Reading the latest two posts by Thabiti, which you may find here and here, I am more convinced than ever that he is a gracious Christian gentleman. I continue to be privileged to be in a discussion with a man of his caliber, and I trust this post of mine will move us farther into edifying territory. I wish I could go as far as Thabiti would like, but there are some underlying theological reasons why I cannot. I do want to make clear that I am up against the barriers of conscience here, and that I am not tripping over personal egotism or pride. That said, I trust that Thabiti will be encouraged by how far I can go.
Since I am the one in the dock, this presents a rhetorical challenge. It is very hard to avoid looking defensive when you are the defendant. Fortunately, we have a case in hand that I can talk about without me sounding all prickly.
In an earlier post, Thabiti had used in passing the example of Trayvon Martin, saying that he had been killed for “walking when Black.” Some commenters were offended by that, and registered their objections. In this post, Thabiti offers a sincere apology for that statement. Now I have no doubt that he is doing this sincerely, and doing so because he believes it is necessary. This shows, at the same time, that he is not operating with unequal weights and measures. Thabiti is asking me to do nothing that he himself is not obviously willing to do. I find this encouraging because it make it clear to me that I am debating with an honest man.
But here is the catch. I cannot accept Thabiti’s apology here because I don’t think he wronged me. He didn’t offend me, or hurt me in any way. I cannot think of any passage of Scripture that prohibits him from making a point like that in a discussion like this. Given his premises, I thought it was a fair point, fairly made. When I read that I was surprised, but my sentiment was along the lines of huh. It showed me that Thabiti was reading the news very differently than I have been, but that is not a sin. If the claim about Trayvon was factually wrong, as I believe it was, then it did weaken the point he was making, but he didn’t sin against anybody by making it. He didn’t sin against me, the non-offended, and I don’t believe he sinned against those who were offended. This is why I think we all need to listen to the Eagles a little more and get over it.
Now push it a little further. If Thabiti had apologized to “any who might have been offended,” that could be made to sound too qualified and weasely. So he didn’t do that. He apologized to his readers — across the board. But that would include at least three kinds of people — those who were offended at the remark, those who were not offended at all, and then those who were offended by the apology. Are there no people out there who believe absolutely that Trayvon Martin really was murdered for walking while black, and that Thabiti briefly stood up for him, but quickly dropped it when some white commenters got their feelings hurt? Why do those feelings not count?
We are dealing with thousands of people, remember. If you don’t apologize, some will be offended. If you do apologize, others will be offended. And this brings out the hidden structure of the system. Apologizing to those whose feelings are hurt is an impossible way to run your life. There has to be a system for hierarchically arranging who gets the apology and who doesn’t. It is my contention that in controversies like this one, that system of sorting is helpfully provided by the zeitgeist, which appoints the officially-approved, designated victims.
Summarizing my daughter Rachel on this, not only does the squeaky wheel get the grease, the squeaky wheel defines the world. When we are done, we are all crammed into a room full of emotional hostage takers, which is to say, we are crammed into the early 21st century.
This brings us to Thabiti’s second post, where he is trying to measure how much progress in reconciliation we have actually made. Let me begin by noting how much we agree on the need to say what we are really thinking, and not doing that as a prelude to storming out and slamming the door. I am glad we agree this is harder than it looks. I am also confident that Thabiti is not in any way playing gotcha with me. He has my best interests in mind, as I have his.
Thabiti lists three sets of questions, questions which basically ask if I believe that I have been racially insensitive in the comments he pointed to, whether I joyfully own my responsibility in it, and if I am willing to act according to this by making more specific and clear apologies.
He then says this:
“If it’s “no” to one or more, then I’d like to know what I could do to help him see my perspective more fully. What have I not done that might give him a sense of things from within my shoes, and by extension the shoes of others who react similarly to his writing in Black and Tan?”
First, I think I understand his perspective very well. He is a clear and good writer. I think I have a much fuller understanding of why honest Christians have the views about B&T that they do. I have been edified by this interaction; it has been helpful to me. Thabiti has left nothing undone that would have helped me see how he feels about this. I am very grateful for that aspect of all this.
But he has left something undone in a couple of other areas, and these areas are the only reason I have written on these subjects at all. These are the things that I would need to have resolved before I could give a blanket apology. These two areas are the angular text problem and the need we have to be faithful in our generation when confronted with evils much greater than slavery.
I sometimes feel like too many Christians are staring at a lonely rook on a dark square, while I am staring at the whole chessboard. They want me to move the rook over one, and it seems that as soon as that is accomplished they will be able to say “our work here is done.” But I know, from long experience, that something else will happen then, that somebody else will make a move, and then I am going to be pondering again — and I don’t want to be pondering what to do with fewer pieces.
I want to take my Scripture the way I take my whiskey — straight. But I know that I live in a day when countless people are stumbled and offended over the harsh and hard realities of biblical teaching. Moreover, we live in a time when this offense that people are taking is a move that has no little traction in evangelical and Reformed circles. This tactic works. It doesn’t just work on theological liberals. It works on us. We live in a time when people are offended at the Bible’s declaration that sodomy is a sin, or that wives are to submit to their husbands. We live in a time when ostensible Christians want to print a Trigger Alert Study Bible. Now this move is being run on us, and we are not handling it well. We don’t know what to do with it. This is really bad because God gave this screwed up world a gospel that was deliberately fashioned as a skandalon.
I don’t want to go down that road at all. I want to be an apologist for the Christian faith, but I don’t want to be the kind of apologist who draps secularist tinsel on Jesus in a lame effort to make Him more attractive to hipsters. I don’t just believe in sola Scriptura — it is tota et sola Scriptura. All of Scripture and only Scripture. This means that when somebody says that they find the word submission offensive, I want to be as likely to point to a passage they would find ten times worse than I am to sandpaper the Bible passage they found troublesome.
“You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:45-46, ESV).
I know our current generation well enough that if I start apologizing for things I said that are much milder than things I read in my quiet time regularly, then my days as an intellectually honest apologist are numbered. I have begun to tailor the Bible to my patterns of speech instead of the other way around.
In short, it is not enough to call ourselves inerrantists. We have to be people of the Book, and not apologize (on God’s behalf) for things that outsiders might find offensive. My account of how God removed slavery from the world runs parallel to how I think He removed polygamy from it. I think it is honest with the text, with the flow of redemptive history, and with vision of future glory. That doesn’t make my account right, but I think my account has to be better than no attempted account at all.
The second area I need to have addressed before I could consider apologizing for this language of mine is the area of biblical obedience today in our cultural dilemmas. The 19th century was not the first generation to face great evil, and it was not the last. Some of them acquited themselves well, and some did terribly. But we are not sitting around a seminar table, flipping idly through the pages of history books that have no relevance to us. The abortion carnage stands out. The sodomite revolution stands out. We are responsible to be obedient.
Now what I am looking for is an account of the conflicts of the 19th century that will enable us, in good conscience, to model our behavior after the behavior of those we deem worthy of imitation. What should they have done? is not an antiquarian question for me, because the next question, asked almost immediately, should be, how can we be faithful today like they were?
So that’s it. In order to apologize for Black & Tan across the board, I need a way forward that won’t apologize for, or ignore, certain parts of the Bible, and I need a coherent understanding of our cultural history that enables me to stand in a long line of faithful men.
I know that Thabiti may have asked me for the time, and I gave him the history of watchmaking, but it is my best shot at explaining where I am coming from. That said, again, let me conclude by thanking Thabiti for being the kind of man I want to be sitting at this table with.