First Evangelicalism, Now W-w, but Still Hope for U.S.A.

Thabiti Anyabwile concludes his interaction with agitated Southern Baptists over social justice by making some odd concessions. If race relations started to unravel big eva in 2014, with a major goose from the 2016 election, it now looks like racism is making Neo-Calvinist w-w diagnosis look like nonsense.

How? Anyabwile faults Tom Ascol’s evidence for the influence of critical race theory (aka cultural Marxism) in evangelical circles as insufficient or anecdotal:

Sometimes people note a correlation or a suspicion and pronounce with certainty that a movement or an infiltration is there. I think that’s largely what’s happening when people claim a “movement” exists. Some look at the number of followers on Twitter or the number of returns on a search as “evidence.” But raw numbers tell us nothing about whether those Twitter followers agree with the one they follow or whether the followers were even purchased. Raw numbers of “hits” on searches tell us nothing about whether the content of the hits were for or against the subject searched.

The entire discussion is being built on an inadequate evidentiary approach. We have a low bar that actually breaks the rules of evidence in most every field, and it proves too much.

It used to be in New Calvinist and Neo-Calvinist circles that w-w was sufficient to spot a problem. You did not need to rise to the level of a movement to show that an idea or practice was sinful or destructive. Now, Anyabwile wants Ascol to show the institutional apparatus seemingly if he is going to prove that critical race theory is present in evangelicalism. Would that also mean that we need evidence of a movement to prove that sexual infidelity is making some gains in American society and the church?

Oddly, though, Anyabwile concedes that critical race theory is behind one of Truth Table’s hosts’ recent comments:

On the first point, consider Tom’s listing of Ekemini Uwan’s comments at the Sparrow Conference. He offers it as proof of secular social-justice ideologies infiltrating evangelical spaces. It’s true that Ekemini’s comments have much in common with the fields of whiteness studies and CRT. She uses “whiteness” not as a reference to skin color or even race but to a social ideology rooted in power and greed. But that’s a view at least as old as Frederick Douglass’s writing, well before CRT/IS, cultural Marxism, or today’s social-justice trends.

As long as Frederick Douglass argued that way, the ideas must be okay. So much for Abraham Kuyper.

But Anyabwile leaves room for hope. He argues that just because the founders of the SBC held slaves, we do not throw out their entire theology:

Tom leads an organization called “Founders Ministries.” It’s a reference to the theology and ministries of the founders of the SBC. Founders is dedicated to calling the convention back to the theological commitments (doctrines of grace) of those founders, among whom were men like Basil Manly Jr, who owned 40 slaves. Manley would not be the only early leader of the convention who owned slaves. In fact, the convention was formed following a split on the question of slave owning. You could say the SBC was the pro-slavery denomination. Its flagship seminary, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently issued a report documenting that institution’s history on the question of slavery and racism. The report indicates that the seminary’s founding faculty—James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams—all held slaves and, in some cases, actively defended the practice. Yet such men are cited in books and sermons as heroes of the convention and of evangelicalism.

Now, here’s the question: Are we to attribute all the beliefs and commitments of the founding leaders of the SBC and Southern Seminary to Tom as a leader of “Founders Ministries”? If a person expresses indebtedness to Boyce, Broadus, Manly, or Williams for their writing on some subject, are we to attribute to that person anything or everything we find repugnant in Boyce and company or their writings on that subject? I would answer an emphatic “No” to both questions.

By way of analogy, the same point applies to Americans who defend and memorialize the American Founding. Just because Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin owned slaves, we do not reject all that they did, especially the institutions and political rationales they left behind.

If Anyabwile is willing to entertain that sort of sifting of the American past, he needs to write a letter to the New York Times (and maybe send an email message to Jemar Tisby).

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A Federal Department of Sanctification?

Pastor Anyabwile is back to the pursuit of social justice with a series of posts, the most recent of which renders those not active in opposition to racism as complicit with previous generations’ sins:

The actual debate is about the extent to which the sins of previous generations still mark this generation, and, if so, whether people today will acknowledge and repent of it. What is in dispute is whether a mere claim to not being guilty of certain sins constitutes either repentance or innocence when the sins in view actually require active opposition and when we may be unaware of some sins (Ps. 19:12; 1 Cor. 4:4). The life the gospel produces ought to be actively anti-racist, anti-oppression, anti-family destruction, and so on.

