Admittedly I have not read a great deal on racial relations, but the best of what I have read is Bloodlines by John Piper. It’s a different book that most of Piper’s with more narrative and personal experience than his other works. But while it is different in format, the gospel is front an center like every other work. If you haven’t read Bloodlines, I recommend it. I have yet to come across another modern evangelical book that handles the issue of race so well.
In honor of today’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., here is an excerpt from Bloodlines:
“THE GREATEST CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE OF OUR TIME”
By many accounts, this issue is the most important civil rights issue of our time. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom wrote in the 1999 preface to America in Black and White, “K-through-12 education must become the civil rights cause.” Eight years later, Katherine Kerstine, columnist of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said the same thing: “The racial achievement gap is . . . the greatest civil rights issue of our time.” The agonizing question is what to do.
As true as it is that such deadly cycles are rooted in centuries of slavery and white discrimination, the point of Williams and Cosby and the others is that damning whites doesn’t save blacks. When the house is on fire, you holler for the kids to run, no matter who set the fire. Williams and the other writers who are sounding these alarms do not let whites off the hook from the obligation to work for better access for all to quality education. Shelby Steele puts it in a balanced way so that we who are white are sure to get our half of the message: “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.”
SEVEN FEELINGS RISE IN MY HEART
When I step back from this controversy over personal responsibility versus political and community engagement with systemic racism, I have at least seven different clusters of thoughts and feelings.
First, I feel regret for my own sinful contributions to the seemingly intractable problems of race relations between black and white in our land. Second, I feel sorrow over cycles of despair and hopelessness, and over the ruin of so many lives. Third, I feel anger at the sins I see on every part of the landscape of race relations and race discussions and racial intervention—all sides. None of us is righteous, no, not one (Rom. 3:10). Fourth, I feel frustration over the untold layers of complexity that make every proposal for improvement seem thanklessly embattled. I empathize with Harvard social scientist Nathan Glazer when he says that behind the racial troubles of our day are “factors in infinite regress.” Fifth, I feel empathy with the truth and the emotion of both sides of the controversy. Sixth, I feel a great longing to see the gospel of Jesus proclaimed, with the power of the Holy Spirit, into this situation and this controversy. And seventh, because of the power of the gospel, I feel hope that there are breakthroughs possible that human strategies from either side have not achieved.
THE GOSPEL CREATES NEW PEOPLE
The gospel of Jesus Christ touches this issue in more ways than any of us can see. It has a way of working that goes beyond what we can imagine or predict. It does not simply provide help to do what we think needs to be done, as though we were all-wise and just needed a little spiritual boost to carry out our plans. It goes over and under and around and through our imperfect plans. It destroys some and transforms others. Mainly, it deals explosively with us, not with our plans and strategies.
The gospel is not an ideology. 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; it comes with supernatural power that creates new people. The Bible calls this being born again. “You have been born again . . . through the living and abiding word of God . . . the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:23–25). These new people will live forever with Jesus in the new heavens and the new earth when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
OUR WORLD: THE NEED FOR THE GOSPEL
The power of the cross of Christ, applied by the Holy Spirit, is not a new philosophy or a new methodology or a new political persuasion, but “a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). Our old, unbelieving, insubordinate self dies, and a new, humble, believing, loving self is created by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the image of Jesus, through the gospel. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
The gospel is not a heavenly demand of what we must do to be saved; it is a heavenly declaration of what God has done to save us. The added good news is that we cannot earn what he has done for us but only receive it as a gift. And even this receiving—this trust—is a gift of God. It is God’s grace and God’s power from start to finish. This is why it is in a class by itself. It does not fit alongside any politics or ideology or philosophy or culture. It is not one of them. It is God’s breaking in with his own power to create a new spiritual reality—a new you.
This new you is united to Jesus Christ who has risen from the dead, so that your eternal life is secured and all that Christ is, he is for you. This is absolutely new. Before this, we were dead in sin. But now, we are alive in Christ Jesus. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). We have peace with God. Christ dwells within us. We are not our own. Jesus is our supreme treasure. And our highest joy is to extend the joy we have in his glorious grace to others.
THE GOSPEL IS NOT RIGHT WING OR LEFT WING
Because the gospel of Jesus is not an ideology or a philosophy or a methodology or a therapy but a supernatural in-breaking of God into our lives, I am concerned at how many Christians do not bring it to bear personally, critically, and explosively on the political right and left. It seems to me that too many Christians gravitate to right-wing Republican politics or left-wing Democratic politics because they see some parallel between a political plank and a part of the gospel. It’s like saying that the party that uses candles must be the true one because they’re shaped so much like sticks of gospel dynamite. The gospel was meant to explode with saving power in the lives of politicians and social activists, not help them decorate their social agenda.
Jesus did not come into the world to endorse anybody’s platform. He doesn’t fit in. He created the world. He holds it in being by his powerful word. He will return someday to judge the living and the dead. And he came the first time to die so that left-wing activists and right-wing talkshow hosts would be broken in pieces for their sin and put back together by the power of grace. He came so that from that day on Jesus himself would be the supreme treasure and authority in our lives. He came so that we would become radically devoted to the glory of God. He came so that the only kind of racial diversity and racial harmony we would pursue is Jesus-exalting, God-glorifying, and gospel-formed.
THE GOSPEL DOES NOT TAKE SIDES IN THIS CONTROVERSY
My concern is not that the political and social ideas of the right and the left are not often true, as far as they go. My concern is that these ideas are spiritually hollow and impotent. The gospel of Jesus does not come to the controversy between personal accountability and structural intervention and take sides. It calls both sides to repent and believe in Jesus and be born again and make the glory of Jesus the supreme issue in life. The gospel is not a political adviser standing to the side waiting to be asked for guidance. It is the arrival of God saving people from their sin and from the everlasting wrath of God, giving them the Holy Spirit, and bringing their lives progressively into conformity to Jesus.
For this reason, the impact of the gospel in race relations is unpredictable. It has potentials that no one can conceive. And, to our shame, there have been many contradictions between what the gospel is and what professing Christians have done. I will say more about that at the conclusion of this book. But the answer to those inconsistencies is not to domesticate the gospel into another ideological mule to help pull the wagon of social progress. If that’s what it is, then we may safely set it aside, and eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.