The Designated Ambition Pole

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In the brief moment of calm that has descended upon our discussion about race and slavery, a calm that was provided to us by the weekend, I thought I should insert a quick comment here on what it was that made me think it was a good idea (back in the mid-nineties) to go into print on the topic of American slavery and our current culture wars. There are various theories out there on this subject, including the one that posits that I am an idiot, but this is a theory that I have not found compelling so far. Sure, the evidence is abundant enough, but it is too disorganized. Needs to be footnoted. Somebody needs to go into the archives.

I am listing this under “Autobiographical Fragments” because these are personal notes, more like background material than part of the argument proper.

The first thing is that Paul Hill, executed in 2003 for the 1994 murder of a Florida abortionist, was a former Presbyterian minister, and was operating out of “our circles.” He had been excommunicated from a church pastored by a friend of mine for his radicalism (before the murder); he had been a seminary classmate of Steve Wilkins, co-author with me of Southern Slavery As It Was; I met his wife at an ACCS convention while he was awaiting execution. This was an era when the pro-life movement was hoping to bring everything to a head through things like Operation Rescue. In fact, I was arrested once at a rescue in Spokane, although I later rethought my participation in confrontational challenges like that. When we printed an editorial on that rethinking in Credenda, Paul Hill wrote a letter to our magazine (from prison) to argue the point with us. Paul Hill very much thought of himself as a modern John Brown, and he wanted the spark that caused the whole nation to blow up to be a violent spark that he could provide. Shooting an abortionist was how he sought to do it. There were multiple reasons for thinking at the time that there was a distinct possibility that this kind of provocative escalation could work. This was the kind of logic that we were trying to head off.

And so this is the background to my standing question. If we could bring an end to abortion in the United States by precipitating a war (or by trying to), should we do that? Abortion is at least as great an evil as slavery was. Abortion is at least as great an evil for black culture as slavery was. If you allow for gospel gradualism now, then why is my urging a gospel gradualism in 1858 a thought crime? And if gospel gradualism was sinful then, why isn’t it sinful now? I ask these questions, not as a cute hypothetical, but to explain an important part of how I came to these convictions in real time, and why I went into print with them. And if I am successfully shouted down by some in the Internet brigade, the question still remains. If it was noble then, we should be doing it now. If we shouldn’t be doing it now, then we should allow reasonable questions about why we shouldn’t have been doing it then. But what we may not do, if we have any integrity at all, is allow our cowardice to become the exclamation mark next to the courage of our ancestors, which for some reason is the option that many modern Christians choose.

But there was also one other reason for going into print on the subject of slavery the way I did. I grew up in evangelical circles, and I know how the system works. Whenever something promising starts to develop, it is not long before what I have called the “suits and haircuts” move in so that they might package and shrinkwrap the whole deal and ship it off to Evangelical Marketing Central (EMC). At that time, I saw enough real promise developing here in Moscow that I was afraid of that kind of thing happening to us, and so I decided to douse the altar with four barrels of water, three times total (1 Kings 18:32-35). Let me change the metaphor. I decided to make myself radioactive. Let me change that yet again. I wanted a ministry that was angular enough such that the shrinkwrap machine would have a real difficulties with it.

It is not that I didn’t want to be used by God. I most certainly did. I was ambitious — both the right kind, and the kind that needs to be mortified — as in, kilt daid, as Samuel Rutherford might say. I remember telling Nancy once early on that I wanted to change the world. I did, and still do. But I didn’t want to make a difference by shinning up the designated ambition pole. And so I pulled a stinker. I believed it was necessary for me to become genuinely unmarketable. I did it by maintaining something that was (as I knew at the time) the historigraphic equivalent of blacking out a couple of my front teeth. If the altar ever burned, it would be a wet altar that burned.

But it couldn’t just be an arbitary thing — it had to be something I really believed, and it had to be significant enough to really matter, and that takes us back to the first point about Paul Hill. The question of shooting abortionists was more than a debating point back then. And, for people who know their history, and how people tick, it is more than a debating point now. It is a critical question that requires an honest answer.

“In all generations useful preachers of the gospel have been objected to by a portion of the community. Mere chips in the porridge may escape censure and mildly win the tolerance of indifference, but decided worth will be surrounded with warm friends and redhot foes. He who hopes to preach so as to please everybody must be newly come into the ministry; and he who aims at such an object would do well speedily to leave its ranks” (Spurgeon, Eccentric Preachers, p. 12).

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