Friday, January 31, 2014

John Piper and Mark Noll on Race and Christianity

The following is an excerpt from John Piper's 2011 book, Bloodlines (227-230). In this passage, Piper extensively quotes Mark Noll's God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (177-181). Both of these men summarize not only the complex relationship of Christianity and race in American history, but also the way the Christian message itself accounts for the seeming contradictions this complexity causes.

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I conclude by confessing sin, warning against chronological smugness, and pleading for persevering sacrifice.

There is no point in trying to hide the fact that the Bible has been used by Americans to justify both race-based, demeaning slavery and its abolition. Mark Noll’s book God and Race in American Politics: A Short History clarifies this painful confession. With an eye for concrete (incarnational) stories and meticulous historical detail, Noll is above all a seer of the both-and. Or call it paradox. Or historical conundrum. There are no simple explanations.

The thesis of Noll’s book is: “Together, race and religion make up, not only the nation’s deepest and most enduring moral problem, but also its broadest and most enduring political influence.” That is provocative enough. But his working out of how race and religion are interwoven is where the puzzles come. For example, “Before the Civil War, religion drove abolitionist assaults upon slavery even as it under-girded influential defenses of slavery in both the North and the South.” Agonizingly both-and, not comfortably either-or.

"The Christian faith that has been so prominent in so many ways throughout American history has, again on balance, been a beneficent force at home and abroad. Christian altruism, Christian philanthropy, Christian consolation, and Christian responsibility are not the only forces for good in American history, but they loom very large and have had very positive effects.
And yet... and yet... The American political system and the American practice of Christianity which has provided so much good for so many people for so many years, has never been able to overcome race."

It is fitting that we frankly confess that Christians—we Christians—have often used our Bible to justify sinful attitudes and actions. We have done it in our personal lives, and we have done it in the larger structural dimensions of life.

If it were not for the gospel of Christ, we would—and we should—despair. What Noll points out is that this very gospel—this cross-centered view of history—contains an explanation of how the gospel itself can be so badly misused. Here is his summary, which penetrates to the bottom of the both-and nature of the God-loved, God-cursed world we live in:

"To explain the simultaneous manifestation of superlative good and pervasive malevolence in the history of race and religion, neither simple trust in human nature nor simple cynicism about American hypocrisy is adequate ... [Something else must explain the pervasive commingling of opposites.]
That commingling has included domination with liberation, false consciousness with genuine idealism, altruism with greed, self-seeking with self-sacrifice, economic independence with economic exploitation, tribalism with universalism, hatred with love. Any final explanation for the conundrums of American history must be able to account for a mind-stretching conjunction of opposites.
It must evoke both the goodness of the human creation and the persistence of evil in all branches of humanity... It must show how the best human creatures are sabotaged by their own hubris and the worst human depredations are enlightened by unexpected shafts of light... It must be able to hold these contradictions, antinomies, and paradoxes in one cohesive vision."

Is there such a vision? Noll believes there is. He calls it “historic Christian faith.”

"From the much used and much abused Scriptures, a long line of Christian readers have affirmed in varying accents and diverse emphases a transcendent account of profound complexity to take the measure of human nature and human achievement...
God made humans, and the creation was good—yet at the same time, humankind is fallen and will never escape the effects of sin. Further, God offers in the work of his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, the transforming prospect of redemption— yet redemption never equals perfection; the redeemed must always recognize their own shortcomings and be filled with gratitude for all the gifts of creation, including all other human creatures.
Ultimately, because the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ is, at the same time, so thoroughly human and so thoroughly divine, so completely infinite and so completely finite, the heart of the Christian faith offers the hint of an explanation for how the commingling of contradictions, antinomies, and paradoxes can occur in other spheres of life."

Paradoxically, the very paradoxes of good and evil in history—and in imperfect Christian hearts—bear witness to the Christian vision as the best explanation of why things are the way they are. In the end, the true historian becomes an apologist.

The gospel is the power of God to save. But that power is working progressively—not with instantaneous perfection—in the lives of those who believe it, and therefore in the church and in the world. There is remaining sin in all of us and in all of our institutions. This is our confession. It humbles us and breaks our hearts, but because of Christ, it does not paralyze us in the pursuit of racial harmony.

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