Somewhere along the way I lost track of the many posts Douglas Wilson and I have exchanged regarding his book, Black and Tan, so I posted a “round-up” of them all. While I lost track of the posts, by God’s grace I don’t think I lost track of the conversation itself.
We’ve covered a lot of ground. The tone has been charitable. The engagement has been on the issues and not an attack on persons. We’ve reached a fair amount of important agreement, and we have some significant disagreements remaining. I think that’s better than we might expect any time a former African American Muslim and a self-described “paleo-Confederate” start talking about slavery, “race,” and the like. Praise God for the Spirit’s work in redeemed clay!
I’ve covered pretty much all the ground I’d hoped to cover in my critique of Black and Tan and then some. But I want to offer one last post, not so much about Black and Tan but about how we talk about these things publicly. This will have all the coherence of a ramble, so I ask your patience and your grace. I hope it’ll be useful on some level.
I thought Wilson’s last post served us all when he shifted the conversation to the issue of the watching public. I like Wilson’s gift with language and metaphors. I wish I could title my posts with the kind of creativity he uses! If this thing were judged on post titles it would be a complete shut-out in Wilson’s favor! Among Wilson’s rhetorical gifts is the use of metaphor, simile and analogy. Now I don’t normally like to argue using analogy because they always break down, and then there are those who seize on every detail of the analogy and miss the main point (kinda the way some preachers preach parables). But I find myself in a rare analogy using mood. But, the best I can do here is borrow an analogy Wilson used. One I like very much and think captures one aspect of our discussion.
Wilson writes, “we are having this discussion on the fifty yard line in a full stadium.” That’s well-said. There are a lot of onlookers to this discussion. The stadium feels filled with four types.
The Kinds of Onlookers We Tend to Be
Partisans. There are those wearing Doug Wilson jerseys who cheer for his every play and find a way to blame the refs every time he appears to suffer a setback. There are the folks wearing Thabiti jerseys who cheer his every play and find a way to blame the refs every time he appears to suffer a setback. These are the partisans, hard to be won over, watching the game with a jaundiced eye, as eager to “boo” as to cheer. They make sure the team is supported and the stadium is filled. But–and this is a “but” the size of Aunt Fanny’s on Robots–partisans don’t make good discussion partners. Teams need them and work hard to gather them. But partisans hate close calls, disdain the finer points of the game, and tend to want winners by wide margins. This makes them difficult to woo with anything other than the other teams head on a stick. But they’ll march out single file and singing if said head could really be on a stick carried out as a totem of their prowess and dominance. Partisans can be the death of discussion. But we love them, and we have to be careful how we court them when we’re helmet to helmet on the 50-yard line. That’s one part of our stewardship in public discussions.
Empaths. There’s also a type of fan who makes for our purposes a second group. That’s the guy who refers to his team with the plural pronoun “we.” When he gives the report on the game he says, “We lost” or “We won.” When his team loses, he’s unable to go to work Monday morning. When they win he is unbearable all week. He’s the kind of guy who takes everything happening on the field personally, as if he’s on the roster with the other guys. You’ve heard the joke about the guy who sits in the stands with 30,000 people and believes the players are talking about him when they meet in the huddle. He’s the guy who watches a play unfold on the field and can’t help but say, “That’s just what I was thinking they should do,” and believes his thinking it (or his watching or not watching the play) has something to do with how the play unfolded. He’s an empath, like Deanna Troy on Star Trek Next Generation, and a witch. And he shows up feeling everything the team should feel but without any real involvement in the game. The empaths feel and feel and feel, but like Officer Troy really doesn’t do much. Careful how much you feed them!