How could Anyabwile leave out sexism and misogyny, or climate change? How can any American stand on that great day of judgment for sins covered in the national press?

One of his posts includes the point, not very controversial, that the gospel involves renovation of the Christian’s moral life:

…historically and at present we have an evangelical Christian church generally failing at the ethical half of the faith. That failure results from little teaching and inadequate understanding of gospel ethics, especially as it relates to the practice of justice on a range of issues.

The conservative and Reformed evangelical church receives a heavy dose of gospel doctrine (appropriately so) but not nearly enough discipleship in gospel duty. Its witness is being hurt by the latter (duty), not the former (doctrine). Or, to use Paul’s words to Timothy, there’s need for the church to “closely watch its life and doctrine.”

The social justice “debate” appears to me as a kind of spiritual and intellectual dissonance caused by some quarters of the church awakening to the ethical demands of God while other quarters resist that awakening or perceived excesses in it. From my vantage point, Christians pursuing justice are attempting to hold together evangel and ethic in renewed ways as they apply biblical texts and appropriate history. (I stress Christians here because I am not defending and am not a part of the large number of non-Christian things traveling beneath the banner of “social justice.”) To put it simply: Some Christians are trying to grow in their understanding and pursuit of Bible- and gospel-informed justice, while some other Christians are invested in protecting the gospel from threats they believe they see. My critique of the latter is that they appear to be severing evangel from ethic.

Here’s maybe not the but a thing: ethics is not justice. Ethics may not even be sanctification. But if social justice and supporting reform of the criminal justice system (which is desirable) is a form of sanctification, the good pastor has engaged in some serious baiting and switching.

Truth be told, the United States has a Department of Justice that is involved in much more than ethics:

To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.

Of course, recent controversies, from Russia to Missouri, have shown how flawed the execution of justice can be. But that’s the nature of society and justice in a fallen world. Heck, not even sanctification is entire in this life for the individual Christian.

So why does Pastor Anyabwile continue to talk about social justice in ways that indicate he is a Christian nationalist, that is, someone who thinks the United States should meet, not Jewish, Muslim, or Mormon norms for social life, but Christian ones?

Why not separate the church from the federal government and talk about ways to eliminate racism from national institutions on political grounds, rather than trying to turn political reform into the third use of the law?

White Supremacy Paves the Way for Asian-Americans (go figure)

While Thabiti Anyabwile claims Bradly Mason as an authority on systemic racism, he might want to pay attention to the situation in New York City public schools (as explained by Andrew Sullivan):

If I were to put a time capsule in the ground to alert future generations what it was like to live in 2019, I think I’d include two simple documents: a video and transcript of one of Donald J. Trump’s deranged and unnerving rallies, and a chart used by the New York City schools system to train all its administrators, principals, and supervisors. The chart’s title is “White Supremacy Culture” and you can take a look at it here.

Back in the day (about five years ago, actually), if you thought of “white supremacy culture” you might have imagined, say, depictions of brutal slavery, crackpot theories of a master race, photographs of burning crosses on lawns, terrifying images of lynchings, or “whites only” signs, or a video of the Charlottesville neo-fascists. You know what I mean. And I think I’d be glad that public schools were educating employees about America’s original sin.

But that, of course, is not what “white supremacy” has come to mean among woke elites in 2019. And the chart, which is taken from a tome called Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book for Social Change Groups, explains what the term now means. Namely: “being results oriented and diminishing an otherwise-sound process which does not produce measurable results”; “seeing things in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, black or white”; “individualism”; “worship of the written word”; an overemphasis on “politeness”; “perfectionism”; “focusing only on the bottom line.” Now, if I were to give this material every benefit of the doubt, I’d note it’s perfectly reasonable to attempt to mitigate some kinds of obsessive conduct, excessive self-criticism, or distorted perspective among kids. We all know that perfectionism can lead to misery (tell me about it), that short-term thinking can be counterproductive, or that students need to have interpersonal skills as well as mastery of the written material. I’ve no doubt principals and administrators get this. But why on earth is this connected in some way to resisting “whiteness”?

