Ripping racial strife out by the roots
We close out Black History Month with John Piper’s personal, prophetic, and profound words on the power of the gospel in racial reconciliation
After seeing over the past three Saturdays the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. and Booker T. Washington, we close this Black History Month series with chapter six from John Piper’s Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. Author and recently retired Pastor Piper produced a personal, prophetic, and profound book in 2011 about racial reconciliation and what needs to happen to chop away not just the branches but also the roots of racial strife. We thankfully publish this with the permission of the book’s publisher, Crossway. —Marvin Olasky
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
“You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. … And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23–25).
Chapter Six: The Power of the Gospel and the Roots of Racial Strife
The previous chapter ended with the claim that the gospel of Jesus does not enter controversy as another ideology or philosophy or methodology for social improvement. It enters like dynamite. It enters as the power of the Creator to reconcile people to himself and supernaturally make them new.
But lest we leave these claims hanging in the air with no examples of how explosive the gospel may be in the matter of race relations, consider how the gospel can create new possibilities of life when it is lodged like dynamite in the cracks of these nine destructive forces.
1) The Gospel and Satan
Satan is called the god of this world. He is a real supernatural being who hates humans and is in diametric opposition to God. He comes to steal and to destroy. There is little doubt that where maddeningly hopeless, sinful, self-destructive behaviors and structures hold sway over large groups of people—white or black, left or right—the Devil is deeply at work. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:4). “He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
What hope does a message of personal responsibility or structural intervention have against this supernatural power? None. None. They are like feathers in a hurricane. How shall any human stand against the deceitful, murderous power of Satan? There is only one answer: in the name of Jesus. Why is that? “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). How did he do that? By bearing our sin in his body so that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). When Jesus died, “he disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15).
There is no other power in the world that can do this. The Devil is stronger than all humans, all armies, all politics, and all human morality put together. We have no chance against him except by one means, the power of Jesus Christ operating through us because he dwells within us. “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
The gospel of Christ conquers our hearts and brings us to repentance and faith in Christ. Christ enters our lives and dwells within us. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to him. He commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him (Mark 1:27). Therefore, into the racial situation the gospel brings the only power that can set people and structures free from the bondage of the Devil. The Devil gives way to no other power than the power of Christ. And the power of Christ moves in the world through those who have believed the gospel and are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9).
If Satan is to give way in his horrific influence on racist pride and paralyzing fears and feelings of hopeless inferiority, it will be through the gospel of Jesus or not at all. Who can imagine what a great awakening of faith in the gospel might look like as thousands of people resisted the Devil in Jesus’s name and watched him flee from their white and black lives and families (James 4:7)?
2) The Gospel and Guilt
We are all guilty before God. “All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one.’ … Whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:9–10, 19). The gospel presupposes this. There is no gospel without this, because this is mainly what Christ came to save us from—the guilt of sin and the holy wrath of God against it.
Guilt is a huge player in the way blacks and whites relate to each other. It’s huge and deadly when it is denied. It’s huge and deadly when it is wallowed in. It’s huge and deadly when it is exploited. There is no deliverance and no relief and no healing in any of those ways of dealing with guilt. Denial drives it below the surface where it creates endless illusions and self-justifications. Wallowing in it produces phony humility and obsequiousness and moral cowardice. Exploiting it gives a false sense of power that turns out to be only the weapon of weakness. If guilt is not dealt with more deeply, there will be no way forward.
What news does the gospel bring in regard to our guilt? “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). “Christ also suffered once for sins” (1 Pet. 3:18). “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Therefore, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).
There is no other savior from our guilt than Christ, because our guilt is ultimately guilt for sins against God. Only God can forgive those sins. And only Jesus was God in the flesh dying so that he could declare us righteous and remove our sin and guilt. “God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood … so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25–26). Only by believing in Jesus are we really and eternally freed from the real guilt that we all have before God.