Aficionados. Then there are those folks who came to the game looking for a good afternoon’s entertainment. They’re not really fans of either team. They’re perhaps loyal to another team in another town. But they enjoy the game. They like the artistry as well as the fundamentals. They’re the kind of attendees who carry years of stats in their heads and know something about the character of the teams and their owners. They’re great people to take score, indifferent as they are to the teams themselves and capable as they are of comprehending the issues in the game. Now, many partisans think they’re these kinds of indifferent aficionados simply because they know stats and won-loss records. The difference between a partisan and an aficionado isn’t a matter of statistical record-keeping but of heart’s attachment. The aficionado’s heart is attached to the game while the partisan’s heart is attached to the team. Now, the person most often needed in the 50-yard line discussion is the aficionado. They’re the persons that can help keep our view of things straight, fill in the action for those with bad seats, and calmly toss a flag against either team as occasion requires. But the problem is this: when you’re in Philly and you’re an aficionado you’re probably better off keeping your mouth closed! In other words, the great crowd of fans/partisans rooting for their teams don’t want to hear from the smaller pack of aficionados, who find themselves pushed to the margins rather than invited into the analysis and enjoyment of the game. There’s a contest going on in the stands, too, and it’s not just partisans against partisans but also partisans against the rightly dispassionate and fair. If we lose the fair-minded, the open to learning and changing, the willing to listen and consider, then we lose the whole shootin’ match (to mix metaphors).
Girlfriends. Fourth, in the stands of a football game there’s another kind of attendee. That’s the girlfriend (usually, stereotypically; trust me, I know women can be and are every bit as passionate and knowledgeable about football as the guys; but permit me the admittedly stereotypical analogy). She only came to the game to get some time with the ex-jock boyfriend. She cheers for his team but she really isn’t a fan. She’d rather be aloof about the whole thing but she doesn’t have the aficionado’s history and understanding. She simply showed up and found herself engulfed in a smash-mouth football game with beer sloshing, face-painted, shirtless partisans shouting all around her. She’d rather be at home watching HGTV or Lifetime or some such thing, but she’d do anything for her man. And that’s her difficulty. She’s got a decision to make. All the bluster and banter suggests something really important is happening on the 50-yard line. She should probably pay attention. The aficionado next to her seems to have a good grasp on things but she can’t tell from his dispassionate comments who’s right or wrong, and talk about completion percentage has her wondering if any of the players finished school. The fans screaming their heads off have made up their mind who “they’re for,” but they seem to overlook some pretty significant happenings on the field and to fixate on a couple other things that seem to be over now. Does she follow her boyfriend, does she pretend the aficionado’s indifference, or does she make up her own mind, even if that means picking the team with the prettiest colors? You see, there are a great many people new to the game, new to all the party lines, trying to figure things out and make a reasonable decision. And precisely because they’re reasonable, they may just decide to bail on the whole sordid thing. Or, they may be swept up with the mobs rather than think through an issue. Or, they may choose their pretty colors, complain the game is too violent to begin with, and watch only for the “pretty” plays.
All that to say this: When the nose guard and the center line up at the fifty yard line, they’re going to have to make themselves blissfully unaware of the people in the stadium and observe the player in front of them and the rules of the game on the field. It’s the only way to lead, influence, and actually win the game. The irony of sports performance is that winning the fans requires ignoring the fans. The fella kicking the field goal can’t allow himself to get distracted by the end zone crazies waving towels and howling ugly things about his mother. The quarterback and receiver looking to connect on a timing pattern can’t listen to the thunderous cheers and boos coming from the rafters. To play the game faithfully and effectively the players must focus on what’s happening on the field.
Why This Matters
This singular focus helps us in a number of ways.
First, it keeps us from playing the impossible game of answering critics. I learned this from another warrior in today’s culture battles: John MacArthur. He said he learned long ago never to answer his critics. When I first heard it I thought, How do you not do that. Then I became a senior pastor. It became very apparent very quickly that if I were to answer my critics it would be a full-time job and the main thing would never get done. But here’s the tricky part of all this: Answering critics may either be direct replies to them or anticipating and adjusting my comments to guard against them in some way. Either way, the critic sets the agenda for some part of my ministry and life rather than God’s calling. This is why Paul tells the Corinthians, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor. 4:3-5). The apostle focuses instead on being faithful as a steward of the mysteries of God (4:1-2). We can’t answer our critics. There are too many of them.
