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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Grafted In: Challenging Supersessionism, Knowing as an Outsider, and the Genius of Willie Jennings

I'm admitting right up front that I'm trying to say too much in this one blog post.

As a budding scholar, a seminarian in the early 1980s, I watched the firestorm began to tear down the edifice of the Southern Baptist structures in which my life had been formed.  A new breed of white male leader committed to fundamentalist patriarchy and American exceptionalism rose to prominence (in contrast to the old breed of white male leaders who had begun to open the door a crack to white female leaders).  My first years out of seminary were spent in the trenches of struggle.  I did not like the possible future I could see on the horizon of struggling against fundamentalist ideologies, powerful authoritarian bishopoids, and absolutist idiosyncratic scriptural interpretation masked as inerrancy.  By the time I had gotten established in my doctoral studies I began to see the path that was being laid for me:  I was on my way out of the churches which had reared me to be something different than they were now becoming.

In my college days, there had been occasional interactions with a kind of hypercalvinism that held itself up as far superior to us lowly, confused baptists, but I had always assumed they were a kind of oddball fringe movement.  Later, when I heard on occasion that a new Calvinism was taking hold in some intellectual circles of Southern Baptist life, I still doubted it could fly.  Who in this contemporary world would finally accept notions of double predestination, limited atonement, irresistible grace, etc?  Wasn't that a scholasticism that had seen its moment in the sun, then gone on its way?  Sure, there was a "soft" kind of Calvinism which taught activism in faith while reserving the presupposition of comprehensive divine guidance of the world.  But actually reasserting the Puritan hubris of belonging to the elect for salvation, looking out at the rest of us as elect for damnation--I really didn't think that dog could run in our day and time.

I have taken my position as a former Southern Baptist very seriously.  I try not to be aware of what is happening in Southern Baptist organizations and life any more than I have to.  Even in the South, Black Baptist church life is dramatically different from the SBC.  But with some remaining institutional ties from college days at Baylor, and with family and friends who still have direct or indirect Southern Baptist connections, I do now and then get a glimpse into that world.  Fellow baptist scholars now and then talk to me about conversations they have had about Calvinism.  Facebook sometimes points me to something about Al Mohler's latest bending in the winds of doctrine, which has made him a poster scholar for Calvinism.  I occasionally take a look at Roger Olson's blog to learn about the current conversation about Calvinism and Arminianism.  And here and there, in conversations about "emergents" and new movements, I keep hearing about young Calvinists. 

A recent conversation with a professor at a baptist university in the South got my attention.  He told me that for the most part, the Christian students on campus who are very serious about living their faith are reading John Piper and convinced of this Calvinist theology.  I found out that this Calvinist resurgence really is a thing.  If it is a thing, I'm going to have to learn more about it.  The Puritan Calvinism that was so influential in shaping U.S. culture has left a residue that this sort of theology helps to rationalize and justify.  That residue, which is common among Calvinist and Southern Baptist and Evangelical and even Liberal churches in the U.S., is theological supersessionism.  Anglo-American culture is the new "chosen people."  Even not very churchly U.S. folks tend to believe that "we" are the ones destined by God to make the world what it is supposed to be.  Not all these believers in American exceptionalism actually have an argument to sustain it theologically, but the Puritan heritage of Calvinism definitely knew why they believed it.

The precipitating event for writing this post was my stumbling upon a critique of contemporary Calvinists by Christian Piatt.  I was impressed with Piatt's insight into one of the serious problems of this theology.  He points out that there is a suspicious assumption by those who believe that God has elected certain persons for salvation that they are the very ones who are the elect.  The forerunners of this kind of thinking in North American theology were the colonial era Puritans.  They were critics of the national churches of early modern Europe, influenced by Protestant Scholasticism and hard predestinarian theology.  I'll get back to their theological dilemma and anxiety later.

Moreover, a hard notion of predestination leads to the conclusion that genocides, murders, epidemics, disasters, and every form of death and time of death happens by God's direct will, as John Piper seems willing to affirm.
It's right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.
God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God's hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.
So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.
If I were to drop dead right now, or a suicide bomber downstairs were to blow this building up and I were blown into smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. He does no wrong to anybody when he takes their life, whether at 2 weeks or at age 92.
God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn't owe us anything.
Now add to that the fact we're all sinners and deserve to die and go to hell yesterday, and the reality that we're even breathing today is sheer common grace from God.
Piper presents his point of view as purely logical.  He allows the "logic" of ancient tribal notions of God, combined with his assumptions about the nature of the sovereign God of monotheism, to make it easy for him to accept despicable acts.  The pervasiveness of sin in Piper's mind makes nothing surprising or alarming to him.  Such calmness and coolness in the face of immense evil seems problematic to be coming out of the mouth of one whose faith is in the God who says, "I have loved you with an everlasting love," and who teaches us to "Love your neighbor as yourself."  But within the cool calculations of double predestination, he has no trouble saying these things.