Who can begin to calculate the effect of white and black from all persuasions and all parties suddenly delivered from the crushing burden of guilt? No more denial. No more wallowing. No more exploiting. What an unimaginable transformation would come. It is incalculable what the personal and relational dynamics would be in all our racial relations if we were set free with overflowing joy and gratitude that our guilt had been taken away.
3) The Gospel and Pride
God hates pride. “The Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low. … And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Isa. 2:12, 17). “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. … ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:28–31).
Pride is a condition of the heart that does not submit to God. It does not delight in God having absolute power and authority. It presumes to rebel against God or negotiate with God. Therefore, it can be secular or religious. Pride loves to be made much of by men. It craves human approval. It may try to look cool in order to intimidate others. Or it may be meek and retiring for fear of offending others. It can look strong, and it can look weak. In either case, it is consumed with self and what a select group of others think.
Racial tensions are rife with pride—the pride of white supremacy, the pride of black power, the pride of intellectual analysis, the pride of anti-intellectual scorn, the pride of loud verbal attack, and the pride of despising silence, the pride that feels secure, and the pride that masks fear. Where pride holds sway, there is no hope for the kind of listening and patience and understanding and openness to correction that relationships require.
The gospel of Jesus breaks the power of pride by revealing the magnitude and the ugliness and the deadliness of it, even as it provides deliverance from it. The gospel makes plain that I am so hopelessly sinful and my debt before God was so huge that my salvation required the death of the Son of God in my place. This is devastating to the human ego. And God means it to be: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). He saves us by grace alone so that we would boast in him alone. Pride is shattered.
And not only are we saved by grace; we live moment by moment by grace. “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). Therefore, Paul says, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me” (Rom. 15:18). His entire life is a gift of grace. This rules out all boasting in himself. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
There is no power on earth that can break the power of pride except the gospel of Christ. Until we are broken because of our sinfulness and delivered from the sin of rebellion and unbelief, we remain hard and resistant outlaws to God—no matter how meek we may seem to man. The sin of pride will subtly contaminate all our relationships, even where it is not recognized. A disease does not have to be diagnosed in order to infect and kill.
The cross of Christ is the key to killing pride and living in humility. “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). Imagine what race relations and racial controversies would look like if the participants were all dead to pride and deeply humble before God and each other.
4) The Gospel and Hopelessness
Countless dysfunctions and self-defeating behaviors are owing to a sense of hopelessness. This is true for white and black alike, though the typical behaviors vary largely along socioeconomic lines, not color lines. If a person cannot imagine a rewarding future, then there seems to be little reason for denying oneself any immediate pleasure now. Drug addiction, overeating, gambling, indolence, sexual promiscuity, lying, stealing—why wouldn’t a person do these things if there is no hope? “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32). It makes sense.
If there is no hope, then why would I bother myself with efforts in racial harmony? Why would I care about anybody? If there is no hope, why would I care about your civil rights? I have just a few short years to maximize my pleasure, then I will be eaten by worms, and that’s that. Hopelessness destroys moral conviction by making it look ludicrous. And therefore it destroys almost everything that is beautiful and precious.
Without the gospel of Jesus, there is in fact no hope beyond the grave. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). When there is no hope beyond the grave, it is extremely difficult to talk yourself into the kind of self-denial required by justice movements such as civil rights. The energy it takes and the sacrifices one must make may seem heroic and admirable for a while, but the meaninglessness of it all will overtake you if you really feel hopeless about the moment of death.
It seems to me that we can call for personal responsibility till we are blue in the face, and the appeals will have no power at all without the awakening of hope. Juan Williams points out that statistically there is an almost foolproof way to stay out of poverty:
The good news is that there is a formula for getting out of poverty today. The magical steps begin with finishing high school, but finishing college is much better. Step number two is taking a job and holding it. Step number three is marrying after finishing school and while you have a job. And the final step to give yourself the best chance to avoid poverty is to have children only after you are twenty-one and married. This formula applies to black people and white people alike.
