Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian is the latest book penned by John Piper. In it he applies the impassioned exegesis for which he is known to issues of race and ethnicity. But his Christian Hedonism appears little in the book: it is mostly an exposition of scriptural truths which can help blacks and whites in America do more than just get along.
The one part of the book that is not dominated by scriptural exposition is part one; it instead deals with natural bloodlines, the issue of race in this world. (Piper chose to focus here and throughout the book on the black-white divide because it is what he and his audience know best and need the most biblical help with.) Part two describes the new humanity that draws its origin from a different bloodline, the shed blood of Christ.
PART ONE—Our World: The Need for the Gospel
Following an introduction focusing on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the book begins with Piper’s story growing up racist in the South. He was a child of his time and place, but he makes no excuses for that fact. He grew up in a segregated world and adopted the hateful attitudes of most of those around him. His Christian mother helped him see his error, and only much later did his theology catch up with her example.
Piper says that white people can be guilted by their past failures into an unhelpful silence. Or their shame over past failures can goad them into an unhealthy preoccupation with issues of race. He almost despairs of finding a solution to the very tangled problem of racism: many of the (apparently) best intentioned efforts of the past 50 years have produced little more than unanticipated negative results.
But emancipation and the civil rights era failed to fix America’s race problems, and they are only going to become more pressing as minorities fast become the American majority. Christians need to invest time in tackling this issue scripturally—and white Christians do owe a debt to their African-American neighbors.
Piper explains why he gives prominence to black-white relationships, then takes a quick tour through some of the major popular voices speaking out on race. Piper notes that there are two prominent sides to the issue: those like Bill Cosby and Juan Williams who emphasize the role personal responsibility must play in the rehabilitation of poverty-stricken African-Americans , and those who emphasize the role structural and institutional racism still plays in putting black people down. Piper cites Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Dyson and most of the academic community as part of the latter camp. Neither side completely dismisses the other, of course; it’s a matter of emphasis. Black intellectual Shelby Steele understands the both-and nature of the problem. “Blacks can have no real power without taking responsibility for their own educational and economic development. Whites can have no racial innocence without earning it by eradicating discrimination and helping the disadvantaged to develop.” 84
Piper does not, however, take sides in the debate. The gospel challenges both individual African-Americans and white-led societal structures to come to Christ for forgiveness and power to change. And here Piper is at his best. He shows how the gospel tackles the destructive work of Satan in black and white communities and individuals alike; it takes care of guilt, eradicates pride, and provides hope; it sets up the right kind of self-image; it frees people to give; it erases racial hatred and fear; it drops the first letter from apathy. Piper attacks this section with his characteristic scriptural verve.
PART TWO—God’s Word: The Power of the Gospel
Wilberforce and Jesus
In his introduction to Part Two, Piper appeals to the legacy of William Wilberforce, noting that his resolute opposition to slavery derived directly from his conservative, evangelical Christian doctrine. Wilberforce, of course, had a good theological pedigree in this effort. A theologian of the stature no less than Jesus of Nazareth was on the same basic side. That is why Piper exposits Luke 4:16-30, the passage in which Jesus bluntly told his hometown crowd in Nazareth that God’s mercies extend beyond the ethnos of Israel and into the Gentile nations. Jewish ethnocentrism in Nazareth led the infuriated crowd to attempt to kill Jesus, just as British arrogance forced Wilberforce to spend his entire life fighting the slave trade and ownership.
Piper then points other pieces of evidence in the Gospels that Jesus was exploding the ethnocentrism of the Jews. One was his praise for the Roman centurion who, Jesus said, had more faith anyone else He’d met in Israel. And there are more evidences in the Gospels that God had blessings in store for all the nations: the story of the Good Samaritan, the one thankful Samaritan leper, the healing of the Syrophoenecian’s daughter, the eastern origin of the magi, Christ’s statement that the temple was to be a house of prayer “for all nations,” the expansive Great Commission, and the parable of the tenants in Matt 21:33-43.
Paul and Reformed Theology
Paul hits the same theme in Ephesians 2 in his description of the “one new man” God is making out of Jew and Gentile in the church. Piper provides a full exposition, as he does for James’ warnings in James 1:26–2:13 about partiality.
In one of the key sections of the book, Piper turns from direct exegesis to more of a theological exposition (though he certainly quotes and explains many verses). Piper shows how the doctrines of grace undercut racism.
- Total depravity unites all mankind in their need for God’s mercy.
- Unconditional election—of people from every tribe, tongue, people, and language—provides that mercy. It also points to a key truth: in the Arminian view, the existence of saved people from every nation is a coincidence, a happy accident; but in the Calvinist view, if people are saved from every nation, then it reveals a special intention of God to save people from every people group. This also undercuts racism.
- Limited atonement (Piper prefers “particular redemption”) does the same, because it argues that when Christ died, He actually and effectively purchased salvation for all those racially diverse people (Rom 5:9).
- Irresistible grace is also color-blind.
- And so is perseverance in sanctification. Piper points to Galatians 2:11–16 and Paul’s confrontation of Peter for giving in to Jewish ethnocentrism. Paul explicitly says that Peter was not walking “in step with the truth of the gospel.” In the Reformed understanding, God guarantees that those who have true faith will persevere in it. So if rooting out racism is a good thing, we can be assured that persevering in it is a good thing, that continued attempts—even after failure—please God.
Two more doctrines get their chance to contribute, justification by faith and regeneration. Both undercut racism, Piper argues. The “diverse unity” those doctrines will create—many nations praising God all together—brings more glory to God than sameness would.
