Thabiti Anyabwile|12:43 am CT

Oh, So Close… And Yet So Far Away

That’s what reconciliation work feels like sometimes. And I don’t just mean the work of reconciling across ethnic lines. I mean all reconciliation work. Ever tried to get fighting spouses to put down the frying pan and rolling pin to embrace each other? Ever tried to talk a parent down off the roof when they were about to drop a WWF-inspired elbow on a disobedient child? There are those moments when you think you see just how close the parties are… if… they… would… just…. We can be  so close and yet so far away.

That’s how I feel to some extent in the interactions with Douglas Wilson about his book Black and Tan. We’ve covered a lot of ground and have agreed on a  surprising amount. Now we’re at a point where I’ve made some specific appeals to Wilson which I think are reasonable. We’re close to talking about the heart of the matter in terms of what offends me in reading the book. Close… but not there yet. I feel like we’re talking past one another.

In my last post, I offered questions to Wilson to assess where we are in our discussion. Those were:

  1. Does Wilson think the comments I cited, his circumstantial explanations notwithstanding, were in any way insensitive along racial lines?
  2. If so, does Wilson joyfully own complete responsibility for those comments?
  3. If so, does Wilson think repentance might include a more complete and specific apology along with written retraction of the insensitive things he believes he has written? (Bear in mind, I’m not asking him to retract an argument he thinks is true, but to retract and restate the way things have been said—much the same way he argues the way slavery was ended was wrong, not that its ending was wrong).

But I don’t think Wilson understood what I was asking (particularly as it relates to the parenthetical comment at the end of #3). I say I don’t think he understood what I was asking because of this comment:

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.

This was Wilson’s summary of the two theological stones he thinks I’ve left unturned in all of this (see here).

But I’m really not asking Wilson to “apologize for Black and Tan across the board.” I agree with Wilson that we need to refuse apologizing for the faith or for the parts of the Bible its “cultured despisers” reject.  We must not ignore any part of the whole counsel of God, including what Wilson calls the “angular” texts of the Bible dealing with slavery. As I recall, there wasn’t much more than a hair’s breath between us in the ordering and exegeting of the biblical texts on the matter. Moreover, I think the search for a “coherent understanding of our cultural history that enables us to stand in a long line of faithful men” is an appropriate quest we all need to pursue. As I understand it, these are the reasons he wrote Black and Tan. Those reasons seem compelling to me. I’m not after a retraction of any of that–not even the parts of the history about which we disagree.

I’m seeking something narrower and more specific. I think the way Wilson wrote Black and Tan–its tone and balance–is the problem. Let me try to illustrate. Wilson doesn’t think slavery should have continued. He is for it’s abolition, just not the bloody way it was abolished. In like manner, I’m not calling for a retraction of the book “across the board.” I’m for Wilson stating what he thinks and risking the skin to stand behind it. I’m just not for the insensitive way he’s done so at points in the book.

I’m simply asking the question: Doug, do you think it might be possible that a reasonable man (and I’m thankful that you include me among them) might take legitimate offense at the way you have put some things in the book? As a reasonable man yourself, do you think that some of your comments in the book are insensitive to the legitimate concerns, natural affections, and understandable perspectives of some of your reasonable readers?

As you think about that, I would hope you would be able to consider the narrower question of phrasing at various points in a manner consistent with the way you wish your writing to be judged at other points. What I mean is this: When it comes to the claims that you are a racist, you point to the number of places where you explicitly disavow such things. You ask to be judged on what you actually wrote. I think that’s fair, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

But in your last couple posts regarding racial insensitivity, you’ve asked us to consider what you intended rather than what you actually wrote. It seems like you’re retreating to motive and in doing so you’re perhaps not properly evaluating your words.

I write all the time. I know what it’s like to write something with one intent and to really blunder with the words. I regret it when I goof like that, especially in my preaching and when people are hurt by my words. So I’m not aiming at Wilson as though I’m some Teflon Don against whom the same charges won’t stick.

But each time we’ve come close to getting an account of the kinds of harmful things I’ve cited, we’re hearing a lot about the wider audience “out there,” the detractors who have surfaced over the years. I’m left thinking, “Hey, Doug, I’m over here.” And when we hear concerns about abandoning the Bible and the like, I’m thinking, “Yeah, but that’s not what I’m asking you to do or want to do myself.”

I get that you’re not wanting to give ground to those you think are insincere or who have an anti-Bible agenda. I get that. And I believe you when you say you don’t think you’re “tripping over personal egotism or pride.” Reading your last post, however, I wonder if you might not be stumbling over fear??? Fear that engaging the narrower issues will somehow amount to unfaithfulness in your apologetic calling. Or fear that some concession to an opponent’s argument might end in a check mate you didn’t see. Or fear that the hecklers out there might have their howling party once and for all. Or fear that an evanjellyfish church might lose even the muscular integrity of jelly. I don’t know. I can’t pretend to know your head or heart. It just seemed to me as I read your last post that it was so heavy with concern for potential negative results that you weren’t allowing yourself to come down to the conversation I’m actually trying to have with you. To be honest, I’ve felt that way for the last 3-4 posts now.

So, it seems to me that the threshold question is whether or not you recognize anything offense in your words. Whether or not you can see a causal connection between the ways you’ve sometimes described or referenced African Americans or slavery and the hurt, anger, or offense some have taken. You’ve already admitted to a kind of “collateral damage.” What’s left to be determined is whether you think that damage is in the heads of the wounded or should be located in the words you’ve written.

We’ve gotten close enough to put that question on the table. How close we really are and how far we can walk together in agreement depends on what you see here.

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