Race continues to be a hot-button issue at the moment. In the face of this ongoing concern, a “woke” attitude is widely encouraged—that is, a life that takes notice of and participates in seeking to squash racial injustice. Many Christians feel compelled to join this cultural agenda often in the interest of political correctness and public righteousness. But is this the best way for Christians to tackle the issue of race? Today, Chase Kuhn is joined by Professor Carl Trueman to discuss whether or not, under God, we should pursue woke Christian living.
Links referred to:
- “Woke repentance” by Carl Trueman on First Things
- Carl’s forthcoming book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
- Fearfully and Wonderfully Made by Megan Best
- Details of our October event: “Facing infertility as a church family” with Professor Jonathan Morris and Dr Megan Best
Runtime: 39:12 min.
Chase Kuhn: It’s difficult to imagine a more contentious topic than race in today’s society. Being American by birth, it’s hard for me to read any news without seeing troubling stories of my homeland being constantly plagued by racial tension. We see violence, protests, police brutality, blaming, shaming and disorder.
Christians find themselves scrambling to respond well in the face of racial injustice. Much of the difficulty in response has been owing to the ways that race has continued to divide Christians. How can white-skinned Christians speak thoughtfully, considerately and with credibility into an issue that historically has been perpetrated by similar-looking people? How can a dark-skinned Christian speak thoughtfully, charitably and with credibility when the agenda is set by a group that is largely external to the church?
Many Christians are eager—or, at least, feel pressured—to join the woke crowd. This is the crowd that’s ever aware of social injustices and therefore warriors for cultural change. Christians rightly see the problems in society and want to publicly denounce racial injustice, but often struggle to do so with proper theological perspective.
Today on the podcast, we’ll be considering the rise of the woke agenda in the face of racial tensions, and we’ll be thinking about how Christians can live well under God—that is, we’ll be thinking about how we can be theologically reasoned about our response to race.
CK: Hello and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Chase Kuhn. I’m coming to you from Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. Today my guest on the podcast is Professor Carl Trueman, who teaches at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He’s a well known church historian, but also a cultural commentator and theologian and pastor, and author of many books and articles. Carl is joining me virtually today from Pennsylvania. Carl, welcome!
CT: Great to be here, Chase. Thanks for having me on!
CK: Yeah, thanks for coming on, Carl. It’s great to see you again: you’ve been around our college in the past, where you gave us some very fine lectures and it was great to get to know you then and great to have you back now.
CT: Yeah, I was—I remember actually staying in your house, of course, and—
CK: It was a treat!
CT: —having fun with your kids, which was great.
CK: It was lovely to have you and Katrina with us. Thank you for being with us today. Carl, our topic today is one that is contentious, as we were just speaking about a moment ago. We’re talking about the woke agenda and Christianity, or whether or not woke Christianity can actually be paired together—or should be paired together. I really want to ask you—not immediately, but ultimately—I want to ask you, “Is being woke a virtue or a vice for the Christian life?” So that’s really what I’m aiming at here.
CT: Yeah, yeah.
CK: I realise that’s going to require some nuance, and so I’m grateful that we could talk about this. What intrigued me about asking you on the program was, first of all, that I know you and I appreciate so much of your work. But I read a piece by you recently called “Woke repentance” from First Things, and I’m looking forward to exploring that a little bit later.
If I can, why don’t we begin with just asking you if you can tell us what “woke” is.
CT: Well, it’s—it’s a term that’s being used to describe a set of attitudes or an approach to culture within the church that is, shall we say, acutely aware of what have become known as “social justice issues”—particularly, I think, the matter of racism, though if you broaden it out and we were to broaden it out beyond the conservative church to the generic church in general, then one would also include matters such as those raised by the LGBTQ movement. So it’s a term used to refer to what might be pejoratively called, I suppose, the social gospel, in generations past. But real concern will social injustice and the kind of problems that we see in broader society relative to inequality, marginalisation, those kind of things.
CK: Yeah, and starting with just maybe a favourable attitude towards the whole movement, there are real pressing issues around that have caught the attention of many in society that they feel they must address. You’re a British man living in America; I’m an American man living in Australia. We’re both bewildered in our own ways about what we see around us in our cultures—
CK: —different reasons.
CK: But there are certain things that are around us in society that drive this. Can you speak to what may already be the obvious?
