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?
Lost in the din of the Michael Jackson coverage late last month was news that the racially charged Jena 6 saga had officially come to an end — at least from a legal standpoint. The six African American teens from Jena, Louisiana, made national headlines and inspired emotional protests when they were charged with attempted murder for beating a white classmate in 2006. Many considered the charges too severe, and a massive demonstration was staged in September 2007 to oppose the ruling. After nearly three years of dramatic twists and turns, the case quietly wrapped on June 26. Now the Jena 6, as well as Justin Barker (the white teen who was beaten in the infamous skirmish), are free to move on with their lives.
The terms of the plea agreement were revealed in the course of a two-hour court hearing at the LaSalle Parish courthouse. Mychal Bell, the defendant who was initially convicted as an adult for aggravated battery against Barker but later pled guilty to a reduced charge in juvenile court after the adult conviction was overturned, had been sentenced earlier to 18 months under state supervision. Each of the five remaining defendants in the case — Corwin Jones, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw — pleaded “no contest” to the misdemeanor charge of simple battery. Each was placed on non-supervised probation for one week and must pay a $500 fine and in most cases an additional $500 in court costs. In addition, a civil suit filed by the family of Justin Barker was settled when the Jena 6 defendants (including Bell) agreed to pay the Barker family an undisclosed settlement. Attorneys were not allowed to reveal the details of the settlement, but a reliable source has disclosed that the payment was approximately $24,000.
The Jena High School courtyard.
What lessons do we take away from the Jena 6 story? Six young men won’t be dragging a felony conviction into adult life. That’s reason for rejoicing, but as this saga approaches its third birthday, it’s fair to ask if we have learned anything.
“Jena 6” was briefly transformed into a popular movement that brought at least 30,000 people to the central Louisiana town of 3,000 in September of 2007.
Mass awareness of the Jena story was spread by the black blogosphere, radio personalities like Michael Baisden, internet-savvy organizations like Color of Change, and the brief but highly publicized involvement of civil rights celebrities like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
Unfortunately, the movement that culminated with the September 20th march lacked an end game. Nobody knew what came next, so not much did.
Or so it seemed.
The huge turnout on September 20th placed enormous pressure on Jena officials, but the key to success was community organizing, savvy media outreach, and strategic legal work.
My organization, Friends of Justice, helped lead the way. We started with the goal of recreating the coalition of reform organizations and legal firms that overturned a corrupt drug sting in Tulia, Texas. Long before anyone from the outside had taken an interest in the Jena story, we were sifting through legal documents, reading local newspaper accounts, and conducting dozens of personal interviews. When the facts were clear, we circulated a six-page narrative account describing what happened, why it happened, and what justice would look like.
Our narrative called for Judge J.P. Mauffray and District Attorney Reed Walters to recuse themselves from the Jena 6 cases. We supported a change of venue, a Department of Justice investigation, and a program of diversity training in the public schools. We knew none of this could be accomplished without a huge groundswell of indignation, but our first step was to unite and organize the affected community. The families and friends of the defendants gradually learned to withstand the pressure of an outraged white community and to tell their personal stories with verve and enthusiasm.
The families and friends of the Jena 6 had been gathering at a local black church and holding demonstrations on the steps of the LaSalle Parish courthouse long before CNN, NPR, and the Chicago Tribune were on the scene.
Just as the mainstream media was picking up on Jena, independent journalists and bloggers were warming to the story. Color of Change started collecting signatures for a petition and soliciting donations to a legal defense fund. Across America young black men and women were asking how they could help the Jena 6. The student body of Howard University got into the action and the civil rights community eventually swung its weight behind the Jena justice movement.
When I talked to the folks who came to the massive rally on September 20th it was quickly apparent that the folks who rode the buses were a bit fuzzy about the most basic facts. The general impression was that some white kids had hung nooses in a tree at the high school and black kids had retaliated by beating up one of the noose hangers. There was little understanding that Justin Barker, the victim of the December 4th beat-down, hadn’t been directly involved in the noose hanging incident or that the two episodes were separated by three months.
Jena, Louisiana, on September 20, 2007.
The facts in Jena were of secondary importance to the bus riders. They were drawn to Jena by personal experience. People told me they were there for a son, a boyfriend, or a nephew who had received grossly disproportionate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. These people had no trouble relating to the plight of the Jena 6.
When the crowds left Jena, the movement quickly ran out of gas. It didn’t matter. By that time the five Jena defendants still awaiting adjudication were represented by some of the best legal talent in America. D.A. Terry McEachern had been no match for the legal “dream team” that rose to the defense of the Tulia 46, and I knew Reed Walters would fare no better against the legal firepower he was facing. The facts were all on the side of the defendants. Another trial would have established the link between the hanging of the nooses in September and the tragic events of December. Reed Walters and his supporters in Jena’s white community simply couldn’t allow that to happen.
Five of Six: (from left) Theo Shaw, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis, Corwin Jones, and Robert Bailey on the LaSalle courthouse steps following the settlement on June 26.
