Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Review of Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian by John Piper

In the summer of 2012, I went to a conference where the preaching was purposefully grounded in Reformed theology. I like Reformed theology for a lot of reasons—primarily because, to echo Piper, it provides “the best composite, Bible-distilled picture of God that I have” (pg. 130)—but lingering at the back of my mind during that conference was knowledge of the darker side of this tradition of theological thought; namely the racism, prejudice, and violence that has characterized much of its history. It’s a bit much for me to outline this history in a blog post, so I will just provide a few bullet points to consider:

·      It is well known that Martin Luther was an anti-Semite, and preached genocide for Jews
·      South African Apartheid (which only just ended in 1994) was grounded in Dutch Reformed theology
·      The African slave trade was supported and perpetuated by what might be considered flagship Protestant countries, with deep Reformed traditions: England, and the United States.
·      The concomitant role of Protestant missionary work and colonialism (which only ended after World War II, and the relationship still haunts mission work today)

The connections between racism and Reformed theology were on my mind during that conference because of two classes I took the previous academic quarter: a global history of Christianity, where the racial strife that mediated relationships between Christians of different races and ethnicities was a significant theme; and core theory in anthropology, where race has been part of anthropological paradigms from the inception of the discipline. These two classes highlighted societal structures in place that perpetuate racial prejudice. While these classes offered great observations, they stopped at deconstructing societal structures and basically saying that there’s a problem. They didn’t get at the root of the problem of race however—which is sin—and thus they provided no satisfying solutions.

(At a Bible study recently, a friend made the observation that nonbelievers are not aware of sin. I understood this to mean that unbelievers may not be aware of sin in their own lives, or may not choose to label it as sin; however, from these two classes, I would say nonbelievers are very aware of sin, thought they may not use the term. I would say that, while they recognize the social structures that perpetuate racism, many may not be able to recognize how they are personally part of the problem—though they may see how others’ prejudices factor into the structure. And this is not limited to unbelievers; believers--including this one--are apt to do the same).

Piper’s recent book Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian was a welcome voice to these conversations. One thing I admire about Piper is that he tackles hard(er) topics, such as race, pleasure (he’s famous for his term “Christian hedonism”), and singleness and marriage (where he develops a theology of singleness that doesn’t demean single people).

As an academic, there were four things that Piper satisfied me on:
1)    The book is written in the American cultural context (hence his choice to use the term “race” and “racism,” which have a specific history within the United States, rather than terms “ethnicity” or “ethnic” in much of his book). I would say that while Piper’s aim is to develop a theology of Christian diversity, and he acknowledges that racism and ethnocentrism have a variety of forms, he states that, “focusing on my own history, and the black-white reality in particular, has helped me keep my feet on the ground and my heart connected to real people” (pg. 28). I appreciated his effort to stay grounded, as in my graduate courses—with the focus so much on social structures—sometimes I wondered, at the end of the day, where people actually factored in? The last two chapters of his work, which deal with racial prejudice and interracial marriage, could be seen as two applications for the American context of the truths he sets forth in his book.
2)    While Piper is no secular academic, he acknowledged and gave an overview of academic voices in this regard, specifically looking at the argument between personal responsibility and structural inequality. This is found primarily in chapter 5. Here, I appreciated that he gave preference to outlining these scholars’ arguments as he understood them rather than jumping to condone or condemn their positions. He also referenced these academic works—both sacred and secular—on race, theology, and social inequality within the American cultural and historical context throughout his book. So while Piper spends the majority of his book creating a biblical theology of diversity, he shows himself to be very aware of other voices and viewpoints on this subject of racism and racial inequality.
3)    He does not shy away from acknowledging the darker history of Reformed theology. He outlines many of the historical points I have made above. But while he points out that Reformed theology’s representatives may not have always been the best examples of how to pursue racial harmony, he stands by that “the truths themselves [as outlined by Reformed theology], when rightly understood and embraced…cut the legs out from under racist attitudes” (pg. 130).
4)    He acknowledges the political polarity on the issue of racism in the United States, and the danger of judgment from within conservative Christian circles that comes with stepping out on these issues. Tim Keller points out in his introduction that, many evangelicals “give lip serve to it [racism] being a sin, but they associate any sustained denunciation of racism with the liberal or secular systems of thought” (pg. 11). For an evangelical to look at race (and I would add especially a white evangelical), or care about issues of race, opens them up to being accused of liberalism. From my own observations, I’ve seen that conservatives in the United States care primarily about personal or private morality, while liberals care about social justice issues; therefore, I can see how one’s actions would be politicized. But Piper demonstrates in this work how racism is an issue for Christians to address within their own communities. One of his arguments for pursuing racial/ethnic harmony is that it is an outworking of love—rather than lawlessness—thus evidence that faith is truly at work in us (chapter 13).

