Shame is, amongst other things, the problem of how to understand yourself and your relationship to neighbor in the aftermath of offending or hurting your neighbor. Given the fragmentation of our society, we shouldn’t be surprised that no one seems to know what to do with shame.
For the most cynical, their superpower is their shamelessness: They can do and say anything without any inner sense of guilt or remorse. When called to repent, they rationalize, they self-justify, they mock. Morality has become little more than a political game for them—they can exploit the moral beliefs of anyone to get what they want, all while being bound to no discernible norms themselves. They’re nihilists, but they are effective at getting what they want. When you’re shameless, you don’t have any rules. But your opponents do.
Meanwhile, for others shame is an utterly intolerable experience, something either traumatizing or, perhaps more often, something that is very bad for business. Either way, it’s something to be avoided at any cost. So if you find yourself saying or doing something that offends your peers or, worst of all, your customers, you’ll quickly rush to make amends, even if you haven’t actually done anything wrong.
The most recent and one of the most egregious examples of this dynamic comes from the singer Macy Gray. Note that the segment which ends with a public grovel begins with promoting her new record:
EXCLUSIVE: Macy Gray addresses her controversial comments about gender identity with @hodakotb: “This was a huge learning experience for me.” pic.twitter.com/CTRNOJtsI2
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) July 7, 2022
If you publicly transgress the stated orthodoxy of contemporary progressivism, you can expect the social media mobs to materialize eventually. (Ask me how I know.)
This is a large part of how the progressive left has been able to transform the plausibility structures around sexuality and gender so radically over the last 25+ years: through the threat of shame and the related capital threats that mass shaming campaigns inevitably bring.
Yet these tactics—social media mobs, aggressive ad hominem attacks, and public shaming campaigns combined with an implicit threat to take harder action targeted at one’s livelihood should one not repent—are not the exclusive property of the left.
They are actually quite similar to those favored by the anti-woke contingent within conservative evangelicalism and especially within the SBC, for instance. Anti-woke conservative evangelicals have in many ways been just as effective at forcing change to the Overton window as their progressive peers, for the reformed world as it exists today is jarringly, shockingly different from what it was only eight years ago.
Consider that in 2014, a think tank staffer at Southern Seminary named Owen Strachan wrote that,
I want to learn more and listen more to African-American brothers and sisters on (racial matters). It does seem that, in addition to broader initiatives that may emerge in coming days, the small things matter. Mentoring one–just one–young boy or girl matters. Calling out a racist classmate matters. Getting rid of a Confederate flag matters. Telling the truth about Jonathan Edwards, slaveholder, matters.
Strachan was not unique in raising these concerns with issues of race and justice. In 2015, the SBC issued a series of resolutions repenting of the denomination’s legacy of racism. In 2016, Al Mohler was writing editorials against Donald Trump and suggesting that if he were to vote for Trump, he’d need to go back and apologize to Bill Clinton. In 2016, Mohler also wrote the following about race:
To put the matter plainly, one cannot simultaneously hold to an ideology of racial superiority and rightly present the gospel of Jesus Christ. One cannot hold to racial superiority and simultaneously defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints. So far as I can tell, no one ever confronted the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with the brutal reality of what they were doing, believing, and teaching in this regard. The same seems to be true in the case of Martin Luther and his anti-semitism. For that matter, how recently were these sins recognized as sins and repented of? The problem is not limited to the names of the founders on our buildings.
I do believe that racial superiority is a heresy. That means that those who hold it unrepentantly and refuse correction by Scripture and the gospel of Christ must, as Harold O. J. Brown rightly said, “be considered to have abandoned the faith.”
Meanwhile, black pastors were entering the convention and being given places of relative prominence at significant conferences. In April of 2018, the ERLC and the Gospel Coalition joint sponsored an event in Memphis marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Speakers included Mika Edmondson, Jackie Hill-Perry, Charlie Dates, Eric Mason, John Perkins, Christina Edmondson, Justin Giboney, and Crawford Loritts as well as John Piper, Matt Chandler, Don Carson, and Russell Moore.
