CAN WE TALK? Bridging Ideological Chasms through Public Discourse

argument graphic“’Come now, let us argue it out,’ says the Lord.” – Isaiah 1:18 (NRSV)

In everyday use, the word “argument” usually signifies a verbal fight, a breakdown in communication, angry people shouting insults at each other. But ‘argument’ can also mean:

  1. discourse intended to persuade
  2. a coherent series of statements leading from a premise to a conclusion[1]

These meanings point to the legal use of the word  ‘argument’,  which refers to:

A form of expression consisting of a coherent set of reasons presenting or supporting a point of view; a series of reasons given for or against a matter under discussion that is intended to convince or persuade the listener.[2]

The scriptural phrase, “Come now, let us argue it out,” conveys this meaning of the word ‘argument.’ In the Hebrew language in which this phrase was originally written, the word translated ‘argue’ is yakah.[3] The Hebrew scriptures develop the meaning of yakah around situations of grievance or dispute, where fair judgment is needed to settle the case.[4]  Isaiah 1:18 is the most well-known use of yakah. In this case, God has a grievance with the people of Israel. In fact, God’s ancient grievance with the Hebrew people is remarkably similar to the grievance many folks have against religion and churches today—namely, that religious rituals have replaced real righteousness shown in seeking justice and caring for the poor, oppressed and defenseless of society. Just as record numbers of folks today have stopped going to church for this reason, God essentially says to the Hebrew people, “I’m tired of this foolishness! I’m not coming to your church anymore! SEE YOU IN COURT!”

No bolt of lightning is hurled down from heaven. No AK-47 materializes to mow down the opposition. No God-made bomb blows the defiant to smithereens. God doesn’t even cuss anybody out! Instead, God extends an invitation – an angry invitation – but an invitation nonetheless: “Come now, let us argue it out.”  “I don’t think you have a leg to stand on. But you present your argument and I’ll present Mine.” “Listen, O heavens and pay attention O earth!”[5]  We will each make our case.  You witness our arguments and be the judge between us.

Remarkable, isn’t it? In this prophetic passage God – an angry God – does not pull rank, does not resort to vigilante justice, but condescends to come to court and enter into a formal exchange with mere humans. God even defers to heaven and earth to judge the case.

In this scenario from scripture, ‘argument’ does not mean a shouting match, but a rigorous round of reasoning together. The goal is not venting and revenge but repenting – turning away from harmful, hurtful, alienating ways of thinking – and reconciliation – arriving together at a repaired relationship built on sound arguments and just actions. In this age of tabloid TV, when Divorce Court is sandwiched between Jerry Springer and Maury Povich; when trash talk, triggers, f-bombs and real bombs are used to “settle” conflicts, doesn’t Isaiah’s idea of argument sound like a good alternative?

Thanks be to God for the Techie Trinity -Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg[6]– who have made it possible to summon together heaven and earth with one click! Now in the Google universe of the worldwide web and in the Facebook space of social media, we have unprecedented ease of access the public square on a global scale.

Because of this, we can come into direct contact with a wider range of ideas and ideologies than ever before. And this contact is not abstract, passive or impersonal. We can actually concretely, actively engage the people behind the ideas. We can read an article, editorial or book and then, via web comments, Google, Facebook or e-mail, dialogue with the author and participate in public discourse about the author’s ideas. The court of public opinion has gone global.

Global access does not necessarily translate to quality communication. It still takes effort to rise above the rabble of raucous on-line voices having everyday arguments to engage in rigorous rounds of reasoning that can actually lead to deeper understanding, transformed thinking and even reconciled relationships. For all the pitfalls and limitations, there are amazing moments when these kinds of in-depth, illuminating, Isaiah-style arguments occur.  I stumbled upon one a couple weeks ago, courtesy of Facebook.

My Bible in the Public Square professor, Dr. Wil Gafney, posted on Facebook a link to a Huffington Post article by United Methodist pastor Morgan Guyton entitled  “Why is a Famous Evangelical Pastor Defending Slavery?”[7] Of course, that caught my attention! So I read through the article to find out more.  The pastor Guyton referred to is Douglas Wilson, an influential conservative Reformed Evangelical pastor, educator and author from Moscow, Idaho.[8] He published two controversial books, Southern Slavery, As It Was[9] and Black and Tan[10] in which he argues on Biblical principles (as he understands them) that the Civil War was a mistake of overly aggressive abolitionists that set off a cascade of moral decline and federal government over-reach that continues to this day. In his opinion, the Confederate South was one of the most Christianized communities of its time, most slaves and slaveholders had warm, close relationships, and these godly church-going slaveholders would have gradually emancipated slaves out of Christian charity with no need for war or federal intervention.[11]

As an African-American Pentecostal-Lutheran Christian and womanist theologian born during the Civil Rights era and raised and educated in the large urban centers of the U.S. Northeast Coast (Washington, Philadelphia, Boston), I am far removed from Wilson’s world and worldview. Geographically and ideologically, we are thousands of miles apart, though we both profess faith in Christ and hold the scriptures in high esteem. In the world before Facebook and Google, our paths would have never crossed. We could have each “preached to our own choirs,” parodying and pillorying each other’s positions with little opportunity for feedback in the public square. But now in the virtual global village, we are one click away from a question, a comment, an argument – that is, a rigorous round of reasoning – to probe more closely, dialogue more deeply and move toward a greater level of understanding.