CT: Yeah, well I—in America, of course, the original sin of Americans, it’s often referred to as “the running sore”: it is the legacy of slavery. Slavery has really damaged the American psyche. It seems to me as an outsider coming in that the race issue carves up somewhat differently in America to, say, Britain, where—you know, there’s racism in Britain, but it doesn’t have quite the same narrative behind it. In America, the narrative of slavery is very very powerful—to which one might add that it seems very clear to me that the experience of being an African American and growing up an African American in America is going to be very different to the experience of growing up as a white kid. There’s little doubt that on the whole, African Americans are at a certain disadvantage—some, perhaps, more than others within the way American society is set up.
I grew up in England, and England’s a very class-based society. So in the 1980s, when I was hearing the language of diversity and inclusion or the 1980s equivalent, typically in my world, it meant people from a state education getting into places like Oxford and Cambridge. It was a class-based kind of thing. Over here, I was very struck when I arrived in America being told, you know, “America’s not a class-based society like Britain.” And fair enough, it isn’t. But then [I] became aware when I visited hotels or when I used public transport that the majority of people working as waitresses—the majority of people cleaning my room in a hotel—the majority of people using public transport—when I lived in Grand Rapids, I spent six months using the bus every day to get to Calvin College; I was pretty much the only white guy on the bus. It suddenly clicked in my mind that actually, there is a kind of class system in America: it’s the race system. And the race system functions in a very very similar way—grounded in this very powerful and very disturbing narrative of slavery.
CK: Yeah. I mean, having grown up in America myself, I’ve watched this. I didn’t really quite feel this, though, ’til I moved to the American South, where it’s still felt quite acutely there. I mean, there is a divide: when I was at Beeston Divinity School, there is a divide in the city of a little ridge. They call it “Red Mountain”. Once you crossed over to the north, you get into the urban area—predominantly black; you go south into the suburbs, it’s predominantly white. And then you can just feel—it’s palpable: you can feel the racial tension still there, even though they say, you know, “We’ve put that behind us”. It’s still very present, just systemically.
CT: Yeah, yeah. You can even get that in Philadelphia, which, of course, is a northern city. But most of the violence in Philadelphia is focused in certain neighbourhoods that just happen to be African American.
CT: And it’s a function of the economic deprivation and the disadvantage that certain communities have in society, I think, that has generated a lot of this.
CK: So what do you think someone that would classify themselves as being woke? What would be their agenda, then, in the face of these things? What do they want to see?
CT: Yeah, well, it’s—again, one doesn’t want to generalise, ’cause I’m sure there are many varieties of wokeness out there. But the one I’ve come across in the evangelical Christian church—the conservative, Protestant, Bible-believing church—it’s tended to be focused on race, and it’s tended to take the view that the church has not spoken up on matters of racial inequality and racial injustice in society. The church has not taken ownership of its own role in the generation—the production of the kind of social structures that maintain the sort of inequalities we’ve already alluded to. Of course, in America, that bites particularly hard, because in the South, American Presbyterians—and I belong to a Presbyterian denomination—Presbyterianism played a significant role in plantations and in the slave trade and in the perpetuation and maintenance of slavery. And there are many of those involved, and so the Presbyterian church in America—the biggest confessional orthodox Presbyterian denomination in America—think that Presbyterians need to acknowledge, really, the guilt of their ancestors, we might say—the guilt and the role of their ancestors in the generating of the current social structures—social climate—where racism is sort of alive and well.
So the woke in my world are really calling for the church to acknowledge its failures and its part—maybe even to acknowledge its failure in the present to speak out against injustice in society. And that’s the driving force.
I said earlier wokeness also covers LGBTQ stuff—that kind of thing. But that’s not so prevalent or that isn’t impinging on my world—the world of conservative orthodox Christianity—in quite the same way at this point.
CK: Yeah. I think we feel it here especially around race at the moment—partly because of some of the violence we’ve been seeing in America has spawned its own sort of Black Lives Matter agenda here in Australia. And we have a history here, obviously, where indigenous peoples have been displaced, white settlement has led to them actually being pushed out, and now as they’ve been brought back into society even in the last century, being significantly disadvantaged and, for a long time, not even recognised as human. So it’s very painful history here and I think we also have a cultural sense where there’s an apology that needs to be offered: we have an “I’m sorry” day every year. There is a historic statement of an apology. But again, there’s that pressure to own the historic injustices now as something I’ve contributed to as a European settler, is the idea.