Then in 2019, the SBC issued a statement on critical race theory that, while critical of CRT, also said that:
Critical race theory and intersectionality alone are insufficient to diagnose and redress the root causes of the social ills that they identify, which result from sin, yet these analytical tools can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences.
Later it said,
RESOLVED, That critical race theory and intersectionality should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture—not as transcendent ideological frameworks; and be it further
RESOLVED, That the gospel of Jesus Christ alone grants the power to change people and society because “he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6); and be it further
RESOLVED, That Southern Baptists will carefully analyze how the information gleaned from these tools are employed to address social dynamics.
There was clear organic momentum within the SBC (and within the broadly reformed world more generally) trending in a particular direction on matters of politics, race, justice, and so on.
So how did we go from all of that to where the SBC is today? Answer: the same playbook favored by the successor ideology apparatchiks who so successfully cowed Gray.
To begin, only two months after the MLK50 event, a group of concerned conservatives including John MacArthur, Michael O’Fallon, Tom Ascol, and Voddie Baucham gathered in Dallas to discuss their concerns with social justice movements within evangelicalism. Three months after that gathering, they would produce their Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel.
While these more established men began to lay out their more generalized concerns, another group of lesser known figures with roots as anti-Obama filmmakers likewise began to agitate over similar issues. In time, they would adapt their “Enemies Within” branding that they had previously used in their anti-Obama films to refer to “enemies within the church,” and specifically those prominent figures they judged to be embracing the social justice movement. Thanks in part to O’Fallon and his website Sovereign Nations, which published many of the online dissidents, the Dallas contingent and the online reactionaries began to find each other, even if their relationships were sometimes rather fraught.
Over time, these reactionary conservatives, which included a now defrocked Montana pastor, a confederate apologist, and a man who has since been excommunicated by his church, turned up the pressure on the SBC more generally as well as Southern Seminary and Mohler in particular, who was thought to be one of the main contributors to the denomination’s supposed drift toward “wokeness.” The Dallas group and the online reactionary conservatives manufactured a campaign intended to reform evangelicalism by forcing its prominent leaders to either leave the movement or to effectively repent of their “wokeness” and take their place in the campaign.
Things came to a head midway through 2020 in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis. Facing growing pressure from conservatives in the convention, Southern Seminary released a video interview two days after Floyd’s death which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the public grovel performed by Macy Gray.
The interview was conducted by one of the seminary’s most senior, respected faculty members, the eminent New Testament scholar Dr. Thomas Schreiner, who spoke with Dr. Jarvis Williams, another New Testament professor at the school. Williams is one of the school’s only black faculty and had been one of the anti-woke mob’s chief targets to that point over his past work on issues of race and reconciliation and, specifically, some similarly nuanced remarks concerning racialization and justice in America.
In the interview, Williams fielded some basic questions about CRT and gave much less nuanced answers than he had offered in the past, answers that actually echoed much of the language used by SBTS’s critics:
Here is Williams response to the question from Schreiner, “should a Christian embrace critical race theory?”
In my book I state in the very first chapter very clearly that fundamentally racism is a sin problem. Sin manifests itself in a variety of ways in individual lives and society and the culture. But sin is the fundamental reason we have the problem of racism. I say in that book therefore because this is a sin issue fundamentally, things like sociology, cultural methods, psychology, do not provide the ultimate solution to the problem of racism. And that problem is fundamentally sin. That is a very important statement.
And therefore I absolutely reject critical race theory as providing the solution for racism. It is not. In my work I make the case that the Bible is sufficient for everything pertaining to eternal life and godliness and that everything even pertains to issues related to racism and race and other social issues. The Bible is the solution, the Gospel is the solution…. I do not need critical race theory to solve the problem of racism.
A few months after this interview was released, the SBC seminary presidents issued a new statement regarding CRT that was far more critical and far less nuanced in its treatment of the issue. At this point, the anti-woke mob had won. Most of their foes had been chased from the SBC. Others had been cowed and made to submit.
