Saturday, January 20, 2018

Are Reformed Christians Influenced By White Supremacy?

Desiring God, the online ministry of John Piper, is one of my "go to" sources on many topics. Some of the material published there is among the highest quality material for the Reformed Christian available on the net. For example, last Sunday they published Before You Believed, You Belonged which is one of the best things I have read ever. But then the very next day they publish something that I remarked to a friend was "terrible" and "counter-productive". The offending essay comes with the click-bait title: Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist by Daniel Kleven, who is the director of admissions for Bethlehem College and Seminary where John Piper is chancellor.

In the pantheon of terms that are a) way overused and applied and b) are completely misunderstood, "white supremacy" is near the top of the list. I am not sure I can name an actual white supremacist today. Even well known people like David Duke and Richard Spencer are more properly considered white nationalists than they are white supremacists, in the same way that someone like Louis Farrakhan is a black nationalist advocating in part for distinct, racially homogeneous nations. People like Richard Spencer don't want to rule over non-whites, i.e. white supremacy, they want to live apart from non-whites. A subtle difference perhaps but an important one to understand in a climate where the term "white supremacy" is used to label almost anyone that doesn't completely adhere to the edicts of the racism-industrial complex.

Who was this White Supremacist that Daniel Kleven "exposed"? His name is Robert Lewis Dabney, a 19th century Southern American pastor and theologian. He was also a chaplain in the Confederate Army, a biographer of Stonewall Jackson and was a supporter of slavery even after the end of the Civil War. In addition to his biography of General Jackson, in 1867 he wrote a book with a lengthy title characteristic of that time, A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her, of the South, in Recent and Pending Contests Against the Sectional Party, as well as a number of theological tomes. You can be forgiven if in 2018 you haven't heard of Dabney or if you have, you have heard of him only in passing or via a one line quote in the writing of someone else. After all the man lived and died in the 19th century.

Why did Daniel Kleven choose to bring up Dabney? Is Dabney a particularly influential Reformed thinker? As someone who has been engaged in Reformed theology for many years, I know the name but he isn't someone I consider influential or even someone that I ever recall reading anything from. I have seen his name crop up here and there from time to time.

At Monergism, the gold standard for Reformed theology, there is a section where you can look up articles by the author. Some are obviously huge, John Calvin has almost 400 results. What about Dabney? He shows up 24 times. Compare that to someone like Francis Turretin, a fairly obscure reformed theologian with over 60 results, not to mention men like Charles Hodge with 90 results and Charles Spurgeon with over 1,200 results. Compared to modern Reformed writers like John Piper and R.C. Sproul, Dabney is barely a blip on the radar. If you were to poll people at a Reformed conference like Together for the Gospel and ask how many of them knew who Dabney was, I think few would know much more than his name. Asked how many had read anything of his and I am confident you would get a much, much smaller positive response. He just isn't a top-tier or even mid-tier theologian among the contemporary Reformed.

Even Doug Wilson, who endlessly finds himself forced to defend against (unwarranted) accusations of racism and being a slavery apologist and is one of the few people to regularly quote Dabney, describes Dabney as an "irascible slave owner". No one who knows much about him fails to understand that Dabney was a man of the 19th century with all that entails.

Yet he is referred to in this article as a champion of Reformed theology: "It’s hard to look racism in the face, especially when that face is one of a champion of Reformed orthodoxy". A champion?

Notice this introduction from Kleven's article and please note my emphasis:
In his time, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was considered one of the greatest teachers of theology in the United States. Revered theologians such as Hodge, Shedd, Warfield, Bavinck, and Barth viewed him with appreciation and respect.
In the 19th century, he was considered one of the greatest teachers of theology. Other more widely known Reformed theologians, now long dead, "appreciated" and "respected" Dabney. So he had some influence over other theologians 100 years ago.