But what power can awaken hope and transform the heart so that these steps not only seem right but also doable, and not only right and doable but also a God-pleasing means of exalting Jesus as the Lord and Treasure of my life? The only answer is the gospel of Christ. It brings with it the gift of eternal life. And it comes with the assurance that God in Christ is for us and not against us. And if God is for us, no one can ultimately be successful against us (Rom. 8:31). We are “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Living in the power of this gospel “is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
5) The Gospel and Feelings of Inferiority and Self-Doubt
Since all humans have a sinful craving to be seen as worthy or admirable in some way, we all fear being seen as inferior or unworthy or foolish. These fears are manifested, or masked, in very different ways ranging from the most pathological paralysis of depression, to self-hatred and self-destructive behaviors, to profound anxiety in the face of public opportunities, to sullen withdrawal from the world, to whining and complaining at how others make life difficult, to repeated pity parties in which we maneuver to get others to feel sorry for us, to constant putdowns of others so that our own flaws are minimized, to a cocky cloaking of our limitations that intimidates others with one kind of power to conceal another kind of weakness.
These sorrows and sins are not unique to any ethnic group. They are universal. But the history of a group shapes the way the fear is felt. Shelby Steele gives painful and penetrating expression to the effects of black history and black stereotypes on the black psyche.
The condition of being black in America means that one will likely endure more wounds to one’s self-esteem than others and that the capacity for self-doubt born of these wounds will be compounded and expanded by the black race’s reputation of inferiority. …
Black skin has more dehumanizing stereotypes associated with it than any other skin color in America, if not the world. When a black person presents himself in an integrated situation, he knows that his skin alone may bring these stereotypes to life in the mind of those he meets and that he, as an individual, may be diminished by his race before he has a chance to reveal a single aspect of his personality. … He will be vulnerable to the entire realm of his self-doubt before a single word is spoken. …
Certainly in every self-avowed white racist, whether businessman or member of the Klan, there is a huge realm of self-contempt and doubt that hides behind the mythology of white skin. The mere need to pursue self-esteem through skin color suggests there is no faith that it can be pursued any other way. But if skin color offers whites a certain false esteem and impunity, it offers blacks vulnerability.
This vulnerability begins for blacks with the recognition that we belong, quite simply, to the most despised race in the human community of races. To be a member of such a group in a society where all others gain an impunity by merely standing in relation to us is to live with a relentless openness to diminishment and shame.
When I first read this, I felt a great heaviness. I feared to even open my mouth. In the face of such deep and pervasive effects of racism, most words will sound glib. Any claim to “know what it’s like” will be untrue and naïve. In fact, it is this very moment of illumination for oblivious whites, who are just beginning to touch the nerve of interracial complexity, that paralyzes the relationship. It would sound superficial in the extreme to give “tips” at this point for what to say and what not to say.
What is needed is a miracle. I mean that literally. A supernatural in-breaking of God through the gospel of Christ. It is not even possible to describe the hope-filled relational dynamics that may happen when the gospel explodes in two hearts that bring such radically different experiences of sin and suffering to the relationship. “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
This impossible hope for racial reconciliation and understanding and warm-hearted mutual joy is owing to the gospel of Jesus. He died on the cross not only to crucify pride and self-exaltation, but also to create new identity. Christ died so that no one would be puffed up with pride or paralyzed with weakness and inferiority—imagined or otherwise. How does the gospel do this?
Union with Christ is the key. When we trust Christ, we are united to him. His righteousness is counted as ours. Before God we are not guilty, not impure, not sinful. We are holy and righteous with the imputed righteousness of Christ. Not only that, but we are born into the very family of God. We are justified through faith, and we are sanctified through faith. We are counted as perfect in Christ, and we are put in the most magnificent family in the universe, God’s family.
This is breathtaking. The apostle John is full of wonder as he says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. … Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1–2). The gospel gives us a new identity that is so majestic that we would be the most arrogant people in the world—except that we know we don’t deserve it, it cost Christ his life, and it is all a free gift of grace.
