Something rather seismic happened in the evangelical blogosphere recently. If you missed it, I want to bring it to your attention now because it shows how far south — and sour — conversations about race and identity have gone in evangelical circles and also because what happened serves as an important object lesson, revealing two key truths about the “race conversation” that all faithful Christians should take to heart.
So what happened? In a nutshell, the “Mr. Rogers” of the evangelical world, Kevin DeYoung, a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) pastor and theologian (and the author of popular books like Just Do Something and The Hole in our Holiness), was accused of being a “product of white supremacy” by two other PCA pastors and authors — Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. His crime? Writing a lengthy, well-reasoned, gracious, yet critical review of Kwon and Thompson’s recent book Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Action.
At the outset, one would be shocked if Kwon and Thompson did not expect their book to be critiqued. Demanding that Christians support what is, in effect, a massive wealth transfer enacted by the coercive force of the government on the basis of skin color (for black Americans) is controversial to say the least. No doubt there are clear ethical implications in Scripture that can be used to support corresponding public policy proposals; the command “thou shall not murder,” as an example, demands that Christians proactively support ending abortion. However, the enactment of reparations is (arguably) not one of those “straight-line” issues. Christians should leave room to disagree on this in good faith. Sadly, that’s not what Kwon and Thompson did.
In DeYoung’s review “Reparations: A Critical Theological Review,” he calls the book a “bold work” and summarizes their claims like so: “In simple terms, the problem is White supremacy and the answer is reparations—restitution for what has been taken.” He commends Kwon and Thompson writing a “book that is both accessible and academic,” but ultimately, DeYoung raises significant theological concerns and objects to their central argument. For example, DeYoung notes that “the book certainly talks about sin and redemption, but redemption is found through reparations and the sin that poisons everything is White supremacy.”
After almost 6,000 words filled with scriptural critique and gracious disagreement, DeYoung concludes by pointing out that Kwon and Thompson’s “religious vision” is one that he finds “more in line with a community organizer’s dream for America than a distinctively Christian one…. It is a vision filled with noble aspirations, but one that depicts a future where the White guilt never dies and the reparations never end.” I highly commend reading DeYoung’s entire review.
Months later, Kwon and Thompson responded. It was a shocking response, to say the least. It was also revealing. And if understood correctly, it should be freeing — freeing because it shows that in the eyes of accusers like Kwon and Thompson, the white Christian has to either take one of two bad options: 1) agree with something they think is unbiblical, or 2) stand their ground and be called a racist. The third option is that they can walk away from people like Kwon and Thompson altogether, denouncing their hateful rhetoric and working for Christian unity with even-minded brothers and sisters.
What was their shocking response? In “Sanctifying the Status Quo: A Response to Reverend Kevin DeYoung,” Kwon and Thompson call Kevin DeYoung — his thinking, his perspective, his reasoning, and his review — a “product of white supremacy.” That’s right. Instead of “loving their neighbor as themselves” and engaging DeYoung’s review in the same way that he engaged their book, with thoughtful arguments, biblical reasoning, and gracious phrasing, these two pastors resorted to smearing their fellow denominational elder with one of the ugliest epithets of our time: white supremacy.
Skipping over any engagement with DeYoung’s actual arguments, theological critique, or biblical reasoning, Kwon and Thompson seek to call into question his entire methodological approach. In other words, they aim to show that the entire framework out of which DeYoung operates isn’t really a theological one, but rather — you guessed it — a framework of “white supremacy.”
Kwon and Thompson write: “While Reverend DeYoung’s subtitle indicates that he believes his review to be an expression of a theological project, we believe his review actually to be expressive of a cultural project that seeks perennially to justify itself on theological grounds. And that cultural project is, in one inelegant and highly disturbing phrase, white supremacy.”
Neil Shenvi, a rising critic of Critical Race Theory (CRT), hits the bullseye in his response to this line of argumentation. He writes: “It need hardly be added that the particular accusations leveled against DeYoung in these passages are appalling. I can only wonder how evangelicals think we’ll be able to engage in an ‘honest conversation about race’ while this kind of commentary is accepted and even applauded in some circles.”
