There Can Be No Reconciliation Where There Is No Truth-Telling First

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I’m grateful Dr. James White has offered his thoughts regarding my recent posts here at the blog (here and here). I offered to post his thoughts here at Pure Church, but in the comings and goings of both our lives he has posted it at Alpha and Omega, and I’m happy to retweet it and link to it here.

It’s a lengthy post, as is the reaction in some quarters online. I haven’t set myself the goal of responding to every post offered anywhere or every thought in a particular post. But there are a few things I want to respond to in Dr. White’s offering. We both “have lives” and “day jobs,” so I’ll try to be succinct.

Let’s Start at the Beginning

By which I mean our respective understandings of the 1950-’60s, the period of time I explicitly address in my original post and the generation of Americans (white Americans, specifically) I charge with creating the context of animus and hatred that made the assassination of Dr. King a possibility. You see, I didn’t think describing Jim Crow America as “racist” was a controversial or controvertible fact. I also didn’t think pointing out the obvious complicity of anyone not opposed to that racial caste system would be controversial, even if folks objected to the finger-in-your eye style of writing.

But, alas, I was wrong about the acceptability of those facts. Not opinions, but facts. Dr. White illustrates how different our readings of that history is when in the opening paragraphs he inserts this parenthetical thought, “since, of course, many in the country were only tangentially aware of, or concerned about, MLK and related matters.”

Now, dear reader, I’ll simply leave you to decide if such a claim can be substantiated by a preponderance of the evidence. De jure segregation was the law of the land. Discrimination in housing, employment, and education were sacrosanct. Then there were all the informal customs and expectations enforced by mob violence, proving as a Supreme Court justice famously remarked, “the Black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” American churches were as segregated and complicit as American society—to its shame.

The advent of television put Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement on national news all over the country and world. Hardly anyone was “tangentially aware of, or concerned about, MLK and related matters.” Friends, that’s hardly an informed opinion much less a summary of the historical facts. I say this as kindly as I can: it’s ignorance. It’s willful and dangerous ignorance that gets us off on two different feet in a conversation that desperately needs to begin with interlocking arms regarding the facts about our past and present. For that reason alone, I hesitate to go further.

But, with this statement, Dr. White actually illustrates the gist of my first post. Until white Americans and white Christians can tell the truth about that period, we’re stuck. And every time some cultural moment places weight and stress on our “racial” fault lines, we will feel inside and outside the church the tremors and quakes of being unprepared to deal because we’ve been unpracticed and unskilled at admitting the truth.

A little later he inserts another parenthetical in the midst of his explanation for a Christian unity based exclusively on the work of Christ: “Individuals who once hated every member of another ethnic group (and the history of this in the world is long, and nowhere limited to any particular spectrum of human skin color) can come to the Lord’s table with those they once hated without hesitation because all of those hatreds and hurts are in the past and are rendered irrelevant by the “new man” (italics are in the original).

What we’re getting here is a “both sides” view of history that suggests all parties are equally guilty of racism. Now, I agree that something like racism, ethnic bigotry, and other species of alienation and animus and idolatry of self exists among all people. But I was talking about 1950-’60s America. I was making a comment about a particular setting in which it cannot be said that both sides were equally guilty in the animus. African Americans have never carried out lynchings. African Americans have never passed “Jim Brown laws” to retaliate for Jim Crow laws. We have never systematically ostracized and oppressed white people as a group. The sin of the period was unilaterally and systematically directed from whites toward blacks.

One of the amazing things about African Americans is that we have survived for so long without giving fully into the racial animosity that could exist given how we’ve been treated. It’s a wonderful providence and humanly speaking we have millions of mothers and fathers and the likes of the Dr. Kings of the world to thank for teaching us not to give in to hate.

Until we get these basic points of history correct we’re not having the same conversation. And when we appear to equivocate about where the guilt and responsibility actually lie, we make it far too easy for strains of that former behavior, attitude, and complicity to continue unchecked.

Restating the Point

It is perhaps the case that I started replying to critics of my first post too slowly. Before you knew it, a good number of false claims and hasty interpretations were added to the already-provocative things I had written. A few examples:

  • I make James Earl Ray the “federal head” of all white people.
  • I accuse all white people of murdering Dr. King.
  • I claim that all white people are racist.
  • I pull a reverse-racist move by lumping all white people together.

Before you know it, with “interpretations” like this floating around, people are responding to everything except what I did say. They’re responding to their inferences and their angst but not to what I regard is a plain fact. To illustrate how plain, let’s leave 1950-’60s America and take a trip a couple of decades earlier to Nazi Germany.

Hitler’s Third Reich marched through Europe with hopes to establish his “super race.” Along the way he and his generals killed millions of Jewish people in concentration camps and ovens. He did it in the name of Germany, and by-and-large German people went along with the program. There were the Dietrich Bonhoeffers (who, incidentally, was killed in a concentration camp on this day in Flossenburg) who actively opposed Hitler. But they were in the minuscule minority. The bulk of Germany “followed orders” as soldiers, turned in Jews to authorities, and generally went along with the program.