This is the unhappy dynamic at work: Call a progressive a bigot and the public grovel will commence within moments. Call a conservative “woke” and the same thing will happen. And so Al Mohler, the man who helped make “being called liberal” the unforgivable sin in the SBC, could now be manipulated by the one rule that he himself helped create. Thus the institution Mohler leads would, like Gray, pacify the mob with a video signaling the prescribed degree of penitence and reciting the lines given to them by the mob lingering just outside the camera’s frame. The remaining SBC seminary presidents followed their example in short order.
The cost of this particular act was the alienation of the overwhelming majority of black clergy in the convention, the breaking of many friendships, and the mass exodus of people of color from many evangelical churches. The price of their public grovel was a reversion to more racially segregated churches and the promotion of schism and discord into the body of Christ, something which Jesus says licenses the world to look at the church and conclude that Jesus didn’t actually come from God. But that price was apparently not too high for Mohler or the other seminary presidents.
Why am I bringing up a story that is, in internet years, ancient history? Because I want to highlight how the game is played and, specifically, how the dynamics that underlie the game cut across our political spectrum. It will not do for conservatives to look at the Macy Gray Affair, cluck disapprovingly, and then thank God that they aren’t like those awful cancel culture progressives with their online mobs and woke shaming.
This problem exists across the political spectrum because it is not chiefly fueled by politics, but by other sources. It is aided and abetted by the mob dynamics that are hardwired into how digital social media works, for example. It is further activated by the fear, loneliness, and anxiety that besets virtually everyone in the contemporary west. And it is still further promoted by underlying philosophical systems that exist in the contemporary west, by hardened expressive individualism on the left and by a hardened racism on the right. These sad realities create enormous challenges for anyone seeking to do constructive work in today’s public square.
Where this leaves us then is with a need for three things.
First, we must disregard the malicious tongues on both the right and the left. We must have within us the candor and clarity required to ignore the fools and continue going about our work, regardless of what the mobs demand from us. Both Macy Gray and each of the SBC seminary presidents would profit immensely from memorizing and deeply internalizing these wonderful words written by Wendell Berry:
Once you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.
They will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach. Be ready.
Second, we need our own circles of friends that will offer us candid criticism and feedback, telling us when we actually should feel ashamed and actually do need to repent. And when that happens, we must repent, not because of any power calculations we’re making, but because God’s law reigns over us, because we are Jesus’s disciples, and because we are called to a life of repentance. As my parents taught me, you do the right thing, regardless of what the consequences will be.
Finally, if we are at war with a thousand Jokers, to both our right and our left, than we must recognize that our only hope of triumph is a fool’s hope, for there is a real sense in which our enemies are more powerful than us for the simple reason that they have weapons that we do not.
And yet as Christians we know these things to be true: First, that there are worse things than defeat. Second, that through Christ no good thing is ever permanently lost.
Christ’s power is greater and Christ has triumphed over sin and death and hell and over all his enemies, including those Mohler so forcefully and rightly condemned in 2016 prior to his own capitulation. And so even if we ourselves might be defeated by the Jokers of our day, if we are united to Christ then that defeat is not final and Christ’s victory is our victory. Faithlessness is the greatest danger, not political defeat, as Brad East recently wrote:
The problem isn’t wanting to win. The problem is the unwillingness to lose. That is, the problem is the impossibility of imagining that certain forms of losing might be preferable to certain forms of winning – that some things might not be worth doing even if not doing them would entail losing.
Apart from these things, I strongly suspect that it will be impossible to do constructive public work while living as a disciple of Jesus Christ. You will either insulate yourself from all appeals to shame, thereby causing your life to be governed by political calculations rather than divine law and ultimately leading you toward nihilism. Or you will become so fearful that you will refuse to stand for what is right when the mob begins to bray. Instead, you will dutifully set up the camera and read your lines, all the while stealing furtive, nervous glances to see how the mob is reacting.
In either scenario, you are rendered unfit to lead.
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This reminds me of cs Lewis’s book, The magician’s nephew. In that book, the Evil Queen eventually triumphs over her sister by destroying the entire world. She really didn’t win, but she didn’t lose to her sister.
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