February 21, 2012 / Perspective
Tim Suttle offers a social gospel vision of evangelicalism that calls Christians beyond the individualistic constrictions of contemporary Christianity to a retrieval of the social dimensions of the good news.
February 6, 2012
Bloodlines is a curious book. In it John Piper, a prominent white pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, steps out to speak about the problem of race in the American church. Where many prominent white clergy have remained silent, Piper turns his attention to one of the silent tragedies of American Christianity, the perpetual racial and ethnic division of its congregational life.
In so doing, Piper seems to be saying what many who are concerned with racial and ethnic division within the church have been hoping white Christians could say in these conversations. Piper first admits his own history of racism and bigotry (ch. 1), attending not only to the question of personal responsibility but also to the structural aspects of racism in the United States. Then, after highlighting Christ’s own groundbreaking life—the ways in which his ministry continually broke through the racial and ethnic boundaries of his own time (ch. 7 and 8)—Piper concludes by calling Christians to mutual sacrifice at the cross of Christ, to never quit in our response to Christ’s love and power, and to always seek harmony (ch. 16 and “Conclusion”).
But Bloodlines is a curious book because lodged within these important contributions are approaches that seem to undercut the very aims Piper strives to articulate. For instance, Piper draws upon the work of such African American intellectuals as Michael Eric Dyson and Henry Louis Gates Jr. to highlight the realities of structural racism, but he compresses these conversations into three brief pages, whereas his discussion of racism and personal responsibility, leaning upon the work of such conservative African American intellectuals as Juan Williams, Shelby Steele, and Dinesh D’Souza, is much longer, is given more sympathetic treatment, and is drawn upon in various ways throughout the rest of the book. Piper claims to not take sides (85), and yet he leaves behind the insights of Dyson and Gates when it gets to the work of describing what “Christ-exalting” diversity looks like.
The way in which Piper navigates these various interlocutors suggests that within the vision of diversity that Piper imagines, the fundamental concerns of those contrary voices have only been faintly heard. Although he highlights Steele’s exhortation that “What black and white Americans fear are the sacrifices and risks that true harmony demands” (233), Piper seems somewhat unwilling to allow conversation partners such as Dyson much say in his own vision of the world.
As Piper moves from a consideration of the social context of race to a consideration of how a Christian should understand these issues, he embarks upon an extended exegesis of Scripture, highlighting the ways in which Christ’s life and work on the cross overcame ethnic division and provided a definitive answer to any notion of racial superiority. Piper’s Christology, which is drawn from a neo-Reformed view, is aimed at showing that “not only did our ethnic distinctives contribute nothing to our election, and nothing to our ransom on the cross, but our ethnic distinctives also contributed nothing to the rise of our faith and the emergence of our repentance. We are all equally dependent on irresistible grace to be called and to believe and to be saved” (167).
Although few would argue that a Christocentric view isn’t crucial to the church’s wrestling with the question of race, Piper’s emphasis on Christ’s work and reconciliation transcends race and ethnicity in such a way that tends to erase Christ’s personhood as a Jew. He undercuts his message of reconciliation and racial harmony by excising ethnic particularity from both our condition of unfaithfulness and our communion with God in heaven. Piper writes, “The seriousness of our sin is determined not mainly by the nature of our deed but the nature of the one we dishonor. A sin against an infinitely worthy God is an infinite sin. Color and ethnicity will count for nothing in the court of heaven. One thing will count: the perfection of Jesus Christ” (68). If this is the case, what is racial and ethnic difference at all? Is Christ no longer a Jew, and what does this mean for the lineage—or in Piper’s words, the “bloodline”—of Israel? By making such claims, Piper strips away the significance of Christ’s particular ethnic life and of our own racial, ethnic, and national lives. At best this fundamentally ignores Christ’s participation in the liturgical and cultural life of Israel; at worst, it leans toward Gnosticism; and either way, by obscuring the particular characteristics of people, this kind of racial blindness runs counter to Piper’s overarching goal of racial harmony.
Moreover, by potentially dismissing the specific demographic characteristics of Christ, Piper resists the complication of, as a Gentile, being grafted into another people. To trim off the fat of Christ’s Jewish existence is to resist the deeply transformative implications of being knit into a new humanity. Here, the narrowness of Piper’s interlocutors and theological grammar becomes problematically fused.