Nowadays, when we talk about the guilt associated with that period of history, we understand Germany as a whole to be guilty of killing millions of Jews. We would even understand the German people to be complicit in murdering Bonhoeffer. The Germans recognize it too. Today, Germans grieve, confess, remember, and continue in their repentance of that horrific history.

I suspect no fair reader of this post would disagree about German complicity in the Holocaust. Well, in a post reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, no fair reader should have difficulty admitting the racism of the Civil Rights period and the complicity of white America in Jim Crow segregation and the murder of Dr. King. This was the point of the post and what I said. It should be admitted.

As I concluded in the post, we’re stuck until we can get at least that much honesty about at least that generation that pretty immediately proceeds our own.

On Talking Publicly

Before he gets to the substance of his critique, Dr. White takes a moment to lament the state of things in the Christian blogosphere and to review some of his conflicts with others. He’s attempting to explain how he even came to be involved in this exchange.

Dr. White says, “I learned a while ago, of course, that this is an explosive area, and you simply must enter into it fully prepared to be misread, de-contextualized, and otherwise pilloried, especially in social media.” He takes issue with others using terms like “hypocrisy” and the like.

I don’t have anything to do with any of that, and I’ll try to keep my comments here on things relevant to Dr. White and I. So, I’d just like to point out that Dr. White essentially does the very things he laments in others in this exchange with me. Tossing about charges of leftist European schools, Marxism, and the like is entirely beside the point. It’s a slander in its own right. It’s the kind of misreading, de-contextualizing, and attempts at pillorying that Dr. White decries if it’s aimed at him but in the next breath feels comfortable to do with others.

Yes, talking publicly about these things is difficult. Yes, there are trolls out there. Yes, there are those who willfully misrepresent you. But to fully learn the lesson Dr. White claims to have “learned a long time ago,” we have to not only learn them for ourselves when recipients of mistreatment but also learn not to do them to others.

Now on to the Issues Raised

Dr. White charges me with not “being overly careful in representing Wilson’s words, nor in evaluating, fairly and properly, Johnson’s citing of the article.” I understand the charge if all you have is that tweet and you’re jumping into an A + B conversation instead of C’ing your way out. I’d been tagged in a number of misrepresenting and further inflammatory statements from Mr. Johnson. So I replied in an admittedly snarky way, knowing full well that Mr. Johnson speaks snark fluently. The tweet is hyperbole. I have shared a conference platform with Mr. Johnson in Ocean City, New Jersey, about a decade ago. I know perfectly well that he’s capable of articulating the gospel of our Lord. I’m going to assume Dr. White’s press here results from jumping in mid-stream and perhaps not carefully observing the tone of things up to that point.

But for the sake of argument, let’s let Dr. White’s concern stand. So Mr. Wilson says racial reconciliation must start with forgiveness. I referred in error to “the gospel.” That’s my bad. I own that.

But it doesn’t change the point. Racial reconciliation does not start with forgiveness either. There’s no form of reconciliation that starts with forgiveness. All reconciliation—if it’s informed and true—begins with either the injured party declaring someone’s offense or with the confession and repentance by the guilty party. Try to get to forgiveness without admission the next time you offend or injure your spouse—especially when it’s the same offense they’ve been talking to you about for years! It doesn’t work. More importantly, Jesus teaches us this clearly in Matthew 5:23-26. The guy claiming to worship can’t go on worshiping at the altar when he remembers there’s a rift with a brother. He needs to leave his gift—the very gift that was being offered to God for forgiveness. He needs to reconcile. Agree to terms. Get things patched up by dealing with the facts of the offense, and so on, and then come back to the altar where forgiveness with God and man might be enjoyed in a clean conscience during worship.

Mr. Wilson’s post, Mr. Johnson’s commendation of it, and now Dr. White’s defense of it all make the same fatal flaw. They put forgiveness before reconciliation, which itself comes only after there’s admission. It’s cheap grace. It’s easy believism. And it’s a light healing of the wound of God’s people. It’s glory without suffering. It’s a crown without a cross. It is not the way of the cross and not the biblical teaching on how we get things fixed in any broken relationship.

Life Outside of ‘Race’ and Ethnicity

Dr. White adamantly asserts throughout the post that the recognition of “racial” or ethnic differences is essentially antithetical to the work of Christ on the cross in achieving a new humanity. He wants to maintain a priority on Christian unity by minimizing natural distinctions.

Dr. White claims I want to primarily maintain these distinctions. He describes my position and contrasts it with his own thus: “it is vital to his stance that we be very much aware, primarily aware, in fact, of the race of others, and, it seems, this is just as true in the church.  I have often noted that I do not see color when I look upon fellow believers.  I am not physically blind, but my sincere Christian experience is that I invoke (nor allow) any racial lens when interacting with my fellow believers.”

