John Piper, Bloodlines

Article by   March 2012
piper_bloodlines_95.jpgJohn Piper, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian (Crossway 2011, 295 pp.)

There are fewer things more distressing than racial division within the Christian church.  Yet racial division has plagued the church from the beginning.  Whether one considers the apparent antagonism between Greek and Hebrew speaking Jewish Christians which evidences itself in Acts 6, or Paul's reminder to the Ephesians that Christ has torn down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2:11-22, it is evident that this sin is one that reappears from time to time. It is equally evident from the whole sweep of Scripture that racial animosity is a sin and has no place whatsoever in the church of Jesus Christ.  While there is one faith, one Lord, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:5), the church is to be made up of people from every tribe, and tongue, and nation (Rev. 5:9; 7:4; 13:7).

Into this context speaks prolific author and pastor John Piper. Writing not as an expert in the field but as one whose heart is burdened over this issue, Piper offers us Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian as an attempt to address the problem of racial division and animosity. More specifically Piper seeks to address the race question from the perspective of Reformed Christianity. Even more specifically, Piper addresses the relation of blacks and whites in the church in America in light of our history with slavery, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. While acknowledging that the Reformed faith has a checkered history relating to slavery in America, Piper argues that the Reformed faith (shorthand for biblical Christianity) has the internal resources for self-criticism and correction  and offers hope to those trapped in the wretched vice-grip of the sin of racism.  

John Piper begins his study with a note to his readers on his use of the terms "race" and "racism" (17-19). The author is concerned with clarity in communication and so offers a definition of these two words.  For Piper, "race" and "ethnicity" are closely related terms, if not exactly synonymous.  "Unless I explicitly differentiate race and racism from ethnicity and ethnic; I would like you, the reader, to think of both when I mention either - that is, ethnicity with a physical component and race with a cultural component.  Very often I use the terms together to draw out this combination of ideas" (18).  Piper offers further thought regarding the difference between race and ethnicity, "...since ethnicity includes beliefs and attitudes and behaviors, we are biblically and morally bound to value some aspects of some ethnicities over others. Where such valuing is truly rooted in biblical teaching about good and evil, this should not be called racism. There are aspects of every culture including our own (whoever "our" is), which are sinful and in need of transformation.  So the definition of racism leaves room for assessing cultures on the basis of a biblical standard" (18).  At the end of the day, racism involves both heart attitudes and actions.  "The heart that believes one race is more valuable than another is a sinful heart.  And that sin is called racism.  The behavior that distinguishes one race as more valuable than another is a sinful behavior.  And that sin is called racism.  This personal focus on the term racism does not exclude expression of this sin in structural ways-for example, laws and policies that demean and exclude on the basis of race..." (18-19).

Piper organizes his book into two major parts:  part one deals the world's need for the gospel (31-106) and part two deals with God's word as the power of the gospel (109-233).  The book also includes four appendices dealing with (1) the terminology of race, (2) God-centered theology and the black experience in America, (3) how Piper's church (Bethlehem Baptist Church) pursues ethnic diversity, and (4)  the implications of Noah's curse.  Part one of the book begins with the author's own story of growing up in the segregated south and involves his pilgrimage on the way to becoming pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis.  Piper moves on to stress the importance of the gospel and his life transformation.  The third chapter notes the changing face of the church from a predominantly European and North American phenomenon to a predominantly Two-Thirds world movement.  Piper then addresses the exemplary nature of the black-white relationship, the need to consider both personal and systemic matters, and the power of the gospel and the roots of racial strife.

Piper begins the second part of the book, which focuses on the power of the gospel for salvation, with the story of William Wilberforce and his concern with doctrine and slavery.  Wilberforce believed that the moral problem of slavery (and other social issues) was connected to a failure to understand and embrace the doctrine of justification by faith alone (109-112).  Doctrine has practical consequences.  Piper then deals with the accomplishment of the gospel, considers the mission of Jesus and the end of ethnocentrism, the creation of one new humanity, the ransoming for God from every tribe, and the fact that all people are justified in the same way.  Yes, true doctrine has practical consequences indeed! Piper meditates on dying with Christ for the sake of Christ-exalting diversity, living in sync with gospel freedom, and the law of liberty and the peril of partiality. Piper asks why diversity within unity was worth the death of the Son.  Finally, in the fourth section of part two of the book, the author speaks to interracial marriage and prejudice.

Having considered the details of Piper's Bloodlines, I would like to offer three observations.  My first thought is that the relation between blacks and whites is the most obvious one in the American context but it is by no means the only racial divide either in this land or in other lands.  In this book it serves as the paradigm case and offers us insight into the dynamics of race and ethnicity involving other groups.  Whites and blacks have no corner on this market.  

Secondly, Reformed Christianity is not alone in its having to wrestle with the problem of racism.  Most, if not all, of the major branches of the Christian faith in America split over the slavery issue in the years leading up to and into the Civil War and it is myopic to act as if only the Reformed faith has a checkered past on this score.  This is not to let us off the hook, but I mention it to remind us that the problem is broader than the Reformed community.  

Thirdly, the issue of racism manifests the utter devious sinfulness of sin.  The problem is not difficult to understand; this sin is simply that - sin.  But what is complex is how this sin insinuates itself into other matters.  The sin of racism is intertwined with cultural and theological issues not directly related to racism per se.  Sometimes what is understood to be a racial divide is more a theological or cultural divide.  More often than not, racism gets entangled with theological and cultural matters. It is only the grace of Christ that can free us from the miasma of this specific sin.

This is a wide-ranging and searching volume that addresses a perennial problem.  At the end of the day, the only satisfactory answer to racism is the reconciling blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and the integrating ministry of the Holy Spirit that glorifies God the Father.  When we are reconciled to the Father by the Son through the Spirit, this spills over into reconciliation with our fellow human beings.  Piper does not pretend to have offered the last word on this subject.  But it is a powerful word. If we believe that the Reformed faith is the most biblical expression of the Christian faith, then we should long to see it spread to every land, tribe, and tongue.  
Rev. Jeffrey Waddington (PhD. Candidate, Westminster Theological Seminary) is the teacher of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ringoes, NJ. He is the co-editor, with Dr. Lane Tiption, of Resurrection and Eschatology.

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