But what this document clearly does is much more than that. It seems to me that it finds some essential features of success in America (or anywhere else, for that matter) as somehow racially problematic. And so a major school system is effectively telling principals and administrators not to expect the very best of their mainly minority students, not to reward individual effort, or mastery of written English, to instruct students that there are no binary choices between right or wrong, and to banish from their minds any notion of objective truth. The problem with objectivity, it seems, is that it “can lead to the belief that there is an ultimate truth, and that alternative viewpoints or emotions are bad. It’s even inherent in ‘the belief that there is an objective truth.’” This is not just bad education, it’s an assault on the very principles that buttress Western civilization.

Worse than this, the ideology equates excellence in objective tests with not just whiteness (whatever that is) but white supremacy. And it does this in a school district with enormous racial diversity. It’s hard not to infer that it is an official endorsement — by the schools chancellor no less — of the damaging canard that studying hard in school, doing your homework, and striving for excellence is “acting white.” And this is despite the fact that the ethnic group that is succeeding the most by traditional standards of excellence in New York City’s schools are Asian-Americans. (They comprise 74 percent of students at Stuyvesant High School, because Stuyvesant doesn’t admit students on any other metric than test scores.) Funny, isn’t it, how “white supremacy culture” ends up empowering nonwhites. I’m not sure real white supremacists would be down with that.

I’m often told that the social-justice left’s assault on individuality, meritocracy, and achievement is a figment of my imagination, or only true in isolated pockets of super-woke academia. But here is one of the largest school systems in the country imposing this ideology on its most important employees, mandating lessons in “whiteness,” allegedly firing women solely because they are white, and indoctrinating an entire generation into associating the virtues of objective truth, academic excellence, and reason with the worst kind of bigotry.

Notice that we have elites in Reformedish evangelical circles, those who want to do for Protestant churches what public school officials are doing in New York’s school systems.

How did it possibly happen that in the microscopic world of conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches we could have our very own elites?

Social Justice circa 2009

If you read some people, you might get the impression that the gospel and social justice are synonymous. But words change meanings, even if some people have trouble understanding that a reference to “race” in the 1930s is not the same as one in the 1880s or the 1980s.

Consider how only a decade ago, the Gospel Allies were talking about social justice in ways that no one could use after Michael Brown, Ferguson, and Black Lives Matter. For instance, Kevin DeYoung wrote a series on social justice in Scripture that found almost no reference to race. Here is how he summarized it last year (even!):

Several years ago, I worked my way through the major justice passages in the Bible: Leviticus 19, Leviticus 25, Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22, Amos 5, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46, and Luke 4. My less-than-exciting conclusion was that we should not oversell or undersell what the Bible says about justice. On the one hand, there is a lot in the Bible about God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. There are also plenty of warnings against treating the helpless with cruelty and disrespect. On the other hand, justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world. Doing justice means following the rule of law, showing impartiality, paying what you promised, not stealing, not swindling, not taking bribes, and not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you.

So for simplicity sake, let’s take biblical “social justice” to mean something like “treating people equitably, working for systems and structures that are fair, and looking out for the weak and the vulnerable.” If that’s what we mean, is social justice a gospel issue?

Even Thabiti Anyabwile seemed to be persuaded:

We seem to put social justice at odds with gospel proclamation. Many today don’t think these can easily coexist. They think that to fight for justice as the Christian church inevitably means the abandonment of the gospel. They may be correct. For since the Civil Rights Movement, the gospel has been thoroughly confused by too many in the African American church with liberation and justice itself.

To be sure, Anyabwile went on to question those who make too strong a contrast between the gospel and social justice:

to preach the gospel and have no concern and take no action in the cause of justice is as much an abandonment of the gospel as mistaken the gospel. How can a faithful gospel preacher preach the gospel before slaves and never wince at the gross barbarity of that peculiar institution? How can a man claim to live the gospel with fellow brothers in Christ and yet uphold laws that disenfranchise, marginalize, and oppress those same brothers?

Well, what exactly counts as taking action? Is it tweeting? Writing a post for a parachurch website? Calling a legislature? Standing outside an office with a placard?