Within the last fifty years, many theologians—take for example Howard Thurman, James Cone, Virgilio Elizondo, Gustavo Gutierréz, Willie James Jennings, and Jay Kameron Carter—have highlighted ways in which the separation of Christ from his Jewishness distorts a proper understanding of who Christ is and leads us to some of the most egregious contemporary betrayals of Christ’s name, including the African slave trade and the perpetual anti-Semitism of the modern world. These theologians have demonstrated that such separations are not merely moments of blind unfaithfulness; they are profound misreadings of Christ’s personhood, misreadings that draw believers into patterns of exclusion or coercive inclusion, which are often masked as practices of holiness or evangelism and missions. Piper attempts to narrate these misreadings as an example of humanity’s pride. It is this pride, according to Piper, that is punished upon the cross, thus freeing us to enter into a just standing with Christ. But reducing pride to an abstract spiritual state is to lose the subtle ways that pride becomes manifest in our lives as a racially bound righteousness, a desire to see ourselves apart from one another. Pride is not simply an abstract consequence of the fall, but it has a particular cultural and social shape.
Perhaps Piper is familiar with the work of these theologians, but if he is, there is little evidence in his account of Christ’s work. There is little evidence here of Howard Thurman’s observations regarding Christ context as an oppressed Jew, Shawn Copeland’s recent discussions of black female bodies as a way of understanding Christ’s suffering, or Virgilio Elizondo’s discussion of Christ’ hybrid cultural position in Galilee. And the consequences of these gaps are clear. Piper’s Christ is a raceless God-man, focused intently on a violent sacrifice that achieves the salvation of our souls with the happy consequence of taking our bodies along for the ride. Hence, the relationship between our bodies, our racial and ethnic particularity, and our salvation seems always to be at odds within Piper’s theological framework. Sadly, Piper does not attend to the writings of black, womanist, or liberation theologians for whom the reality of difference, as it was forced upon them, is always a theological dilemma. Such an oversight is not simply a matter of insufficient research: it highlights the ways Piper has refused to engage in dialogue with different communities as he attempts to imagine what racial harmony could look like. The issue is not that Piper doesn’t agree with the important voices who have a stake in these questions; the issue is that he makes no effort for sincere dialogue with these voices. Piper wants harmony with his view of Christ and the world.
The view of harmony Piper has in mind can be seen most clearly in how he tries to instill racial harmony in his own congregation. He provides impressive details concerning the steps his own congregation has taken to attend to questions of racial and ethnic diversity and social concerns. For instance, Piper initiated a revision of his church’s mission statement to emphasize the centrality of God’s work in the world in relationship to ethnic and racial diversity. One such initiative reads, “we will embrace the supremacy of God’s love to take new steps personally and corporately toward racial reconciliation expressed visibly in our community and in our church” (260). In addition to revising its mission statement, Bethlehem has hosted conferences, created a Racial Harmony Task Force, and sought to encourage conversations about racial competency among their congregation and in their hiring processes. In all, what Piper outlines is a tremendous commitment individually and institutionally to the question and reality of racial difference. In the midst of these endeavors, one might expect to see a thriving diversity pastoral leadership on Bethlehem Baptist Church’s staff web page (of course, we will only see males in leadership positions, but that is a different article): out of twenty pastors, three are non-white, and two of these non-whites are in urban- or ethnic-specific ministries. Put next to Piper’s admission that he barely knows the diverse people of his church’s local neighborhood (39), there arise certain questions about what Piper even means by racial harmony. What is the relationship between Piper and the diverse peoples of his neighborhood and how he seeks pastoral leadership in his own church?
Piper’s narration of the ways in which the church frames the issue of diversity is particularly helpful in understanding why his staff remains so homogenous despite his commitment to the cause. Resisting the temptation to make diversity an issue that rules all others, Piper explains that the “nonnegotiables” which are operative when his church seeks a new pastor and elder are above all characterized by “a spirit of life and ministry captured by phrases such as God-centered, Christ-exalting, and Bible-saturated” (259). Of course, these seemingly benign descriptors have very specific political and theological content that resonate with Piper and Bethlehem’s vision of the world.
Ultimately, these nonnegotiables display the limits to what Bethlehem and Piper are willing to imagine as God-centered diversity. Put differently, these qualifiers outline which differences are acceptable and which differences are unacceptable. Such differences are, however, only “doctrinal”—they lack any deep challenge on the grounds of race to a staff that is overly represented by white men. The consequence is that Piper is willing to advocate for diversity, but the boundaries of what this diversity might mean are so narrow that only varying shades of his theological vision are represented. Piper wants black and Latinos on his staff, but only those blacks and Latinos who think like him. But is this truly reconciliation? Is this harmony?
