A few months ago, Gregory Thompson and Duke Kwon published Reparations, a book calling for Christians to repent and to enact reparations for Black Americans. A few weeks later, Kevin DeYoung reviewed the book on his blog, prompting a response from Thompson and Kwon entitled “Sanctifying the Status Quo.” Since I haven’t read Reparations, I won’t offer any commentary on whether the book’s arguments are correct or incorrect or whether DeYoung’s review is accurate or inaccurate. I won’t even weigh in on the question of reparations for slavery.
Instead, I’d like to examine Thompson and Kwon’s response piece, because it is instructive and troubling. I hope to convince Christians that even if we fully and vocally endorse reparations to American descendants of slavery and are in complete agreement with Thompson and Kwon’s book, we must –must– reject the reasoning of their response article. Let me say that again: no matter how deeply you support reparations, no matter how much you deplore DeYoung’s review, you must not accept Thompson’s and Kwon’s argumentation.
At the outset, Thompson and Kwon affirm that “DeYoung raises important questions about reparations.” They even “happily acknowledge” that they themselves “have not fully resolved some of these questions—either in print or in private.” This is an odd admission, since DeYoung’s questions include issues as fundamental as the “nature of reparative obligation [and] when that obligation is met.” If the authors aren’t prepared to elaborate on these basic considerations, what are they prepared to elaborate on?
It also concerns me that Thompson and Kwon criticize DeYoung for being inappropriately focused on theology. In contrast, they argue that “historical, sociological, and economic realities” –rather than theology– “serve as the primary justification for reparations.'” This claim is, in itself, quite startling, since orthodoxy (right belief) must logically precede orthopraxy (right action). Before we can act rightly on our beliefs, we must have the right beliefs. Consequently, it is exceptionally dangerous to wave away theological objections on the grounds that our practices have some other, non-theological justification. Imagine dismissing the question of whether it is theologically appropriate to worship idols on the grounds that we have good sociological reasons to worship idols!
However, the most troubling element of Thompson and Kwon’s piece is their claim that DeYoung’s errors are a consequence of his “centering white theology.” Rather than answer his questions or demonstrate his theological mistakes, they focus on the ways in which DeYoung’s review “redeploys prejudicial methodology with deep historical roots in white supremacy.” I will simply quote Thompson and Kwon at some length from various parts of their article:
Put most simply, our view is this: 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.
While Thompson and Kwon are very clear that they “don’t mean—in any way—that Reverend DeYoung, in his private views, personal relationships, or public ministry believes or behaves out of the conviction that “white” people are inherently superior” they go on to make statements such as these:
Like King’s opponents in 1963, [DeYoung] consistently privileges white theological voices, minimizes white supremacy’s tragic impact on the lives of “non-white” persons, and prioritizes the comfort of white people. And in this respect, while he does not argue for white supremacy, he nevertheless performs its most basic impulses.
The pursuit of white comfort is, in other words, the very raison d’etre of white supremacy’s existence. Given this fact, it was more than disappointing to see the prominence of this instinct in Reverend DeYoung’s review. In truth, it was distressing.
in reviewing a book whose central theme is the unjust cultural victimization of African Americans, Reverend DeYoung conjures—indeed centers—a new victim: white Americans. And in evoking white victimization he willingly deploys one of the most historically reliable tropes of American white supremacy.
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. When a fellow pastor’s clear, charitable, irenic, biblical concerns (concerns that even Thompson and Kwon acknowledge are valid and reasonable!) can be characterized as manifestations of “white supremacy,” then Carl Trueman seems to have been right: what is being demanded is not a dialogue but the recitation of a liturgy. (As someone who is familiar with the Critical Whiteness Studies literature, I’d also like to go on record as saying that I anticipate being dismissed as “white adjacent” or “performing whiteness”).
