“I don’t know if they get the final word, but the person so hurt should at least have the first word. And the person doing the hurting should really stop and listen for what they missed.”

But here is the problem. Is the person hurting, or are they pretending to be hurt? Is the person doing the hurting actually doing so, or is it an alleged hurt? Is it an actual charge, or is the defensive player flopping in front of the ref? We live in a fallen world, and so there are true offenders/true victims. I do not want to minimize the reality of that at all — but it is not the only reality. We also have to deal with alleged offender victims/professional offendees. That happens too.

It is doubly important that we take this into account if we think of it as a potential matter of church discipline. If Thabiti believes that Matt. 18:15-17 or Titus 3:10 are in play, as he appears to, then that means everything has to be confirmed in the mouths of two or three witnesses — it cannot rest on the basis of how certain people feel. If the feeling is enough to convict, then no one is safe. This is a charge that cannot be defended against.

In a situation as volatile as this one has been for us all, we have to ask whether I am driving on the sidewalk, or whether people are throwing themselves in front of my car. Expanding the metaphor, driving on the sidewalk really is a Matt. 18:15-17 offense. But so is jumping in traffic and falsely accusing others of driving on the sidewalk. That should be considered a Matt. 18 offense also.

We need to use equal weights and measures. The measure we use is the measure that will be used on us (Matt. 7:1-2). This particular round was begun when Bryan Loritts accused me because of how he felt about Black & Tan. But he made a very similar accusation against men who wouldn’t be caught dead writing B&T, but who did have very reasonable questions about T.D. Jakes’ orthodoxy. So how much should this accusation be weighed? And last year Anthony Bradley started a similar ruckus, and then refused to work through it. That’s not going to get us anywhere. If you want me to consider things that I might be able to correct, the best way to start is not by accusing me of things I know I would never do.

But in stark contrast to the responses I usually get, I believe that Thabiti has been judicious and careful throughout our entire exchange. That is precisely why this exchange has been more fruitful than some of the others have been.

All this said, let me summarize the instances that Thabiti cites as examples of my racial insensitivity.

1. He quotes a section of my book that said that slavery in practice was more benign than the rhetoric of the abolitionists made it appear. His point was that this was just stated baldly, without any apparent recognition that for blacks today, abolitionists were heroes. He feels I did not acknowledge how horrific slavery was in the American black experience.

2. Thabiti argues that to use the phrase “paleo-Confederate” is really off-putting to people I am not trying to offend, and so I should (if I insist on using it) be much more careful in how I set out my definition of it.

3. Thabiti objects to how I categorize the “inferiority of black culture,” and breaks this objection down into three sub-sections. His first is that my scale of superior/inferior appears to be in the grip of the false standard of “civilizationism.” Second, he points out the irony of me saying that Southern culture was superior when they were in the middle of committing the outrage of slavery. And last, he points out that the notion of “superior cultures” is an idea that has led to “imperialistic abuses.”

4. His fourth citation was my use of the Sambo illustration, pointing out how deeply offensive that word is in the black community.

5. Thabiti’s fifth example is one where he cites a paragraph where I acknowledge white sins, but then go into much greater detail on the sins of the black man, which he believes was an example of my jaundiced eye. Why do I itemize the sins of one, but not the other?

6. And last, Thabiti believes that I spoke beyond my knowledge of black culture and black Christian leaders when I went off on Margaret Sanger and the abortion war and other cultural atrocities that are being inflicted on blacks today.

I trust I have heard these objections accurately. Let me work through them, and then return to the all-crucial matter of defining racial insensitivity. I will try to be brief in these responses, lest I be outdone by Tertullus before Felix(Acts 24:4). Who wants to be tedious?

In what I am about to say, I am not faulting Thabiti. I believe that this round illustrates better than some of the other exchanges how different groups can say something, and know that they have said it, but still have their words be largely invisible to another group with a different set of expectations. This is no reason to give up on the work of racial reconciliation. Rather it is why we have to recognize it as genuine work, and redouble our efforts at it.

1. Thabiti quotes one portion of my book, and then says this: “This, the central premise of the book, fails to sense how horrific an experience slavery was for African Americans.” But from my perspective, this is something I labored to acknowledge throughout the book. Just a few samples: “slavery was no bagatelle” (p. 21); “deplorable” (p. 101); it was bad enough to be the just cause of “fierce destruction upon the South” (p. 101); we used words like “deplorable, wicked, evil, despicable, cruel, inexcusable, abuse, immorality,” and “criminal barbarity” (p. 101). Thabiti doesn’t see that I did this, but I can say before God that I honestly tried to say it.

2. On the use of the phrase paleo-Confederate, the original context of that use is really important. I wasn’t trying to come up with a name for a new ministry — Paleo-Confederate Outreach or something. Rather, I was in the middle of a robust fight trying to detach myself from the label neo-Confederate that certain slanderers were trying to attach to me, and I was trying to do this without making the fatal mistake (in this kind of controversy) of backing down in the wrong way, or for the wrong reasons. So I wasn’t trying to get to paleo, I was laboring to get away from neo.