What also is “upholding” laws that disenfranchise? If someone says nothing are they guilty of upholding existing laws? Or is it a case of speaking out or “taking action” against some laws but not others?

Abandonment of the gospel is a tad strong for a condition — “taking no action” — that is so arbitrary and inexact.

At the same time, once upon a time Anyabwile fully endorsed DeYoung’s point that Christians should stop using the phrase social justice:

Stop Using the Term “Social Justice”!

Not even John MacArthur and fellow signers went that far.

Something changed between 2009 and 2019. It could be that history clarified all the ambiguity (even if it did not change what the Bible — a fixed set of texts — says. Or it could be people have changed their minds. If Ferguson is the turning point, it sure would help to hear some reflection on ways in which a country that has persistently practiced racism only in 2014 became so egregious that now some people had to build up word counts and twitter followers.

If It Is Not a Gospel Issue, What about Gospelly?

The Gospel Allies are not helping to clarify what is and what is not a gospel issue. Their brand is slipping away.

Kevin DeYoung comes the closest to adding clarity when he writes:

“gospel issue” should not be shorthand for “you must be passionate about all the same things I’m passionate about.” Nor should it be synonymous with notions of “building the kingdom” or “transforming the culture.” By the same token, preachers must be careful lest they allow CNN and Fox News, not to mention Twitter and Facebook, to set the agenda for their weekly pulpit ministry. If pastors in our day let cultural concerns crowd out the preaching of new birth, repentance, and justification by faith alone, it wouldn’t be the first time in the church’s history that the “gospel” became more social than gospel.

But then he the North Carolina pastor taketh away with this:

And yet, “gospel issue” need not mean any of these things. If “gospel issue” means “a necessary concern of those who have been saved by the gospel” or “one aspect of what it means to keep in step with the gospel” or “realities without which you may not be truly believing the gospel,” then social justice is certainly a gospel issue. When biblically defined, social justice is part and parcel of loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s part of keeping the second table of the Decalogue. It’s part of doing the good works God has prepared in advance for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10).

So there is the gospel issue of preaching the new birth and justification by faith alone, which leads to the gospel issue of good works that are the fruit of saving faith, and those good works or the third use of the law bring social justice into view or the views of social justice warriors into view.

In a similar way (as Justin Taylor observes), D. A. Carson says something good:

For some Christian observers, cessationism is a gospel issue. In their perception, the charismatic movement is characteristically afflicted by one brand or another of health, wealth, and prosperity gospel that distances itself from the gospel of the cross: this makes the matter a gospel issue. Some forms of the charismatic movement so construct a two-stage view of spiritual wholeness, the second stage attested by one or more particular spiritual gifts, that the nature of what Jesus achieved on the cross is in jeopardy. Others, it is argued, adopt a view of revelation that jeopardizes the exclusive, final authority of Scripture, and this threatens the gospel that the Scripture heralds. But other Christian observers, fully aware of these dangers and no less concerned to avoid them, nevertheless remain convinced that at least some charismatics manage to display their gifts without succumbing to any of these errors, while self-consciously holding to the same gospel that the observers hold. In other words, for them the charismatic movement (or, from the obverse direction, cessationism) is not necessarily a gospel issue. They want to avoid building legalistic fences around their positions. Once again, it is difficult not to see that personal experiences and sustained habits of assessment have entered into one’s judgments. Determining whether X is a gospel issue is often more than a narrowly exegetical exercise.

To put the same matter another way, another sort of example might be introduced. We have seen how the doctrine of penal, substitutionary atonement is usefully considered a gospel issue provided (a) that we have adopted a robust definition of the gospel, such that (b) to disown that facet of the cross-work of Christ necessarily diminishes or threatens the gospel. But I have not heard anyone recently suggest that the exemplary function of the cross is a gospel issue, even though Peter unambiguously insists that Jesus died leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps. This is as much a gospel issue as is penal, substitutionary atonement, even though it is not treated in that way today, precisely because it is not one of the controverted points. In other words, the things that we debate as to whether they are gospel issues reflect the hot topics, and especially the denials or errors, of our age. That is one of the reasons why I mentioned the filioque clause and the eternal generation of the Son at the head of this editorial: at one point, they were very much considered gospel issues. The second of these two is currently making something of a comeback—but certainly if we are careless about them, our carelessness suggests how our own theological foci have shifted with time and demonstrates once again that discussions of the sort “X is a gospel issue” commonly address the errors and dangers of a particular age. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it is in any case an inevitable thing. But it should be recognized for what it is.

