The Gospel Coalition Goes Racial

Several recent developments among the gospel allies have revealed that no matter how much we denounce racism, race is a category that is alive, well, obscure, and still divisive. Race, for instance, is almost as foggy as evangelicalism. Try to tell the difference and explain it briefly between race and ethnicity. Try to tell someone of African descent who came to the United States by way of Haiti that they are “black” in the same way that descendants of African-American slaves are. Try even to explain how President Obama is more black than white. Or for lighter shades of racial characteristics, try to explain how the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese, despite historic animosities, are all “Asian.” And don’t forget about the Irish, white people whom other whites – in this case Boston Brahmins – called black. Race is, as you may be able to tell, slippery. What is more, the persistent appeal to it ironically keeps alive the kind of quasi-scientific claims that fueled eugenics and other early twentieth-century schemes for preserving racial purity.

But the folks with good intentions, the allies of the gospel, keep stepping in the gooey subject of race with consequences unbecoming their wholesome (even if sappy) aims. First it was Christianity Today’s publication of an excerpt from John Piper’s new book, Bloodlines. The provocative title of the piece was, “I Was A Racist.” It chronicles Piper’s life, from his southern youth where he presumed the superiority of whites to blacks, to his days at Wheaton College where he was confronted at an InterVarsity Fellowship conference to consider the legitimacy of inter-racial marriage, to his studies in Germany which allowed him to visit concentration camps designed by the “master” Aryan race, to his decision as a middle-aged man to adopt an African-American child. Along the way, Piper employs tropes and taps sentiments designed to show the wickedness of racism, all the while he avoids a technical definition of the concept. And without a definite idea of what constitutes racism, readers don’t know if Piper really was a racist or whether his self-absolved declaration of innocence is justified.

Here’s one example of the sentimentality that lurks around Piper’s reflections:

I was, in those years, manifestly racist. As a child and a teenager my attitudes and actions assumed the superiority of my race in almost every way without knowing or wanting to know anybody who was black, except Lucy. Lucy came to our house on Saturdays to help my mother clean. I liked Lucy, but the whole structure of the relationship was demeaning. Those who defend the noble spirit of Southern slaveholders by pointing to how nice they were to their slaves, and how deep the affections were, and how they even attended each other’s personal celebrations, seem to be naïve about what makes a relationship degrading.

No, she was not a slave. But the point still stands. Of course, we were nice. Of course, we loved Lucy. Of course, she was invited to my sister’s wedding. As long as she and her family “knew their place.” Being nice to, and having strong affections for, and including in our lives is what we do for our dogs too. It doesn’t say much about honor and respect and equality before God. My affections for Lucy did not provide the slightest restraint on my racist mouth when I was with my friends. . . .

So Lucy was only as good as a dog? Is that really the way that whites viewed blacks when they taught them the Bible? Do dogs have souls? Were Boston Protestants “nice” to Irish Roman Catholics? And was this sort of treatment the same that the Nazis showed to Jews? Whatever the answers to these questions – and they will be decidedly mixed depending on the answerers’ bloodlines – Piper avoids a systematic treatment of race and opts instead for associations. Please do not misunderstand. Slavery was abhorrent, skin-color based slavery more so. But do we need to liken slavery to the Holocaust in order to condemn it? Meanwhile, notice the flip side of these associations – Piper’s kin were the equivalent of the Nazis. Is this any way to regard our families (as if Nazis were only evil all the time, as if people who believe in total depravity would locate wickedness in one ethnic group)?

Another observation to make about Piper’s piece is the way that adopting a child of African descent seems bestow racial innocence. I admire Piper for doing this, and for the kind of life he tries to lead by living in a specific neighborhood in Minneapolis. But is he not aware of African-Americans who might regard his adoption as simply another way of saying that “some of my best friends are black”? Of course, the folks who might say this about Piper, from Al Sharpton to Cornel West, could be harboring views of race and racism that a person of European descent could never avoid. But if that’s the case – which it is (think about Don Imus and the Rutgers women’s basketball team) – then why bring up race at all? Why not write a book about families, adoption, and urban living? Why the need to talk about private matters that are so patently alarming and have the potential for manipulation? If evangelicals read and adopt this book as a clear and incisive statement on race, they will surely be surprised the next time they enter a discussion or read a news item which reveals how deep and contested are the politics of identity.

