Post-Match Reflections on Thabiti and Doug image

Post-Match Reflections on Thabiti and Doug

Some of you will know that Thabiti Anyabwile and Doug Wilson have been having a lengthy online discussion about the end of slavery in the Confederate states, and that it has produced all sorts of interesting points and outcomes. What happened was that Doug released a book called Black and Tan, which was itself a defence of a previous book he had written about the end of slavery. In it, he made a number of provocative comments and arguments, and Thabiti identified several of them as biblically unrepresentative, historically inaccurate or racially insensitive. Doug responded; Thabiti responded; Doug responded; and so on, for about two weeks. That’s the summary version – Thabiti has helpfully provided a blow-by-blow summary here.

So what? Debates about things happen all the time online, and as a white pastor from Eastbourne, UK, you can imagine that the way slavery ended in the Confederacy is not a pressing issue I get asked about that much. So you might wonder what on earth the point was of writing about it. But this debate has been unusual, in two important ways.

Firstly, it has provided us all with an absolutely textbook way of confronting people in public. Thabiti feels very strongly about the end of slavery, as you can imagine black pastors often do. And Doug is not the type to backpedal rapidly after a gentle request for clarification, as those who have read him regularly will know (of which more later). But Thabiti has managed to confront a high-profile brother in Christ, about something emotive and important, with genuine love, great care and a huge amount of humility, despite the emotional pressure he must have felt, as a black leader, to state things much more aggressively (which some commenters were exasperated that he didn’t). That, in an online world that rarely sees that sort of attitude, is exemplary.

Here’s a few things I have learned from Thabiti’s approach to confrontation. (1) I should make sure I make a deliberate decision about whether to have my conversation privately or publicly, rather than being drawn into a spat without careful thought (a point Kevin DeYoung also made recently). (2) I should work long and hard to make sure I have understood the other person’s position, and that I can articulate it in such a way that they would recognise it as their own, without inaccuracy, caricature or misrepresentation. That, in itself, is a tricky thing to do when you’re condensing a book into a blog post. (3) I should be careful to separate out the issues that divide us and engage with them individually, rather than conflating the various things I don’t like into one monolithic straw-man and then yelling at it. The more strongly I feel about the issue, the more important this is – and the stakes don’t get much higher than slavery, if you’re a black man. (4) I should honour Scripture as God’s infallible word at all times. Obvious, perhaps, but easy to miss in the cut-and-thrust of debate. (5) I should emphasise common ground when we find it, even as we continue to work out our differences. (6) When responding to historical or theological misrepresentations (as I perceive them), I can speak strongly and directly, but I must always speak lovingly. (7) Where confusion is occurring because we are using words differently, I should acknowledge that, clarify my use of the word in question, and assume the best of the other person’s usage, since it’s likely no more idiosyncratic than mine. (8) I need to work hard to see the log in my own eye, and apologise for anything I’ve done wrong, even if I don’t think it’s as bad as what the other person has done. I’m pretty sure that, if we all stuck to those eight things when handling confrontation – whether privately or publicly – there’d be a lot less division and a lot more reconciliation in the church. Even over emotive issues like slavery, gender, sexuality and so on.

It’s probably apparent from all this that my sympathies in the debate are strongly with Thabiti, although I wouldn’t claim to know much at all about the history of the Civil War. Personally, I find his exegesis and his cultural reflections more compelling, and his tone more helpful and conducive to progressing the discussion, than Doug’s (which is no doubt partly because I’m a European leftie and not a self-confessed paleo-confederate from the red states). But as well as enjoying the back-and-forth, and the always witty and readable way in which he writes, I have learned a lot from Doug’s articles as well. In particular, his comments on apologising for the Bible, politeness and sensitivity have an uncanny ring of truth to them, despite how difficult they are to hear. And this is the second thing that has been unusual about this discussion: the absolute commitment to hear what the Bible says about everything, even the very culturally unpopular parts.

Doug is very concerned that Christians not feel the need to apologise for the Bible. He does not accuse Thabiti of doing this (rightly), but he suspects (again, rightly) that many who are appalled at slavery in the old South are appalled at it in spite of the Bible, rather than because of it. He insists that it is vital, therefore, to allow Scripture to speak with absolute authority on everything, even where our cultural background may make us wish that it didn’t:

For example, I have said in other settings that slavery as governed by the law of God under Moses was a form of indentured servanthood, which I do believe and hold. But my accusers have not really pursued me into the tall weeds for details on this point because, at least for my Christian accusers, my point as stated gives them a pass as well as giving me one. In my apologetic work, I have to answer unbelievers who have read their Bibles. They often know what is “in there” better than some Christians do. When I call them to faith in Christ, and to a complete acceptance of His holy and infallible Word, a number of them know what I am asking them to do. They know about the guy who was stoned for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. They know David’s method of taking scalps. They know what happened to Adoni-bezek’s thumbs and toes.

Which is to say: even if the Bible does not condone Confederate-style slavery (and it clearly does not), there are still enough other texts in there to give most anti-slavery activists a mini-apocalypse. And we need to be honest about that, rather than hoping nobody will notice them.

It is this unapologetic approach to Scripture that Doug champions, and that makes him cautious to apologise for Black and Tan in the way that many would want him to. Again, I side with Thabiti on this – Doug’s apologies, where they have come, have looked a bit mealy-mouthed to me – but I recognise that he is doing this deliberately, based on his reading of Scripture, contemporary culture and the state of the church. He explains:

There is true sin underneath some instances of “insensitivity.” The biblical name for that sin would be a refusal to love our neighbor. If I see that I have been guilty of such a thing, my obligation is to put it right with God, and with the neighbor I have wronged, regardless of how much hay the accusers can make out of it. But nine out of ten times, the insensitivity stick is being used to whack any remaining biblical faithfulness we may have found, much to our displeasure. Feminists do this, homosexuals do it, and evangelicals who are neither (still technically rejecting the sin proper) will help them police the boundaries of the new speech codes, saying in effect that we must show them how much we love them by obeying them, instead of obeying God ... I want very much to be at peace with Thabiti, and with everyone like him. I want to continue to be a pain in the neck for everyone who, wittingly or unwittingly, wants us to apologise our way to perdition. You see my dilemma.

Indeed I do. I see it in part because, as some of you know, I am having a radio discussion with Rob Bell next week, and I know how difficult it can be to say what the scriptures say about certain topics without feeling the need to apologise all the time.

With that in mind, Thabiti and Doug’s conversation has been of enormous benefit to me personally. I am very grateful for both of them, and for the huge effort and investment of time and reputation they’ve made. Thabiti has reminded me how to confront people on emotive issues with care and love, and Doug has reminded me of the importance of declaring the words of God on difficult topics without backpedalling over them or fudging them. Now, I’ve just got to figure out how to do both of those at once.

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