It is heartbreaking to see people of goodwill trying to patch up the damaged self-esteem of children in the hope that they will find it within them to be motivated for great achievements. It is a fool’s errand. Even the shrewd analysis of Shelby Steele falls short of any real solution:
Educational reform for black students … [focuses] generally on identity enhancement and self-esteem. Its profound mistake is to assume that performance follows self-esteem, when in fact it is the other way around: performance follows high expectations; not high self-esteem. The proof of this is that Asian-American students routinely test lower on self-esteem measures than blacks, who routinely test higher than any other student group.
But how do you break into this vicious cycle of self-doubt when all of us are sinners? We are torn—all of us—between the self-exalting pride of our hearts and our fearful, self-doubting sense of inferiority. What is the use of trying to build self-esteem for sinners without the gospel? It will only mask true weaknesses and sins while it feeds the inborn arrogance that we all have. Only the gospel can do two seemingly contradictory things: destroy pride and increase courage. Destroy self-exaltation and increase confidence. Destroy the pushiness of self-assertion and deliver from the paralysis of self-doubt.
A real Christian is a walking miracle. Supernatural power has entered his life. His arrogance has been shattered. His paralyzing or swagger-producing fear of failure has been replaced with the promises of God. He is forgiven, accepted, loved by God Almighty. He is secure enough in who he is not to be destroyed when, for Christ’s sake, he is shamed. “They left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). If he is knocked down in the quest for justice, he will get up—not with a swagger but with humble Christ-exalting courage to bear all things for the sake of Jesus’s name.
6) The Gospel and Greed
A huge part of the corruption of white and black crime, and white and black racism, is energized by greed. The biblical word is covetousness. When we bought a duplex as our home in the poorest, most diverse neighborhood in Minneapolis thirty years ago, the wisdom on the street was, This is not a good investment. Housing values here are not going up. This is not where people move to; it’s where people move from.
Our response was: Money is not the issue; ministry is the issue. We are not here to make money; we are here to make a name for Jesus. If greed were not part of the American landscape, race relations would be dramatically different. The desire to be rich is morally and socially catastrophic. Listen to this alarm God sounds in 1 Timothy 6:9–10: “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”
Race relations in America were plunged into ruin and destruction the day the first slave arrived in America, kidnapped for white gain against God’s law (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7). And greed has driven the ruin and destruction of race relations ever since. And the greed in black hearts is no different from the greed in white hearts. Our shared sinfulness simply expresses itself in different ways according to our circumstances.
There is only one way to be free from greed for the glory of God—faith in the gospel of Christ. First, the gospel transfers our security from the power of money to the promises of God. When we trust Christ, our fear of the future is replaced by confidence in God. The mindset of the follower of Christ is this: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31–32). God’s giving of his Son guarantees, Paul says, that he will work all things together for our good. This may include “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” but even so, God is for us and we are more than conquerors (Rom. 8:31, 35, 37).
This position inside the sovereign care and guidance and provision of God creates a radical freedom from the love of money. God promises to work for us. We do not need to be anxious about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself. We are free to seek the kingdom first and let material things fall where they will (Matt. 6:33). This makes us servants of racial justice and harmony because that’s what “the kingdom” looks like.
Second, the reason we can say with Martin Luther, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also,” is that Christ has become our supreme treasure. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). If I lose everything and die, I still have Christ. Therefore, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Which means that I am not enslaved to the treasures of this world. I can use them freely for love, because I don’t need them for my ego or my soul. I have the greatest treasure in the world—Christ.
Third, those who stake their lives on the gospel get the universe thrown in along with Christ. “Let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:21–23). The meek will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5). Why would we covet this world when we already own it, and it is only a matter of time till we come into the fullness of our inheritance. “We are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16–17). And Christ made and owns everything (Col. 1:16).
