A Discussion about Race and the Christian with Tim Keller, Anthony Bradley, and John Piper (Photo courtesy of Crossway Books)
The Rev. Dr. John Piper has, by his own count, written 30 books. His latest is Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, a book that is rooted in Reformed theology and Piper’s personal story of growing up as a Southern racist who was redeemed by Christ and later transformed by the adoption of his African American daughter, Talitha. Piper says he will retire as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in about a year, and will be replaced by another white pastor with a personal commitment to racial reconciliation. Piper is one of the first and the few white evangelical pastors to issue a public statement about the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. He says revelations that Martin may not have been as wholesome a boy as initially portrayed are irrelevant to the case and the outcome could have been different if Zimmerman had been constrained by the gospel.
On Wednesday, March 28, Piper, Redeemer Presbyterian Church pastor, the Rev. Dr. Tim Keller, and The King’s College theologian Dr. Anthony Bradley participated in a vibrant discussion about Race and the Christian at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in New York City. UrbanFaith talked to Piper Thursday morning about the discussion, the book that inspired it, and his own journey toward racial harmony. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: What are your initial reflections about Wednesday night’s discussion about Race and the Christian?
John Piper: I come away from all events revolving around race with ambivalence. I’m never confident that I have said anything helpful. I generally come away from those things feeling like I learned another blind spot. I work with such an awareness of how little I see, so when Tim, in particular, was talking, I thought: I never thought of that. My next thought was: Okay, don’t be paralyzed by that. Don’t run away. Take that in. Learn. Build on that. Stand there. Take another step. Try to grow. In my younger day, I felt like quitting so many times after conversations. Now I put my feet on God and say, “Move forward.”
You communicate a lot of humility about your own failures and struggles in the area of racial reconciliation. Why have you been able to resist the temptation to give up?
One short answer would be that I adopted Talitha. That’s a real inadequate answer, but it’s a true answer, meaning that when we made the decision to adopt an eight-week old African American baby when I was 50 years old, I thought: Oh man, when she is 15, I’m going to be 65. What is it like for a 15-year-old girl to have a 65-year-old dad? What is it like for an African American girl to have a white 65-year-old dad? All those questions were tumbling around inside of me 16 years ago. My wife and I just looked at each other and said, “This is the right thing to do. This locks us in to the issue forever.” That’s why I can’t walk away. I signed on with blood. You can sign with ink or pencil and erase that, but when you sign with blood, you don’t erase that. And so, we’re in. There is a deeper reason. Biblically, socially, historically, my history, globally, it’s just too big to walk away from.
There are only two paragraphs in Bloodlines about your daughter. Can you tell us more about your experience of raising her?
We began to take race seriously 20 years ago maybe, where I’d preach on it every Martin Luther King weekend. Into that, we were heavy into the pro-life [cause]. I was getting arrested. I spent a night in jail. That’s how serious it was. The guy next to me in the cell, Rod Elofson, leaned over and said, “There’s probably a better way to do this.” His next step was to adopt two black kids who might have been aborted. So the two issues conjoined for me and they’ve been conjoined for 20 years with a pro-life sermon and a race sermon every February.
[Rod] lives across the street from me and he named a fund the MICAH Fund after his kids. [It’s an acronym for] Minority Infant Child Adoption Help, which means it raises money to help people pay for adoptions. This began to spread through our church and Phoebe Dawson (a black social worker from Georgia, who’s kind of the Underground Railroad to us) was bringing these kids up and my wife got to know her. My wife [Noël Piper] was 48 and I was 50. She got a phone call from Phoebe one day, and Phoebe said, “I have a little girl here. I think she’s yours.” You don’t say that to a 48-year-old woman that has four sons and no daughter, who always wanted a daughter. The dynamics here are just explosive emotionally.
We took long walks at the arboretum and talked and talked about the implications for our lives. We were done having kids. These kids were on their way out and we were going to have a chapter of freedom after the kids. We locked ourselves in for another 16- 20 years. (Of course, now we’ve got adult kids and we know you never stop parenting.) At eight weeks old, she came to us in her beautiful little white dress and there she’s been ever since.
There’s a distinction between [adopting an infant] and becoming acclimated to a person who is culturally black. Talitha is not. We’ve labored hard to make her aware, to have all the history, to connect her with friends, so there would be some link with African American culture. But, by-and-large, she is white inside. Everybody knows that. She talks white. She thinks white. She relates white. What that will mean long term for her, I don’t know. That’s just one of the huge issues. We have black folks in our church who think I’m stupid. One of my elders thinks trans-racial adoption is not a good idea. He’s tolerant, but he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, because he thinks it just deculturates [adopted children].
How do you deal with that criticism?
I say, “This girl had a mom who came to the clinic to get rid of her.” Phoebe is in the business of persuading women that that’s not a good idea, that there are better alternatives. We were the better alternative, and so I said to Talitha, “Culture and ethnicity has some value. Being in the image of God has infinitely more value. So, on balance, that she’s a human being and that she comes to know Jesus Christ and lives forever in the family of God is like a billion and that’s she’s black is 10.