Yea, that’s rubbish. Both the claim that “race” is primary in my thinking about people as well as the claim that he does not see color. Yes, I push back against “color blindness” because the God who made us is not blind to color even though he doesn’t make the sinful associations we’ve made with it. I push back because as a trained psychologist I can tell you that’s just not how the mind works. But forget about psychology, the Bible tells us that’s just not how the mind works. That’s why it warns us repeatedly against judging others on improper bases. The mind is a ruthless stereotyper. And while it can and must be renewed, Dr. White claims for himself something that’s quite incredulous. It’s not surprising he has to admit that he misses things. Makes sense that attempting to view the world in ways other than it actually is leads you to miss things—like the way that paragraph slides from a denial of seeing color to not recognizing the ethnicity and culture of American Indians, Chinese, Africans, Asians, and so on because he “simply does not care.”

I think he admits here more than he means. He simply does not care. He simply does not care. That’s what I’ve been trying to point out. Your not caring about who people are as God made them may result in your not caring about how people are sometimes treated. Your blind spot is bigger than you can see.

I’m not interested in anyone making “race” a primary identifier for themselves and others. I quite agree with Dr. White about the supremacy and centrality of Christ in Christian self-understanding. However, I am maintaining that the unity in the church that Dr. White loves requires truth-telling at the precise places the unity is threatened. In this instance, truth-telling requires we remember we are embodied beings who have made sinful associations with that embodiment (skin color) that continue to harm and disrupt fellowship. That’s not making “race” primary; it’s inhabiting the world as it is and believing the deeds in the body matter as the Bible teaches. Dr. White participates in a delusion if he thinks ipso facto belief in the gospel magically causes all these things to essentially disappear. If that were true we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

And if that were true, Dr. White and others wouldn’t be arguing so vociferously to protect white people as such. The irony not to be missed is that Dr. White is insisting on all this color blindness and denial of ethnicity while being offended to the point of public debate on behalf of a racial group. He wants to maintain the integrity of white people as a people while denying the claims of black people to a real redress. That won’t do.

On Exegesis

This is getting too long. Let me simply say I think Dr. White, a very capable scholar, makes a hash of Colossians 4. That the national or ethnic distinctions are in the text is plain. To say someone is “one of you,” meaning a Colossian, is to identify that person with that group in a way that distinguishes him from other groups. To say someone is “of the circumcision” can only be understood to refer to the religio-ethnic-cultural identity of Jews. It’s the distinguishing mark of the covenant that separated them from all Gentiles for crying out loud. The class distinction with Onesimus simply requires a little analogy of faith. Here, I think Dr. White simply wants to maintain an a priori interpretive commitment that requires zero distinctions in the body of Christ contrary to the evidence for such distinctions available since at least Acts 6 where Hellenist and Hebrew widows posed the first question of inclusion for the early church.

As far as Titus 1 goes, I think Dr. White simply misunderstands what I’m attempting to do there. He characterizes it as me trying to use that text “to bring ethnicity into the church.” To be fair, God brings ethnicity into the church. But I cite the text as biblical evidence for someone speaking of an entire people’s sins and doing so sharply. One of the chief complaints against my original post is that I’ve spoken of an entire “racial group” in a way that’s contrary to the gospel and scripture. In citing Titus  1, I simply wished to note that if I’m wrong, I’m the same kind of wrong as the apostle Paul when he speaks of Cretans—a national and ethnic people group—in collective terms in relationship to their characteristic sins. About this, for other examples, I would actually commend Doug Wilson’s post to Dr. White for consideration.

Finally . . . Something That’s Implicit That Should Be Made Explicit

Dr. White and I have omitted an important step in public discourse, at least discourse among professing brothers. We have not agreed upon the terms of the debate. What are we arguing, how are we arguing, who will set and enforce the rules?

His post is filled with things he insists on. Things that must be this way or that. And conveniently, he always insists in directions consistent with his opinion. In other words, he’s trying to rig the conversation in his favor. I simply reject that—not as a matter of pride and inflexibility, but as a matter of righteousness and justice. I’m sure Dr. White won’t like this, and many who take his view of things won’t like this. But you simply do not get to unilaterally set the terms of the discussion when you’ve chosen to represent the “side” of those who have committed the historical wrong over against the “side” of those who have suffered the wrong. It’s doubling the infraction. It’s like allowing (forgive the analogy) an abusive husband to set the terms of counseling and reconciliation with his battered wife. No good pastor would do that because he knows that’s simply to extend the abuse. I do apologize for using what will certainly feel like an emotionally loaded analogy to some people. I’m simply illustrating the dynamic in this that I reject.

If we want to talk further and to give the “sides” an opportunity to be heard justly, we’re going to need to parlay about how we talk before we get around to the talking, especially if we feel ourselves so convinced of our view that we tend to write and speak as if no other opinion can be “biblical” or “true.” Perhaps readers can blame us both for writing that way. All the more reason to set the terms of discussion before the discussion.

Thus ends my response. Thank you, Dr. White, for your contribution. The Lord bless you and keep you.

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