Therefore, the follower of Jesus, in the power of the promises of the gospel, does not lay up treasures on earth, but in heaven. How? By trusting Christ so fully that on earth we are driven by the joy of giving, not getting. We love being servants, not masters. We love meeting needs, not using people. Our Father will take care of us. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:32–34).
The racial landscape in America, and the little patch of it where you live, will change in ways you cannot even imagine to the degree that you are freed from the desire to get rich and replace it with the desire to serve others.
7) The Gospel and Hate
The horrors of racial and ethnic hatred are indescribable. All over the world, through all of history, the slaughter of human life because of ethnic, tribal, and racial animosities is beyond imagination. If you could imagine it—in vivid color—you would not be able to bear it. From the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915, to the holocaust in Germany, to the Soviet Gulag, to the massacres in Rwanda in 1994, to the Japanese slaughter of six million Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos, and Indochinese—the litany of ethnic hatred goes on.
The gospel of Jesus cuts the nerve of hatred and anger and the bent to be a blaming person. It does so in many ways. I’ll mention two that seem almost opposite but are both crucial in the quest for racial justice and harmony.
First, when we receive the gracious provision of God to forgive our sins through Christ, our bent to be unforgiving is broken. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 4:32–5:1). Our kindness and forgiveness of others is empowered by our being forgiven. Our loving others is empowered by our being loved by God.
We know we are sinners. We know that the offense we have given to God is greater than any offense others have given to us, and if God was gracious to us, we must be gracious to others. You cannot authentically rejoice in being treated better than you deserve while treating others the way they deserve, or worse.
The gospel cuts the nerve of hatred by making us feel the brokenhearted gratitude that God’s wrath was once on us and was removed, not because we deserved it but because of his absolutely free grace. Freely you have received; freely give. As the Father has sent me to love, Jesus said, so I send you. Love your enemies so that you may prove yourselves to be children of God, because that is the way he treated you. If you cherish grudges, you do not cherish God’s grace. But the definition of a Christian is one who receives and cherishes the grace of God in Christ.
Second, the gospel overcomes vengeance by promising that justice will be done. One of the emotional boosters behind our judicial sense is that justice must be done, especially when our rights are denied. And when it looks like justice will not be done to us, we feel the need to take matters into our hands and exact vengeance.
To this impulse, the gospel comes with a double message. All wrongs in the world will be punished justly, either on the cross (for the wrongdoers who trust Christ) or in hell (for the wrongdoers who don’t). “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head’” (Rom. 12:19–20).
What God is telling us is that forgiveness and love do not mean the perpetrators get away with their abuses and injustices. They don’t. If they come to faith in Christ, their sins will be covered by his blood. But if they do not come to Christ, their sins will come on their own head, and God will see that justice is done. In this way, a life of love and forgiveness—a life of treating bad people better than they deserve—is not a foolish life. God’s mercy and vengeance frees us from the soul-destroying bitterness of hatred and anger and blaming and vengeance. It makes us merciful without making us naïve about evil.
This effect of the gospel of Christ would transform the world of race and ethnicity more than we can imagine. Who can begin to describe the possibilities of reconciliation and harmony where the work of Christ replaces hatred with love, anger with patience, and blaming with forgiving, and all of this without surrendering a passion that justice must be done?
8) The Gospel and Fear
No one escapes fear. It is a universal emotion. You even see it in the most courageous, because courage is not the absence of fear but the refusal to let it control you. One of the reasons that fear is a universal experience is that we know we are guilty before God and that we are not strong enough to save ourselves. Not everyone admits this, but the Bible makes clear that we all know God and we all know we have not measured up to his standards (Rom. 1:21; 2:15).
When this fear of death and judgment is not acknowledged and remedied with the gospel of Christ, it goes deeper into the subconscious where it produces multiple phobias and anxieties and disorders. In addition to the many fears of particular things that we know about, there is the even more common fear of the unknown. Therefore this root fear and its many manifestations have a pervasive effect on our relation to other races.
