On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide”

Shortly after my article on R.L. Dabney was published at Desiring God (Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist), Taylor Sexton wrote a response at his blog (“Racism, White Confederate Theologians, and Justification by Faith Alone). Unfortunately, I just discovered it earlier this week, and thought it was worth responding to.

I’ve never met Taylor, but I suspect we have quite a bit in common, and I’m guessing we’d get along quite well. I’m really grateful for the time and thought he put into engaging my post, and I think we actually agree on a large number of things. In fact, I think that his largest criticisms are based on a misunderstanding of what I wrote, and the responsibility for that lies with me for not being more clear.

So with that in mind, I’d like to try to clarify some things in an effort to either remove any disagreement, or help us see more exactly where it lies.

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”?

Taylor’s first “issue” with the article is with this sentence: “for those of us who are white, Reformed, American Christians, eulogies to King sound hollow while the echoes of white supremacy still haunt our halls.” He interprets me as positing a catch-22: “when white people are silent about racism, they are racists; when they speak out about it, they are ‘hollow.’”

I’d like to clarify this point. Notice that I mentioned a specific kind of activity eulogies to Kingand not “speaking about racism” in general. I also had in mind another kind of hypocritical activity, namely, criticisms of King and/or his theology. I actually think that there is plenty of work to be done by white people in fighting against racism and dismantling white-supremacy in evangelical spaces and institutions, but there are also plenty of superficial and hypocritical ways of going about it. On MLK Jr. Day especially, it’s easy to talk about King and avoid the more difficult, controversial, but utterly necessary work. Daniel Hill captures this point well in his book White Awake: “Dismantling white supremacy trumps the seeking of diversity.” Until we directly confront white supremacy in our midst, everything else will sound hollow — eulogies of King, criticisms of King, praising diversity, etc. Once we’ve removed the plank in our own eye, we’ll see more clearly  in order to have constructive conversations on this issue. I’m not calling for “white silence,” I’m calling for us to be vocal in calling out white-supremacy—that’s why I wrote the article!

“Where, exactly, have I ‘afflicted atrocious injustice’ on anyone”?

The next sentence that Taylor takes issues with is this one: “Just because we embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean we have not afflicted atrocious injustice on our fellow human beings.” He asks: “Where, exactly, have I ‘afflicted atrocious injustice’ on anyone?”

Here, I think, Taylor makes a fair criticism. This sentence reads like a blanket and imprecise accusation.

To be completely honest, that’s actually not what I originally wrote. I went back and forth with the editors at DG a couple of times, and the last draft I submitted contained this sentence: “Just because you embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean you won’t also inflict atrocious injustice on your fellow human being.” I stand by that sentence. Unfortunately, simply changing “you” to “we” and “won’t also inflict” to “haven’t also inflicted” completely alters the sense. I wouldn’t have signed off on the sentence the way it was published, and I can’t defend it. Oh, the difference that person, number, and tense can make!

Taylor’s right — rather than an aid to precise analysis, that sentence became a stumbling block and a distraction to my real point.

Should we censor Dabney’s books?

This was a common reaction to the article, and I actually wrote an entire post addressing it (Should we Burn Dabney’s Books?). Taylor, though, takes it to another level by turning it into a question about justification by faith alone. Here I think he missed my point entirely.

He first asks the question: “why does this author feel the need to comment on the fact that Dabney’s books are still being printed, sold, read, and even quoted?”

I felt the need to mention it in order to support the claim I made in the preceding sentence. Here’s how it reads together: “Robert Dabney’s influence has not disappeared in Reformed circles. His books are still being repackaged, reprinted, and sold.” I anticipated a certain reaction, namely, “why are you talking about an irrelevant old dead guy from 150 years ago that no one has ever even heard of?” (In fact, I did receive this response numerous times; see: Social Justice Dung and other thoughts on Dabney). I mentioned the fact that his books are still being reprinted (and recommended at big conferences) in order to support the claim that “his influence has not disappeared.”

Taylor goes on: “This author has an underlying premise… that the very fact we are printing, selling, and reading Dabney’s works means we are in reality supporting everything he taught and believed.”

Actually, I don’t believe that, and I didn’t say that. I’ve never thought that. In fact, I’ve resisted the opposite accusation whenever someone impugns a blanket accusation of “abandoning the gospel for Marxism” whenever someone appropriates a few genuine Marxist insights.

Taylor: “It might even be sinful to buy his works! …why else would the author express concern about someone’s writings merely being ‘sold’?”