In other words, the nature of salvation is at stake either explicitly or implicitly in debates about the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ on the cross.

Then Carson raises matters of politics and social relations to the level of “gospelly”:

Certainly the majority of Christians in America today would happily aver that good race relations are a gospel issue. They might point out that God’s saving purpose is to draw to himself, through the cross, men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation; that the church is one new humanity, made up of Jew and Gentile; that Paul tells Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus as his brother, as the apostle himself; that this trajectory starts at creation, with all men and women being made in the image of God, and finds its anticipation in the promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Moreover, the salvation secured by Christ in the gospel is more comprehensive than justification alone: it brings repentance, wholeness, love for brothers and sisters in the Christian community.

But the sad fact remains that not all Christians have always viewed race relations within the church as a gospel issue.

More worrying, survey after survey has shown that in America today, even among those with a robust grasp of the gospel, black Christians and white Christians do not view these matters exactly the same way. Even where both sides agree, on biblical grounds, that this is a gospel issue, black Christians are far more likely to see that this is a crucial gospel issue, an issue of huge importance, one that is often ignored, while white Christians are more likely to imagine that racial issues have so largely been resolved that it is a distraction to keep bringing them up.

Carson seemed to recognized that doctrinal matters are properly theological and concern the way that man becomes right with God. But then he gives ground an allows that questions surrounding social relations, and specifically societies that are comprised not simply of Christians but of non-Christians, are “gospelly.” He does not seem to consider why should non-Christians ever consent to be governed by the “gospel issues” defined by Christians. And whatever happened to allowing those with expertise in public policy, law, governance, and electoral politics set the debates about race relations and laws about bigotry rather than thinking any Christian whose read a book by Keller or Carson think he is competent to pontificate about laws governing hatred or prejudice (which is kind of complicated in a society where freedom of thought is a long and cherished ideal).

And then, a golden oldie from Thabiti Anyabwile on how a matter of policy becomes “gospelly.” After the federal grand jury’s determination not to indict Ferguson police offer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown, Anyabwile told readers (I am assuming they are Christian because of that “gospelly” thing) that they have three options:

We may turn the television and turn our heads and continue the unusual business of business as usual. . . .

Or, we may declare the matter resolved and proclaim from the burning rooftops, “The system worked.” . . . Our civic ideals require we remain involved in an open, honest discussion about what worked and what didn’t so that what we cherish isn’t slowly eroded by our inattention. That inattention is no option for the righteous, either.

The only course forward for all of us is that active engagement that applies and seeks to live up to our highest ideals. The debate about what constitutes “justice” is part of the process. The review of our systems and the amendment of laws is part of our highest ideals. The righteous must work to keep the foundations from being destroyed. They must walk by faith and they must do the good deeds that lead to life.

Notice the move back and forth between we “the righteous” and “civic ideals.” I assume and have heard Anyabwile enough to know that he believes a person is only righteous because of faith in Christ imputes that righteousness to the Christian. So why mix a theological category with a political one — righteous with civil? This is not clear, but it does in lean in a Social Gospelly direction. The mixing of civil and theological categories becomes even more intermingly:

There is no way people of good conscience or people of Christian faith can look at the events in Ferguson and conclude there’s nothing left for us to do or nothing that can be done. No, both pure religion and good citizenship require we not settle for what’s happened in the shooting of Michael Brown and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision. The Ferguson grand jury has given us our marching orders. They have ordered us to march for a more just system of policing and the protection of all life. We are obligated–if we love Christ or love this country–to find a way forward to justice, a way suitable to the dictates of our individual consciences and the word of God.

If the United States is a Christian country, maybe this sort of co-mingling of theology and law works. But we are not in Christian America anymore.

If you listen to Anyabwile’s comments about the recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, you hear him complain about the failure of the statement to define terms like “social justice,” “intersectionality,” Marxism, and the like. It doesn’t seem particularly fair or just to be prissy about words when after four years you are not any more clear about the gospel and social justice than John MacArthur.

