Patrick “Nostradamus” Henry

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I know that some of you all have been following this, but in case you haven’t, let me try to bring you up to speed. Last week Bryan Loritts posted on my book Black & Tan, and you can read him here. In the course of responding to my book, he also associated me with some things that were kind of outrageous, but that is also par for this course.

I responded to Bryan here and here.

Someone then asked Thabiti Anyabwile on Twitter what he thought of the whole thing, and he responded by saying that the hammer ought to be dropped hard on any defense of slavery. The problem with that is that I don’t want to defend slavery. This whole thing has to do with what the most scriptural way of resisting slavery would have been, not whether slavery ought to have been resisted.

As a result of all this, I reissued the invitation we had extended to Anthony Bradley last year when this thing had flared up, and I also invited Bryan Loritts to visit us, along with Eric Mason and Thabiti. We would pay their way out here, or I could go there — let’s see what we can work out. That cluster of invitations should be understood as a standing invitation, indicating our willingness and desire to meet face-to-face.

As a result of all this, Thabiti and I have had some private communication, and he has begun a blog series on Black & Tan. The first is a defense of proceeding in this way, found here. I have no disagreements with his right (and responsibility) to discuss my book publicly. So that was fine.

His second post, found here, was a summary of my views as he understood them. I commented on his blog that he had understood them very well, and he was the first critic in over ten years of high profile controversy to do so. My esteem for him, already high, went even higher. Those interested might want to check out Thabiti’s nuanced view that cultural ethnicity is a bigger player in all this than biological race. That said, Thabiti’s summary of my view was very well done — I recognized myself in the summary, which is not usually the case.

This morning he published his first critical interaction, which you can read here. As a result of how he is approaching all this, I consider it a privilege to be interacting with Thabiti on this subject, and I pray that God would use this exchange to edify His people.

In the same spirit Thabiti showed to me, let me first summarize his two basic arguments in this most recent post (as I understand them), and then see where it goes. I would appreciate it if Thabiti could let me know if I have faithfully summarized his two objections to the underlying logic of my book. If not, I will seek to make any necessary adjustments.

First, Thabiti says that the authority of Scripture was not really in question in the Civil War era. Believers, both North and South, had a very high view of Scripture, and made their respective cases from Scripture. There were certainly radicals like Garrison, who were dismissive of scriptural authority, but they generally had the effect of freaking everybody else out. This had the effect of causing mainstream believers to double down on their allegiance to Scripture. Thus, where I represent the antebellum debates over slavery as indicating a shrinking away from scriptural authority, Thabiti sees just the reverse, a high commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Thus, my trajectory argument — lack of submission to biblical authority then growing into a much worse lack of submission to biblical authority now — fails. As he puts it, “the authority of the Bible was not widely in question during the country’s long dispute over slavery and its end.”

His second point was this: “The Federal action to end slavery in 1865 can’t be causally connected to Federal actions today.” Thabiti argues that the issue is not Federal power so much as whether or not that power is being wielded in a righteous or an unrighteous way. If most Christians today would be happy with an exercise of federal power to prohibit homosexual marriage, or to extend federal protection to the unborn, then how can we be unhappy with federal power doing a good thing like freeing the slaves? Where I would see an ominous federal aggrandizment of centralized power, starting in 1861, Thabiti sees the federal government doing something righteous in the mid-ninteenth century, and at some later point they went over to the “other side,” which resulted in them doing unrighteous things in the latter part of the twentieth century. So for Thabiti the issue should be the content of the federal government’s decisions, and so it is improper for me to draw an ominous line from an earlier “righteous decision” to later “unrighteous decisions.”

This is my understanding of why Thabiti does not believe the “driving inner logic” of my book works. On the assumption that this is a fair summary, here would be my response.