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Oh dear — I sure hope it’s not sinful to buy Dabney’s books, otherwise I’m the chief of sinners!

My point in mentioning that his books are still printed and sold was not so much to express “concern” as to to prove “continuing influence.”

Taylor, though, sees a “refusal to think that anything he had to say was God-honoring.” Perhaps I’ve even implicitly denied “justification by faith alone” as the title of the post suggests. Given that his premise doesn’t fit (I never called for any kind of “censorship” let alone the “blatant” kind) I’d submit that none of the rest of the charges stick either.

Unfortunately, though Taylor quoted my paragraph in full, he never addressed my main concern: “He is still quoted in our own books without caveat or qualification.”

Note carefully: my concern is not that “he is still quoted in our own books.” My concern is that for an entire generation of Reformed American Christians, we have done so “…without caveat or qualification.” That’s the issue. White supremacy long unchecked, unexposed, and unaddressed.

Was Dabney even a Christian?

Taylor correctly notes that I “made no assertion of the sort.” In fact, he thinks that to question Dabney’s salvation would amount to “legalism.”

I didn’t say it in the article because I didn’t even think about it at the time. However, I’ve read quite a bit of Dabney since then, and I do want to go on record saying that I think that’s actually a very good question. While I pray that I will see Dabney in the new heavens and new earth, I personally do not have utmost confidence in his salvation. Dabney persisted in unrepentant sin until the end of his life, which Paul warns desperately against. He bitterly resisted all attempts to raise the social and ecclesial status of black Christians until the end of his life, even when he was a lonely minority in a changing south. He persuaded an entire denomination to discriminate against and segregate black Christians and thus caused a division in Christ’s church that lasted over 100 years. For these sins, Dabney would be excommunicated from any self-respecting Gospel church today. Given that this never happened in his own day, I don’t know whether it might have been used to bring him to repentance, and I can’t pass any final judgment. I will say, though, that given the evidence we have, it doesn’t look good.

Even if he was genuinely saved, I consider him utterly unqualified for the office of a teacher in the church, and I don’t intend to treat him like one. None of his “impeccable Reformed theology” or vaunted reputation changes this in my opinion, it only serves to heighten his hypocrisy. There’s a difference between saying “we should censor his books!” and “we shouldn’t treat him as a ‘great teacher’ in the church.”

What about Jonathan Edwards?

Taylor thinks that not mentioning Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding was “an unfortunate omission from Desiring God, who is the primary popular venue by which Edwards’s theology and philosophy is spread.” He later says “the standard is never applied fairly; e.g., Jonathan Edwards as mentioned above.”

I’m not really sure what Taylor is talking about here. John Piper and Desiring God have addressed Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding numerous times over the years in podcast episodes, articles, videos,  book chapters, and again in a recent Q&A.

I’m not sure what kind of “unfortunate omission” Taylor is talking about. On the other hand, until my article, Dabney’s racism had never been treated at DG even though his books had been recommended on their site and quoted in Pastor John’s books. I’m grateful that they were willing to publish my article, but it’s really no surprise if you know Pastor John and his track record of leaning hard into these issues. 

Dabney’s life and legacy

I can’t tell from reading the post how familiar Taylor actually is with Dabney’s life and legacy. He references a biographical message by Iain Murray, but unfortunately that message is an utter white-wash—not just of Dabney’s white-supremacy, but of the civil war, and southern slavery itself.

Taylor admits that he isn’t sure whether Dabney defended “the American form of slavery, or the idea of slavery in general.” The answer is “both” and he used the latter to do the former. This could be cleared up by reading Dabney own words, or a clear-eyed biography (like Sean Michael Lucas’s). In fact, I suspect that a large part of the reason we’ve approached this differently is because of the different kinds of exposure we’ve had to his vile ideology. It grieves me, it makes me sick to my stomach to read some of Dabney’s addresses, and sicker still think that his racist influence infected Reformed American Christians for over 100 years. I don’t hear those same notes of lament in Taylor’s post, and it makes me wonder if he’s really looked Dabney’s sin as squarely in the eye as it ought to be. The fact that he describes himself in another post as ”an enthusiast about the Southern Presbyterian and Reformed pastors and theologians during the nineteenth century (e.g., Dabney, Thornwell, Girardeau, etc.)” makes me wonder if he’s really looked as long and hard as he should.

Hopefully this puts to rest what I think are some misunderstandings of my position and sets us up to discuss any that remain. This is the kind of work we need to engage in–wrestling hard with the legacy of Reformed white-supremacy and what we should do about it.

(Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash)

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