The Bible speaks of all humans as being in lifelong slavery to the fear of death until they are set free by the death of Christ and the defeat of Satan in their lives. “Since … the children share in flesh and blood [that is, since those for whom Christ came are all human], he himself likewise partook of the same things [became human], that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14–15).
We may not know who our slave master is. But God says it is the fear of death. Christ died to free us from this slavery. He did it by removing our guilt and taking our curse on himself (Gal. 3:13; Rom. 8:3). We are now reconciled to God. He is not against us, but for us. And he has given us his Spirit precisely to assure us that we do not need to be afraid. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15).
Now that the biggest and deepest fear of death and judgment are gone, the minor fears of this life are as nothing by comparison. And our heavenly Father assures us that he cares for us so deeply and so thoroughly that we do not need to fear anything. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:28–31).
God will take meticulous care of us. When we face a racial situation that is unknown, we may enter it with the humble peace of Christ. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Because of the gospel of Christ, we may be sure that all the promises of God are ours. One of the most freeing as we walk into relational unknowns is, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10).
When all the self-protecting defenses that we put up because of our fears are removed, the possibilities for racial harmony are more than we can imagine.
9) The Gospel and Apathy
Apathy is passionless living. It is sitting in front of the television night after night and living your life from one moment of entertainment to the next. It is the inability to be shocked into action by the steady-state lostness and suffering of the world. It is the emptiness that comes from thinking of godliness as the avoidance of doing bad things instead of the aggressive pursuit of doing good things.
If that were God’s intention for the godliness of his people, why would Paul say, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12)? People who stay at home and watch clean videos don’t get persecuted. Godliness must mean something more public, more aggressively good.
In fact, the aim of the gospel is the creation of people who are passionate for doing good rather than settling for the passionless avoidance of evil. “[Christ] gave himself for us … to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). The gospel produces people who are created for good works (Eph. 2:10), and have a reputation for good works (1 Tim. 5:10), and are rich in good works (1 Tim. 6:18), and present a model of good works (Titus 2:7), and devote themselves to good works (Titus 3:8, 14), and stir each other up to good works (Heb. 10:24).
And when they set about them, the word they hear from God is, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). The gospel does not make us lazy. It makes us fervent. The Greek for fervent signifies boiling. The gospel opens our eyes to the eternal significance of things. Nothing is merely ordinary anymore.
Christ did not pursue us halfheartedly. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the uttermost (John 13:1). His death gives the deepest meaning to the word passion. Now he dwells in us. How will we not pray for the fullest experience of his zeal for the cause of justice and love? “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Returning to the Controversy
Which brings us back to the controversy between those who stress personal responsibility and those who stress structural intervention. God calls us to exalt his Son Jesus by doing good to everyone in reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 6:10). Surely, this means that, when it comes to the controversy over how to attack the racial inequalities and discrimination in this country, we will learn from both sides about the potentials and pitfalls of each. We will throw ourselves with the passion of Christ into the effort and make the gospel prominent in all our personal and structural action.
One example of a both-and person in this regard was Richard John Neuhaus, who died on January 8, 2009. He was called a voice of conscience in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, marching side by side with Martin Luther King Jr. He had a word of tough love and hope at the personal-accountability level, and he had some clearheaded proposals at the structural level.
At the personal level he wrote:
If we understand what is at stake, in every forum on every subject there will be zero tolerance of the abdication of personal responsibility. Nothing will do but a frankly moral condemnation of crime and vice, whether the vice be drug addiction or everyday sloth. The old excuses are out. Victim politics is finished. The American people have simply turned a deaf ear to all that. They’ve had enough, they’ve had more than enough. That seems harsh, and it is, unless joined to the hope that there is still a will to overcome the American dilemma, as in “we shall overcome.”
