What will happen over the next few moments is for me to make a case not only for why God cares for the application of the gospel to this issue, but to also make the case that God cares about the systems because they are actually a part of his creation.
I stand here in front of you with the last name Bradley. I’m from the Bradley Plantation in Escambia County, Alabama. Every time I see my name, I’m reminded of the plantation from which my family comes.
I stand here as a descendant of a family of preachers, but I will try not to start preaching to you. Although there’s a Bible there and I’m tempted, but I won’t do that. I stand as a witness to the progress that’s actually happened in this country as someone from the Bradley Plantation. I can now proudly tell you all that not only am I from the Bradley Plantation, but a few years ago, my family members gathered together and actually purchased the property. Now, that the same acreage that used to own us, we now own it.
I stand having listened for years and years and years to my own parents tell brutal stories of being raised in the Jim Crow South in Alabama and in North Carolina, hearing my aunts and uncles and grandparents telling stories of being treated like animals. Someone born after the civil rights movement, there was a lot of pressure on my generation to do the things that my parents could not have done because of not only the racist firm white Christians, but also the barriers and impediments that were embedded in the system. I stand here listening to what is true about the gospel as it transforms people, but what is also true about God’s intention to redeem the creation that he has made for his purposes and for his will for our good and for his glory.
I am thankful to John Piper for writing the book Bloodlines and for confessing his own story. That is the type of confession that builds bridges. We need more brave men and women of your generation as young as you are confessing, being honest, telling stories of how they failed, how they were able to see and be changed. Those are the types of things that from my parents generation, having grown up in the South, need to hear. I’m thankful that the work and person of Jesus Christ and the gospel is laid forward as the reconciling point of contact for understanding our solidarity as followers of this Messiah promised to David.
Purge Perverted Ideology
We’re right here tonight right to point out that racism is the only way to purge the church of the sorts of a perverted ideology that changes the way we see other people, and it is the best and only way to have a widespread social change that radically reorients the way in which we engage the creation. Now my recommendations for moving forward for what we have initiated as we talk about the gospel is biased. I’m biased because I’m trained in this tradition that focuses on covenant theology and covenantal apologetics and ethics. In my traditions training, what we see as that category of a gospel is a good beginning but doesn’t go deep enough.
It doesn’t go deep enough to fully and deeply dismantle the creational and eschatological violence that racism commits against the grand narrative of the redemption that was accomplished and applied at the cross as promised in the specifications of God’s covenants with Abraham and David.
You see, what’s so amazing about gospel is that because of our union with Christ, Jews, Gentiles, white, black, yellow, red, male, female are all members of the same covenant community. It’s the same holy nation, equal heirs of God’s covenant promises explicated throughout the entire redemptive story. See, racism is not only an attack on the gospel. Racism is a vile and vicious attack on God’s covenant story of redemption. A discussion of racism in God’s world must include of course very biblical reflections on the doctrine of salvation and the doctrine on Jesus Christ, but we cannot be satisfied with hanging those things just on those two doctrines, because if we do, we then struggle to understand the difference that it makes to systems. We often were limited to just people.
Don’t Whitewash Jesus
This redemptive-historical approach is necessary because Western Christianity tends to whitewash Jesus of his ethnic identity, as if his Jewishness is not relevant to his humanity and turns him into a raceless white male with brown hair and brown eyes.
You see, if you read the sermons preached to slaves and in the prayers of the Puritans who were chaplains on slave ships, you’d think that slaves were told that God loves them and cares for them, that Jesus died for their sins and that they stand before God as sinners saved by grace alone. But the difference is that slaves were told that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life as a slave, that this a wonderful plan for your life is to be subordinate to whites because whites have different promises and callings from God than blacks.
More Than Salvation
Reformed theological ethics orients this discussion, not only in terms of salvation and Christology, but also orients this discussion in the Bible’s grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation — God’s covenant story with his people and his entire creation. You don’t get past the preface of Mike Williams’s book As Far As the Curse Is Found without the realization of the importance of this grand narrative. He says this: “The creation, fall, redemption, consummation storyline is the central theme of the Scriptures and it forms the Bible’s overarching literary structure fall and redemption are meaningless outside of the context of God’s creation.”
Creation and fall together are the presupposition of the history of redemption considering in Jesus Christ. Moreover, Dr. William Edgar, says that the reformed succinct synopsis of the Christian faith as creation, fall, redemption explains why Christians care about the environment and business, ethics, arts, media, racism, and human trafficking in all forms of social injustice and oppression.
In fact, Henry Van Til observes this that the Calvinist does not become one-sidedly Christological and soteriological in his interpretations of man’s calling, but he continues to make the doctrines of creation and the providence in providence a part of his working capital. He does not believe, as some Christians seem to, that God now excused his believers from their cultural calling due to the urgency of the missionary mandate, which calls the church to make disciples of all nations. Reformed black theologians discuss race beginning with the doctrine of creation because that addresses the wedge that white Christians have attempted to place between whites and black existence.
Jesus’s Reign Extends over Everything
I focused on, in my own writing on race, black theologians, like Bruce Fields at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and race and the image of God in his book on Black Theology. Vincent Bacote at Wheaton College introduces a discussion of black racial identity in terms of creation in our book, Keep Your Head Up. Bacote acknowledges that these vital categories and doctrines help us understand who we are and how we should live. And here’s why, because Abraham Kuyper makes this profound statement that there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign, does not cry, “Mine.”
