If those who hate the Word of God can succeed in getting Christians to be embarrassed by any portion of the Word of God, then that portion will continually be employed as a battering ram against the godly principles that are currently under attack. In our day, three of the principal issues are abortion, feminism, and sodomy. If we respond to the “embarrassing parts” of Scripture by saying “That was then, this is now,” we will quickly discover that unembarrassed progressives can play that game even more effectively than embarrassed conservatives can.
This gem comes to us from Douglas Wilson’s Black & Tan: Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America. Weighing in at less than 120 pages, this is definitely not the last word on slavery or culture war. But then, it isn’t trying to be. Rather, Wilson raises some much-neglected points and offers a valuable corrective to typical contemporary evangelical sensibilities.
The reason why many Christians will be tempted to dismiss the arguments presented here is that I am saying (out loud) that a godly man in 1850 could have been a slave owner. But this “inflammatory” position is the very point upon which the Bible speaks most directly, again and again….
This reality points to the need for Christians to learn the biblical way of avoiding “problem texts.” This is the way of a priori submission. Christians must recognize they are under the authority of God and they may not develop their ideas of what is “right” and “fair” apart from the Word of God. And when the Bible is our only standard of right and wrong, problem texts disappear. This entire issue of slavery is a wonderful issue on which to practice. Our humanistic and democratic culture regards slavery in itself as a monstrous evil, malum in se, and it acts as if this were self-evidently true. The Bible permits Christians in slave-owning cultures to own slaves, provided they are treated well. You are a Christian. Whom do you believe?
In his typically bracing style, Wilson clears away the layers of bushwah heaped upon the issues by a century and a half of continued bickering and shines the light of Scripture into some very confused places. He gets to these places mainly by just going there;Essays and Excursions is an appropriate subtitle. The chapters in the book are a bit loosely organized, to put it kindly. However, the topics themselves are interesting enough to be worth reading about, even in the absence of clever transitions from one to the next. Along the way, Wilson takes us through his own past in recently-desegregated Annapolis, Maryland, and radical Ann Arbor, Michigan, a look at the current culture wars, examinations of slavery in the Bible and in the antebellum South, black soldiers in the Confederate army, a sketch of R.L. Dabney, warts and all, and an abbreviated look at salient issues in the last few years of controversy over these points.
Most 21st-century evangelicals will be surprised at the biblical and historical themes that emerge in Wilson’s romp through these disparate elements. The typical politically active, marriage-defending, abortion-fighting conservative is absolutely scandalized that a southern pastor in 1855 would have dared to defend slavery on biblical grounds — and this despite the fact that the Bible says at least as much, if not more, about slavery than it says about abortion and infanticide. The irony of this is certainly not lost on Wilson.
Nor are the hazards, personal and political, that attend making such a point. As Wilson himself says, people often react to ideas that they think must attend what someone said, rather than responding to what was actually said, and asking what someone thinks on other issues. Lest that happen here, let me make some things plain. Wilson is not a racist. Scripture overtly condemns racism in the strongest terms. Wilson’s outfit has published a booklet on this point — and taken flak from real racists for his position. Nor does Wilson wish for the bygone days when slavery was legal. He clearly says several times that the logic of Christianity, worked out in culture over time, works quite clearly against slavery. Nor is Wilson one of those snaggletoothed white folks whose personal investment plan consists of keeping his great-granddaddy’s Confederate money, “cuz th’ Sayuth’s gwine ter rahz agin.” Wilson is defending the Bible, not the South, and again, he says so plainly more than once. In the course of defending the Bible, it turns out that the South wasn’t wrong about everything, however, and when this happens, loyalty to Scripture requires that Christians speak up without embarrassment.
In the absence of such unholy embarrassment, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and Wilson has it. A number of writers — Dinesh D’Souza and Harry Stein come to mind — have commented that being conservative is much more fun than the perpetual red-faced outrage that so characterizes the liberalism of our day. That goes at least double for being Christian. God invented laughter, and His worshippers can and should laugh at and deride the raging heathen, just as He does (Psalm 2). If they’re not a little offended at the biblical portrait of their antics, then we clearly didn’t explain it well enough. The resulting freedom and joie de vivre is a great help in historical study; it makes sensitive topics bearable and brings hot-button, impossible-to-touch topics back within reach. If we are going to study history, real history, we can’t artificially limit our compass to subjects that fit comfortably into the spirit of the present age.
Those who cannot learn from history, as the saying goes, are doomed to repeat it. Evangelical combatants in today’s culture wars — despite their lack of historical consciousness — are hardly the first of their kind. In other times and places, these struggles have played out in cultures the world over for millennia. One of the nearest cultural struggles to our modern day, both in time and place, was the battle over slavery and states’ rights in America, and it is a logical place to start studying past cultural conflicts. Black & Tan is by no means a one-stop shop for a study of slavery and the civil war, but for a Christian determined to approach that study on firm biblical footing, it has something important to say.
Postscript: While we’re on the subject of Black & Tan, let me also say that the audio version, read by Aaron Wells, is well worth having. Wells’ voice is enjoyable to listen to, and he reads very well. There are a few spots where he reads a line over twice; presumably these were meant to be caught in the editing process and weren’t. Minor technical flaws notwithstanding, a really excellent production.