Yesterday I expressed my intention to engage Doug Wilson’s views on race, racism, slavery and the Bible as expressed in his book, Black and Tan. I think the first responsibility of charitable engagement is to attempt understanding the other person’s point-of-view and to accurately relate it to others. Without that step, there can be no real exchange. So, here is my attempt at setting forth Wilson’s positions on these subjects, quoting heavily from Wilson himself.
Wilson on Racism
The first thing to state, because it has often been denied, is that Wilson categorically denounces racism. The book is replete with such denunciations. Here are a couple:
“God created the human race in Adam and Eve, and all of us are descended from them, and are therefore cousins. Lest the point be missed, we are also all descended from Noah and his wife (again), and it turns out we are all still cousins. Racial vanity and racial animosity can find no foundation in Scripture” (p. 26).
“American slavery had the additional complication of its racial basis. And so we as Christians, especially as American Christians, must denounce as a matter of biblical principle every form of racism, racial animosity, or racial vainglory” (p. 38).
“I have no interest in defending the racism (in both the North and the South) which was often seen as the basic justification for the system, and I do in fact condemn it most heartily” (p. 42).
“Like radical abolitionism, all forms of race hatred or racial vainglory are forms of rebellion against God. Such things are to be vigorously opposed because the Word of God opposes them. In brief, God has raised up all nations from one man (Acts 17:26). We are all cousins. And not only are the races connected through God’s creation of Adam, we are united (this time in harmony) in the redemption purchased by the Son of God. ‘You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth’ (Rev. 5:9-10)” (p. 49).
We shall leave for a subsequent post why many people still charge Wilson with being a racist. But for now, in trying to let Wilson speak for himself and consider the letter of what he writes, we should let these statements stand as representative of his position on racism.
Wilson on Slavery As a System
Wilson’s views on slavery are more complex than his straight denunciations of racism. Let me try to sketch his biblical exegesis and then add a few quotes to further document his attitude on slavery.
To read Wilson’s view of the Bible’s teaching on slavery in more detail, see chapter 3, “Scripture and Slavery,” in Black and Tan. Wilson’s exegesis of the Bible regarding slavery might be summarized in several points.
1. The Bible speaks authoritatively about slavery and Christians are duty-bound to obey its teaching (p. 14, 37). In some ways, this is really at the heart of this entire issue. Wilson writes to protect the Bible from its Christian cultured despisers, or at least those Christians who might be stumped and embarrassed when an antagonist points to the unpleasant subject of slavery in the Bible as a means of rejecting the Bible’s teaching at some other disputed points (homosexuality, for example).
2. The slave trade was an abomination and is clearly rejected in the Bible (1 Tim. 1:10; Exod. 21:16). Here, Wilson has in view “man stealing” and the trafficking of human persons. He insists that Christian participation at any point in man stealing was inconsistent with biblical teaching (p. 54). But he distinguishes man stealing from the system of slavery itself. Later, Wilson maintains that slavery itself was not an inherent evil and that godly Christians could be members in good standing in Christian churches while owning slaves (p. 44).
3. The slavery regulated in the Mosaic law differs from slavery in pagan empires like Rome. Slavery regulated by the Mosaic law was “little more than an indentured servanthood (bond apprenticeship for a time)” (p. 37) and include laws for manumission and release. It was temporary. However, these OT provisions for manumission and repatriation were being ignored by slave traders, who ignored the prohibitions of man-stealing as well, and according to Wilson this meant “the vast majority of the slaves had already been enslaved in Africa by other blacks”, “restoration of these slaves to their former condition was a physical impossibility” (p. 55), and “many of the slaves in the South were descendants of men and women who had been brought over generations before” (p. 56). Christians living under pagan governments that allowed slavery had a duty to “follow the biblical instructions for resisting the paganism of this slavery carefully so that the Word of God would not be blasphemed (1 Tim. 6:1).” Wilson sees a distinction between slavery regulated by God and slavery instituted by pagan government, “which was therefore to be subverted by faithful Christians living in accordance with the gospel” (p. 38). Despite such subversion through biblical obedience, Wilson understands that “The Bible permits Christians in slave-owning cultures to own slaves, provided they are treated well” (p. 47). “Nothing can be plainer than the fact that a Christian could simultaneously be a slave owner and a member in good standing in a Christian church” (p. 53).