Piper saves two key issues for the end of his book, interracial marriage and prejudice. Chapter 15 argues strongly against Christian attempts to preserve racial distinctions by enforcing anti-miscegenation laws (laws against interracial marriage). One of the last lines of Christian objection remaining to the full integration of the races is that God made the races as they are and intends to keep them separate but equal. But Piper says that there can be no racial unity and harmony where interracial marriage is not allowed. In order to keep kids from “unsuitable” marriages, they will have to be kept apart from kids of other races. And that apartheid will always be a tool used by those who view themselves as superior to keep those who are inferior out.
The argument that interracial marriage is not necessarily wrong but, in general, not prudent (it will make life difficult for the parents and the children) is also implicitly racist, Piper argues. Yes, an interracial marriage may add more work to marriage and childrearing. But the relationship of spouses to each other and to their children already takes work and already presents great risks. An interracial marriage may bring great opportunities to display God’s glory and change people’s attitudes—not least a racist father-in-law who comes to love and value his son or daughter’s choice of a mate, to see that spouse as a person rather than as one of “them.” Calling interracial marriage imprudent is causing a problem and then making it the reason for the problem, Piper says: “The very situation of separation and suspicion and distrust and dislike that is brought about (among other things) by the fear of intermarriage is used to justify the opposition to intermarriage.” 215
Piper argues that the Bible does not in fact teach that God separated the races separate and wants to keep them that way. They all came from the same source in Noah, and the boundaries between races (as Piper will argue in an appendix) are not so clear anyway: why should skin color and hair consistency be the major markers? Why not height, genes, or proneness to certain diseases?
In addition, there are hints in Scripture that God values interracial marriage. When Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses’ marriage to a (presumably black African) Cushite woman, Miriam’s skin was turned leprous white as a punishment. And one of the most celebrated marriages in Scripture, one that gets a whole book of its own in the Old Testament, is between a Moabitess and an Israelite. That Moabitess, Ruth, becomes one of the ancestors of David and Jesus. What the Bible prohibits is not interracial marriage but interfaith marriage (2 Cor 6:14).
Probability and Prejudice
The last major issue in the main text of the book is the fine line between probability judgments and sinful prejudice. We are always making judgments based on our experience. It’s how we keep from killing ourselves by eating bad mushrooms. But sometimes those judgments cross the line into bias, as with Nathaniel when he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Piper condemns Nathaniel’s words, but uses them to bring up the difference between the generalizing we can’t help doing and the prejudice that we should avoid. Piper here quotes Mark Noll (God and Race in American Politics), giving me what were among the most helpful points in his book, a careful description of racism at work. Racism is…
- When we want a person to fit a negative generalization (accurate or inaccurate) that we have formed about a group.
- We assume that a statistically true negative generalization is true of a particular person in the face of individual evidence to the contrary.
- We treat all the members of a group as if all must be characterized by a negative (or positive) generalization.
- We speak disparagingly of an entire group based on a generalization without giving any evidence that we acknowledge and appreciate the exceptions.
- We speak disparagingly of an entire group on the basis of a negative generalization without any personal regard for those in the group who don’t fit the generalization.
After the end of the book come a few appendices. The first explains why ethnicity is a better term than race. Another provides Piper’s address on “God-Centered Theology and the Black Experience in America” to his 2002 Desiring God Pastors Conference. A third appendix gives a very practical example for others to follow. It details what Piper’s church, Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, has done to intentionally reflect the racial diversity of their urban area. A last appendix examines Noah’s curse on Canaan and argues that it does not justify racism.
Two of my criticisms could be solved with some adroit editing:
- It does seem that this book could be a little shorter. Some of the pages of exposition seemed to me to spend unnecessary time explaining Reformed soteriology (perhaps Piper calculated that this book would reach beyond the hometown crowd?).
- The structure of the book (at least in the galley copy) was more than a little confusing—so many parts and sections in an unclear hierarchy. UPDATE: Crossway tells me this will be fixed.
I have only two other criticisms, and they focus on minor points in the back of the book:
- I wanted to believe that Bethlehem Baptist’s “affirmative action” in purposefully aiming to hire a minority pastor was a fully good idea, but trying to apply it to my context (if I had any authority to make it happen; I am not an elder at my assembly) caused me to balk. It’s not that easy. The pressures put on that pastor to have something to show for his presence (more minority attendees and members) would be difficult to work under. I would rather see some of our multi-year investments in inner-city young men develop into pastoral positions. That long-term action would affirm our church’s commitment to every ethnos praising God without the unintended consequences of affirmative action.
- I count myself among the minority of American Christians who believes that Harold Best is wrong to say that “there is nothing un- or anti-Christian about any kind of music,” and yet this quote was the basis of the lengthiest bullet point in the list of things Bethlehem has done to increase ethnic diversity at their church. The gospel ought to challenge the bravado inherent in hip-hop and the sensuality communicated by many of America’s pop idioms. Some readers will not share my viewpoint, but Piper’s book makes me hold it even more strongly: hip-hop is (largely) a faux culture stoking self-destructive aspirations in the precious black boys and girls I minister to every week. Some cultural adaptation in the church can do unintended harm.
Reviewers are famous for complaining that a book was not the book they wanted. For a moment I found myself wishing for more instructive examples, more statistics, more sociology. I work in an inner-city area, and I love the minority folks (not just African-American) my church sees every week. Their problems are very real, and some insight on those (not to mention a few success stories) would have been nice. I would have liked to have a book telling me just how to help the fatherless black boys turn out right in the limited time I have with them and how to get the more aged African-American men and women to repent of their veneer of religiosity, see their sin for what it is, and come to Christ.
But I didn’t quite get that book, and I’m glad. What I needed was more basic: some careful pieces of theologically sensitive exegesis on key texts, some rigorous applications of precious doctrine to the issue of racism/ethnocentrism, and the encouragement of Bethlehem’s example in this area. I needed wise help seeing the line between probability and prejudice. That’s what I got, and I’m thankful for it.