Neuhaus knew, in his heart, that the only hope for something more than a sentimental and nostalgic “we shall overcome” is the gospel of Jesus Christ. But with that gospel and the power it brings, this kind of tough love is indeed full of hope.
At the structural level, Neuhaus gives us proposals, by way of example, on welfare reform and school choice. He is writing in 1996 but these particular suggestions, it seems to me, are still helpful:
Welfare reform. Welfare reform is a moral imperative. … Hundreds of welfare experiments in all 50 states must get underway, and must be carefully tested and not—or not chiefly—by whether they save money or cut down the size of government but by whether they help people take charge of their lives and enter the mainstream of American opportunity and responsibility.
School choice. We can institute real school choice. Parental choice in education is a matter of simple justice and for many poor parents it is a matter of survival. Government monopoly school systems in New York and every other major city are an unmitigated disaster. They cannot be fixed, they must be replaced. The monopoly is defended by what is probably the most powerful political lobby in America, the teachers’ unions. Whatever the noble intentions and heroic efforts of many teachers, these unions are the enemy of the children of the poor. With very few exceptions, nobody in these major cities who can afford an alternative sends their children to public school.
In New York, it is generously estimated that one out of 10 poor children beginning first grade will graduate from high school prepared for real college education. … The government school spends $9,000 per year per student, a parochial school considerably less than half that. Middle-class and wealthy Americans have school choice. They pay tuition or move to where the schools are better. In opposing vouchers and other remedies the government school establishment invokes the separation of church and state. What we need, what the poor most particularly need, is the separation of school and state.
The Gospel Is Always Relevant
Whether Neuhaus is right about government involvement in school vouchers, we may be sure that the gospel of Christ is not irrelevant in the way Christians think about this issue. The gospel contains an undeniable impulse toward freedom. The reason is that the saving faith that it demands cannot be coerced. It is a free act of the soul under the sway of sovereign grace.
Therefore, the gospel will lean us away from structures that put the government in the position to demand or prohibit Christian faith. That leaves many questions unanswered, but it points to the fact that in this and dozens of other ways (some of which we have seen), the gospel of Christ is an explosive force in the matters of personal and structural engagement.
The Personal and Structural Force of the Gospel for William Wilberforce
One of the best historical illustrations of the way the gospel of Christ transforms persons and sustains structural intervention is the life of William Wilberforce (1759–1833) and the Clapham Sect. One of the most important and least known facts about the battle to abolish the slave trade in Britain two hundred years ago is that it was sustained by a passion for the doctrine of justification by faith alone—which is at the center of the gospel of Christ.
Wilberforce was a spiritually exuberant and doctrinally rigorous evangelical. He had been personally transformed by the gospel and was carried along by a passion for the glory of Christ and the good of his fellow men. He battled tirelessly in Parliament for the outlawing of the British slave trade. And though most people do not know it, the particular doctrines of the gospel are the power that sustained him in the battle that ended the vicious trade.
The key to understanding Wilberforce is to read his own book A Practical View of Christianity. There he argued that the fatal habit of his day was to separate Christian morals from Christian doctrines. His conviction was that there is “perfect harmony between the leading doctrines and the practical precepts of Christianity.” He had seen the devastating effects of denying this: “The peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and … the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.” But Wilberforce knew that “the whole superstructure of Christian morals is grounded on their deep and ample basis.”
This “ample basis” and these “peculiar doctrines” that sustained Wilberforce in the battle against the slave trade were the doctrines of human depravity, divine judgment, the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross, justification by faith alone, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the practical necessity of fruit in a life devoted to good deeds. Wilberforce was not a political pragmatist. He was a radically God-centered, gospel-saturated Christian politician. And his zeal for Christ, rooted in this gospel, was the strength that sustained him in the battle.