4. Christians must denounce as a matter of biblical principle any racism, racial animosity, or racial vainglory involved in American slavery or any other race-based system of slavery. Wilson calls for the denouncement of racism, but he does not see a biblical mandate for denouncing slavery as such.
5. The gospel is antithetical to slavery as a system and would, over time, lead to the eradication of slavery everywhere. The fact that Christian slaves could pursue every lawful opportunity for freedom reveals that slavery is “inconsistent with the fundamental Spirit of the gospel, who is the Spirit of liberty” (1 Cor. 7:20-24; 2 Cor. 3:17).
6. The best subversion of slavery occurs when Christian slaves and slave owners carefully obey the dictates of Scripture. If the Bible’s teaching were followed closely, the peaceful elimination of Roman slavery and American slavery would have resulted in time.
7. Godly social renewal is never bloodthirsty. The radical abolitionists’ insistence on immediate action, force and coercion short-circuited the gospel’s slow, leavening work and resulted in the horrendous loss of life during the Civil War, or War Between the States, as Wilson prefers. Points 5-7 represent the conclusion toward which the Bible points, according to Wilson. He writes later in the book, “the gospel over time necessarily subverts the institution of slavery generally. But this gradual subversion would have been reformational and gradual, and not revolutionary and bloodthirsty, as radical abolitionism was” (p. 45). Wilson sees the remedy of war as resulting in problems “every bit as bad as the original disease ever was” (p. 60).
Wilson opines that “the system of slave-holding in the South was far more humane than that of ancient Rome, although it still fell short of the biblical requirements for it.” He pictures the South as a thorough-going Christian country, writing:
The discipleship of the nations is a process. This means that the South was (along with all other nations) in transition from a state of pagan autonomy to one of full submission to the Lordship of Christ. Christian influence in the South was considerable and extensive, but the laws of the South still fell short of the biblical pattern. In spite of this, the Christian influence on antebellum Southern culture surpassed most other nations in the world of that time (p. 51-52).
In Wilson’s view, the South should have been sufficiently “Christian” to practice slavery as the Bible regulates it. The southern situation, being better than the Roman situation in which Paul wrote, was subject to NT teaching. He understands that “the Christians who owned slaves in the South were on firm scriptural ground” (p. 52). But failing to treat them in a biblical manner, God severely judged both the South and the North (judging the South with the North).
Beyond this basic exegetical approach, Wilson also communicates his personal attitude toward slavery. That attitude might be summarized with the following quotes:
“I am certainly not wishing for a return to slavery. I am profoundly grateful that chattel slavery no longer exists in our nation. Let there be no mistake here–the logic of the Christian gospel is contradictory to the institution of slavery generally, and as the gospel of salvation progresses through history, one of the necessary results is the gradual eradication of all slavery. Jesus Christ really is the ultimate Jubilee” (p. 47).
“The severe judgment that befell the South from the hand of God was true justice in part because of how the South had treated her slaves” (p. 49).
Now all of this argumentation, in Wilson’s view, serves two major issues of importance: defense of the Bible and course correction for evangelical Christians in today’s culture wars. Wilson himself puts this in a nutshell when he writes:
Christians must live or die by the Scriptures, as they stand. Compromise on what the Bible teaches about slavery is directly related to the current pressures to compromise on abortion and sodomy. Southern slavery was an example of the kind of sinful human situation that called for diligent obedience to St. Paul’s directives, on the part of both masters and slaves. Because this did not happen, and because of the way slavery ended, the federal government acquired the power to impose things on the states that it did not have before. Therefore, for all these reasons, radicalism is to be rejected by Christians.
For Wilson, careful exposition of the Bible’s teaching about slavery remains critical for understanding contemporary evangelical engagement with cultural issues. Because, as Wilson argues, slavery was ended in an improper way, it enlarged the role of the federal government and has placed the Christian worldview and society in a weakened position against anti-biblical opponents. For Wilson, setting the story straight about slavery enables a more effective adherence to all the Bible’s teaching and a more effective engagement with the culture.
I hope this accurately represents Wilson’s views. I have tried not to editorialize but simply present Wilson’s positions as I understand them from Black and Tan.
But what are we to think of Wilson’s approach to all these issues? Are there any weaknesses in his exegesis of the appropriate biblical texts? Is his analysis of American slavery historically accurate? Why might some continue to see this book as racially insensitive if not racist?
We turn to these questions in the next couple of posts.