Let me put it even more bluntly. Yes, it is appalling. Beyond appalling. It’s actually slander. And how can we engage in honest conversations about race if this is the response? We can’t. We simply can’t. Not with interlocutors like Kwon and Thompson, at least.
While Kwon and Thompson never outright say, “Kevin DeYoung is a white supremacist,” they walk that metaphorical ring right into Mount Doom, even if they don’t throw it in the fire. That said, not only do they accuse him of operating out of a methodology of white supremacy, they go as far as to accuse him of “a performance” of white supremacy. They claim that “DeYoung’s choice to relativize white guilt and to prioritize white forgiveness consummates his performance of white supremacy by embodying its essence: prioritizing white comfort above all else.”
Andrew Walker, professor of ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, had an appropriately blistering assessment of this kind of language. He tweeted, “This is poisonous, anti-gospel rhetoric and it should be called out as such. And it’s not fringe. It’s increasingly the lingua franca in many sectors of ruling class evangelicalism.”
So, to review, according to Kwon and Thompson, simply because DeYoung doesn’t support reparations, it means he is (1) operating out of the framework of white supremacy and (2) is engaging in a performance of white supremacy. But heaven forbid if we accuse them of calling him a “white supremacist.” I don’t know where Kwon and Thompson grew up, but where I am from “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck” … well, I think you get the point.
And this is the point, and the first lesson we all need to learn from this: No matter how educated you are (DeYoung holds a PhD), no matter how kind and gracious you are (DeYoung has no reputation whatsoever for being a keyboard warrior), no matter how thoughtful and balanced you are (DeYoung repeatedly praises their effort and their work), if you don’t agree with the conclusions of people like Kwon and Thompson —”Christians must support reparations” — they are going to call you a white supremacist.
In other words, if Kevin DeYoung is a white supremacist, then we are all white supremacists now. So be warned. Be ready. The sad reality is that this sort of treatment — calling Christians who won’t sign on to progressive policy proposals on race issues or march in Black Lives Matter rallies racists and white supremacists — is rampant already. It’s just been directed to the little guys, the faithful pew-sitters at PCA and Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches across the country. Now that this has happened to a “big fish” like DeYoung, it seems like more people have woken up to what’s happening. That’s a good thing. But again, be warned and be ready: If this is going to happen to DeYoung, it is going to happen to you too.
Second, this reveals that the race conversation is rigged in the favor of the progressive Christians. It always has been, but this exchange brings that reality to the forefront, in full HD technicolor. This is a heads-I-win (you agree with my demand for reparations) or tales-you-lose (if you disagree, you’re a white supremacist) form of argumentation. If and when you engage other believers who are held captive to this worldview and this zero-sum argumentation on race issues, this is the treatment you are going to get.
C.S. Lewis called this form of argumentation “Bulverism.” In an essay found in God in the Dock, Lewis writes, “The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism.”
In other words, assume your opponent is wrong and then explain why he is. Kwon and Thompson assume DeYoung is wrong because … well, white supremacy.
There is no denying that the issue of race in America is disrupting evangelical churches all across our country. And we do desperately need to have a serious conversation, saturated in biblical truth, about both the extent of the impact of historical racial disparities and any possible solutions that may be needed to address the lingering realities of our nation’s history. But whatever that conversation looks like, resorting to Bulverism name-calling isn’t the path forward.
So, fellow traveler, let me encourage you to read DeYoung’s review and Kwon and Thompson’s response in full. As you reflect on this exchange, learn two things. First, there is no one that people like Kwon and Thompson won’t call a “product of white supremacy.” If that’s what DeYoung is, the phrase has no meaning.
Be prepared for others to hurl the same invective at you and, like my previously alluded to fowl friend, let it roll off your back like water. Second, recognize that, with actors such as these, the race conversation is rigged. It’s a “heads-they-win, tails-you-lose” contrast. Reject that, and ask that anyone who is willing to engage on these issues to do so by the character and content of their arguments, regardless of the color of their skin.