One more thing — why does Piper not apply his assumptions about diversity to African-American churches? When I taught a course on religion in Philadelphia I showed students some videos from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, not at the same time, but to cover the African-American experience one week and the experience of some ethnic-Europeans another. What was striking in these videos was how proud the African-American churches were of being black. They made no effort to reflect the diversity of their congregations because they didn’t have much racial or ethnic diversity. But not so for the Lutherans. We saw Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and even European-Americans in the Lutheran videos, even though the appeal of Lutheranism outside German and Scandinavian settings is tiny.

This does not mean that Lutherans or Piper are wrong to seek diversity in their churches. It does mean that if diversity is a biblical imperative – as opposed to an outgrowth of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism – then Piper should be communicating to black church leaders the importance of enfolding white’s and Asians into their congregations. But if he did that, would he be able to claim that he WAS a racist and isn’t one anymore?

Around the same time that Piper’s piece appeared in Christianity Today, the Gospel Coalition was engaged in some soul searching thanks to James McDonald’s decision to interview T. D. Jakes for Elephant Room. The problem apparently (since I don’t know the work of MacDonald except for the excruciatingly painful video he did with Mark Driscoll and Mark Dever about pastoral ministry, nor do I know about T. D. Jakes except for Don Imus’ regular invoking of and praise for the bishop — note the irony) was the terms under which MacDonald invited Jakes. Was Jakes a fellow believer in gospel? Or was and is he guilty of faulty view of the Trinity? MacDonald’s explanation of the situation was not good enough for a number of bloggers, white and black. The problem was particularly the mixed message that MacDonald (and by extension) the Gospel Coalition would send to the black church about the doctrine of the Trinity. According to Thabiti Anyabwile:

The news of T.D. Jakes’ invitation to The Elephant Room is widespread and rightly lamented by many. I’m just adding a perspective that hasn’t yet been stated: This kind of invitation undermines that long, hard battle many of us have been waging in a community often neglected by many of our peers. And because we’ve often been attempting to introduce African-American Christians to the wider Evangelical and Reformed world as an alternative to the heresy and blasphemy so commonplace in some African-American churches and on popular television outlets, the invitation of Jakes to perform in ‘our circles’ simply feels like a swift tug of the rug from beneath our feet and our efforts to bring health to a sick church.

Justin Taylor jumped on the bandwagon. “The most sobering and painful commentary on this controversy has been penned by Thabiti Anyabwile and Anthony Carter, who have both labored winsomely and heroically for a reformation in the black church and see this invitation as a tremendous setback for the cause of grace and truth. I’d encourage you to consider their perspective on something like this.”

What is remarkable in this reaction to MacDonald is, first, the assumption that the white church has a sound doctrine of the Trinity. Unless I missed something, the Gospel Coalition is a wart to the Matterhorn (thank you Henry Lewis) of the Trinity Broadcast Network and the larger Pentecostal and charismatic world which consists of Americans of European descent as much as blacks. In other words, the black church has no corner of heresy and the Gospel Coalition has a lot of work to do if it is going to labor winsomely and heroically for a reformation in the white church.

Second, the Gospel Coalition’s doctrine of the Trinity is not exactly Nicea. The first point of their doctrinal statement reads:

We believe in one God, eternally existing in three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who know, love, and glorify one another. This one true and living God is infinitely perfect both in his love and in his holiness. He is the Creator of all things, visible and invisible, and is therefore worthy to receive all glory and adoration. Immortal and eternal, he perfectly and exhaustively knows the end from the beginning, sustains and sovereignly rules over all things, and providentially brings about his eternal good purposes to redeem a people for himself and restore his fallen creation, to the praise of his glorious grace.

Compare this to the Westminster Confession and you see a lack of precision:

1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

2. God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himself pleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands. To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them.

3. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Of course, the Westminster Confession is not Nicea either. But it does have the important Nicene bits – the affirmations about substance and person, and the one about the Son being eternally begotten of the Father. In which case, if the Gospel Coalition wants to set itself as the standard for orthodoxy in the white church, especially on the Trinity, why not actually affirm (or teach about) the Nicene doctrine of God?

In the end, I’m not sure what race has to do with the current status of orthodox Trinitarianism in the United States, or with one pastor’s decision to adopt a child. But a lot of people seem to think that race still matters and that is not a recipe for overcoming racism but for keeping the vague concept of race alive.