Thabiti has not only been a faithful and charitable interlocutor, he is also a formidable one. I thank God for him.
Again, let me begin with a summary of his most recent contribution. This is my understanding of his most recent post. Thabiti believes that many of my different issues are more easily distinguishable than I believe them to be, and he sees other writers doing every day what I have declared to be very difficult to do. Further, he sees my failure to put clear distance between the issues like racism and (for example) constitutional limitations of government as a failure that naturally causes some of my critics to see red. Thabiti has found (and understood) my denunciations of racism, but he wouldn’t want me to think that I made it easy for him.
“I find here a great inconsistency and mismanagement of priorities. Surely human life must rank higher in importance than governments. Though governments are appointed by God, they are appointed to preserve justice and life (Rom. 13). It seems Wilson’s commitment to the cause of the Old South prevents him from asking or ranking African American life above constitutional disputes.”
First, I want to take the center of Thabiti’s exhortation to heart. Just this morning in my Bible reading, this verse struck me. “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10).
Ministers are stewards of the manifold grace of God, which means that we must give an account for how we use our words, for how we teach. We don’t want any of our petty priorities to get tangled up with the “manifold grace of God.”
I do understand how some people would just stop listening when I say something like “I would have fought for the South,” and dismiss everything after that as just so much gas. I thank Thabiti for not doing that, and for the opportunity to explain what I consider as important in this kind of circumstance.
When I was a little boy, I once went down to a drug store near our home and bought a comic book — it was one of those Sgt. Rock kind of things, with some hard-bitten American fighting his way across the Pacific. My father, a veteran of the Korean War, found me with it, and made me take it back. The reason, as he explained carefully to me (in a way I have never forgotten), was that the Japanese enemy were drawn in that comic book as decidedly sub-human. (My mother was a missionary to Japan, arriving there in 1947.) It is sometimes terribly necessary to go to war, but when a Christian does so, he must never forget that he is fighting with fathers and sons and brothers. He is fighting people with families, families that are dear to them.
It is far too easy for us to go to war with cartoons. We envision battle as simple and glorious — elves to our left and right, and the orcs out in front of us. And when war breaks out between nations that have heavy Christian populations, the issues become even more complicated and tragic. The legendary stories about unofficial Christmas truces in the First World War come to mind, and it would be things like that that can just break your heart. Another example would be the truce I once read about between Union and Confederate forces . . . in order to conduct a baptism in the river between them.
In the Civil War, there were godly Christians on both sides. There were vicious scoundrels on both sides. There were slave-owners on both sides. There were racists on both sides. It was famously a war between brother and brother — but it was also a war that often pitted brother in Christ against brother in Christ. David had more in common with Abner than he did with Joab, go figure, and that is one of the consequences of living in fallen world.
But we still have to use equal weights and measures. The judgment with which we judge, we shall be judged. If a Christian today joins the American military, is he fighting for abortion rights, pornography, and same-sex marriage? Well, not really, but it would be fairly easy to represent it that way a hundred years from now.
Thabiti believes that I am mistaken for choosing the abstract concept of “constitutional liberties” over the plight of flesh and blood slaves, who were real people suffering in real time. Stated that way, of course, I would agree with him. I am told in Scripture to love my neighbor, and I ought not privilege some political idea I have over against the genuine suffering of my brothers and sisters. But what if the idea is to love my brothers and sisters? This is an example of how I tend to see various issues as very tightly woven.
Constitutional liberties are not an abstract idea to be kicked around in civics class — constitutional liberties are what the slaughtered unborn in America have had taken away from them, along with their lives. So I do not set abstract principles over against slaves. I am concerned for people in this situation and people in that one. I am also concerned for the deficiencies of law that allowed for the rise of chattel slavery and the deficiencies of law that allowed for the American genocide that we are still in the middle of. I want to sort out the apples and compare them to one another, and then do the same with the oranges.
With all this stated, Thabiti raises a few particular questions that I need to answer.
“I couldn’t help but ponder why Wilson would preach 1 Tim. 6:2 to enslaved African Americans rather than 1 Cor. 7:21.”
What I would actually want to do is preach both passages to them. I would want to encourage them to seek their freedom at the first legitimate opportunity, and I would see embracing the spirit of 1 Tim. 6:2 as one of the effective ways of doing that. But there are other ways also. I would want slaves evangelized, taught to read and given Bibles. That done, they would run across this.
“Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him” (Dt. 23:15-16).
There is a very strong biblical case that can be made for a fugitive slave law that leans heavily in favor of a mistreated slave escaping from an abusive situation. Again, as I hope my appeal to this passage demonstrates, my central concern is fidelity to the whole counsel of God, and to all the relevant passages. I am not driven by a simple or jingoistic attachment to a region or a secular cause. All I want to do is defend the pure words of God in the middle of our very impure history.
Thabiti also makes this point:
“But I have no doubt that were the shackle on the other foot, every White reader of this conversation would have been seeking their freedom rather than rushing to biblical texts that seemed to require their acquiescence.”
I take Thabiti’s point here, and do agree with it. There is a strong temptation (for all of us) to read the Bible in self-serving ways, and to wonder why other people aren’t obeying their hard texts — those texts being the ones that are not pinching us at the moment.
But at the same time, there is a strong ebb and flow in history, and we should remember that our word slave comes from the ethnic Slavs. That was the result of border conflicts for the Holy Roman Empire in the ninth century. And most of the slaves entailed in Paul’s instructions would have been white, not black, and the general condition of slaves in that era was horrendous. It was not based on skin color, but it was still horrific. And Africa has been an equal opportunity place of misery when it comes to the unhappy topic of slavery. Not only were many blacks enslaved and exported (with many murdered on the way) from the west coast of Africa, Muslim raiders ran a robust slaving business off the north coast of Africa, importing white slaves (as many as a million over several centuries), captured and imported from Europe.
The human race is a piece of work, and we (all of us) desperately need the gospel. We don’t run our own affairs very well, whatever our tribe or skin color, and so we desperately need to listen to God.
As this exchange is (perhaps) coming to a close, I want mention just a couple of things. The first is that the differences between Thabiti and me are significant, and so I wanted to thank him again for his consistent fair-mindedness. In the grace of God, Thabiti and I are brothers in Christ, and I wanted to state publicly that I consider him to be my true brother in the strongest possible sense. The bonds of Christ are not shackles, and I am most grateful that water is thicker than blood.
The second thing is a standing invitation. As circumstances and the providence of God allow, I would love to meet Thabiti in person, shake his hand, buy him a beer, invite him to our home for a Sabbath dinner, and ask him to fill the pulpit at Christ Church on a Lord’s Day morning. My desire would be to do all of the above and more, but any one of them would be a privilege.