Second, playing the game between the lines keeps us focused on the ball. That was what my daddy said when he was particularly pleased with me. “Son, you’re on the ball.” He meant I had my head in the game and was doing what was expected of me. As Christians and certainly as ministers we have a more important task–to be faithful to the decrees of God and the proclamation of His everlasting gospel. The players on the field have to understand that most of all. Inevitably the news reporter finds them in the locker room before they’re even dry from the shower and starts asking or blaming on camera. Indeed, the reporters and the fans have already begun their second-guessing while the game is being played. But the player has to keep his mind on what the coaches and the captains are instructing. The most ridiculous thing in all of football is an off sides penalty or an illegal motion penalty on the nose guard or the center. They’re the guys closest to the ball. One of them even has his hands on the ball and knows the snap count! Losing track of the ball is an inexcusable error for them. They must maintain a singular focus on the ball, and if they do they’re able to be faithful to their calling. Win or lose they have done that most important thing: protect or get the ball.
Third, being focused on the game and playing by the rules of the game keeps us consistent with all the fans in the stand. We know the bleachers are partisan. We know there are observers wanting our heads for this or that reason, or for no reason at all. And we know there are people in the same bleachers looking at things carefully and those watching cluelessly. How do we play the game in a way that honors them all? We line up and we play without cheating. Cheating sours every fan. Even the fan whose team won through the missed call or the indiscretion can’t talk in loud tones about the “win.” The whole thing is suspect and they know it in their hearts. Only when everything is “fair and square,” “by the book” can players on the field and people in the stands hold their heads up in dignity. But to have dignity in either victory or defeat, we have to play by one set of rules observed by all, whether on the field or off the field. A holding penalty has to be a holding penalty, even when it’s close. A late hit has to be a late hit even if it’s a nanosecond after the quarterback releases the ball. Lining up off sides has to be an infraction no matter whether you’re fanboy, aficionado, or hapless spectator and no matter whether you’ve got 50-yard line seats or you’re in the nosebleeds. When an infraction is called–especially when the players admit it, and even when they hate that it hurts their team or disappoints their fans or gives joy to their opponents–submission to the ruling has to apply to all. We don’t have penalties that only affect the center but not the rest of the team, or only benefits one player but not all.
One person in the comments thread, a partisan, I think, asked if I thought charges of “racial insensitivity” were “objective” such that Wilson’s humble apology (and I do think it was humble to make an apology on the 50-yard line) should be made to all without respect to whether they were themselves honest or opportunistic. My answer to that is, “Yes.” If I’ve wronged one brother with a remark, there’s no reason for me to assume the remark doesn’t harm others, even others I regard as partisans on the other team always howling against me and my team. Here’s the thing: Floppers have feelings, too (again, to mix sporting metaphors). So, too, do the unredeemed from whom we may even expect flopping because it inheres in their fallenness. Even if floppers have faked a hundred charges like Bobby Hurley of Duke days gone by, that does not mean the next time we see him spread eagle counting ceiling tiles that no charge occurred . We don’t get to offend our enemies. We don’t get to ignore the effect of our words on others. We get to love them, offer them the other cheek, and prove ourselves to be unlike sinners by doing good without expectation of return and being merciful to those who are not merciful to us (Luke 6:27-36). Sometimes love looks like the coal-hot kindness of an apology sincerely offered to all, especially our detractors (Rom. 12:19-21).
