Now I know how these things go. Rarely does anyone throw up their hands and confess that they lost an intellectual sparring match, especially when the venue is oh so permanent like the internet. But I don’t plan on getting into intellectual fist-a-cuffs with Pastor Douglas Wilson over his book Black and Tan: Essays and excursions on slavery, culture war, and Scripture in America. That’s not deep enough.
I was moved to tears as I consumed the pages of this book. My tears didn’t come because I found Pastor Wilson’s book to be insightful, or a literary tour de force. Rather, I was moved in great sorrow over the extreme insensitivity of not just a Christian, but a well known pastor whom God has allowed to have a national platform, speaking into the lives of many. Sure I felt anger at first when Pastor Wilson described himself as a paleo-Confederate (p.80), and my heart rate only escalated further when he rebuked the 19th century “radical abolitionist’s” for being wicked and starting the Civil War, because after all what was needed was not radical reformation, but patience, to simply let the seed of the gospel subversively dismantle the institution of slavery (p.45).
As I read, my mind went back to my great-great grandfather who worked the plantations of Asheville, North Carolina. I’d love to know Peter’s thoughts on whether or not he should’ve been patient, especially when the very context of those who owned slaves took place among those who claimed to have embraced the gospel. Be patient with those who rape your wife and dignity? Patient with those who beat your backs, shackle your feet, cut off limbs, divide your family and at times even lynch your body leaving it to hang as “Strange Fruit” from southern trees with a certain part of your anatomy shoved in your mouth because you dared to look at or talk to a white woman?
I should hope Pastor Wilson doesn’t do the bulk of pastoral counseling at his church.
He may want to engage me in an intellectual debate over how evil the institution of slavery actually was and whether or not the atrocities I just cited were the norm, but that’s not my point. Let’s say he’s right, and that we’ve been fed a bunch of lies, that slavery wasn’t as bad as we’ve been told. Okay, you’ve got the corner marked on truth (which I don’t believe), but you may be cognitively right, yet emotionally wrong at the same time. Any husband who’s been married for any period of time knows this. You can win and lose the argument all at once. As one who’s won his share of debates with his wife, I can tell you that lawyer mode doesn’t work too well in marriage, because what Korie needs to feel is that I care for her.
That’s what Black and Tan is missing. And here’s where I want to lift the conversation from Pastor Wilson to the broader community. Where does such insensitivity come from? What’s the breeding ground that gives birth to villainizing the abolitionist’s who fought for and harbored us? What leads one to say that Abraham Lincoln (as imperfect as he was), was the “most famous white supremacist” of the 19th century (he was not squeaky clean when it came to his personal thoughts and statements on race, but I think you see my point- Wilson goes a bit far, p.87)? And how does Pastor Wilson get away with saying that we should consider whether or not it’s safer to be a black child in the womb in 1858 or in 2005?
I was preaching on forgiveness at a well known white church recently. I happened to use an illustration that centered on race, but made the broader point of forgiveness. At the end of my message I was shaking hands, and an older white man came forward and said to me, “When will black people just get over it?” I simply responded by saying, “Sir, you don’t have any really close black friends do you?” He looked at me for a few seconds and reluctantly agreed. I then went onto tell him that while he maybe right- and many of my brothers and sisters from the African Diaspora do need to confess their bitterness and learn to forgive- his insensitivity betrayed an unsettling truth- he didn’t have relationships, meaningful ones with the Other. You can always tell those who do, for while they don’t shy away from the truth, they say it in ways that are dripping with compassion and grace, attributes missing from Pastor Wilson’s book.
Down the street from Memphis sits Ole Miss. Recently, a bit of a ruckus took place there over the issue of their mascot, and the Rebel Flag. In the middle of the “storm” I happened to be playing golf with an alumnus of the school, who’s a raving fan who also happens to be white. Dumbfounded he exhaled, “I don’t see what the big deal is, it’s just a name, a flag.” It’s no surprise that he doesn’t have any meaningful relationships with the other either. He just sees things from his side of the tracks, and has never bothered to get into the skin of the Other. If he did, he would see the big deal, because to the descendants of slaves that flag incites anger and hurt.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that again this is Pastor Wilson’s problem. Moscow, Idaho, in the words of Eddie Murphy, “doesn’t seem to be a real popular place with the bruthas”. I could be wrong. But something tells me that if he would have sent his manuscript out to close and trusted African American friends of his, the finished product would have felt a lot different, if it would have made it to print after all.
How does racial insensitivity continue to flourish, especially in the evangelical world? We just refuse to get to know the Other.
You know what saddens me as I write these words? Once again, it’s a black man who is crying for help here, wondering where my white evangelical advocates are? Maybe conversations have already taken place and Pastor Wilson has been confronted. Maybe, the circles that he runs in- very prominent ones I might add- those who sit on those boards have told him to knock it off. But the fact that I don’t know these things, that I as a black man in 2013 am wondering where my white brothers are who will have my back here tells me we haven’t come as far as we can.
I just…I just want someone to care enough to stick up for me. Someone who doesn’t look like me.