Thabiti appeals to Mark Noll’s book, The Civil War as Theological Crisis, and I would recommend that book highly as well. This is a point where we will be defining terms, not disputing facts. I agree with Thabiti (and Noll) that Americans both North and South at the time of the war had a very high allegiance to the formal authority of Scripture. I also agree with Thabiti that one side tended to privilege one set of texts while the other side tended to privilege another set. This is a common phenomenon in virtually all theological debates, and it was no different with this one. Two factions of Christians can collide over a particular doctrine, even if they are inerrantists on both sides — sometimes, especially if they are all inerrantists.

Where this objection to my position fails is that the kind of biblical authority I was talking about in my book was a view of authority shown in obedience, and not just with formal willingness to appeal to Scripture to justify what you already wanted to do. I grant the formal authority that Scripture had at that time.

We can identify the practical problem when someone offers a time travel machine to us, since we have just said in a sermon or something that “the Bible has the answers,” and he will send us back to 1858 to explain to them what those answers are. We are all being Monday morning quarterbacks here, but if we are reconstructing what the Bible “would have said” back then, had everybody been listening, what would it have been? That is the question. Now I believe that it should be possible to take all the passages and themes of Scripture into account. That is what I have been attempting to do. If God had had mercy on our nation, and had sent a prophetic voice to explain to the people then the way of obedience, what would that obedience have looked like?

We didn’t need such a voice to get them to affirm their allegiance to Scripture. We all agree. We had that. But there was something we didn’t have — obedience.

True views of biblical authority, rightly understood, require obedience in application. It requires more than obedience to the verses “your side” picked out in order to defend. Jesus said in the Great Commission that we were to teach the nations to obey all that He had commanded. We have substituted teaching what He commanded for teaching obedience to what He commanded.

So I do not dispute that our formal commitment to Scripture was high. But as the blood bath that resulted illustrates, that is not the same thing as true obedience. Americans of the mid-ninteenth century would have been able to sign a robust statement of faith when it came to the formal authority of Scripture. Unfortunately, that didn’t keep us from disobeying it. Not only did we disobey it, we pushed all the chips to the middle of the table as we did so. The stakes were very high (600,000 dead), and in our blindness we went for it anyway. Christians on both sides disobeyed the “other side’s” verses, forgetting that all of them were God’s verses.

So my reply to Thabiti’s point here is that we can agree we went from high view of Scripture > low view of Scripture, but I would say the real issue is the line from their disobedience > our disobedience.

The second point has to do with biblical structures of governance. In order to draw support from thoughtful Christians, I believe a biblical worldview approach to godly rule has to deal with structure as well as content. Biblical worldview civics has to include both. How we arrive at our decisions is as important (over the long run) as what decisions we make. For example, any powers you give to the office of the Attorney-General when a Good Guy occupies that office will be a power that is still there when a Bad Guy shows up.

There is an important point in recognizing the difference between good guys and bad buys, and righteous decisions and unrighteous ones. Sure enough. But there is another level, and that is the level of understanding that you are creating a political power in a world where good guys and bad guys rotate through office.

The Founders wanted to create a form of governance that famously utilized “checks and balances.” They were afraid that if those checks and balances eroded, the way was opened to ungodly tyranny, and the nature of man would ensure that ungodly tyrants would find that open way instanter and go straight through it. And here we are, watching the great Tumor of the Potomac metasticize before our eyes.

Prior to the War, the Bill of Rights restricted the power of the federal government (“Congress shall make no law . . .”), and the states were the partial guarantors of that set of restrictions. As a result of the War, the Reconstruction amendments, and how those amendments came to be interpreted in subsequent court cases, the Bill of Rights was then applied to the states, with the federal government becoming the final arbiter of what was “constitutional” or not. An important constitutional check on centralized tyranny had been removed.

Thabiti says that federal actions today cannot be “causally connected” to federal actions two centuries ago, but I believe a biblical view of why we need appropriate limits of political power does enable us to see such a causal connection. Indeed, I believe Patrick “Nostradamus” Henry laid the whole thing out in front of us beforehand, and in chilling detail. I believe he even identified the unlocked door of the judiciary as the place the tyrants would get in.