Fourth, playing the games by the rules and focusing on the ball makes us winsome with fans and enemies alike. Let me admit something. I was a Michael Jordan hater for half his career. I went to NC State, Jordan to Carolina. In the sports world that is the ACC, that was enough to make us mortal enemies and rule out any favorable remarks one might have toward Jordan. But I was indeed a hater. About five years into his reign in Chicago, I too had to admit the obvious. The man was great as greatness goes in the world of professional sports. I had to stop quarreling and admit it. I wasn’t being very gracious and I wasn’t winning any friends who could see the obvious truth.
Even in football there is something called “unsportsmanlike conduct.” It’s not the kind of observable infraction like being off sides, but it is a conduct unbecoming a player on the field. It’s “unsportsmanlike.” We may think it subjective, but it’s real nonetheless. “Racial insensitivity” and insensitivity of every sort has the same “realness” as unsportsmanlike conduct. After all, the servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be kind to everyone and correct his opponents with gentleness (2 Tim. 2:23-25).
If my infraction was an infraction, then it was an infraction against the Gamemaker, the game, the other team opposed to me, and against the onlookers who may be taken in by my sin. If I behave in an unbecoming way then I need to take the ten yard penalty, line it up again, and run the next play. But I shouldn’t complain about the ref or attempt to comply with the penalty only with those I like. I should admit and receive the penalty like a son being chastised by His Father and look forward to the harvest of righteousness that will surely come (Heb. 12:7-11). To do otherwise is to deny the grace of God in correction and it is possibly to set an example we don’t want followed by those watching in the stands.
Fifth, and finally, playing the game by the rules and staying on the field delivers us from fear. Wilson was quite humble and transparent to talk about his concerns in the broader culture wars, concerns or fears that have shaped some of his comments in this discussion. I think I understand and appreciate his concerns. What I want for him and for us all is a certain kind of fearlessness. I think it comes more effectively by simply attending to the conversation or issue at hand and leaving the results to the Lord. We play football one snap at a time. Surely those plays build to the game’s conclusion, but we can’t predict the conclusion by the next third-down meeting at the line of scrimmage. We line up, make the snap, run the play, and trust the Lord that the game rides on lots of such plays. Even when we’re in the red zone on the game’s final drive, that drive is only “final” because it followed lots of other drives and plays that put us in the position. All that to say: Freedom comes from running the play, forgetting the fans, and trusting God with the outcome. After all, who of us is sufficient for these things? Who can arrest the decay of the Church or perfect its health? Who of us can guard against the attacks of detractors or change the hearts of one onlooker? None of us. But God can and He surely will cause His church to prevail against the gates of hell. We need not fear. We might even be a bit more postmill and optimistic. The Lord reigns–even at the 50 yard line when the fans are going wild.
So let me bring this to a conclusion, long overdue by now. Thank you for reading thus far and for contributing in whatever way the Lord has prompted you to beyond reading: leaving comments, passing along links, praying for me and Wilson. I think I can safely say that he and I both appreciate your engagement with us.
If I have one hope in addition to deep reconciliation of God’s people, it would be that we learn to talk with one another–especially when it comes to matters touching upon “race.” Personally I don’t like talking about “race.” Yet I find myself from time to time drawn into such discussions. Perhaps the Lord sees me as a kind of Jonah and he keeps preparing fish to swallow me and spit me out on the banks of these discussions. I don’t know. But insofar as He keeps me involved in these kinds of exchanges, I hope to be an ambassador for Him, to do some little thing that models His graciousness, and to call us all to a faithful embrace of His word.
In that sense, this discussion with Wilson hasn’t been solely about Wilson and me. It’s about you, the reader. It’s about the Lord’s Church, made up of every tribe, nation, and language. It’s about our collective sanctification and trusting that our racial warts are there not by accident but by God’s providential design to conform us to the image of His Son whom He loves. I think Wilson and I may try to offer a joint summary post with agreements, disagreements, and conclusions. We’ve talked about that; we’ll see if we can pull it off. But you’re still writing this series for us in all the conversations you have with others about these things and in the conversations you even have with yourself. May those conversations bear the peaceable fruit of wisdom and love. Grace to us all.