The Jena phenomenon demonstrates the power and the limitations of public narrative. Jena happened because public officials like Reed Walters and school Superintendent Roy Breithaupt didn’t want to revert to the apartheid world they were raised in, but they deeply resented the civil rights movement that had swept it all away.
Therefore, when Kenneth Purvis asked the high school principal if it was okay for black kids to sit under the tree in the school courtyard, these men froze. When white students sent a “hell no” message by hanging nooses in the school colors from that very tree, school officials insisted that the act was devoid of racial significance. When black students voiced their incredulity by gathering around the tree, Superintendent Breithhaupt called an emergency assembly in the school auditorium where D.A. Walters laid down the law. Turning to the black students who had been causing all the trouble, Walters reminded them that “with a stroke of my pen” he could make their lives disappear.
If Breithaupt and Walters had called a hate crime by its proper name, they would have validated the civil rights narrative they resented so deeply. So they resorted to threats. Nothing was going to change at Jena High School, and the black students would just have to suck it up.
Asked to explain his “stroke of my pen” remark at a pre-trial hearing, Walters admitted that he was angry with the students causing the unrest. The kids, he explained to the court, needed to “work out their problems on their own.”
Tragically, that’s precisely what happened.
Ultimately, Jena was a “Lord of the Flies” story about adolescent males functioning without adult guidance. If any of the remaining Jena cases had gone to trial, this version of the Jena story would have taken center stage. Unfortunately (and perhaps inevitably), this was not the way the Jena narrative unfolded in popular culture.
In Jena two powerful narratives competed for dominance. A “thug narrative” was concocted for folks who resented the civil rights revolution. Jena was about six black thugs doing what comes naturally and a Bible-believing prosecutor gutsy enough to hold them accountable. The hero of the thug narrative is Reed Walters, the victim is Justin Barker, and the villains are six black misanthropes. In the thug narrative, the noose incident in September was utterly disconnected from the the “attempted murder” of Justin Barker in December.
The people behind the massive September 20th protest embraced a “noose narrative,” which contrasted the lenient discipline meted out to the noose hangers in September with the grotesque prosecutorial over-reaction following the “schoolyard fight” in December. Reed Walters was a racist, this narrative argued, because he was way too soft on white kids and way too hard on black kids. In the noose narrative, the noose hangers are the villains, the Jena 6 are the victims, and the folks rushing to their assistance are the heroes.
While the noose narrative reigned in the blogoshpere, the thug narrative showed up in publications like the Jena Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Weekly Standard.
The “objective” mainstream media fell back on a “town divided” storyline in which angry proponents of the two competing narratives were given 15 seconds of fame.
This kind of noncommittal reporting left both sides vulnerable to criticism. Thug narrative people sounded racially insensitive and parochial; noose narrative folk appeared callous when they minimized the seriousness of Justin Barker’s wounds.
Lost in all of this back and forth was a simple irony: Reed Walters’ “stroke of my pen” oratory unleashed a chain of violence that reached a violent crescendo in the December 4th altercation he was now trying to prosecute as attempted murder.
What are the implications of all of this for criminal justice reformers? Are we doomed to hawk simplistic morality tales to a tiny demographic of like-minded activists, or is honesty still the best policy?
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. The goal isn’t just to get the facts straight or to rev up the faithful; we are trying to change public perception. Cases must be carefully selected. If we want to gain and hold an audience, even the most compelling stories must be pared to their essentials.
But even stripped-down narratives must comport with reality. Both sides in the Jena imbroglio wowed the faithful at the cost of losing credibility with the general public. If we are trying to change public perception, an ear for nuance is essential. America has changed dramatically from the day when a reformer like Fannie Lou Hamer could be beaten half to death in Winona, Mississippi, for advocating racial equality. “Nothing has changed” rhetoric appeals to impatient reformers, but it won’t get a hearing in middle America. Similarly, crude references to the depradations of “black thugs” may play well in the small-town southland, but this kind of talk doesn’t work in the wider world.
The public officials at the heart of the Jena story personify the southern dilemma. They were raised with one set of rules, then forced to adopt a new rule book. No one helped them negotiate these troubled waters; they simply had to make the best of a bewildering circumstance. No wonder they are confused-who wouldn’t be?
When Jena’s infamous tree gained iconic significance, the town fathers and mothers cut it down and built a new addition over the spot where the tree once stood. This was the most creative response they could muster.
This southern shadowland is most apparent in the criminal justice system. How can men and women who grew up attending Klan rallies be expected to dispense equal justice in the dawning days of the 21st century? How can people reared in segregated schools and workshops be expected to fight for cultural diversity? America is a work in progress. We ain’t where we need to be-not even close. But thank God Almighty, we ain’t where we used to be.
Ultimately, simplistic narratives change nothing. The Jena 6 aren’t heroes and they aren’t villains; they’re just ordinary small-town kids trying to make their way in a confusing world. Their attorneys won a smashing victory last month because they knew what they were up against and honed their message accordingly. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.