CK: It’s interesting. I want to come back to this in a moment—particularly because I’m interested in your take on it and the significance of history in this movement. But we’ve talked about some of the driving forces of wokeness; what are the kinds of things that are dangers, perhaps, in the movement generally that may be encroaching on our churches now?
CT: Yeah, well, again, there are numerous things one could point to here. I think there’s—the perennial human temptation, of course, is to make our righteousness the important thing. And there’s a real danger with anything—wokeness being just one; there—there are whole host of other things we could name—that we seize on our ideas and our issue, and we make that the basis of our righteousness. And that Pharisaical prayer, you know: “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). That lies at the heart of us all, and some of the rhetoric coming out of the woke Christian movement is very much sort of, you know, “If you’re not woke like me, then you’re inadequate in some way”. And I think the temptation to Pharisaism, which is not, as I say—it’s not unique to wokeness—but it’s something to be very aware of.
Secondly and perhaps more theological, I think that there can be a danger that we, in our rightful outrage at what I would call “horizontal sin”—sin against fellow human beings made in the image of God—in our rightful outrage at horizontal sin, we can actually forget that the primary problem is the vertical: our primary problem is our sin against God. And that was one of the things that I’ve been concerned about.
Psalm 51 always strikes me as—it’s the archetypal biblical expression of confession and repentance. David uses that very striking phrase: “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps 51:4). And it always confuses people, ’cause when I was a pastor, I’d get people asking me, “So David didn’t sin against Uriah?” No, no: David sinned against Uriah, but in the moment of praying, he’s so overwhelmed by the sin he’s committed against God and against God’s holiness in what he’s done that even the terrible sins he’s committed against Bathsheba and Uriah fade from his imagination at that point, seeing there’s nothing compared to this. And that horizontality of repentance is a problem—that we need to realise that the primary problem’s a vertical one.
And that leads to a third point, and I think that, you know, we could solve all the racism in the world: let’s just say that you and I, Chase, could press a button and all the racism in the world could disappear. It still wouldn’t deal with humanity’s major problem. There is a—I hate to use a sort of pretentious language here, but there’s a meta problem.
CT: And the meta problem of which racism is merely a symptom or function—the meta problem is a disrupted relationship with God. We despise God and therefore we despise those made in God’s image. You know, if we can get rid of all racism, guess what? There’d still be child abuse. Or—
CT: —there’d still be greed. Or there’d still be exploitation of vulnerable people. Or there’d be classism or something. So we need to be careful that we don’t get so focused on the sup—I hate to say “superficial”, because people say, “You’re trivialising”. What I mean is we need to be careful we don’t focus so much on the surface symptoms of sin that we actually forget the underlying problem.
CT: Now, that’s not an excuse to say we shouldn’t address those surface things. But it is to say we need to remember that they’re not self-standing; they connect to a deeper, more universal problem.
CK: That’s very very very helpful. I mean, it’s like when we’re sick, right? I mean, if I had a presenting issue of a headache, I might take some kind of paracetamol or something that’s going to help me with that symptom. But there’s probably something else that’s causing it—there’s a deeper disease that needs to be treated.
CK: So as long as we keep just targeting symptoms, we’re going to get different symptoms all the time, because the root of it is the bad thing. Yeah, you’re right.
I appreciate what you’ve woven in there, I think, on your second point was the thesis of your essay from First Things on “Woke repentance”. And I was really intrigued by this. We are fascinated with what needs to happen amongst us, but often quite negligent of God himself in the first instance, and I think this is a really helpful call back for us in the Christian life, and I really—again, I appreciate your essay; I’ll encourage people to go read it on First Things—that actually, we need to be paying much deeper attention to the biggest problem that we have is between us and God. I want to tease that out in just a moment.
But I think the first point you made deserves a—a bit more air time as well. That is, that it seems to me as I watch Christians jumping onto a woke program, it is often a heralding of “I am aware of the issues. I’m ahead of the issues. I’m not like these other people.” And in some ways, I think, you were correct to identify a false righteousness. But also that it keeps us at arms length from the real issue, so that the more I tell about it, the better I seem, but actually, I’m not act—addressing, then, the main thing.
I had to preach recently on this with race. And I was thinking, “What if all of our people stopped first to pray before they post something online?” And I don’t just mean pray about what you’re going to post, but pray about the thing you really care about, because if you’re actually wanting to petition God for real change, that’s the real place to do business and really care about these injustices, rather than trying to—shining a spotlight on your righteousness to the whole world, if you will. It’s important, I think, that we get these things in right perspective here.