So while these were four points that I was satisfied on, more widely I think Piper uses these to demonstrate that the Bible speaks to racial inequality and racial prejudice within specific contexts; these don’t just remain cerebral ideas.

So what does Piper have to say about racial strife and harmony?
1)    In chapter 6, Piper demonstrates how the Gospel addresses some of the characteristics of racial strife—namely, supernatural powers; then guilt, pride, hopelessness, inferiority and self-doubt, greed, hate, fear, and apathy.
2)    In chapters 7 to 10, Piper demonstrates how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows that the people of God are no longer defined as an ethnicity—as was the nation of Israel—but rather by faith in Christ himself as Savior. This means that being a certain ethnicity or race is not a pre-requisite to being part of the family of God; rather, everyone is justified in the same way—by God’s grace, through faith. He structures his argument around the “five points of Calvinism” and the five solas (yay Reformed theology!), demonstrating how the blood of Christ puts all who receive God’s grace on equal footing, thus allowing for racial harmony within the family of God. While this book primarily speaks to the American context of racism, especially along black and white lines, I found these chapters—especially chapter 9—to be relevant to all other cultural situations.

I also appreciated that, in going through the “five points of Calvinism” and “five solas,” Piper takes time to explain what these doctrines are. These doctrines are not always explained very well, and I thought Piper did a good job of defining and explaining these concepts. For example, Piper’s said that total depravity “does not mean that we do as many bad acts as we possibly could [for there are certainly many morally upstanding people in this world who do not profess Christ]. It means that we are totally unable to trust Christ and do the “work of faith” (1 Thess. 1:3; 2 Thess. 1:11) without the decisive intervention of God’s enabling grace [called in Christian lingo “regeneration”]” (pg. 135).
3)    In chapters 11 to 13, Piper continues the theme of “five points of Calvinism,” with the last two points (irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints), moving from justification to sanctification. Basically, God’s actions to bring people of every “nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6) into his kingdom on equal footing of salvation by grace (justification) doesn’t allow for racial prejudices to exist between God’s people now. If pursuing racial/ethnic harmony is an outworking of love—rather than lawlessness—thus evidence that faith is truly at work in us, then it is perilous to our faith to show partiality along racial or ethnic lines within the family of God. Thus pursuing racial harmony is evidence of sanctification.
4)    In chapter 14, Piper ends with how racial/ethnic diversity within the family of God magnifies the glory of God’s grace. If God’s glory is manifested most fully in His grace to us by Christ’s work on the cross, then a diverse following demonstrates God’s greatness and beauty, and undercuts feelings of ethnic/racial pride that God might choose one ethnicity or race among many. One point I appreciated was that this diversity doesn’t end in this age; rather, it extends into the next. While Revelation 21:3 is often translated in English as “and they will be his people,” the Greek term is plural—and they will be his peoples.

Hence, if God has done so much to reconcile people of every diverse description to Himself, and clearly cherishes that diversity, the conclusion Piper leaves his readers with is that Christians should work toward racial reconciliation and cultural and ethnic diversity within their respective local bodies now. What this will look like will differ radically depending on the cultural context. For the US context, and with his Southern roots, Piper specifically shows how this applies to interracial marriage and transcultural adoptions, and racial prejudice in chapters 15 and 16. In looking at these application points, Piper doesn’t pretend or promise that application wont’ be messy. He makes the acute observation that “the more you love, the more painful it gets” (pg. 214).