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Reformed theologian and pastor John Piper’s latest book, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, can be viewed one of two ways depending on one’s perception. Some might write it off as another paternalistic White Christian trying to sanitize issues of race and justice for the church, give them a White spin that engenders a false sense of Christian unity. On the other hand, some might approach it as a sincere message from a White leader who cares about the church in all its diversity and wants to challenge it to embrace a biblical understanding of racial reconciliation. In the spirit of reconciliation, I’m willing to go with the latter option and give Piper the benefit of the doubt. In fact, while I don’t sign on to everything he says, I believe his book is significant enough to be required reading for laypeople and church leaders alike.
Bloodlines is a combination of biblical exegesis, cultural analysis, and historical retrospective. In it, Piper methodically builds a case for a set of basic premises with revolutionary implications — that (I’m paraphrasing here) what God has done through Christ on the cross should supersede racial divisions in America, and the fact we’re not united is evidence that Christians in America have yet to fully embrace the gospel in its fullness.
He does so by taking a broad look at American history (including his own racist upbringing), by citing various pundits and intellectuals in the pursuit of societal solutions, and most importantly, walking through the Scriptures in order to demonstrate how the person and work of Christ has the power to unite us all into a singular, holy bloodline.
A 'RIGHT NOW' MESSAGE: John Piper's biblical exegesis and cultural analysis of race in the church is filled with urgency.
Like most solid biblical teaching, these ideas are not new, nor did many, if any, originate within Piper himself. Indeed, one of Piper’s smartest moves happens toward the end of the book, where he included the text of a previous speech that amply quotes, and subsequently comments on, the writing of African American theologian Carl Ellis in his seminal work, Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience.
Though systematic in tone and delivery, Piper’s writing in Bloodlines has a sense of urgency, not as someone who wishes to address this matter once and for all, but as someone trying to lovingly prod and shake the uninvolved and ignorant off the fence and out of their stupor. Which is to say that, for the most part, Bloodlines is written for White people.
Not that only White people should read it, of course. Like most of Piper’s work, it’s aimed at as wide an audience as possible. But I suspect that plenty of Blacks and other people of color might find it less than satisfactory, for a variety of reasons.
Pastor and theologian Efrem Smith, for example, offered plenty of respect in his blog to the ministry of Dr. Piper, as they both have a history of cross-cultural ministry in the Twin Cities. But Smith took Piper to task for relying exclusively on a reformed, Calvinist theological framework, saying its Eurocentric bias undercuts his premise of racial reconciliation. He also criticized Dr. Piper for espousing only politically conservative solutions to the problems of entrenched racialized inequity that he tries to address.
Criticisms like these, while certainly valid, on some level miss the point.
As far as I can tell, Bloodlines is not designed to be a definitive guide for how to most effectively address and eradicate several centuries’ worth of racialized societal inequity in America. I’m not sure such a book could possibly be written at all (much less by a White person) without looking hopelessly naive, blatantly arrogant, or some combination of both. As such, the exploration of proposed societal remedies, particularly in the discussion of addressing individual prejudice versus institutional racism (highlighted by the dichotomy of approach by Dr. William H. Cosby and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson) is less of a showdown of competing ideas and more of a demonstration that there are diverse schools of thought regarding solutions. In other words, regarding solutions, Bloodlines is more of an overview, less a conclusion.
And as such an overview, it’s guilty of bias, as is any such work. A person can only speak from his or her perspective, and Dr. Piper doesn’t apologize for his, theological, philosophical, or otherwise. Nevertheless, he accomplishes several important things in Bloodlines, and they’re significant enough to be mandatory reading for ministers of all stripes.
1. He breaks down Scripture.
First and foremost, Bloodlines is a biblical apologetic that explains how the Gospel of Jesus Christ bears ultimate relevancy in the way we understand and approach racial issues as Christians. And this presupposes that Christians are, in fact, supposed to engage in racial issues — an idea that many evangelicals resist (more on that later).
But Piper does this by going systematically through various biblical passages that deal with racial discord and disunity, to show that he’s not engaging in proof-texting (manipulating Scripture in order to get it to line up with his point of view) but rather to show that choosing and promoting racial reconciliation is, and should be, a reasonable, logical response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In doing so, he starts with what’s most important — the message and life of Jesus as recorded and revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
This sounds really basic, but in an age of biblical illiteracy, this is huge. Televangelists, pundits, and politicians regularly get away with saying, “the Bible says [such & such]” without actually showing where in the Bible these things are being said. It’s a way to assume the appearance of a Christian worldview without actually demonstrating it. In Bloodlines, Dr. Piper appeals to the Bereans among us, those who, like the believers in Acts 17, don’t just take preaching and teaching for face value, but diligently search the Scriptures to see if what is being taught lines up to the truth of God’s Word.