This aspect of predestinarian overconfidence was the theological underpinning of domination and genocide of Native Americans.  Reformed doctrine combined divine predestination with a hermeneutical endorsement of Old Testament stories of conquest and monarchy that called them the way of God in history.  Thus, Puritan immigrants appropriated for themselves the biblical notions of the Promised Land, the genocidal conquest, and the no quarter given policy toward idolaters and the nations.  This theology took root in New England and in South Africa, though the South African colonizers were less successful in their genocidal wars.  This is another argument I will return to later.

I have always admitted that because of being a slow reader I am not able to keep up with all current theology.  I depend on my colleagues to be reading other sources I'm not able to get to.  Now I guess I'm going to have to pick up some more writings by John Piper.  Christian Piatt argues that statements like that one of Piper's quoted above provide a theological justification for racism.  I tend to agree, but need to make sure I read enough from an author to be able to accurately draw such a conclusion. 

In my little bit of reading so far, I find that Piper believes he can hold his double predestinarian doctrine in full compatibility with a commitment to racial harmony.  His book, Bloodlines, addresses the social problem of racism as a serious one for the church.  He admits to having been formed in racist thinking and acting it out in his youth.  In this book and elsewhere he cites Martin Luther King, Jr., John Perkins, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and other African American anti-racists to bolster his case.  The book is not making a hard case for racial equality, although he seems to believe that is a good idea.  His favored term is racial harmony.

I will concede one of his theological defenses.  He says it was not really his Reformed doctrine upbringing that made him a racist.  His defense is that other Protestants, Catholics, Christians and religious folks of all sorts also lived and believed racism.  This is true. 

The links between racist ideologies and Christian faith are not limited to the Reformed tradition.  Luis Rivera-Pagan demonstrated the ways that Catholic theologies became adapted to racism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in their participation in the conquest of the Caribbean and Latin America in his book A Violent Evangelism.  The structuring of racialized ontologies into modern Enlightenment thinking and the pervasive influence of white supremacy on European and North American worldviews and Christian religious thought receives excellent analysis in Race, by J. Kameron Carter.  Willie Jennings displays episodes through which racism reshaped Christian thought in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and North America, in The Christian Imagination.  James Cone's recent The Cross and the Lynching Tree leaves little doubt that as progressive a thinker as Reinhold Niebuhr, among many others, was unable to escape the ways that North American culture has so thoroughly encoded the violence of atonement upon racial violence.  A Christian does not have to be a Calvinist to be a racist.

It seems Piper's primary motivation toward hoping for a church that demonstrates racial harmony is the vision of Revelation.  There we find that every tribe, nation, people, and language join together in unison praise of God.  Piper rightly understands this consummating vision as pointing to the nature of God's purpose for the church even in our time.  I'll want to come back to this matter later, because it is not clear to me how in a predestined world that exists in division, a racially integrated church makes much sense.  For now, let it be acknowledged that not only Reformed Christians are racists, and that Piper has good biblical basis for advocating racial harmony in churches.

That defense aside, I have not yet found in Piper an attempt to address the particular linkage between Reformed doctrine and imperialist/colonialist ideologies that comes from a distinctive Reformed hermeneutical claim.  In arguments against Anabaptists, Calvin advocated a dual path of divine authority over the world.  Christ rules immediately in the spiritual realm.  Christ rules through mediation of rulers in the temporal realm.  This variation on Luther's "two governments" responds to the Anabaptist belief that Jesus' words from Mark 10:42-45 was the only model for human society for those who follow Jesus.  Calvin said that Jesus' saying might apply only to the spiritual realm.  In its place, he offered the Old Testament Davidic Monarchy as the divinely ordained model for temporal rulers. 

It was this hermeneutic among Puritan divines that gave rise to the idea that Puritan settlers in New England and South Africa should overlay the biblical stories of Abraham and Joshua upon their communities and destinies.  God would give them a Promised Land, but they must drive out and exterminate the heathen inhabitants.  It's secularized translations of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism carry forward the supersessionist heresy that says God has revoked the election of Israel and chosen in their place the Anglo-American Christian Protestant Capitalist as the new improved replacement elect.  This hermeneutical conviction is at the core of supersessionism.  And it is an inherently racialized vision, an ecclesiology of white supremacy.

I gather from my initial reading that Piper has not directly embraced this sort of thinking.  He is not likely to fit into the committed camps of theonomy, dominionism, or reconstructionism, which he seems to disavow.  These groups find themselves quite disappointed with him for not advocating Christian use of force to fight the Satanic powers in the world.  For instance, Piper argues that Christians ought not to kill in self-defense for the sake of the gospel, but be willing to die (knowing they are saved by God) rather than take the life of someone else (whom they suspect has not been saved).  Here he sounds somewhat less predestinarian than elsewhere, and even echoes some ideas one might find in Yoder's writings.  If it matters that one wait before taking another person's life who may not be saved, that implies one's active faith is critical to carrying forward the divine decree of election.  He seems to be allowing that a person must have faith activated to fulfill his notion of the five alones:
Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, on the authority of Scripture alone. At the center of these "alones" is the precious teaching of justification by faith alone.
Yet he teaches this in the very same context as the TULIP acronym of Calvinism.  To challenge Piper, a reconstructionist Calvinist might reply that if a person without faith were one of the elect and about to die, the irresistible grace of God would activate faith necessary for salvation in a timely fashion in the final moment of life (or some such technical solution that could maintain the closed loops of predestinarian doctrine).  Or maybe the reconstructionist would not care.  But my point is that in such a tightly fashioned system of certainty, there is a way to answer his objections and question why Piper need bother to encourage nonviolence.

This problem of violence seems not to bother him so seriously in his earlier cited remarks about mass murder of women and children.  And it is this core commitment of double predestinarian theology that always demands my attention and critique.  Nonviolence, for Piper, seems like the way that Jesus would have us go, but it does not characterize the way of God whom Jesus is supposed to reveal.  Rather than rereading the Old Testament understandings of the One God in light of Jesus, finding inconsistencies between the received and written insights of those who did not have the final revelation in Christ, and questioning whether they accurately represented this One and the Same God that Jesus revealed, Piper says God does this sometimes and that sometimes.  Could the Israelite leaders and writers who had not heard from Jesus have assumed that their God, like the gods of the nations, would want Joshua to lead genocidal raids on Canaanites?  Could they have been mistaken?  Could the revelation in Christ offer a corrective?  Piper says maybe we should pay attention to Jesus on these matters of using violence, even though the very same violent actions in other seasons can very well be what God wants.

Roger Olson helpfully analyzes the dilemma of predestinarian theologies.  They cannot overcome the inconsistency in the concept of God's goodness.  If God is good, as revealed in Jesus, and we have received revelation of God's goodness, then we must be able to give at least some account of what that goodness means.  To refuse such an account by placing the divine counsels beyond all human comprehension, mysteries in eternity before the foundation of the world, then to allow for all sorts of despicable evil to fit within some elusive, incomprehensible, incommensurable, transcendent, opaque, inscrutable notion of God's goodness, is to say that we have no idea what God's goodness could mean.  And that leaves us only with goodness that is equivalent to arbitrariness and whimsey.  If God has revealed Godself, then we must be able to know some measure of what divine goodness must be.

The age in which we find ourselves now living is dominated still by white supremacy, so that the lives of non-European, non-United States white folks continue to be worth little and less, so that people are marked by their skin color for poverty, slavery, and death, all for the sake of unhindered natural resources and inexpensive consumer goods flowing to the privileged and powerful.  In a predestined world, we know that total depravity is a mark of humanity.  Sin abounds.  Many die every day from violence and its minions, poverty, disease, starvation, and pollution.  By this set of theological assumptions, they also die as God intends.

Are these who die and are not members of certain Reformed churches--are they elect to damnation?  Are those privileged to argue theology among the wealthy leisure classes elect to salvation?  Or is the mystery of divine election far less certain?  The Puritans of the seventeenth century became anxious about this very question.  They understood themselves to be a vanguard for divine truth.  They stood against the established Anglican and Catholic orders to purify doctrine and the church.  It should not be surprising, then, that they initially had confidence that their specific calling gave evidence of their being among the elect of God.  But the logic is not airtight.  What if they simply by their social location had learned these true doctrines, but had not been elect from before the foundation of the world for salvation?  Certainly, the teaching said that the merit of having true doctrine or of attending a true church or of living a righteous life would not be effective for salvation.  Only God's grace in election could do that.

On the other hand, if faith is a measure of election, and they were demonstrating faith, then it could be true that God's grace had initiated and sustained faith in them effective for salvation.  On this basis, the Puritans of the seventeenth century developed a theory of evidences or "signs of election."  First, the participation in a true church was one sign of election.  To be drawn to God in this way might indicate the existence of the faith that comes by grace.  Second, a righteous life might be a sign of election because the person demonstrates evidence of regeneration of their sinful human nature to serve God, which only comes by grace.  Finally, John Cotton is often credited with drawing focus on the quintessential American doctrine of an experience of grace.  If a person had mourned over sin and feared its results, only to find surprising joy and release through grace, forgiveness, and the desire to do good works, that person also shows evidence of the grace of election.  Together, these three signs came to be considered adequate evidence of being among the elect, although frankly the anxiety of double predestination never quite went away.  Some claim that the anxiety over predestination was a dominant characteristic of Puritan culture.

This awareness of an indecipherable, seemingly arbitrary divine election, would seem to elicit an air of futility for those who hold such doctrines.  The anxious questioning would seem to be the unraveling of such a faith.  Yet it still survives with some vigor.  What is the likelihood that racial harmony in the church falls under the divine intention at any specific time in history?  If God is directing the murders, the infanticides, the eldercides, the genocides, the racial and ethnic cleansings, the religious wars, the mass murders, the nuclear annihilations, the serial killers, the drug wars, the industrial accidents and poisonings, the slave trade and middle passages, the death camps, the disappearings, the human trafficking, the weapons trafficking--if the regimes and technologies of death occur, as Piper seems to believe, within God's intentions, who is to say that in any particular age God has elected people with various racial and ethnic assignations to be saved? 

Maybe during the mass deaths of Africans from the Atlantic Slave Trade, all the Africans were elect to damnation.  Maybe that's why blacks and whites were not in church together.  Maybe the Africans elect for salvation come from different centuries than those.  In the eternity envisioned in Revelation, they would coexist for shared worship, even though in history they were centuries apart.  People from different tribes, nations, peoples, and languages might have lived in different eras, but in eternal life they all live together.  Maybe none of the white people going to church in the 21st century are elect from before the foundation of the world.  How can we know?

I suspect someone as intelligent as John Piper, who also displays credible devotion to following Jesus, could offer replies to many of my questions.  I think he might catch some weak arguments on my part here and there.  But I do not think he can quite escape the web of questions his system of doctrine creates.  The attraction of a system of theology that seems to close all the loops is, from my perspective, why people keep returning to this kind of Reformed predestinarianism.  And the internal arguments and divisions are myriad.  There is a wide range that goes by Reformed or Calvinist theology, although some would claim that it is possible to find a subset of common convictions, and place John Piper somewhat off the center of things.  So if it seems I am denying the good in any Reformed theology, I am sorry to have communicated poorly.  That is not my intent, even if I am ever engaged in doctrinal battle around many matters of difference I have with Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, and even my own Baptist theologies.  While all dominant streams of modern theology have failed to adequately overcome white supremacy, I would stand by my argument that Reformed double predestination is especially vulnerable to this failure.

So to get back to the title, what is the genius of which I speak?  Christian Piatt makes another remark worth noting at the end of his post.  He points out examples of many different streams of faith who claim that they are God's chosen, that place "themselves at the center of such a God-and-humanity love story when they are the ones telling the story."  In light of that, he lifts up a challenge:  "show me the faith that looks outside of their own tradition to point to another group as the ones favored by God."

That line took me back to a specific text, a specific conversation.  It is an argument made in the theological writing of Willie Jennings.  It is addressed to the racialized existence of modernity and our churches which organize themselves within this racialized logic.  Jennings argues that the uniqueness of Christian faith is that it offers a message of salvation to those of us on the outside.  God's elect of Israel (the people, not the nation-state) are chosen to be a light to the nations.  That destiny, fulfilled in Jesus yet continuing in them, invites Gentiles (the nations) to be grafted in and beloved of the God who was not their God.  Those who are not the chosen people are invited into the fold.  The ones who were far off have been draw near.  We who were not a people have become a people.  We are a people who exist only because we have been invited by the Jews' God to make of our differences a way of living and loving one another in the full beauty and diversity of God's creation.  That theology, I think, is an answer to what Piatt is asking for.

Piatt is on to something.  The notion of finding ourselves as God's favorites in the world is a destructive notion in theology.  Doctrines of predestination linked to imperial and colonial programmes created some of the worst examples of that destructiveness.  Supersessionist conclusions follow too easily on such distortions of the faith.  A theology which does not separate faith from faithfulness, divine grace from co-operation in grace, divine unction from willing reception, and the power to create from the power to allow other free beings to act creatively--this sort of theology gives room to make sense of our duties to struggle against racism, empire, colonialism, and evil in all its structural and systemic forms.  And in the church, we do so as those who know from the outside what it is like to want to be on the inside, and to receive the graceful invitation to join those chosen of God and become one people.

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