CT: Yeah, and I would add to that, we need to realise that, you know, Twitter costs us nothing. You know—
CT: —it’s very easy to make the rights sounds on Twitter. It’s very easy to place yourself on the right side of things. I’m probably going to offend every vegan, if there are any who listen to your podcast at this point. But, you know—
CK: I love offending vegans, by the way! I make fun of them all the time! [Laughter]
CT: I’m glad to hear that. Every—every vegan I’ve ever met has informed me they’re a vegan within about 30 seconds of me meeting them! And the strange thing is, I get the feeling that it makes them feel better than me. And yet it doesn’t really cost them anything. It doesn’t really cost them anything. And, you know, this isn’t so much the wokeness as in the medium through which wokeness is expressed. But Twitter—Facebook—these are places where righteousness is very cheaply bought, I think. Very cheaply bought. And that’s another sort of aspect of this that concerns and worries me.
Reminds me a little bit of that parable where Jesus says, you know, there was the guy who said he’d come and work for me and then didn’t, and there’s the guy who said he wouldn’t come and work for me, and he turned up and put in a day’s work (Matt 21:28-31). And, you know, who of them is the righteous one? I think we need to be very careful as Christians that we don’t mistake Twitter for actually loving our neighbour as ourselves [Laughter]if I can put it that way!
CK: Yeah, yeah. I guess—I mean, it’s a difficult tension, isn’t it. I mean, whether or not we go to bat for some of the issues and have a voice may be a good thing. In some ways, though, living a life speaks for itself. I guess that’s the real tension we have to face—is that, as you’ve said, it’s so cheap to be able to go on and just say anything you want about whoever you are, telling some story about who you are, whether or not that’s actually true of what you really are inside. And actually, now it’s harder.
CT: I will just say, without mentioning names, I’m aware of one Presbyterian leader in conservative circles in the United States who’s—I’ve seen him excoriated as a racist. But I happen to know that this man attended the funeral of an African American pastor friend, and was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan for doing that. And yet he’s now excoriated as a racist. And I’m thinking, you know, “How many of these people on Twitter have actually been threatened by the Ku Klux Klan—
CT: —for a stand they’ve taken on things?” There are those who speak a lot and there are those who do, and they’re not always the same people.
CK: Yeah, that’s very very helpful. Thank you for that. As we think about this—in particular, I would love to know how you think about the woke agenda and the actual standard of righteousness, because I feel like one of the places we’re, perhaps, in jeopardy is that an external agenda is set for us as to what righteousness actually is, rather than hearing the word of God as what we should see as true righteousness.
CK: How do we balance these things?
CT: Well, it’s very difficult, and of course, the question you’re asking, to answer that, requires discussion of all kinds of things, such as the role of the church vis-à-vis—the church and then the public square. So there are all kinds of very sticky situations we could get ourselves into very quickly on this.
I think that one of the things is we need to remember that our attitude to sin needs to be shaped by the whole council of God. And so, the prioritising of one sin and opposition to one sin as destroying the core of our righteousness, that’s not how we should operate. And one of the burdens of my article was, you know, there are many sins out there.
I didn’t say this in the article, but when you use that language of “silence is violence” relative to a particular sin, most of us are going to be guilty—violently guilty—of most sins most of the time simply because we can’t speak out on everything all the time.
CT: We—the church cannot speak out on every sin every Sunday. What the church can do is proclaim the holiness of God and hope that the Holy Spirit so applies that to people’s hearts that when they go out and interact in their daily lives—in their places of work, their places where they go to relax—in their families, among their friends—they can apply those general principles to the specific sins they find themselves either tempted by or confronted by in the world in which they operate. So I think there’s a danger for the church to start focusing on specifically calling out just one kind of sin.
Having said that, I think there may be times when particular sins are especially rampant in society, and Christians are particularly confused by them or complicit with them, that it may be right for the church to spend a little time focusing on that particular issue.
What I worry about the woke agenda is that it seems to be played so much as a zero sum game—that if you’re concerned about abortion, then you’re obviously not concerned enough about race. And on the flipside as well, if you’re concerned about racism, you’re not concerned about the unborn. We can all tend to make our particular issue the one that every body should be concerned about, and see anybody who’s less than enthusiastic than we are or is focused on something else as somehow compromised on our pet issue. So woke righteousness worries me from a—from that kind of perspective—that it’s treated as a bit of a zero sum game. I don’t know why one can’t be opposed to racism and opposed to abortion—
CT: —in equal measure, if you want to use that language.
