A Final Wrap-Up: Thabiti Anyabwile and Douglas Wilson
When our discussion first started, we were both surprised at how well it went, and both of us are very grateful to God, and to one another, for this great blessing. We have also been grateful to the readers and commenters who participated in this discussion in the same spirit, praying with us, and laboring to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).
We wanted to bring our discussion to some sort of formal close, and so this is it. As we understand it, our points of agreement are:
1. Mankind is one in Adam, which means we share a common humanity, and a common slavery to sin. We together believe that mankind cannot come together in a true unity until they do so in the second Adam, the only one who is capable of overcoming the sorts of things that divide us.
2. We both believe that racism is a grievous sin, and we believe that it is a sin that has the practical effect of undercutting the gospel. Jesus came to cast down the middle wall of partition, not only between Jew and Gentile, but also to cast down any other walls that exist between any other races, nationalities, tribes, or tongues. Worthy is the Lamb, for only He could do this. But even He had to do it with the price of His own blood (Rev. 7:9).
3. The logic of the gospel is jubilee logic. This means that the messianic promises all looked forward to the day when the liberation of the world from every form of slavery would begin, and the arrival of Christ was the inauguration of God’s kingdom. This liberation from slavery begins with liberating men from their slavery to sin, but it necessarily and inexorably includes all other forms of slavery as well—whether the forms of slavery as they existed in the ancient world, or the more recent forms in our country.
4. We agree that the letter of Philemon is saturated with the idea of koinonia fellowship, one that Paul and Philemon and Onesimus all shared, and that Paul uses this spiritual reality as the foundation of his argument, urging manumission for Onesimus.
But Differences Remain
In the areas where we continue to differ, those differences are significant, although some of them may well be differences of emphasis.
Thabiti continues to believe that:
1. The history of slavery—even the existence of American chattel slavery, especially among Christians—represents a far more egregious transgression of love, the gospel, and humanity than represented in Black & Tan, which attempts a dangerous revision without sufficient historical evidence. He believes privileging man-made constitutional arguments over the liberty and full flourishing of fellow human beings betrays the gospel, betrays the command to love our neighbor, and fails to consider the balance of all the relevant biblical texts. That combination of revising the record of slavery’s inhumanity and privileging only the prima facie reading of texts compatible with one’s position leads to gross misjudgment and siding with the oppressor against the oppressed in the case of American chattel slavery.
2. A defense of “state’s rights” or the South’s withdrawal from the Union is tantamount to a defense of American chattel slavery. The inevitable consequence, had the South won the War, would have been the perpetuation of race-based slavery and all its concomitant evils. There’s no way to credibly defend the South’s position without also providing means for the continuation of its sins and oppression of Black people. There’s no way to credibly defend the South as a “Christian nation” while tolerating its practice of race-based chattel slavery, even if we hold to an emancipative gradualism. Only an immediate end to slavery would have been consistent with the “jubilee logic” of the gospel and repentant of the “grievous sin” of racism upon which the practice was based.
3. We need an unembarrassed and stalwart acceptance of every jot and tittle of the Bible, including difficult texts that pierce and challenge our own favored positions and cherished histories. After all, the word of God is a piercing double-edged sword which heals by slashes and cuts. We need to embrace what Wilson calls the “angular texts.” But we need not do that in a way that makes us impervious to charges (i.e., racism, insensitivity, etc) that we ought to hear or forgetful of the fact that different “angular texts” challenge each side of a dispute. “Angular texts” and all, as servants of the Lord we must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and certain that what we’re defending is the truth of scripture rightly understood and not just our favored positions or our pride.
4. The Constitution of the United States was never a perfect document. Its guidance then (antebellum South) as well as now (battles against abortion) is insufficient and in need of modification from time to time. To assert that the Constitutional issues at the time of the Civil War are directly contributory to the Constitutional issues surrounding abortion is a massive logical mistake. Despite some parallels, it’s better to recognize that the document has and continues to fail us at various critical points in history—slavery, women’s rights, and now the protection of unborn life. The Liberty Bell has been cracked from the beginning, a crack put there by the hypocrisy of ringing for liberty while holding slaves. The fix is not to root our current discussion in debatable matters involving the country’s racial past, but to pursue “a more perfect union” by more fully applying and defending the high ideals and values the Constitution does embody. We don’t need to look back to go forward, especially if we’re looking back with a biased eye to a “history” that did not exist. We need to be faithful in our own day, and that means not sticking your finger in the eye of people who would and ought to be cobelligerents but showing genuine love “in word and deed” (1 John 3:18) as we work together on life-and-death matters of mutual concern.
Douglas continues to believe that:
1. The “angular” texts of Scripture must be handled and understood in a way does full justice to them on their face. I believe this is possible to do in the light of redemptive gradualism, but this in turn means that not every Christian slave owner was bound to the duty of immediate manumission. After all, how do we interpret the text that says that the Israelites could hold foreign slaves forever? We can’t just agree to face these texts in principle — we have to actually face them and say out loud what they mean. Are these some of the words that are profitable for instruction (2 Tim. 3:16)? Further, because in our present day, such commitment to all the texts of Scripture is sufficient to get any Christian tagged as a racist, any a priori commitment to avoid charges of racism at all costs will necessarily morph into a regrettable softness when it comes to the issues of biblical authority on the controversies of our own day — abortion and homosexuality chief among them.
2. We have allowed our indignation at sins committed one hundred and fifty years ago to hide our complicity in the atrocities of our own day. I believe that the constitutional implications of the War and the Reconstruction amendments paved the way (in the realm of constitutional interpretation) for Roe v. Wade, and has resulted in a far greater evil being perpetrated on blacks in the 21st century than slavery ever was in the 19th. While it is good to be correct about idols toppled long ago, it is far better to be right about the idols that are currently demanding the blood of innocents, including many millions of black innocents. Our obedience before God will be reckoned in how we dealt with the sins of our own era, not the sins of another. My central interest in all these historical issues has to do with how the legal principles that were laid down then are being understood and applied today.
3. I do understand the point that support for the South would have had the downstream effect of continuing the institution of slavery, at least for a time. While the point is easy to make from this distance, it imposes, I believe, an extra-biblical requirement, and furthermore, it is one that nobody practices in our current situations. I believe it is too simplistic and is unworkable. For an American soldier to go the Middle East today and fight for “democracy” is also to fight against nations that don’t allow abortion-on-demand, and it is to fight for a nation that does. To help America is therefore to help abortion. Well, we would say, quite rightly, it isn’t quite that simple. I completely agree . . . but would also add that it wasn’t that simple in Virginia one hundred and fifty years ago. We really must use equal weights and measures. The Lord was quite insistent upon it — the judgment we use will be the judgment that is used against us (Matt. 7: 1-2).
In conclusion, we believe a fair summary of our conclusions would be this. It is possible for Christians to disagree about volatile issues. Moreover, it is possible — indeed necessary — to do so charitably. The strong disagreement makes us feel like enemies and strangers, while the charity reminds us of our brotherhood in Christ. The strong disagreement tests the bonds of our fellowship and love for one another, while genuine love covers over a multitude of sins and holds all virtues together. We believe we have experienced both the testing strain of strong disagreement and the preserving bonds of biblical love. We thank God for it even as we disagree about some things, agree about others, and hope to be faithful to our common Master in it all. We believe that this is what it looks like to labor to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace — it is kind of messy sometimes, but we believe it pleases God.