Dabney, Aesthetics, and Race: A Hellish Triptych

Evangelical equivocation on the race issue (as witnessed in several responses to Ferguson and the Eric Gardner debacle) has had a two steps forward/two steps back effect on our witness to a panicked and wounded world. Make no mistake: there’s no shortage of prophetic voices calling a thing what it is and directing all with ears to hear to the healing reign of Jesus Christ, but it seems like there’s just as many who spew out lame colorblind rhetoric rather than the gospel. Another capitulation to culture and politics: it’s easy to tow the conservative line and repeat for the hundred thousandth time that racial reconciliation was accomplished a generation ago (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding). There’s nothing radical about colluding with the status quo.

It seems to me contemporary evangelicalism has heeded much of R.L. Dabney’s wisdom. What I fear is that it is a spurious wisdom, owing more to fallen common sense than it does the gospel. I see this on display in the following passage where Dabney contrasts Protestant worship with Roman Catholic and draws moral conclusions from those differences:

Thoughtless men fancy that, because they are speaking about religious things, they are speaking religion. Remember, then, that these emotions are only means to a better end; we must employ them merely as steps to rise to the emotions of the conscience. The only purpose which can justify an appeal to them in religious discourse is that of forthwith attaching them to sacred truth, which the preacher faithfully presents along with them. If he fails to give them this direction, if he allows his hearers to expend themselves in the mere luxury of natural sentiment and sympathy, he is both deluding and abusing their hearts; for he assists them to deceive themselves with a substitute for true spiritual affection, which is worse than worthless, while he deteriorates and expends their susceptibility by an excitement which is unwholesome, because fruitless. The practical result of this perversion of the art of persuasion is always moral corruption.

The mischievous error of addressing the taste and social sentiments, instead of the affections of conscience, is illustrated by the effects of the Romish worship. Its great purpose is to substitute the enthusiasm of the imagination for the culture of moral principles. It must be confessed that this effect is produced with consummate skill. The experience of ages of paganism and of corrupt Christianity has been applied, by the most accomplished cunning, to devise the means for stimulating the superstitious fancy and intoxicating the senses. All the imposing and alluring charms of architecture, music and pantomime are employed for these ends. And everything in the gospel story which can awe or delight the natural sensibilities is ingeniously displayed in the most dramatic forms: the corporeal anguish of the Redeemer, the pitying love of woman typified in her sweetest ideal as the “Mother of God,’ the stern heroism of apostles, the awful might of miracles, and ghostly principalities, and powers, the material flames of purgatory and hell; but the great, spiritual truths by which the soul lives or dies, of which this history is but the shell, are carefully left out of view. Existing facts teach us what has been the effect of this gorgeous ritual upon piety and morals. While the taste is cultivated, the conscience is plunged into foul delusion. The most splendid rites of worship and the blackest vices have dwelt together under the same consecrated roofs; and the communities which are most accomplished in the pomps of their ceremonial are the most debauched.
(from Sacred Rhetoric, or A Course of Lectures on Preaching)

Sounds like common evangelical fare, right? Denigrating liturgy, aesthetics, the imagination; the assurance that incorporating these elements unfailingly results in moral compromise. “[T]he communities which are most accomplished in the pomps of their ceremonial are the most debauched,” huh? Well, let’s examine next Dabney’s 1876 editorial, “”The Negro and the Common School”:

[T]he pretended education which Virginia is now giving, at so heavy a cost, to the negroes, is, as a remedy for negro suffrage, utterly deceptive, farcical and dishonest. The tenor of the argument concedes, what every man, not a fool, knows to be true: that the negroes, as a body, are now glaringly unfit for the privilege of voting. What makes them unfit? Such things as these: The inexorable barrier of alien race, color, and natural character, between them and that other race which constitutes the bulk of Americans: a dense ignorance of the rights and duties of citizenship: an almost universal lack of that share in the property of the country, which alone can give responsibility, patriotic interest and independence to the voter: a general moral grade so deplorably low as to per­mit their being driven or bought like a herd of sheep by the demagogue: a parasitical servility and dependency of nature, which characterizes the race everywhere, and in all ages: an almost total lack of real persevering aspirations: and last, an obstinate set of false traditions, which bind him as a mere serf to a party, which is the born enemy of every righteous interest of our State. Let the reader look at that list of ailments. Not an item can be disputed… 

The black race is an alien one on our soil; and nothing except his amalgamation with oars, or his subordination to ours, can prevent the rise of that instinctive antipathy of race, which, history shows, always arises between opposite races in prox­imity. Another cause is the natural indolence of the negro character, which finds precisely its desired pretext, in this pretended work of going to school. Still another is the universal disposition of the young negro to construe his “liberty” as meaning precisely, privilege of idleness. It was easy to see that the free school must needs produce the very result which it is usually producing, under such exceptional circumstances; not education, but discontent with, and unfitness for, the free negro’s inevitable sphere and destiny—if he is to have any good destiny—manual labor. With such teachers, such parents as the negro parents, and such material, it was hopeless to expect any really beneficial knowledge of the literary arts to be dif­fused among this great mass of black children.

Well, you can see for yourself that austere Southern Presbyterian worship has molded his character into a fair replica of the Savior’s; here is an upstanding man, animated by the grace of the gospel, freed from the shackles of cultural captivity to love and serve the undesirable in imitation of the master.

Oh, wait: he’s just another feces-bathing bigot invoking Christ to legitimate his prejudices? Huh! Man, good thing he steered clear of liturgical practices his entire life- I’d hate to see what he’d look like as one of the faceless debauched accomplished in the pomps of ceremonial! “Moral corruption,: indeed! Moral corruption rotted through his simplistic Protestant soul until it flooded out Satanic venom the likes of which you just read. Christendom had smoothed over and camouflaged the miraculous inclusion of the Gentiles into YHWH’s covenant promises. The New Covenant was simply the Caucasian’s birthright. Dabney’s unchallenged, evil assumptions have bequeathed to the American evangelical a legacy that cleaves the gospel from concrete social ills the gospel was delivered to overturn in the first place. “What hath Jerusalem to do with race?” Everything.

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