How to Achieve Racial Solidarity — Apply Ben Franklin’s Racism

When Thabiti Anyabwile complains about white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump, he should remember that Ben Franklin defined racial solidarity differently than the Washington DC pastor does. According to Franklin:

The Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased.

By that reckoning, many people of color voted for Donald Trump on Tuesday. It might undermine Anyabwile’s point (already attempted). But it would be a way of achieving the “white” identification with African-Americans for which the pastor strives.

He’s Only a Priest and Only Gives Homilies (now)

But Bill Smith still raises good questions for any pastor, priest, bishop, or pope who pretends to think his spiritual jurisdiction gives him credibility in the civil realm. His questions also apply to those w-w advocates who think that Christ’s lordship justifies Christian rule (of course, in a benign way these days unlike those old heretic executing ones) over all things:

a) What would Jesus preach about Black lives matter?

b) What would Jesus preach about the economic system in the United States?

c) What would Jesus preach about Wall Street?

d) What would Jesus preach about healthcare? Would he want to repeal, maintain, or expand the ACA?

e) What would Jesus preach about the upcoming national election? Would he preach that one party serves the interests of righteousness and justice better than the other?

f) What would Jesus preach about Islamist terrorists? the godly U.S. response?

e) What would Jesus preach about voter registration, voter ID, etc.?

g) What would Jesus preach about military readiness, the military budget, and the use of military power?

h) What would Jesus preach about foreign aid?

i) What programs to aid the poor would Jesus endorse in his preaching?

j) What would Jesus preach about immigration? Would he preach in support of a wall? of barring Muslim refugees? Would he preach in favor of deporting, granting citizenship, or granting permanent residence to illegal immigrants?

k) What would Jesus preach about gun control?

l) What would Jesus preach about the vacancy on the Supreme Court?

Our favorite priest puts these questions to Thabiti Anyabwile who said “I don’t think [politics] can be avoided if you’re committed to expositional preaching of the sort that makes contact with contemporary life.”

But isn’t it the case that if you want to connect with contemporary life, you really connect and talk about specifics? Or is the point of bring politics into the pulpit a way for the pastor to seem like he’s not operating in an ivory tower or removed from real life? (At least when Pope Francis comments on contemporary life he doesn’t go to Scripture but to — ahem — the authoritative magisterium of social teaching.)

But what happened to Paul’s preaching which distinguished between contemporary and ephemeral things and those truths and realities that endure?

For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:11-16 ESV)

The priest’s lesson, then, is that pastor’s need to be wary about appealing to the itching ears of the natural man that still lurks within.

Male Pattern Sensitivity

Who is more sensitive?

Bill Smith in response to Thabiti Anyabwile on crazy Confederate uncles?

I should not have to say these things, but I will, though I know some, perhaps including Brother Anyabwile, will take it as the equivalent of “I have black friends”: (1) I have no sympathy for the League of the South. I have never been to Monroe, Louisiana, or attended a Confederate Ball. While I am eligible for membership, I have not joined the Sons of the Confederacy because I do not want anything to do with the racism of some of its members. (2) In seminary in the early 1970s I spent two summers working as an assistant to a black Presbyterian pastor in Jackson, MS. (3) I was run off as a RUM campus minister, with a wife and five babies, in part because of my racial views and practice. Ours was the only integrated RUF in Mississippi, and we integrated the statewide conferences. I stood by an interracial dating couple which included my sitting in an office hearing one of them described as a “white N-word” by a person threatening my job. (4) I have a love-hate relationship with the South, and particularly with Mississippi. Mississippi is a place where place (both geography and status) and people (your family and social group) make a great deal of difference. I hate indirection and insincerity in relationships. But the South is like my family. I can point out theie faults, but if you go to talking bad about my people, I’ll bow my neck and clench my fists. (5) I read B.B. Warfield and listen to B.B. King.

But, nevertheless I am one of those crazy Confederates I suppose because I am (1) white (so far as I know, though there are questions) , (2) Reformed (in my case defined by the 39 Articles); (3) western (in civilization – the “dead white guys”); (4) Southern (by heritage and affection).