So it has now been deemed constitutional, for example, for going on half a century, that American babies can be chopped up into little pieces. The content of Roe was appalling, of course, but we need to ask how and when it came about that the federal government got the structural power to tell almost all the states that were protecting unborn life that they had to cease and desist with that protection. It didn’t come from a clear blue sky, so where did it come from?

I do not want to be seen as dismissing the importance of the content of a government’s decisions. I know that in a strict federalist structure, as we had before the War, it was logically possible for one of the states to legalize abortion and homosexual marriage. What then? For a righteous nation, that would have been a constitutional crisis of a different kiind. I am of a mind that if a nation cannot survive half slave and half free (as I believe it cannot), then how much less can it survive if some of the states allow for summary executions of her smallest citizens? Such a set-up is not tenable, about which more in a minute. The survival of our republic really is at stake in these issues.

At the least, there should have been a provision for secession, as well as a provision for involuntary secession — expulsion. Why? As Madison put it, men are not angels, but pursuing that point now would take us too far afield.

And this brings me to my last point, one not responding to Thabiti at all. This ends my response to Thabiti — but my brain was still full and so I kept typing.

This is why I believe that this whole issue is not a futile rehash of ancient history. As Dabney once said, be sure the old issues are dead before you bury them. Remember that we are obligated to obey the Scriptures, and not just nod at them. If we grant that we are confronted with social/cultural/political evils today that are every bit as horrendous as what was going down at the time of the Civil War, then what we think about the War should shape and drive what we are going to be doing next week about our evils. That is, it will shape us if we are men of integrity. If we are weather-vane men, it won’t matter because in that case, we will easily figure out the politically-correct direction to point. Easy — and the wind promises to help us.

In short, be careful what you prove in this debate because you are now responsible to live that way.

Why are we back-seat-driving for the Virginia plantation owner, or the Massachusetts farmer, when there is an abortion clinic just three miles from your house? What are we going to do about that, and why? Anything you praise a century and a half ago is praiseworthy now, right? Anything you condemn now should be condemned back then, right? If you would shoot somebody for doing “bad things” then, you should shoot somebody for doing worse now, right?

Confronted with the present evils, we cannot deny that they are evils. The death toll from abortion is approaching 100 times the death toll of the Civil War. And in this, future black generations have been heavily and disproportionately targeted. Does anybody deny that? If you allow Margaret Sanger to speak for herself, this targeting of blacks was a design feature. We know what that white woman thought of her “human weeds.” Where are the black prophets?

Then a bunch of other white people, with that do-gooding grin on their faces, got out the bulldozer of the plantation state, fueled it up with the purity of their intentions, and have been industriously destroying the black family for over a generation. Why is Bill Cosby the closest thing to a prophet we have in this situation? I say this with some trepidation, because I remember (what I think was) Thomas Sowell’s definition of a racist — anybody winning an argument with a liberal.

Do we Christians all just shuffle our feet, look a little sheepish, clear our throats, and start talking about leaven in the loaf, gradualism, gospel presence, evangelization over time, I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow? Now I do believe Paul taught principled gradualism, but not our self-serving, expedient throat-clearing kind. However, I believe he did teach gradualism. This principled gradualism is what I have argued should have been the approach at the time of the Civil War, and this is why I am not a clinic bomber. But why are you not a clinic bomber?

Virtually the entire Christian world shuns the idea of going to war over abortion. But if someone stupid (me, for instance) says something like “and so why didn’t we do that with a lesser evil in 1858?” such a one is instantly and conveniently represented as a ravening orc with a tenuous grasp of historical source materials. This level of defensiveness tells me that something much deeper is going on.

This is because most people, Christians included, use history as symbolic place-holders, and not as the names and dates of real people and events — people as they actually lived and thought, and events as they actually went down. But when history is used in this way, it is almost always in defense of the status quo. And if the status quo is disobedient, well, then, that might explain some things. The issue might not be the ancient sins, but the ones right around the corner.

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10 years ago

I think I understand what you are saying.   You’re saying that we as Christians shouldn’t have gone to war in 1861?