The Center of the Gospel as the Key to Structural Change
At the center of these essential “gigantic truths” was (and is) justification by faith alone. The indomitable joy that perseveres in the battle for justice is grounded in the experience of Jesus Christ as our righteousness. “If we would … rejoice,” Wilberforce said, “as triumphantly as the first Christians did, we must learn, like them, to repose our entire trust in [Christ] and to adopt the language of the apostle, ‘God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Jesus Christ,’ ‘who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption’ [Gal. 6:14; 1 Cor. 1:30].”
In other words, the gospel of justification by faith alone is essential to right living—and that includes political living. Astonishingly, Wilberforce said that the spiritual and practical errors of his day that gave strength to the slave trade were owing to the failure to experience the truth of this doctrine:
They consider not that Christianity is a scheme “for justifying the ungodly” by Christ’s dying for them “when yet sinners”—a scheme “for reconciling us to God”—when enemies; and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled.
This was why he wrote A Practical View of Christianity. The “bulk” of Christians in his day, he observed, were “nominal”—that is, they pursued morality without first relying utterly on the free gift of justification by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone. They got things backward: first they strived for moral uplift; then they appealed to God for approval. That is not the Christian gospel. And it will not transform a nation. It will not heal the racial wounds of a nation. It would not sustain a politician through eleven Parliamentary defeats over twenty years of vitriolic opposition.
The battle for abolition was sustained by getting the gospel right: “The true Christian … knows … that this holiness is not to precede his reconciliation to God, and be its cause; but to follow it, and be its effect. That, in short, it is by faith in Christ only that he is to be justified in the sight of God.” When Wilberforce put things in this order, he found invincible strength and courage to stand for the justice of abolition.
May the Gospel Run and Triumph
I pray that the gospel of Jesus Christ will have this kind of effect on many today. May it be spoken and lived by millions of true Christians in their daily lives. May it impel them into greater pursuits of racial diversity and harmony. May it awaken in some a passion for a public life of engagement in the community and the political arena. And may it conquer Satan, guilt, pride, hopelessness, paralyzing feelings of inferiority, greed, hate, fear, and apathy. In that triumph, may Christ be magnified and peoples of every race and ethnicity find harmony in him as their supreme treasure.
Taken from Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian by John Piper, © 2011. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org. Download for personal use only.
1. Juan Williams, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It (New York: Crown, 2006), 215.
2. Shelby Steele, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (New York: HarperPerennial, 1990), 43-44.
3. Shelby Steele, A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), 91.
4. Richard John Neuhaus, “Counting by Race,” First Things, February 1996, 78.
5. Here is one expression of the gospel as Neuhaus spoke it. Ten years after his conversion, he wrote in his book Death on a Friday Afternoon (New York: Basic Books, 2000): “When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers throughout my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my own. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of “justification by faith alone,” although I will thank God that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misunderstood formulation was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways—these and all other gifts I have received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will, with Dysmas, look to Christ and Christ alone. Then I hope to hear him say, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise,’ as I hope with all my being—because, although looking to him alone, I am not alone—he will say to all” (70).
6. Later that year welfare reform in America took a remarkable turn in the direction Neuhaus was pleading. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was a cornerstone of the Republican Contract with America, and signed into law by Bill Clinton on August 22, 1996.
7. It has been a decade and a half since Neuhaus wrote, but he would, no doubt, still be concerned today about disparity between black graduation rates and white ones. The New York City Department of Education reported that for 2008, the gap in the high school graduation rate between white and black students was 20.1 percentage points, with 51.4 percent of black students in the class of 2008 graduating in four years. Cited February 8, 2011, at http://schools.nyc.gov/Offices/mediarelations/NewsandSpeeches/2008-2009/20090622_grad_rates.htm. In my city of Minneapolis, in 2008 there was a graduation rate of 87.31 percent of white students but only 68.48 for blacks.
8. Neuhaus, “Counting by Race,” n.p.
9. William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, ed. Kevin Charles Belmonte (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996).
10. Ibid., 182.
11. Ibid., 198.
12. Ibid., 167.
13. Ibid., 66.
14. Ibid., 64.
15. Ibid., 166.
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