Like all paranoid schizophrenics, I feel I have been persecuted.

Or Jemar Tisby on Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson?

So, Blacks were happier during the Jim Crow era? Does he assume that all Blacks now are on welfare?

I’ve actually heard similar reasoning quite often. Usually these comments come from older Whites who grew up in the South and remember it fondly. I understand their point. They look back on their experience of a historical moment that was mostly positive, and they want to remember it that way. The problem in a segregated society, then and now, is that our perceptions tend only to reflect our particular realities. We have little exposure to the realities of others, including an awareness of their hardships.

What Phil Robertson and others get wrong is how they diagnose the state of race relations in America. They use external cues like the frequency of a smile, and their personal exposure to overt instances of racism to judge the climate of a culture. But what some people fail to understand is that there are unwritten rules of conduct when Blacks interact with Whites. . . .

It’s possible that Phil Robertson knew Blacks who were genuinely happy. It’s possible that in his community there truly were exceptionally positive relationships between Blacks and Whites. It’s possible, but not likely. What’s probably closer to reality is that he saw Black people who knew the rules. They knew what they could say and do around Whites who held the power. Even if those Whites were lower-income or “white trash” as Mr. Robertson describes it. There was still a cultural curtain separating the races.

I am merely asking, since it seems that everyone is sensitive and that everyone also expects others to moderate their sensitivity for the sake of getting along, though Joe Carter may differ.

I do believe that Tisby is correct to conclude that:

We all need to examine our tools of discernment. What are we using as evidence for a hypothesis about a people? Are we employing superficial and anecdotal proofs for our theories? Or are we engaging in meaningful dialogue with those who are different from us?

I am not sure that Anyabwile or Smith’s posts meet Tisby’s guidelines, nor do I think either man is without a point. The issue may be whether each man can acknowledge the other’s grievance, or whether one grievance trumps the other and lowers Tisby’s threshold for “meaningful dialogue.” That’s why Ross Douthat’s point (in the context of “12 Years A Slave”) is worth repeating:

A fruitful conversation about race in America, then, would require both sides to somehow pick a different starting point. To get a fair hearing from liberals — and, more importantly, from black Americans — the right would need to begin from a place of greater empathy for the black experience, and greater respect for the historical reasons that voter ID laws and Rush Limbaugh soliloquies can raise so many hackles. To get a fair hearing from conservatives, liberals would need to begin by imputing racism less frequently, attacking racially-entangled policies that aren’t remotely like Jim Crow on the merits rather than just calling them Jim Crow, Round Two, and recognizing that (as with Hitler analogies) the sooner you link your interlocutors to slaveowners, the faster they will tune you out.

Obama-era conservatism has often gone backward, not forward, where this potential conversation is concerned. But a liberalism that expects conservatives to see their present-day positions and rhetoric illuminated and condemned by a cinematic portrait of the evils of slavery in 1840s Louisiana — or that declares them unreachable when they don’t — is a liberalism that’s as unready for dialogue as any insensitive right-wing talk show host.

Will Piper, Carson, and Keller Alone Be Left Standing (or why don't rappers rap about Native Americans)?

Readers at Old Life know that Puritanism is not on the A-list of favorite topics (unless it is to kvetch about experimental Calvinism). But the recent discussion of Propaganda’s song, “Precious Puritans,” has me reaching in my apologetics tool box (as if John Frame taught me nothing or that I ever heard of Propaganda before).

The issue so far seems to be whether or not to criticize heroes. Anthony Bradley, defender of Propaganda, argues for a sensible outlook on historical actors:

Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.