CK: I’ve seen people leave my church because of this: we have one issue that seems to be a presenting issue of the day, and because we’re not above and beyond concerned about it—even though we’re showing ample concern in proportion to what we could do, if we weren’t above and beyond, it just wasn’t enough. And yet I think what you’ve said earlier is a real helpful corrective again: if we keep the vertical in view first and foremost, that then helps to—I don’t want to say relativise, but it becomes all-encompassing of the right kinds of righteousness to pursue, ’cause it’s theological first. That is, that we’re thinking about our relationship to God, which then spills over to our relationship with other human beings in creation and everything else.
CK: I think it a really important priority.
CT: I mean, if—if you were to say to a pastor, “You have got to give specific guidelines to every member of your congregation on how to confront the specific sins they’re going to meet in their daily lives between now and next Sunday”, that’s an impossible task for a pastor.
CK: Oh yeah.
CT: A pastor cannot do that. What a pastor can do is point people to the whole council of God, and guess what? Trust that those people, humanly speaking, will use their God-given wisdom to apply that to the particular situations in which they find themselves.
CT: The fact that I—you know, I preached two weeks ago—the fact that I didn’t mention racism from the pulpit doesn’t mean I approve of racism. I didn’t mention the LGBTQ movement either, and it doesn’t mean I approve of the LGBTQ movement. I think the pastor’s task is to preach the word of God; the Holy Spirit’s task is to enable people to use that word in their individual specific lives.
CK: So helpful. I really appreciate that. Thank you.
CK: As we take a break from our program, I’d like to tell you about two different resources. First is, that our next CCL live event will be held October 21st on the subject of “Facing infertility as a church family”. Infertility is one of the most difficult challenges Christians can face. In any given church, there will be people—family members, friends, fellow Bible study members—who long to conceive, but seem unable. In a time of incredible medical advances and seemingly on-demand treatments, how should Christians think about wise and godly options? More particularly, what do Christians need to be aware of in the midst of the marketplace of assisted reproductive technologies like IVF?
I’m delighted to welcome guests to present on this topic—Dr Megan Best, a bioethicist and author of Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, and Professor Jonathan Morris, who is the professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Sydney. I personally could not think of two better Christian thinkers to help us consider how we can be facing infertility faithfully—whether personally or in support of others in our communities.
The event will be livestreamed only, and as we’ve done with recent events, you can register your household, or your church can register for the whole congregation. More details are available on our website at ccl.moore.edu.au. I really hope you’ll make it a priority to join us.
The second thing I’d like to tell you about today is that you might like to check out Carl’s new book, entitled The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. That’s a book published by Carl Trueman, my guest today. It’s forthcoming with Crossway Publishers in America and should be out in November. I think it’s really going to be worth your time to read that and you might like to pre-order it now.
Now let’s get back to our discussion.
CK: Now Carl, just to shift gears a little bit here, you’ve got a book coming up, which I’m excited about, and I gather there’s a bit of a buzz about it coming up. You’ve written a book called The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. It’s coming out with Crossway in November. Give us a snapshot—we might get you back again about what this book’s about—
CK: —give us a snapshot about how this actually helps us, you know—your overarching agenda in this helps us think about, maybe, how we’re swept up in what we’re in culturally right now.
CT: Yeah. It’s interesting you should ask the question that way, because the book is really about the Sexual Revolution—about sexual identity—not about race. But there are clear elective affinities between the way we think about sexuality and the way we think about race, because it’s all about identity.
CT: And the burden of the book is to say that we live in an era where modern identity is really psychologically constructed. What do I mean by that? Our thoughts and our feelings are uppermost in who we think we are—how we think we should relate to other people. And that’s very much driving a lot of the racial discussions that are going on at the moment, as well as the discussions about sexual identity, where race is much an attitude of mind, to use that sort of term, as it is to do with the colour of your skin. Hence, you know, in America, African Americans who support Donald Trump are regarded as not really being African American. You know, they can be racially African American, but they’re not thinking like African Americans; they’re sort of traitors to their race, if you like. And so the affinity between what I describe in my book relative to sexuality and the way the race issue cuts up is along psychological lines.