Ok, humor me on two personal points. Piper’s work helped me work through two realizations as an (A)TCK.
1)    Piper stated that “…majority people don’t think of themselves in terms of race…When you are the majority ethnicity, nothing you do is ethnic. It’s just the way it’s done. When you’re a minority, everything you do has color [italics mine]” (pg. 67). I can say that I grew up, for most of my childhood, as an ethnic and racial minority; all of my actions therefore had a color to them. While this seems pretentious for a white American to say, consider these points:
a.     In Nepal, I had white skin, while everyone else’s was various shades of brown; my hair was brown while everyone else’s were varying shades of black; my eyes were blue, while everyone else’s was brown—minus the random Nepali with blue or green eyes, and that shocked other Nepalis.
b.     My religion was a minority religion. This was evident that all national holidays in Nepal were Hindu religious holidays, not Christian religious holidays; instead of church steeples dominating city skylines, it was Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas that gave structure to the city’s spiritual and civil landscape, to name a few.
c.     My language was a minority language: I couldn’t speak my mother tongue—English—outside my house if I wanted to be understood; I had to speak Nepali.
d.     My cultural actions were an anomaly. Some examples: my family ate at a table together while Nepali families have a hierarchical order of who eats first and who serves who; my parents had a “love marriage” while so many of my Nepali friend’s parents had their marriages arranged, so we as children had different expectations growing up as to who we would marry and how we would marry; I knew when my birthday was and I had a mother who made a fuss over the anniversary of my birth each year, while many of my Nepali friends hadn’t a clue what year or day they were born, and their parents could car less.  
e.     All of these had the color white plastered upon it, and all my interactions with Nepalis—even now, as I do fieldwork—continually remind me that I am white.
2)    Piper also observed that "The majority culture…has the luxury of being oblivious to race (which would change in an instant if we [meaning white people] moved to Nigeria)…for minority peoples, race-related issues are a persistent part of consciousness” (pg. 72). When my family moved back to States, I had my race/skin color engrained on my consciousness. As a result I was (1) weirded out that everyone looked like me (we moved back to Alabama, where things are still rather racially segregated. Because of the neighborhood we moved into, and the church we attended, and the nature of my dad’s job, all of our immediate social circles were white; if we wanted an interracial encounter, we had to seek it out), and (2) amazed that all the people who looked liked me were not conscious of how racial/cultural their actions were (hence I demonstrated very little tolerance for people who had very little tolerance for cultural actions that differed from their own—what a little bigot I was!).

With all these reminders about how different we are from each other, the temptation to yield to feelings of guilt, pride, hopelessness, inferiority and self-doubt, greed, hate, fear, and apathy when interacting with people culturally and racially different than ourselves, is high—its hard work to be a bridge. However, Piper shows that the Gospel gives hope for reconciliation, for all Christian communities need a transcendent reference point—which is God (pg. 248)—and to see that “the bloodline of Christ is deeper than the bloodlines of race” (pg. 227)—which makes this reconciliation possible.

I’ll end with another academic-y point: As a graduate student in a discipline that straddles the humanities and social sciences, I love cultural theory. Ideas stimulate me (as they weigh me down), and they are useful in making sense of cultural situations I encounter. But theories have limits, and the nature of the Gospel puts it in a separate category than theory. Piper eloquently puts it like this in the beginning of his work:

"The gospel is not an ideology [and he goes on to say its not just another philosophy or methodology or therapy, and I would add theory]. It does not come in as one idea alongside some others and make its contribution. The good news that God sent his Son Jesus into the world to die in the place of sinners, and bear their punishment, and become their perfect righteousness, and absorb the wrath of God, and set us right with him through faith alone, and rise from the dead triumphant over every foe--that gospel does not come as an ideology but as supernatural power. When this news of salvation from our sin and from God's wrath is proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit, it does not come with compelling ideas that create new thoughts [the point of much social theory]; it comes with supernatural power that creates new people. The Bible calls this being born again." (pg. 83).

The Apostle Paul put it another way: “[the Gospel] is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:7).