3. This is a larger cultural issue, and I don’t really see how it ties in with racial insensitivity. I believe that the gospel bears cultural fruit, and that it causes cultural advance. I believe it does this with all human cultures, and I am opposed to any abuse of this grace, whether by racists or imperialists. I don’t want to answer for the wicked deeds of men who drew the wrong conclusions from what I regard to be an obvious fact. When God showers us with His grace, it is always too easy for us to take false-hearted credit for it. I would join with Thabiti in condemning all such vainglory. But I don’t want to deny the obvious to keep people from being conceited about it. Some people, in the vanity of their hearts, are proud about their height, for example. But as a spiritual problem, this cannot be fixed by pretending that they aren’t really that tall.

With regard to Thabiti’s second sub-point, I am happy to grant it in numerous settings. Technological superiority and ethical inferiority don’t cancel each other out.

4. Again, the Sambo point was autobiographical. That section was describing a scene that I believe was an agitprop set-up. There had been a race riot in my high school. I had come out of my class, and saw a line of cops running by with billy clubs out. I walked around to the front of the school, which took just a few minutes, and there was already a lawyer on the front steps holding forth to reporters while the riot was still in progress. Now I really believe that there are true racial grievances in the world — and have said so over and over. But I don’t believe that they should switch on and off depending on the presence or absence of cameras. This was a sham event, a set-up. So when I was asked to be on a panel with other students, and somebody else brought up Sambo, like he had anything to do with it, my response was to treat it with the seriousness I thought it deserved. Sambo didn’t cause that riot.

That said, if someone came to Canon Press today and wanted us to publish the Christian equivalent of Little Black Sambo, my response would be “do we look like idiots?” And I wouldn’t want to publish that today because I think to do so would be racially insensitive. It really would be.   

5. Thabiti felt that I focused on black sins instead of white sins (which I did do in the place he cited). But there are numerous places, in B&T and elsewhere, where I catalog white sins in a similar way. It is a long section so I won’t quote it, but p. 32 in B&T has a long list of how insufferable white people have been. Darwin, Sanger, Shaw, and Hitler all had knees that were the same color as mine, which is to say, the color of a dead mackerel by moonlight. And there has even been an example in this conversation of ours.

6. Under his sixth point, Thabiti thought I was charging him personally, and I want to hasten to say that I was not doing that at all. As he mentions, I don’t know him and I wasn’t trying to pretend that I did. But ironically, the paragraph he quotes under his 6th point is one that I could easily cite to answer his concern under the 5th point. That paragraph was almost entirely a list of charges against white liberals — their bigotry, their destructiveness, their bloodthirst, their fawning over black rap quislings, and so on. There was one passing reference to unnamed black men who are too passive in the face of such white oppression, and then there was this concluding statement.

“Brothers, I don’t have a problem with you standing up for and protecting your people. I do have a problem with your failure to do so.”

The kind of thing I mean here would be the levels of black evangelical support for President Obama, levels which are generally known. There are high levels of support from black Christians despite his policies on things like abortion. I was not pretending to know what any particular black preacher preached on last Sunday.

So with all those words behind us, here is how I would suggest that Thabiti’s definition of racial insensitivity should be modified. Italics are my additions.

“I would suggest it’s a certain inability or unwillingness to sense and lovingly consider the legitimate concerns, the natural feelings, and understandable perspectives of others across racial lines.”

What sin is being committed by someone who is truly being insensitive about race? The sin would be, bottom line, a lack of love. We are told to cover all our dealings with love, we are told to be knit together in love, and we are told to pursue it as the chief grace. As the elect of God, we are to put on tender mercies,

So how would I fare if charged with racial insensitivity, using this definition? I would plead the following — I am certainly not unwilling to sense and lovingly consider the legitimate concerns, the natural feelings, and understandable perspectives of others across racial lines. I believe myself to be entirely willing, and if there is any place where I am somehow unwilling (unknown to myself), I am willing to be made willing. In short, I have no desire whatever to be a boor when race is concerned.

Inability? Under this heading, I would consider factors like cultural blind spots, ignorance of what a word or phrase means to somebody else (e.g. Sambo), etc. With that understanding of it, I am sure that I have been guilty in the past, and would certainly want brothers who see it and who care for me to point it out. James teaches us that the wisdom that is from above is “easily entreated” (Jas. 3:17), and that is the kind of wisdom I always want to have. With that said, I would therefore like to seek Thabiti’s forgiveness for affronting him in some of these areas he has mentioned. His forbearance throughout our conversation has made it plain to me that he is not one of those who is working a system of racial grievances, and he is therefore not the kind of person that I want to have hurt in this way. My apologies. And I would want to extend this to any who are in the same position that Thabiti has been in.

If this were all, life would be easier than it is. But remember that we also have to factor in the fact that some basketball players are lying there on the floor, and I didn’t come within two feet of them. I am still willing to point this out to the ref, and am willing to point out they have no business holding their ankle like that. I am most willing to be charged with racial insensitivity under these circumstances. I am unwilling to be a racist, and unwilling to be racially insensitive (second definition), but I do not know of any way to be a faithful Christian in this time of ours without drawing those charges.

Real racial reconciliation is not a game, and so if we want it, we have to stop playing games. We have to be willing to have conversations in which everybody says what they actually think, and where we all stay at the table after we have said it. That’s what love actually looks like.

Thabiti mentioned we might finish this off with a summary statement from each of us, which I think would be good.

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