I’m not so sure. And to be fair, it seems Piper isn’t always so sure either. He is willing to make mistakes and remain committed to a vision of a diverse, reconciled Christian community, but while he is to be commended for this, we must wrestle with the possibility that some roads are more dangerous than others, that our intentions are not always sufficient, and that sometimes it is not merely important that we come to the table but how we come to the table. And it is the how in Bloodlines that is difficult and curious. Piper declares the name of Christ in a way that silences all and that flattens the textures and particularities of human sinfulness. By wanting so desperately to emphasize black and white sinfulness as fundamentally the same, Piper forgets the powerful history of white men dictating and spiritualizing black “sinfulness.” Although the state of alienation between humanity and God is certainly universal, the texture of how that sinfulness works over and against one another is not the same. The presumption of a white man naming the sin of black people is not new, even if Piper names the sin of white people too. In fact, such generalizations are part of the problem. The reality of sin draws us into patterns of life that are separate and in many instances contentious. But there are varied reasons for this and we all participate in varied ways. Piper’s approach simply does not allow for these complications.
Piper narrates the power of Christ’s work in a way that fundamentally erases ethnic or racial difference and yet he wants us to imagine diversity as important. He claims to desire racial harmony, and yet he displays no attention to how others have interpreted or been encountered by the Word made flesh. Piper wants to contribute to the conversation, and yet he has not attended to the conversation that has already been taking place among other folks for many, many years. Because of this, his plea for mutual confession and his proclamation of Christ do not instill hope in me. Instead, I fear that he will not hear those who do not sing in his key, those who do not echo back to him his convictions.
When we take seriously the life of Christ and the lives of Christians of different races and ethnicities, we are led into the dangerous possibility that we will end up more like “them” than they will look like “us.” Such a possibility is encapsulated in Christ’s own life; Christ was one who (to quote a different reformed theologian, Karl Barth) “did not will to be God without us” (Church Dogmatics II.1, 274) and whose very life now bears the mark of ethnicity, of a particular body. For Christians concerned with the legacy of whiteness in the United States, it is no longer sufficient to simply begin with confession and hope to move quickly to Christ, past all the messy particularities of how we participate in this present state of unfaithfulness. What Piper fails to understand is that in preaching Christ, we open ourselves to a dangerous possibility: that we may have to change. To preach Christ means that some of our time-honored traditions, the beliefs that we had concerning who God was and who we are, will be challenged when we are confronted with the God who, in a patriarchal society and within a religious tradition that was convinced God was forever hidden, at once made a woman into a priestess and her womb the Holy of Holies. God does some surprising things. There is no reconciliation without this fact. And yet it is this reality of God-with-us that modernity so fervently refused when a conception of whiteness, under the guise of Christ, was hurled upon the world. It is this reality we have yet to come to grips with, a reality that perpetually reiterates notions of faithful community within sameness. If Piper is sincere in his desire for a diverse community, perhaps he would do well to begin with a different confession, that his Jesus is not the only Jesus, that we all must bring our own confessions and our own stories to the table. I fear that in this book Piper is telling me what to bring to the table, how it will be prepared, and what the meal will look like when all is said and done.
In these many ways Piper’s Bloodlines is a curious book. It is full of contradictions and good intentions, but ultimately it represents a conversational path that can only lead one place: to the doors of Bethlehem Baptist Church.
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Author’s Note: For readers who are looking for ways to rethink the church’s role in racial reconciliation, there are many places that would provide excellent beginnings. Books that are more accessible include: Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, Being (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010); Brenda Salter McNeil’s A Credible Witness (Downer’s Grove, IN: IVP, 2008); and Curtiss Paul De Young’s United By Faith (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003). For more scholarly engagements with questions of church, race, and ethnicity, see James Cone’s God of the Oppressed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997); Gustavo Gutierrez’s On Job (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997); Willie James Jennings’s The Christian Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); and J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Brian Bantum is an associate professor of theology at Seattle Pacific University where he teaches and writes on Christology, anthropology, and identity. He is the author of numerous essays and chapters as well as Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Christian Hybridity (2010), a christological exploration of race and identity.