Christ, who is sovereign over all and is King over all, cares just as much about the injustice in the church, the injustice in neighborhoods as well as the injustice in the boardroom and in business and in sports and in Florida. Why? Because we must go deeper. Why? Because the gospel and the history of God’s covenant story of redemption orients us to the fact, as we see in Colossians 1, that God is reconciling all things to Christ. In Romans 8, we’re reminded that the whole creation groans for the sons of God to be revealed because those things that have been in frustration in the creation because of the fall are attached to decay.
Professor Williams would agree with Professor Edgar, who says that just as the fall affected the entire cosmos, so does redemption — it’s comprehensive. The new heaven and the new earth will not be a place for souls only, but also a remade humanity living in a new cosmos. Christianity says no to racism in the church and in any social structure that Jesus Christ is sovereign over. Discussions about the role of personal responsibility versus systemic and intervention are somewhat secular, because for Christians who are oriented toward God’s redemptive mission over his entire creation are not asking questions of if. They’re asking questions of how.
More Than Mere Freedom
As we think more broadly about this redemptive story — God’s covenant story of redemption — I’m reminded that that means that we have to take a step back and think holistically and ask the question “What is God’s will for humanity?” That would in fact be a challenge to some who conflate and often confuse sort of small little trinkets of change with the type of change that would be pleasing to the Lord. One of the things that I’ve been interested to study is the tendency for people to conflate abolition with loving black people. That is not the same thing, and historically, we’ve seen demonstrated that abolitionists were often no less racist than slave owners.
You could be for abolition, not because you love black people, but you could be against slavery simply because you didn’t want those people who were just a step above monkeys to be slaves, and unfortunately those things get conflated. My own concern is that we move this conversation forward as we think about the death and the expanse of God’s concern for not only souls and people, but also his concern for systems and structures that don’t mirror his glory. He sends his people into them on purpose because all things are being reconciled to Jesus Christ that we have to ask deeper, more penetrating questions.
One of the things that evangelicals need to do is actually listen to black and brown and yellow people, that the discussions of race has to be led by people whose perspective is different, who actually can communicate the ways in which they’ve been impacted and affected by race. One of the dreams that I have is that one day evangelicals will engage black theologians, that one day evangelicals will listen to and dialogue with theologians from the black church tradition asking different kinds of questions. We have to begin dialogue with those and also listen to black theologians and black pastors and leaders who are on the forefront right now like Bruce Fields at Trinity, Vincent Bacote at Wheaton, etc.
We also have to not only listen but think differently. One of the questions, Dr. Keller, that you raised in the preface of Bloodlines is why is it that a lot of whites don’t talk about race, a lot of preachers don’t talk about race. I think it’s, in part, because when we think about racism, we think about it in terms of what happened prior to the civil rights movement. We cannot have this discussion about race until we talk about micro-aggressions. I’ll give you an example of both of those things that happened to me on a regular basis.
Micro-Aggressions to Love
When I tell people I went at Clemson, the first question they ask me is this, “Did you play football?” I don’t know why they think that, but that’s the first question I usually get. This happens to me all the time especially in Midtown. I’m in a department store, dressed just like this, and I repeatedly get asked questions about whether or not an item is on sale, because even in Manhattan, to see a black man in a suit and a bow tie in the middle of the day shopping is weird.
The assumption is I must be some sort of employee of the store because this is the only reason why blacks are actually in Manhattan because Manhattan’s become so gentrified, that we’ve even lost the sense that we are here and live in Manhattan because of gentrification. We also must do this — and this is my deepest burden and this is something Dr. Piper mentioned in comments about Trayvon, and I would say needs to move forward because it wasn’t discussed too much in the book — is that we need to frame this discussion around love. It surprises me the extent to which Jesus’s own teaching about loving one’s neighbor is often missing from this discussion.
Often we want to transact reconciliation — have meetings, sing Kumbuya, and give people hugs. But often thinking about the difficulty and challenge of actually loving someone, loving your neighbor in the same way that God loves us. We have to remember as I think about my parents’ generation, what they heard from white Christians on both sides of Jim Crow was that they were saved by grace and that we will be together in the eschaton, but what they did not hear from white Christians is that they were worthy of being loved by them.
Everything Is His
Finally, as I think about the excellent start that we have with books like Bloodlines, I think we need to go much, much deeper. The challenge even for the both of you as you discuss race is “What next?” Much of the credibility of what is said here will be measured on the basis of what you all do for the next five to ten years in light of this discussion if your churches continue to look the same way they look now.
If the leadership in your organizations don’t change, people will be suspicious that this is just simply rhetoric. For example, when you look at a conference website about the gospel that has twenty speakers listed and nineteen of the speakers are white and one speaker is black, people will raise questions from the outset because it looks suspicious. Raise questions about what’s really going on, is this really progress or not if you’re comfortable with being in a space that has nineteen white speakers and one black one, as if possibly the nineteen their only black friend is that one.
This gospel that liberates us to love God and love neighbor and to think about a world in which God is pleased with how we live in society, how we live and our families, how we live and our church means that we must remember that God is about the business of reconciling all things. And that mission of God is something that we have the opportunity to participate in, and he uses us through our union with Christ to make this world right here, right now, reflect his glory and his mission because this world belongs totally and exclusively to him.