2. He provides a biblical basis for diversity and racial reconciliation in the church.
Using Scriptures like Luke 4:16-30, Matthew 8:9-15, and many, many more, Piper demonstrates the heart of God for the ethnic outsider, and traces the evolution of God’s favor as residing as a result of faith in Jesus, as opposed to Jewish ethnic identity.
Having a biblical foundation for diversity and racial reconciliation is critical, especially for church leaders, because it’s easy for these issues to be framed as purely sociopolitical, demographic, or pragmatic issues. Especially since diversity continues to be a huge buzzword in corporate and academic circles, a lot of the conversation surrounding diversity in the church is about how churches can grow and adapt in diverse settings, as if it’s a foregone conclusion that the church must incorporate all of the latest models to survive.
In contrast, Piper calls believers toward doing the right thing for the right reason. We don’t pursue diversity just because it’s popular or expedient, he’s saying, we do it because it’s central to the heart of God, and because Christ’s love compels us.
That compulsion leads to a third, even more important thing Dr. Piper does in this work:
3. He doesn’t let anyone off the hook.
One of the many truths of White privilege is the idea that White people have a choice about how and when they choose to deal with race issues, because most of the societal institutions that people lean on for support or authority have, historically speaking, been dominated and controlled by White people. And if this is true for American society, it’s especially true of the American church.
There have been many factions of the American church, particularly among conservative evangelicals and their counterparts in the political establishment, who have consistently sought to minimize, distort, or even deny outright the culpability that White people bear for centuries of racism in America. These folks may contribute to hilarious segments on The Colbert Report, but the egregiousness of their claims often overshadow a bigger problem — the inertia that their half-truths create.
To be fair, the same faction of the religious left helped create the problem by aligning themselves with people who are all about social justice but don’t take God or the Bible very seriously. (These are some of the same people who eschew religion and instead embrace Jesus-flavored spirituality.)
But no matter how it happened, eventually a false dichotomy emerged, whereby the (mostly Black) Christians who kept bringing up the racial issues were viewed by (mostly White) defenders of the status quo as secularized radical troublemakers. According to their ilk, real Christians would never associate with such extremism. And so we have a whole generation of predominantly White churches and church leaders, content to attend an annual MLK community event, recite a few well-worn Black History Month facts or poems once in awhile, and call it enough.
It is into this thick cloud of inertia that John Piper forcefully asserts the truth — no, it is not enough.
He doesn’t use incendiary language, but in terms of clarity, Piper’s reformed tautology is as about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail. All of us are guilty, all of us need forgiveness, and we’re mistaken if we think we can use the excuses of others to get ourselves off the hook.
Consider this final plea from his concluding chapter:
No lesson in the pursuit of racial and ethnic diversity and harmony has been more forceful than the lesson that it is easy to get so wounded and so tired that you decide to quit. This is true of every race and every ethnicity in whatever struggle they face. The most hopeless temptation is to give up—to say that there are other important things to work on (which is true), and I will let someone else worry about racial issues.
The main reason for the temptation to quit pursuing is that whatever strategy you try, you will be criticized by somebody. You didn’t say the right thing, or you didn’t say it in the right way, or you should have said it a long time ago, or you shouldn’t say anything but get off your backside and do something, or, or, or. Just when you think you have made your best effort to do something healing, someone will point out the flaw in it. And when you try to talk about doing better, there are few things more maddening than to be told, “You just don’t get it.” Oh, how our back gets up, and we feel the power of self-pity rising in our hearts and want to say, “Okay, I’ve tried. I’ve done my best. See you later.” And there ends our foray into racial harmony.
My plea is: never quit. Change. Step back. Get another strategy. Start over. But never quit.
Here Dr. Piper is clearly and unmistakably talking, with gravitas and candor, to White people. And yet, by appropriating so much of Carl Ellis’ Free At Last at the end, he doesn’t let Black people off the hook either:
Black is truly beautiful, but it is not beautiful as a god. As a god it is too small. Afrocentrism is truly magnificent, but it is not magnificent as an absolute. As an absolute, it will infect us with the kind of bigotry we’ve struggled against in others for centuries. . . . Whenever we seek to understand our situation without [the] transcendent reference point [of the Word of God] we fail to find the answer to our crisis.
No, Bloodlines is not a perfect book. It’s understandable, though a bit regrettable, that so much if it is devoted only to the Black/White dynamic, when we know that America is much more complex, racially and culturally. Dr. Piper does acknowledge this, and explains his reasoning.
But the good news is that the main point of the book is something that people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities can embrace. More than simple political compromise (an oxymoron for sure), Christians are called to a deep, gut-level commitment to live out the gospel by tenaciously pursuing cross-cultural relationships and initiatives. That is what the church and the world need so desperately.
I don’t always live up to this idea, but no doubt … I get it.
And now it’s fair to say that when it comes to the race problem in America, John Piper gets it too.
The question is …
Will we all?