While there is much more that could be said about these particular quotes, I will focus on a feature many people may have missed: at no point do these passages explain why DeYoung’s statements are false or unbiblical. Rather, these criticisms focus on how DeYoung’s statements supposedly function: his statements “privilege white comfort”; his statements “relativize white guilt”; his statements “prioritiz[e] white forgiveness.” In other words, Thompson and Kwon engage in Bulverism, a very popular, but very pernicious, logical fallacy.
In God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis described Bulverism this way:
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. 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”.
Bulverism does not attempt to show that a person’s claims are false. Rather, it quietly assumes that a person’s claims are false and then shifts the discussion to the person’s motives, or hidden agenda, or subconscious desires. Needless to say, reasoning based on Bulverism is invalid. Yet this is precisely the reasoning that Thompson and Kwon employ at numerous points in their article.
Acceptance of this mode of argument will have ramifications far beyond race.
The Danger of Bulverism
Evangelicals are facing numerous controversial issues today: racism, immigration, abortion, gender roles, the affirmation of homosexuality, transgender identity, etc. Imagine that we accepted the validity of Thompson’s and Kwon’s approach to argumentation. What would happen if Thompson and Kwon had written a book arguing for -say- the ordination of women?
They could certainly argue that women have faced personal, relational, institutional, and cultural sexism. Moreover, they could call attention to the structural dimensions of female subordination throughout U.S. history. After all, women were denied suffrage until 1920. In 1973, Nebraska became the first state to outlaw marital rape. Even today, around 1 in 4 women have been victims of severe domestic violence. Moreover, many of the same scholars who affirm the “polymorphous” definition of “white supremacy” that Kwon and Thompson have adopted will affirm just as vehemently that women, LGBTQ people, the poor, and the disabled are all likewise suffering under the intersecting oppressions of the patriarchy, heterosexism, classism, and ableism.
Given the “historical, sociological, and economic realities” of female subordination, Thompson and Kwon could then insist that Christians are morally obligated to dismantle the unjust status quo by ordaining women.
What if DeYoung then wrote an article calling into question this central thesis? What if he offered a reasoned theological critique of the claim that “we have a moral obligation to ordain women”?
Couldn’t Thompson and Kwon respond that DeYoung was “centering male theology” and “privileging male comfort,” and “sanctifying the status quo”? Couldn’t they insist that narrowing the discussion to theology is a “patriarchal instinct” and that the primary justification for their argument is not theological, but “sociological, historical, and economic”? Couldn’t they claim that “Reformed American evangelicalism” has a “singular capacity to shelter misogyny”? Couldn’t they claim that “while DeYoung doesn’t argue for misogyny, he nevertheless performs its most basic impulses“? And couldn’t they do all of this without engaging any of his arguments or showing that any of their claims were compatible with Scripture?
Brothers and sisters, this whole approach to reasoning is deadly, and our rejection of it should have nothing to do with our feelings towards reparations. Today, it might benefit “your team” to decline engagement, to dismiss theological concerns on the basis of history/sociology, and to claim that your interlocutors’ arguments function to promote “white supremacy.” But Bulverism is a universal acid; there is no doctrine that it can’t deconstruct.
Do you think that homosexuality is immoral? That’s because you’re protecting the cisheteropatriarchy. Do you think that Christians are justified by grace alone through faith alone? That’s because you’re embracing the Eurocentric creeds of the Reformation. Do you believe that Jesus is the only way to God? That’s because you’re terrified of losing your Christian privilege.
By embracing this line of reasoning, we’re stripping the church of its theological immune system and unmooring it from Scripture.
Thompson and Kwon state that they want to answer questions “in collaborative conversations in local communities.” Yet these conversations, if they are to be real conversations and not monologues, will have to include all the questions that were not addressed in their response piece: are whites actually obligated to enact reparations? What are the biblical arguments for and against this view? How much reparation is owed and when –if ever– is the debt satisfied? Believers may come to different conclusions about these issues. But they will have to be settled by appeals to reason, to evidence, and to Scripture.
When we care passionately about an issue, it can be tempting to take a short cut. Don’t. You will cut yourself off from all correction, exhortation, and admonition from your brothers and sisters in Christ. And you won’t like where you end up.