And again, the dark side of that is that oppression is considered to be a psychological thing. So we see in the sexual revolution significant attention being paid to language. Use of appropriate pronouns with transgender people, etcetera etcetera. If I accidentally use the wrong pronoun when I’m talking to a transgender person, that’s a hateful act of oppression. That has its parallels now, where the racial question is often not a matter of, you know, the old days of voting, schooling—these kinds of things were the traditional 1950s issues that men like Martin Luther King were trying to address. We often come down now to the acknowledgement of the dignity of African Americans, and that’s a psychological dignity: it’s about using the right words. It’s about being treated with the right attitude. So the psychological dimension is quite interesting.
CK: Yeah, and are those moving goal posts?
CT: Oh yes! The thing about psychology is it’s very subjective, and again, we see this not only with the language of the LGBTQ movements, where things that the movement itself—words that the movement itself—found quite acceptable in transgenderism—quite an acceptable word, twenty, thirty years ago—now it’s an anathema to people in the LGBTQ movement. You see the same with racial language: you know, we have the situation where, you know, Benedict Cumberbatch was—he had to make a public apology, because he referred to people of colour as “coloured people”. The irony being, of course, that the major lobby group for African Americans in the United States is the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. That’s not been changed as an acronym or a title. But if a white person uses that phrase, it’s not as bad as using the “n” word—
CT: —but it’s, you know, it’s certainly regarded as something highly problematic. And again, it comes down to “Why?” Well, it’s considered psychologically oppressive, because personhood is conceptualised as a psychological construction.
CK: Yeah. Well, I love the way that you’re actually helping us to identify where we are in history and how history has brought us here—that is, the development of some of these movements have focused around shifts even in psychology and what is driving movements now. How does history help us in a bigger sense with wokeness? That is, there—there’s so much deconstruction of history—
CK: —there’s the identification of the past sins of history—
CK: —how can we move forward in this? Let me give an anecdote, if it’s okay. I remember having a class on African American spirituality when I was studying in the South, and the—the pastor said, “It’s so important for us to keep singing Negro spirituals and to identify with the story of Israel who came out of slavery—”
CK: “—and we have to keep that memory alive for our people—that this is our history—”
CK: “—and this is where we’ve come from, and this is our story.” And so, it was almost as if they kept on opening the old wound, partly looking towards the salvation that God had brought in a very sort of tangible liberation in history, but also trying, I guess at best, to tie it into the salvation story. But I said, “How do we get beyond this? If you keep visiting that—”
CK: “—as your present history, how do we get beyond this?”
CK: “And am I complicit?”
CT: Yeah. I mean, that’s a very difficult question. And as a historian, of course, I’m very much in favour of remembering the past: we are the product of our past, and if we simply try to erase the past, we become rootless individuals and all kinds of problematic myths creep in at that point.
But I think there is a place for forgetting. And where that line lies may be hard to discern. But when you think of some of the success stories of the last 20-30 years, and some of the tragedies of the last 30-40 years—think of the Balkans conflict: the Balkans conflict was a disaster in Europe and much of it rooted in memories of the past—
CT: —you know, “You beat us in the fifteenth century, so we’re going to get our own back now”. Then you look to somewhere like South Africa and you see in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee: one of the things that was at the heart of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was forgetting—that there comes a point where you have to sort of draw a line under it and intentionally forget the past. And I think that the only hope we have in, say, American society is, at some point, there has to be an intentional forgetting.
Now who sets the terms of that forgetting and what that forgetting looks like, that would be very very contentious. But if they can do it in South Africa, where within living memory, terrible outrages were perpetuated by the white population on the black population, and indeed by some of the black population on sectors of the white population—if they can do it there, it has to be possible to do it in America.
Now, whether it’s the church’s responsibility to do that, that’s an entirely different thing.
CT: But I do think there’s a place for forgetting and that—and maybe your listeners would be interested in—there’s a little book by a guy called David Rieff, who’s actually the—the son of Philip Rieff, one of my intellectual heroes, and Susan Sontag, the feminist theorist—a little book he wrote In Praise of Forgetting, which challenged me on this point. It says, you know, there comes a point where history is not liberating; history’s actually a way of perpetuating old hatreds and wounds. And that book raised for me a lot of very interesting questions, and I think the current culture and social impasse that we face—the problem is, we’re forgetting the good stuff—
CT: —remembering the bad stuff.
CT: We somehow need to be able to remember the good things of our culture, at the same time as being able to forgive, forget, put to bed the bad things.
