Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian – A Review
by Brian Bantum

Bloodlines is a curious book. In it John Piper, a prominent white pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, steps out to speak about the problem of race in the American church. Where many prominent white clergy have remained silent, Piper turns his attention to one of the silent tragedies of American Christianity, the perpetual racial and ethnic division of its congregational life.
In so doing, Piper seems to be saying what many who are concerned with racial and ethnic division within the church have been hoping white Christians could say in these conversations. Piper first admits his own history of racism and bigotry (ch. 1), attending not only to the question of personal responsibility but also to the structural aspects of racism in the United States. Then, after highlighting Christ’s own groundbreaking life—the ways in which his ministry continually broke through the racial and ethnic boundaries of his own time (ch. 7 and 8)—Piper concludes by calling Christians to mutual sacrifice at the cross of Christ, to never quit in our response to Christ’s love and power, and to always seek harmony (ch. 16 and “Conclusion”).

But Bloodlines is a curious book because lodged within these important contributions are approaches that seem to undercut the very aims Piper strives to articulate. For instance, Piper draws upon the work of such African American intellectuals as Michael Eric Dyson and Henry Louis Gates Jr. to highlight the realities of structural racism, but he compresses these conversations into three brief pages, whereas his discussion of racism and personal responsibility, leaning upon the work of such conservative African American intellectuals as Juan Williams, Shelby Steele, and Dinesh D’Souza, is much longer, is given more sympathetic treatment, and is drawn upon in various ways throughout the rest of the book. Piper claims to not take sides (85), and yet he leaves behind the insights of Dyson and Gates when it gets to the work of describing what “Christ-exalting” diversity looks like.

The way in which Piper navigates these various interlocutors suggests that within the vision of diversity that Piper imagines, the fundamental concerns of those contrary voices have only been faintly heard. Although he highlights Steele’s exhortation that “What black and white Americans fear are the sacrifices and risks that true harmony demands” (233), Piper seems somewhat unwilling to allow conversation partners such as Dyson much say in his own vision of the world.

As Piper moves from a consideration of the social context of race to a consideration of how a Christian should understand these issues, he embarks upon an extended exegesis of Scripture, highlighting the ways in which Christ’s life and work on the cross overcame ethnic division and provided a definitive answer to any notion of racial superiority. Piper’s Christology, which is drawn from a neo-Reformed view, is aimed at showing that “not only did our ethnic distinctives contribute nothing to our election, and nothing to our ransom on the cross, but our ethnic distinctives also contributed nothing to the rise of our faith and the emergence of our repentance. We are all equally dependent on irresistible grace to be called and to believe and to be saved” (167).

Although few would argue that a Christocentric view isn’t crucial to the church’s wrestling with the question of race, Piper’s emphasis on Christ’s work and reconciliation transcends race and ethnicity in such a way that tends to erase Christ’s personhood as a Jew. He undercuts his message of reconciliation and racial harmony by excising ethnic particularity from both our condition of unfaithfulness and our communion with God in heaven. Piper writes, “The seriousness of our sin is determined not mainly by the nature of our deed but the nature of the one we dishonor. A sin against an infinitely worthy God is an infinite sin. Color and ethnicity will count for nothing in the court of heaven. One thing will count: the perfection of Jesus Christ” (68). If this is the case, what is racial and ethnic difference at all? Is Christ no longer a Jew, and what does this mean for the lineage—or in Piper’s words, the “bloodline”—of Israel? By making such claims, Piper strips away the significance of Christ’s particular ethnic life and of our own racial, ethnic, and national lives. At best this fundamentally ignores Christ’s participation in the liturgical and cultural life of Israel; at worst, it leans toward Gnosticism; and either way, by obscuring the particular characteristics of people, this kind of racial blindness runs counter to Piper’s overarching goal of racial harmony.
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