In fact, an African American Reformed Evangelical pastor and theologian, Thabiti Anyabwile, has already engaged Wilson in a vigorous public argument about his views. Carried out online via blog and comments supplemented by e-mails and phone calls, Anyabwile has taken the time to recapitulate Wilson’s position and scriptural exegesis, probe its underlying social assumptions and scriptural convictions, and present an alternative social interpretation and scriptural analysis from within their shared Reformed Evangelical theological framework. Wilson was so impressed with Anyabwile’s careful and respectful reasoning, that he wrote: ”Almost he persuadeth me to be an abolitionist. His kind of one, anyway.”[12]

A log of links to the entire, extended public argument between Wilson and Anyabwile is posted on another blogsite, The Wartburg Watch, started by two Reformed Evangelical women, Dee Parsons and Deb Martin.  They established the blog to create a safe space for public discourse across ideological chasms. As they write:

This blog exists to explore various trends within the Christian faith. Along the way, we have discovered that many people have been the victims of legitimate spiritual abuse at the hands of pastors and churches. Some have experienced rejection because they do not march lock step with the current “thing du jour.” We view this blog as a community of the faithful, of those who are not so sure of the faith and of those who outright reject the faith… It is our hope that this blog will develop a diverse community that is interested in dialoging and learning from one another. In the end, we may disagree but we believe that love and respect should be end result of our discussions.[13]

Across the ideological chasm between liberal and conservative Christians, Guyton blogs a response to Wilson’s views in his Huffington Post article, bringing the tools of historical criticism into the arena. Guyton argues that Wilson’s views are warped because he fails to consider the historical, social and cultural context of the scriptures that speak about slavery. Far from trivializing or dismissing scripture, exegetical tools like historical and literary criticism provide ways of taking scripture seriously, digging more deeply into its meaning and discerning how these ancient texts speak to us today. Guyton writes:

I think that Doug Wilson’s perspective and mine represent the two basic possible choices for how to approach biblical interpretation if you’re going to do it consistently: with context or without context. Many Christians choose an inconsistent path in between based on whatever ideological identity they’re staking out with their mixture of positions.[14]

Amazing, isn’t it? By means of the internet and social media, an extended argument about the place of slavery in the Bible and in American history is being carried out between a Reformed Evangelical pastor in Idaho, an African-American pastor in the Bahamas, two Reformed Evangelical women in North Carolina, a United Methodist Pastor in Virginia!

After reading through several rounds of the argument, I added my voice to the discourse with the following post as a comment to Guyton’s Huffington Post article:

“One unspoken misconception of Doug Wilson’s argument is that the United States is a Christian congregation rather than a geopolitical nation. National economic and political interests got us into slavery and national economic and political interests ultimately got us out. Abolitionists created political pressure to end slavery through public witness and civil disobedience. But abolitionists did not initiate the Civil War. It was Southern states’ secession from the United States – in protest to Lincoln’s refusal to extend slavery to new U.S. territories- that fomented the Civil War. Confederates fired the first shots in the war, which claimed 600,000 American lives. If Confederates held the scriptures in such high regard, how could they defy Romans 13 requiring submission to civil authorities as servants of God, authorized to “bear the sword” and “execute judgment” on wrongdoers? Martin Luther built his “Two Kingdoms” teaching on this precept, arguing that Gospel principles apply within the context of Christian congregations, but that God authorizes secular governments to impose law and order to restrain anarchy and sustain a civilized society. This makes “gospel gradualism” an oxymoron. And Wilson applies the concept selectively. If the “discipleship of the nations is a gradual process,” why weren’t Native Americans “gradually discipled” rather than killed off and conquered by “Christian” settlers? And what of the 13 “Christian” colonies who violently rebelled against British rule? In the world of secular politics: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. ” (Frederick Douglass- African American Abolitionist)” [15]

It’s tempting to think this argument is an esoteric exercise with a fringe fanatic holding to a preposterous proposition about slavery and the Civil War.  I overcame the temptation to dismiss Doug Wilson’s argument as irrelevant when I recalled Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s remarks earlier this year as part of an oral argument in the Court characterizing the Voting Rights Act as a “racial entitlement” that should be struck down.  He based his argument on a 1979 law review article that he wrote prior to joining the Court. [16] I wonder if he has engaged in any meaningful debate on his argument over the 34 years since he wrote his law review article?

Like Judge Scalia, Doug Wilson’s opinion represents the views of a significant part of our American community. Through his writing, speaking, teaching and pastoring, he is using his platform of authority to push his position in the public square to influence the direction of our country.  Leaving his argument unchallenged is like giving silent assent and yielding ground to his position. Since he has published his position in the public square, vigorous public discourse is healthy and needed to bridge ideological chasms, challenge flawed arguments, and move toward greater understanding for the common good. “Come now, let’s argue it out.”

[4] TWOT 865 in Accessed 05/01/2013

[5] Isaiah 1:2a (NRSV)

[6] Founders of Google ( Page and Brin) and Facebook (Zuckerberg)

[9] Douglas Wilson and Steve Wilkins. Southern Slavery, As It Was. (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1996 )

[10] Douglas Wilson. Black and Tan. (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2005)


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