So I ask again, why did Daniel Kleven choose Robert Dabney to make the case that somehow contemporary Reformed types have a White supremacist skeleton in their collective closet? My only conclusion can be that Daniel wanted to write an article on this topic and went searching for someone, however obscure, to fit the bill. Unlike Hodge or Warfield, Edwards or Spurgeon, Dabney wrote some stuff that makes good fodder for this sort of article. It is an editorial form of eisegesis, predeterming that there are "Echoes in Our Day" of White supremacy. Of course the church has already condemned pro-slavery positions and the institution itself in unequivocal terms. For example, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has a historically valuable e-book on their historical website written by Thomas Cary Johnson that has this caveat:
Please note that this history is posted solely for its value as a historical document. Any statements in Johnson's book in support of the institution of slavery or in support of racial supremacy should be clearly and obviously understood to be rejected by the Presbyterian Church in America, by the PCA Historical Center, and by the Center's director. The book is posted here that we might learn from it as history, and that we might learn too from its errors, as well as its truths. It should continue to amaze us that highly valued leaders in the Church can be so very wrong about some matters while still holding to vital truths about the Christian faith. May God grant us the ability to see and repent from the sins we ourselves are blinded to by our own culture today.
It is pretty clear to anyone paying attention that the issue of slavery and "racial supremacy" has been condemned by the church, including the Reformed church. I don't know of any even semi-serious Reformed writers that promote racial supremacy or hold a pro-slavery view.

Dabney was a product of his times and while it is easy to cluck our tongues disapprovingly at what he wrote 150 years ago, it is not very useful. I am sure without bothering to look that there were men all across the religious (and non-religious) spectrum in the era leading up to and immediately after the Civil War that used language similar to, if not worse, than what Dabney did. Slavery was the law of the land and slavery, as we see in the Bible and elsewhere, has been practiced by humanity for thousands of years, by whites and blacks, Christians and Muslims. Men like Dabney can be brilliant theologians and still be terribly wrong on some issues and it doesn't diminish their value. Calvin made a horrendous error in his complicity with the execution of the heretical Servetus. Martin Luther made statements considered by some to be anti-semitic. Men are flawed, something that Reformed Christians understand perhaps better than others, and it certainly isn't necessary to put an addendum next to any quote from Calvin that he was complicit in the state execution of Servetus.

Mr. Kleven concludes his essay with the obligatory homage to Martin Luther King, Jr.
A true understanding of providence should lead us to act the miracle of change in pursuing justice.
Martin Luther King came closer to this in regard to racial justice than did Robert Lewis Dabney.
As impolite as it may be to point out, King was in many ways a deeply heterodox religious figure, someone who held positions that if they were held by someone other than a slain Civil Rights icon would be condemned by most orthodox Christians. Not to mention that King's personal life, including very credible evidence of serial adultery, brings into question whether he knew Christ at all.

What exactly was Kleven's point? Slavery and support for slavery was bad? Did we really need another essay about that? Or was this just an obligatory essay to mark MLK day?

So why was this essay terrible and counter-productive? It was terrible in that it presents a fairly esoteric figure in Reformed theology as a means to taint all Reformed Christians with the guilt of white supremacy and it fails to recognize the very real lack of white supremacist thought in contemporary times anywhere in America, much less in evangelicalism, even less so in Reformed circles. It is counter-productive because the essay itself is an exercise in virtue signaling, a term I recognize is overused but appropriate I believe in this case. The comments on Facebook that accompanied the original posting from Desiring God, including mine, exhibited that most people were not buying into this idea of white supremacy lurking just below the surface of Reformed Christianity based on one example of a man who live and died in the 19th century South. As someone who thinks and writes and tries to take seriously the question of race in the church and America in general, I found the essay far from enlightening and more accurately simply another example of clumsy guilt-tripping that accomplishes little but to make the author feel that he has somehow struck a blow for racial justice.

Self-flagellation over alleged racial guilt is the neo-Reformed version of the #MeToo farce, just in reverse. Instead of feeling left out because you weren't a victim, many feel left out that they have never actually oppressed anyone so they create some linkage from themselves to oppression, no matter how tenuous.

Those into racial guilt virtue signaling BDSM don't want to really have to ask hard questions and get into uncomfortable conversations. They simply want a sharp rap on the bum with a riding crop from Mr. Grey, leaving no lasting impact but giving that sense of feeling like you have been duly chastised for your latent racism and are now cleansed and in a position to scold others.

Essays like Daniel Kleven's are theological cotton candy, brightly colored but empty of any substance. It is a throwaway piece, generating a little heat but no light and just as quickly forgotten as it was read. Worse it deflects serious questions about race relations and even issues like the providence of God as it pertains to slavery in favor of vacuous references to relatively obscure figures in the church and breathless warnings about "white supremacy". Desiring God is a resource that often provides deep, meaningful, thought-provoking materials and it could do the same on questions of race. Instead we got a Huffington Post religion page level discourse. No topic in the church today is in greater need of clarity and soberness than race but all too often what we get instead are essays like Daniel Kleven's. I have come to expect better from Desiring God and I was deeply disappointed. Serious topics demand serious scholarship.

No comments: