I could feel the anxiety stirring in my heart as I sat at my computer. I had just learned that John Piper was going to be making a public statement about race and my first thought was, “Please, don’t let him fail us too.” Like many other evangelical minorities, the past few years has been a season of deep disappointment. Time after time, many of us have witnessed our living Christian heroes betray us with apathy and at times antagonism concerning issues that affect our communities. Before I share my thoughts regarding Piper’s statement on racial Harmony, I want it to be clear regarding the posture I have as I approach it. I am not a pessimist, though I understand why I can be perceived that way. I believe that Jesus is risen and the Holy Spirit dwells in believers and so I will always be hopeful. However, I am a realist and as I reflect on my interactions regarding race issues with my white brethren I am not optimistic about change. As a Christian counselor who has a special focus on racial trauma, I have heard too many stories regarding the pervasiveness of racial indifference and trauma to be naively optimistic about the future of the American church and racial harmony. I want it, i pray for it, and I have shed many tears before the throne room of grace begging God for it. I have simply become content in the fact that God may not answer my prayers regarding this issue, and I will likely not see widespread racial harmony in my lifetime. So, I approached Piper’s message as someone who was prepared to listen to a message that I believed would tell me more about the man than about the hope I should have in the direction of the majority culture American church. I was prepared to be disappointed, and possibly deeply discouraged after listening to it, I’m thankful that I was not.
It is a humbling reality to recognize how fragile our legacy can be. We can have ambitions, and desires regarding the mark we want to leave on the world, but in the final season of our lives, we can severealy damage it simply by not finishing well in faithfulness. Over the past few years, I have witnessed many legacies become tarnished due to racial indifference and/or antagonism. I have watched renown ethicists compromise their legacies in ethics by justifying or minimizing racism and white supremacy. I have witnessed pastors and theologians do the same, and in so doing forever impacting the mark they will leave on the church as they go on to glory. As we reflect on history, we see this same issue plaguing some of white evangelicalism’s greatest heroes. Recently, many black christians who have been discipled within white contexts have begun re-evaluating Jonathan Edwards’ legacy in light of his embrace of slavery. George Whitfield has recently been placed under an even more intense microscope due to his influential role in perpetuating slavery in the state of Georgia. There are men today who have had decades of faithful ministry who will largely be remembered, by minorities, by their final season of ministry where they have served as a thorn in the side of ethnic harmony in the American church.
The Racial Legacy of Piper
This brings us to John Piper. John Piper’s primary legacy in the church has been to contextualize Jonathan Edward’s theology of God for the 20th and now 21st-century church. John Piper’s primary influence has been towards white evangelical Christians who identify with the movement called the called the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR). To be clear here, Piper’s legacy has been to contextualize a slave master’s theology of God for predominately white 20th and 21st century Christians. As we reflect on Piper’s life and ministry, we can all say with confidence that he has been successful in his goal. Not only that, but he has been successful in contextualizing a slave master’s theology in such a way that it has been appealing to people of color as well, even African Americans. I have my hunches as to how this was accomplished, but I will leave those ideas for another day.
Piper’s legacy is multifaceted, and I believe, with respect, it has some positive and negative elements to it. I do not believe Piper’s impact on complementarianism is something that will leave a positive lasting legacy. As a complementarian myself, I believe Piper’s view of complementarianism and CBMW, in general, is largely encultured and shouldn’t be transferred on to future generations. As a Christian counselor, I have seen the impact of Piper’s position of marital permanence and how it has impacted marriages, especially women who are married to abusive husbands. These two issues are worth mentioning as I consider Piper’s legacy, and more could be said. I do pray that he changes his views on these issues and serves his legacy before he is called home. However, in this article, I want to focus on his legacy concerning racial harmony. When it comes to the issue of racial harmony, Piper has been consistent and is continuing to be faithful.
Christian Hedonism and The Haunting of Edwards [Piper’s Racial Legacy Continued]
Despite Piper’s influence and the appeal of his big God theology, the past few years have brought his contributions under scrutiny by a large percentage of black evangelicals. Many of us have been led to ask the question, Regardless of refinement, what does a slave master’s theology have to do with us?” Furthermore, how can a slave master’s theology encourage racial empathy in the hearts of the young minds who embrace it? Christian hedonism is an appealing idea, but is there a place for it in the church when it is haunted by a slave master? Last night, John Piper answered this question. He came before those who are influenced by him and demonstrated that he truly is standing on the shoulders of Jonathan Edwards. Piper has taken Edwardian theology and carried it beyond the point of where Edwards himself could take it. In many ways, Piper redeemed his Christian Hedonism by establishing a pillar of racial empathy on its foundations. This is a point that needs to be stressed. Piper could’ve followed the path of many of his peers, and he would’ve delegitimized his theological legacy. Instead, Piper has been reinforcing his legacy by not shying away from the racial tensions that come with his theological convictions. I rejoiced when I learned he had adopted a black daughter. I received him when I read his confession of racism in Bloodlines, I prayed for him as he delivered a message to Bethlehem seminary encouraging the students to stand for the Kingdom of God and not vote for the “lesser of evils”, and I was now there as he delivered a heartfelt message to his ministry supporters concerning the current racial tensions in the church. John Piper has faithfully stood on the shoulders of Edwards and as he has lifted up Edwardian theology but has also intentionally kept Edwards’ white supremacy under his feet. Jonathan Edwards still haunts Christian Hedonism, but Piper has given me hope that the two will not always be wedded together. I believe that Piper’s theology is unique and impactful enough that it should stand on its own. I do not consider Piper an Edwardian, I consider Piper to be a theologian who has been influenced by Edwards, but who has established his own theological expression; Piperian theology.
I was deeply encouraged by Piper’s message. I was thankful for the clarity and boldness he spoke with. Piper did not shy away from bringing up Donald Trump and the negative impact on racial harmony his white evangelical support base has caused. Before Trump’s election, I wrote an an appeal to white evangelicalism and warned them of what their support for Trump would do to race relations in the church. It’s unfortunate that I was right, but it was encouraging to hear Piper speak about it, and recognize some of the issues I brought up. I appreciated Piper speaking about the recent shootings of unarmed black men and boys. I will never forget the first time I spoke about the killings of black men myself. After Eric Garner was choked to death by police officers, I posted his video on Facebook and lamented the injustice. I had several white seminary friends rebuke me by saying, “Why are you posting these things?! I thought you were one of us?!” My life over the past year has been filled with white evangelical voices telling me I am divisive for speaking about the killings of unarmed black men. I was thankful to hear Piper affirm that these deaths matter. My most read article to date has been a piece I have written on the kneeling protests in the NFL. I was thankful for Piper’s willingness to mention this issue as well, as the white evangelical response to the protests have been deeply discouraging.
The most important part of Piper’s message was his appeal to white evangelicalism to be more understanding regarding white normativity and the dominance of their own culture. For me, I thought his points here were excellent and well needed. I have been speaking about such issues for a while, but I am fully aware that Piper, as a white man, has way more credibility to speak about these things. When I do, as a person of color, I am largely perceived as being divisive and as a racist. Piper’s message was clear, bold, and concise. I am deeply thankful for my brother, and I wept and rejoiced as I witnessed his faithfulness to proclaim the truth in love.
The Impact of Piper’s Message
I wish I could say I’m optimistic regarding the impact of Piper’s message, but I do believe that it has come too late. I believe that there is a greater likelihood of irony in many saying to Piper, “Farewell, John Piper” than there is for those currently hard-hearted to change their minds. The poison of apathy has already spread too deeply for Piper to be the catalyst I wish he could be for white reformed evangelicalism. In my view, too much time has passed, and the toxins of racial indifference run too deep, for my generation to change so easily. It is easier to dismiss Piper, than to truly engage and reflect on what he has said. I hope I am wrong, but my experiences and the experience of others speak too clearly. I do believe that Piper’s words will echo through time and the younger generation will hear them. I pray they hear the words of Piper before they hear the siren call of racial indifference which has lured away the YRR community I love and was once in deep fellowship with. I believe that white Christians who are abounding in love will affirm Piper and continue on the trajectory they are already on. Those who disagree with Piper’s exhortations, in my opinion, will dismiss him and continue on a path of division. God is pruning his church, and in the process, we are witnessing many people who we thought were with us, be exposed as not truly part of the household of faith.
Setting an Example
Piper has set an example of what should be normal among white evangelical leaders. It shouldn’t be rare to see white evangelical leaders stand up and risk their ministry platforms by speaking out about racial indifference and white supremacy. This is an important point that I believe needs to be made; what Piper did shouldn’t be considered heroic. What Piper did should be normative for white evangelical leaders with platforms in light of the history of white evangelicalism. The fact that Piper is considered going above and beyond here is an indictment regarding how little risk white evangelical leaders have been willing to take in standing with minority brethren. As of now, just as it was during Jim Crow, black Christians are the ones expected and forced to take on the brunt of risk regarding ethnic reconciliation in the church. This shouldn’t be. White Christian male leaders in evangelicalism are the group with the most power, privilege, and influence in the American church; it’s not okay that only a few of them have been willing to march on the front lines of this issue. Many minorities have already lost their ministries or support due to speaking about race issues over the past few years. Many minorities have already had their entire worlds crumble, & have had to care for their wife and children who have suffered due to their faithfulness. For many minorities, there is a feeling that they stand alone and that feeling will remain until more white Christians and Christian leaders demonstrate partnership by joining them on the front lines of risk and cost.
Piper stated in his message, that African American Christians are “loosening their ties” with white evangelicalism. This is an ongoing misunderstanding regarding not only Piper’s perspective on what is occurring but also with many other white evangelical leaders. The issue is not that African American Christians are loosening ties, the issue is that many African Americans and other minorities are coming to realize that they were never truly part of the tapestry in the first place. I was encouraged by Piper’s depth of empathy as he described what has been going through the minds of minorities. At one point, Piper said, and I paraphrase, “many minorities feel like [towards white evangelicalism], we thought we knew you, but now we aren’t sure.” I believe Piper has the right idea, but I don’t think he is fully grasping the depths of the divide. It’s not that we aren’t sure, we’ve been made sure and for many of us, we have become convinced that we never knew white evangelicalism. Many minorities are in a season of healing and recovery from racial trauma. Many minorities no longer recognize their pastors and their faith families are unrecognizable to them as well. As a Christian counselor who has provided soul care for many minorities who are struggling with racial trauma; I’m not sure Piper and other leaders are truly grasping the depths of division that currently exists in the evangelical landscape. Many minorities are not seeing themselves as “loosening ties”, they see themselves as leaving an abusive relationship. An abusive relationship that has persisted for centuries in various forms. An abusive relationship that has taken advantage of the love, forbearance, & long-suffering of minorities at every turn. White brethren, don’t underestimate the impact of racial indifference. Your indifference, your silence, your antagonism, your support of racist ideas and politicians have left minorities traumatized, and many are fleeing white evangelicalism and not just loosening ties. I don’t want to fault Piper for not understating the depths of the issue. It is very possible that he is not having the same conversations that I am having. He is an elderly white man, and I am a black Christian [ with a multi-ethnic heritage] counselor who is specializing in racial trauma. I am sure we are likely having different kinds of conversations with minority sheep. It is easier for minorities to share with me the genuine depths of their trauma than it may be for them to share with an elderly white brother regardless of his level of sincerity. What should be acknowledged, however, is that it is clear Piper is indeed talking to minorities and this is a commendable point. Still, it is understandable that it could be rather challenging for a minority who is seeking to abound in love to tell a white person that they genuinely don’t feel safe within their church and are suffocating under the indifference and are disconnected due to their need to heal.
Overall, I am thankful for John Piper and for the boldness in which he spoke to his tribe. If I’m honest, I think there is a desperate need for white evangelical leaders to build deep relationships of trust with minority leaders so that there can be a safety net where true depth of feelings can be shared. I believe that if more well-meaning white pastors had such relationships with minority leaders, there would be more weeping prophets in the pulpit and we would see more hearts broken and repentance occurring. I think one of the issues that are preventing more lamentation and change in white churches is that there is a lack of understanding regarding how serious the cancer of racial disharmony actually is. I think we, as a household of faith, have to get to a place where minorities will risk and be more open to sharing the true depths of their offense. I think that we need more white leaders who can be trusted on such a deep level by these minorities. Ultimately, I think both parties will need to brace themselves because when the true depths of the issues are brought to light, reconciliation will be more painful than romantic.
[Piper’s message linked below]
You can follow me on Twitter @KyleJamesHoward. Also, check out my podcast “Coram Deo Podcast” which focuses on issues concerning Biblical Counseling and Practical Theology. You can search for podcast on any major podcast catcher, listen on the web here, follow updates @CoramDeoPodcast, or just click the artwork below.
Kyle J. Howard currently serves the church as a Christian counselor. He is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he received his associate degree in biblical/theological studies and a bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling. He currently lives in Atlanta & is finishing an advanced M. Divinity in Historical Theology and ultimately desires to pastor.