Mar

20

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|6:15 am CT

The Cost of Our Chosen Entanglements

We’re soldiers in a war. We have orders from our Captain. We dare not involve ourselves in civilian affairs. We must please the One who enlists us (2 Tim. 2:4). What good soldier would set aside orders from his Commanding Officer in order to enjoy the pursuits of civilian pleasure? Leaving his post would most definitely imperil his company.

Consequently, we must be very careful about the entanglements we choose. We must be careful to discern the difference between biblical marching orders and matters important to the many civilians who live around us. That’s particularly true of the pastor, a kind of lieutenant to the Commanding Officer.

Doug Wilson has offered a response to my last post, a post which appealed for two things: (1) a more radical (in the old sense of the word, meaning at the root) application of the Bible’s command to love and (2) a continuance of Wilson’s charitable tone in our discussion in future discussions of race, slavery, the Bible, etc. On this second point, I opined that Wilson might be more effective at communicating his points and less encumbered by false perceptions of his views if he would disentangle his rather clear statements against slavery and racism from statements that seem to celebrate the Old South, defend slave owners, and minimize the negative aspects of slavery.

Wilson responded, in part, by saying he fears “the racial situation in America has gotten so inflamed, people like me are not allowed to treat issues in isolation. Writing Black & Tan was racially insensitive? But so is orthodox Trinitarian theology anywhere in the neighborhood of T.D. Jakes. If allowed to speak on racism in a vacuum, I think I would do fine. But we don’t live in vacuum; we live in this messy thing called history.”

His next paragraph illustrates the intertwining of his views of political history and slavery:

I have said before that I would have fought for the South, despite the convictions I hold on the ungodliness of racially-based chattel slavery. I would have done this for various reasons — for limited constitutional government, against the Whig/Republican drive toward centralized federal government, against the tax/tariff policies of the centralizers, etc. Someone might urge me, “Why don’t you just drop the whole issue? Slavery is gone, man.” Right, and I never would have fought to defend slavery as such. Right, slavery is gone, but the centralizers are still here. The anti-constitutionalists are still here. The federal government is still here, as arrogant as ever. All the taxes and then some are still here. The Bible is still here, and its description of homosexuality as an abomination is still here. Fifty million Americans, 30% or so of them black, would have been here if somebody hadn’t twisted the Constitution into a surgical device for dismembering babies, red and yellow, black and white.

By intertwining these things, Wilson does not mean to suggest he shrinks back from the responsibility to denounce racism. “Now I still think it is my obligation to be crystal clear on the racism issue — because I believe genuine racism is a gospel-threatening sin — but our public discourse in these troubled times is structured in such a way that it is virtually impossible to speak God’s truth in a number of areas without incurring spurious charges of racism.” He simply means he cannot make such denunciations without involving himself in a number of other contested issues he sees as related.

I’ve tried but I’ve been unable to understand why Wilson sees the denunciation of racism as inseparable from “this messy thing called history” and “a number of areas… incurring spurious charges of racism.” Scores of writers distinguish those two things nearly every day in everything from blog posts to articles and opinion pieces to book-length treatments of either subject. We can pick up tomes on race and racism that make no mention of whether the Civil War was a crisis in constitutional polity or any mention of the Old South. Likewise, we can read numerous pieces on the Civil War that focus little on race and racism. In short, these issues are not as intertwined as Wilson thinks them to be. At least not where I sit and according to the plethora of treatments that avoid such commingling of issues.

Moreover, choosing to entangle the issues hurts both causes—either a stalwart, unclouded denunciation of racism or a revision of the South’s history and perception in popular, political or academic discourse. When entangling these topics revisionists of Southern history hurt their cause by leaving themselves open to charges of racism while opponents of racism hurt their cause by hitching their arguments to Old South revisionism. Neither side gains an audience.

Our Entanglements Sometimes Keep Us from Asking and Answering Other Important Questions

The cost of blending these topics run quite high. When Wilson writes, “I would have fought for the South, despite the convictions I hold on the ungodliness of racially-based chattel slavery,” it seems to me he fails to ask a critical question required by love: What about the lives, rights, and futures of enslaved African Americans? Are not these lives as important as the constitutional issues at stake? Are not the constitutional issues important precisely because lives are at stake? What about the constitutional issues makes them more important than one’s personal convictions “on the ungodliness of racially-based chattel slavery”? Do these considerations really trump human life?

Writing “I would have fought for the South, despite the convictions I hold on the ungodliness of racially-based chattel slavery” (emphasis added) can only mean that one was willing to countenance and take action to secure the continuation of “ungodliness.” Would we oppose God in order to secure the civilian affairs of the Old South? If we take the War to be a judgment upon the nation, why with the advantage of history’s hindsight would we still be committed to a cause that God condemned in judgment?

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. I think that’s the wrong set of priorities for a gospel minister, an ambassador of Christ, and a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. It seems to me that those priorities entangle us with civilian affairs, and those entanglements cost us clearer vision, consistent application of the Scripture, and human life.

On Terrorists and Freedom Fighters

As I read Wilson’s last post and skimmed over sections of Black and Tan, I couldn’t help but think of the old adage, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighters.” Wilson, siding with the Old South, sees himself as fighting for the freedom of the Southern States to secede from the union and organize life under their own constitution. I can’t help but see that as an act that would have further terrorized enslaved African Americans. I couldn’t help but ponder why Wilson would preach 1 Tim. 6:2 to enslaved African Americans rather than 1 Cor. 7:21.

Then I thought of my heroes in the dispute—the many African Americans who escaped to fight for the North, freedmen and free-born men who invested their precious life to join the Union Army, men and women who led the Underground Railroad, or “radicals” who mounted insurrections as occasion permitted. For me (literally, for me) they were freedom fighters—some more radical than others. Meanwhile, for others they were terrorists.

There are forms of “radicalism” other than the John Brown Harper’s Ferry variety. I think of the radicalism of a Martin Luther King, Jr., who, without recourse to violence, lived out the most radical sacrifice the Bible calls us to make: to love. To love our God, to love our brothers, to love our enemies. He wrote an impassioned letter explaining “Why We Can’t Wait.” The clergypersons who wrote to King asking him to “be patient” no doubt had their cultural, social, and political reasons for attempting to slow King’s movement. But “radical” that he was, he could not wait. With a preacher’s eloquence and biblical texts, he called a country to love and to the freedom love demands. I’m glad he didn’t wait. Because he didn’t wait I can write publicly to disagree with a White man and not fear loss of life or have to flee the southern city in which I now sit. I’m glad all those who heard the call of love chose to disentangle themselves form the laws of the day and to actively resist in nonviolent protest so that we might have a greater measure of freedom and justice for all.

Perhaps this is where Wilson and I reach an impasse. 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. When the founding fathers of America thought their liberties were contracted in unfair taxation, they fought a war against their own crown government, though their lives weren’t in immediate peril or their bodies bound. They didn’t wait or choose to fight for the oppressor they knew to be in the wrong. And when White southerners thought their way of life was compromised in the mid-1800s, they too fought a war for their freedom. Wilson says he understands that “natural inclination.” I believe he does. I would simply ask and hope that he might fight for the right of everyone to feel and pursue the same impulse to freedom and dignity that he has.

 

View Comments (144) Post Comment