CK: And is forgetting tantamount to tearing down statues?
CT: It could be. It could be. Again, I’m a reserved Englishman; my instincts are never in favour of tearing stuff down—although, you know, my intellectual ancestors were Puritans: they weren’t Anglicans. They were tearing all kinds of stuff out of your churches, Chase! [Laughter]
CK: I visited those churches and some faces chiselled off and all kinds of stuff! [Laughter]
CT: I—you know, when you know the history of some of these confederate monuments, it’s not a particularly pleasant history. They didn’t go up in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War; they went up some years later to make particular points. So it may well look like taking down statues.
Having said that, I think there are ways of taking these things down that are legal and involve due process—
CT: —not riots. I am very much in favour of due process on this. But yes: maybe in some cases it involves taking down a statue or changing the make-up of a flag.
CT: There are things that, yes, it could involve—not as a general principle, but I’m not adverse to thinking about those things.
CK: Sure. And just as we move to a conclusion, Carl, and we think about just some of the practicalities of this even just in our fellowship week in, week out in the church, how can we model a better way based on the gospel? In my mind, I’m thinking about the common humanity that we share now—
CK: —in the new man, Christ—
CK: —ways that that actually brings together—
CK: —a people by the blood of the cross?
CT: That’s difficult. I think part of the—what I really don’t like about the woke side of things over here is the calls for what effectively are segregated churches, coming from those particularly in the African American community. “We don’t want white theology. We don’t want white influence.” And that worries me, because it flies in the face of Paul’s New Testament vision of the unity of the body of Christ. “I understand the criticism, yes, but your understanding of theology, etcetera, is very much shaped by your whiteness.” I think that discussion needs to take place. So we were talking about this problem from an intellectual perspective, I think the—you know, is my theology a white theology? I don’t think Augustine was a white guy!
CK: That’s right! [Laughter]
CT: Yet I would consider myself an Augustinian. So I think that discussion needs to take place.
In the local church, I think that local churches need to be the local church, and, you know, the typical local church is not going to be able to solve the race problem. But the local church can make welcome those who turn up in church. Now, I’m a foreigner in America. For many years, there was no point in the week where I felt more acutely a foreigner than when I went to church. Which was weird, because the church is meant to be transcendent. But you even print your hymn books differently here: you have the verse lines, it’s all sort of one under another and, there are whole kind of odd things about American churches that weren’t British. And yet, I was willing to set aside my cultural preferences, because this is the body of Christ. And there’s a sense in which, I think we need to be careful that we’re not so mesmerised by the colour of skin that we don’t realise that actually, there’s a lot more ethnic diversity out there than skin colour would let you think there is. And that an immigrant like me—or you in Australia, I’m sure, going to your church in Australia—you too can feel like an outsider.
CT: And yet the people made me welcome.
CT: I didn’t want them not to be Americans—I didn’t expect them to abandon doing things in an American way. I was even able to put up with the American flag at the front of the church in some circumstances—
CT: I didn’t expect them to be less than American. I appreciated that they welcomed me.
CT: And you might say, “It’s not that simple”. And I would say, in my case, it was that simple: I was willing to give something up—I was willing to give up demanding the church be English on a Sunday—and they were willing to open their arms and welcome. So I think the solution might lie at a local level: local churches should avoid becoming unwelcoming—so distinctive that Christian outsiders feel unwelcome.
CK: So important. Yes, we can’t answer race with race.
CK: We can’t say the problem to race is just furthering race.
CK: We actually can see a rich appreciation for ethnicity in the gospel—
CK: —in cultural difference that actually makes for a more beautiful tapestry—
CK: —if you will—
CK: —as we come together as God’s people.
CT: Yeah. I mean, I will—I was just going to say, I want to learn from my African American brothers and sisters. The way to help me learn is not to tell me upfront, “You’re a racist”. That doesn’t win you an audience any more than me turning ’round and saying, “You’re a black person. I’m not going to listen to you.” That doesn’t win me an audience with them either.
CK: Yeah. Carl, I’m really grateful for all that you’ve shared with us today. I appreciate your time and I hope we’ll get you back again sometime—perhaps next time to talk about your upcoming book. Thank you very much!
CT: Thanks for having me on, Chase!
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As always, I’d like to thank Moore College for making the ministry of the Centre for Christian Living possible, and to extend thanks to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for audio editing and transcribing. Music provided by James West.