Thabiti Anyabwile concurs at his Gospel Coalition blog (though the irony is rich since TGC is pretty averse to criticism of its theological celebrities):

That’s why we need people less infatuated than ourselves to tell us the plain truth we miss. As I read the exchanges, the folks who seem to have the greatest difficulty with the song are the folks who seem (sometimes they say so) to have the highest appreciation for the Puritans. That’s the pedestal Prop mentions. By definition, raising someone to a pedestal means lifting them beyond critique and realistic assessment. If we “pedestalize” our heroes, we’re bound to miss things and we need others to point to it. But, we don’t like to have people kicking around our pedestals. Our idols may topple and fall. For instance, I don’t like people kicking around the pedestal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I grew up with a grandmother who kept a cheesy painting of Jesus, King, and Kennedy hanging on her living room wall. Jesus was elevated in the center of the picture, with the requisite soft yellow halo, while King and Kennedy appeared on his left and right. Makes you wonder if the painter ever heard King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. But many evangelicals have the habit of mentioning plagiarism and adultery and “liberal theology” whenever Dr. King’s name is raised. And there’s something in me that kicks back, defends, guards the pedestal and remembers the painting.

2kers, Matt Tuininga and Scott Clark, approve generally the points made by Bradley and Anyabwile. First Tuininga:

. . . we need to ask what it was about Puritan piety that made them so vulnerable to the vices and injustice of racism and exploitation. Of course, the Puritans were not unique in this.

And Clark:

If nothing else, this is yet another reminder of the folly of the “golden age” approach to history, the idea that says “if only we could get back to period x.” Such a program will always disappoint because it always depends on a mythologized view of a past, a story about a past that never really existed. Colonial America was not a golden age, not if one was an African bought and sold by “godly men” who, as creatures of their time, were unable to criticize the peculiar institution of American slavery.

What is missing from this discussion is not a defense of the Puritans or of slavery — though I would suggest it is possible to defend the Puritans without defending slavery — but what is lacking is a critique of the holier-than-thou anti-slavery meme. Of course, slavery is unjust and of course, racism is despicable. But is it possible to see problems with the anti-slavery? The charge of slavery, like that of racisim, paints with a broad brush. It lacks nuance. It renders the world manichean, akin to the old line about pregnancy — you can’t be a little bit with child. In which case, if you owned slaves or are guilty of racism, no need ever to consider anything you have to say. You will forever be known as a slaveholder and racist the way that we now know Jerry Sandusky as a one dimensional pervert.

For instance, is it possible to make distinctions between orthodox slaveholders and Unitarian ones? If so, is it possible to say that the orthodox slaveholder’s theology is better than the Unitarians? In which case, is it possible to read slave holders’ theology and benefit from it? Can we separate aspects of historical actor’s life or does his wickedness go all the way down? The differences between Reformed confessionalism’s 2k posture, which separates holy, common, and profane matters all the time contrasts here with Reformed pietism which disdains all such distinctions under the canopy of “all is religious.” Of course, if we can’t separate matters, then readers should avoid Old Life at all cost not because I own slaves but because I — can you believe it — sin.

In other words, inherent in the anti-slavery position is not a form of genuine Christian reflection but one of perfectionism. This is a one-strike and you’re out scorched earth policy, with certain sins achieving red-letter status. If you break those, we’ll never hear from you again. This has happened with the American founders, slaveholders and chauvinists that they were, among large sectors of the academy. It also explained why mainline churches don’t read older theologians — the PCUSA’s awkward attitude to Princeton Seminary’s bi-centennial is an example. This trend seems to be afflicting evangelical Protestants. No surprise there since nineteenth-century evangelicals fell prey to this binary perfectionism back in the antebellum era.

And if a similar cultural perfectionism is seeping into the evangelical world, when will denunciations of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and the West more generally follow? The lyrics of Propaganda’s song point out the problem.

Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.

So what is the pastor to do? If he says, “the English theologian,” before quoting doesn’t he bring up all the enormity that went with English colonialism? What will the Native Americans in the congregation think? Or how about “the Calvinist theologian”? All monarchists who think well of the Stuarts will be put off with that nasty business of regicide. Or how about if the pastor quotes a male theologian, will feminists quiver and melt?

Are all of these offenses equal? Probably not and it would be hard to find any monarchist these days. But other minorities do have their list of offenses and if we only listened to the pristine, we’d be left quoting Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Keller, and Mrs. Carson.

Perhaps the best way out of this dilemma is to toughen up. After all, how happy were the early Christians hearing the apostle Paul quoted in their worship services? Wasn’t he the guy who helped kill Christians? In fact, if we apply our standards of social justice all the way through the past, we will have to close the good book altogether. The reason is that none of the Bible’s saints could withstand our moral rectitude.