Coming to Terms with Our Inheritance
Rarely do I leave a reading experience as delighted and provoked as when I finished, simultaneously, James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree and John Piper's Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. I had low expectations. I expected the two books, coming from quarters of Christendom that rarely dialogue, would tell a tale of two cities whose citizens speak the same tongue but mutually unintelligible dialects. While they embark from different theological landscapes and illuminate different historical manifestations of Christ's cross, Cone and Piper suggest the two citizenries may be closer to dialogue than I imagined. I was surprised by what I found, encouraged by what might follow.
In Cone's case, my surprise was not due to first encounter. Mine was a surprise more akin to that of a recurring nightmare. While I am familiar with the statistics and historical accounts of lynching that Cone narrates, no amount of previous contact with the sources softens the blow when one walks past Emmett Till's open casket—especially when so capable a writer as Cone is one's escort. (If you pick up Cone unfamiliar with the details of lynching, be ready for your new American nightmare.) Before I read The Cross and the Lynching Tree, I had heard Cone say this book was his favorite, his most personal. I knew there would be blood on Cone's leaves. I was prepared to be unprepared.
I was not prepared for so careful a treatment of race and Christianity as I found in Bloodlines. No Piper text of which I am aware displays the pathos and intelligence of Bloodlines. The book contains passages that I never thought I would read from a popular, supposedly "conservative" evangelical—on white normativity, on whites' funding of negative black media images, on sin as not simply self-aggrandizement but also self-hatred. Piper's adumbration of individualistic-versus-structural accounts of racism in the book's second section is informed and cautious against reduction. True, concerns remain; despite Piper's insistence that Christ challenges individualists and structuralists alike on race matters, the primacy of Christ-initiated heart transformations in Piper's argument belies an inclination toward individualistic anthropologies. But great books prompt as many concerns as they resolve. Bloodlines is Piper's greatest book.
Both Cone and Piper primarily aim to (re)claim a usable, crucicentric Christian inheritance. Cone is interested in the African American inheritance—specifically, how blacks have used the cross to redeem the horror of the lynching tree. For Cone, the primary hope is that God sides and empathizes with the persecuted. Christ's cross proclaims that no hands that shed innocent blood will write the story's ending. Paradox, tension, and mystery are the refrain of Cone's crucicentric vision—redemption through suffering, beauty amidst terror, hope on the edge of the abyss. Paradox-breathing artists, not professional theologians, are the acknowledged legislators of Cone's theological world.
Piper is interested in the Reformed Christian inheritance. For Piper, the primary hope resides in the innocent blood shed on Christ's cross. The salvific work of Christ on the cross—which Reformed theology has always upheld—not only nullifies racism but openly celebrates racial and ethnic diversity. The bloodline of Christ is the only relevant bloodline. Through it, individuals of all races become a new creation and are invited to a joint communion. The racial diversity of this communion testifies to the broad sweep of Christ's work. Piper is not recommending a thin, "color-blind" vision of reconciliation, an erasure of racial difference. Rather, diversity yields "a beauty and power of praise […] greater than that which comes from unity alone" (196).
Both authors skillfully claim the redemptive possibilities resident in their inheritance. But one must accept the full inheritance. And the full inheritance includes the Christian hands that shed innocent blood. Herein lies my criticism.
Imagine I am a white slaveholding Christian in antebellum South Carolina. I open my Bible and the annals of history and find there have always been slaves and masters. History and the Bible are on my side when I argue, against abolitionist innovators, that slavery is a basic institution of society, the natural order of things. While I must admit that neither history nor the Bible endorses race-based slavery, I look at my world. The European culture I inherit seems light years ahead of Africa in technology, economy, and religion. If there have always been slaves and masters, Africa's children seem to belong naturally in the first class, Europe's the second. Thus I enslave Africa's children. When I do, the system into which I bring them confirms my beliefs regarding their nature. Every child of Africa I meet, under the system I inherit and perpetuate, seems to me uneducated, deferential, disposed to hard labor (exceptions are just that—exceptional, nothing on which to base an upending of the social order). Some abolitionists would say my system made my slaves this way, but most white abolitionists, like me, are not persuaded blacks are equal to whites, even if blacks deserve some basic legal rights. Most concede my ordering of things is natural.