Citizenship Confusion: Why John Piper is Wrong and Why Racism Still Matters

Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

Last Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day when we offer a gesture towards admitting to our country’s horrible history of racism and acknowledging the courage of MLK to oppose it. As nice as that is, I can’t help but think about the way many Christians still think about race and racism. Things I’ve heard, read, thought, or said in the church:

“If they want to improve their lives, they should stop being so lazy and arrogant and get to work.”

“Our government is the real problem. If we just cut these people off from the welfare they are abusing, they would be forced to do real work.”

“Their culture is immoral. It promotes promiscuity, violence, substance abuse, disrespect of authorities, and playing the victim.”

“Their problem is that they don’t stop talking about ‘Racism’ as if it’s still an issue. Racism is done. Only hillbillies are racists these days.”

“Black people are making white people racist by stereotyping all of us as racist and taking our jobs and education and school-grants. Just treat everyone equally and racism will be gone!”

In other words, the church has an incredibly serious problem, which is itself a part of a national problem of immense proportions: Many of us assume that racism and racial discrimination are no longer significant issues in our society, when in fact they are. For example:

An incredible percentage of the Black male population of the US is incarcerated.

According to one study, white men make 11% more hourly than black men, even when you take factors like education into consideration.

As if that weren’t bad enough, black unemployment is usually around twice white unemployment. Yeah, you read that right. Think 8% unemployment sounds bad? Try 16%.

Have a traditionally black name? It could be harder to find a job.

Are you a black woman? You will probably not get married, in part because many elegible black men are in jail.

Young black man in New York? You’re probably going to get stopped and frisked by the police. Try not to look suspicious. And remember to respect and trust the police.

We could go on, but you get the point. Much of contemporary racism is structural. It has to do with our school systems, the media, hiring practices, unconscious (or conscious) racism in business, racial profiling, the decline of marriage, single-parent homes, etc. Yes, there are still plenty of people who are consciously and openly bigoted, but I suspect that the majority of discrimination that a black person in the US experiences comes in the form of unacknowledged institutional racism.

I believe that the racial discrimination facing black people in the US is easily one of, if not the biggest problem in our country and our churches. I know, you want to say our biggest problem is the economic crisis, but when you consider unemployment, the wage gap, cost of incarceration, and social programs for the poor, I have to think that discrimination is also costing us a lot of money and productivity. Racial discrimination is a destructive force in our society which profoundly hurts everyone, but particularly the victims of abuse.

. . . . . . . . . .

With these concerns, it was with great excitement and joy that I received the news that John Piper was to publish a book on racism: Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian.

This is the kind of high-profile exposure that we need to make the US church recognize institutional racism and take action. I was even happier when I saw that Piper began to give his book away. Unfortunately, it seems that while Bloodlines calls attention to racial inequality and the importance of racial reconciliation, it does so without accurately representing structural racism or presenting a reasonable solution.

Dr. Mark Mulder, associate professor of sociology and director of the urban studies minor at Calvin College, published a critical review of Piper’s book at Comment. He claims that Bloodlines has three major flaws. First, Piper “seems to have no sense that whites have more culpability than African Americans in this race/racism equation.” Second, Piper downplays the role of institutional racism by emphasizing personal responsibility. And third:

“[B]ecause he does not understand structural racism—Piper actively promotes the ‘miracle motif’ as the antidote to racism in the U.S. He argues that the answer to racism ‘is not government help or self-help, but the gospel of Jesus Christ’ and that ‘what is needed is a miracle.’ In essence, Piper asserts that conversion to Christianity is the only hope for the race problem. Such an attitude demonstrates an extreme obliviousness to the insidious nature of modern racism.”

Mulder concludes: “Yes, as Piper elucidates, the gospel gives powerful hope and impetus for reconciliation. However, racial justice also necessitates that Christians be committed to actively addressing the insidious structural nature of racism.”

Although I have not had the opportunity to read Bloodlines yet, if Mulder’s review is accurate, I have to agree with him that Piper’s solution ignores the reality of institutional racism. However, I think Mulder ultimately undervalues the role of the Gospel in racial reconciliation.

The Gospel does more than give “powerful hope and impetus for reconciliation”; it demands our humility, self-sacrifice, love for our neighbors, and hunger for forgiveness. I agree with Piper that the Gospel must be at the center of any attempt of racial reconciliation in the church. But I also agree with Mulder that the Gospel must motivate us towards critiquing structural racism, as opposed to only looking to change some attitude inside of us and our neighbors.

. . . . . . . . . .

I have no specific suggestions for how the church in the US ought to proceed with facing modern racism, but I do have a few general ideas:

1. Educate yourself. If we can’t acknowledge that institutional racism is real, we can’t do anything about it.

2. Begin with the Gospel, with Christ’s ultimate work of reconciliation and what it means for our neighbors. Allow that to humble you, to expose your pride and prejudices, and to embolden you to love ever more.

3. Read the thoughts of Anthony Bradley, one of my favorite voices in the PCA, on how we can love the city and minister to minorities. Bradley, I think, gives us a good place to start.

Lord willing, the church will lead society in racial reconciliation, and in so doing will reveal itself to be Christ’s disciples by loving one another. And there are some hints of it already happening.

Update 01/23/12

Just to be perfectly clear: I am grateful that Piper wrote this book and I agree with him that the Gospel must be at the heart of any attempt at racial reconciliation.

Update 01/24/12

I had this chance to read over Piper’s chapter on the structural vs personal approach to racism in the US, and I think I understand Mulder’s point a bit better. Piper clearly asserts that structural racism exists and must be addressed, however, he favors personal responsibility by devoting more time to pointing out the flaws in some failed attempts to address structural racism. So, to be clear, Mulder’s problem seems to be that Piper tries to be “fair” by giving structural and personal approaches equal time, but he ends up privileging personal activism when the emphasis ought to be on structural changes. Here’s Mulder again:

“The weight of social-science evidence consistently demonstrates that racial inequality in the U.S. has more to do structural discrimination than with personal responsibility.”

“Piper rightly asserts that Christians finding their ultimately identity in Christ would be a significant step toward reconciliation. What he gets wrong is his assumption that that would qualitatively change residential segregation, employment discrimination, and impoverished school districts.”

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • Alan Noble

    Title should have read “probably wrong,” since I haven’t read the book yet. But I have no reason to doubt Mulder’s summary of Piper’s argument.

  • Christina Iluzada

    Alan, this article troubles me. Why spend time critiquing a believer who is trying to accomplish racial reconciliation through the Gospel when there are so many evidences of explicit brokenness in the world that need to be addressed? Piper would be quick to say that racism still matters; I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why he wrote the book. As a personal, autobiographical confession of his own struggles with racism, the book’s goal isn’t to outline the best governmental programs for affirmative action and the promotion of racial equality by law. Its purpose is to challenge believers to examine their own hearts and to overcome racism by believing the Gospel more fully. Do you really want to fault him for that? It seems that your point number 2 in your ideas to consider is the main point of this book.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Christina, I think the article is less a challenge to whatever Piper’s book intends and more a challenge to believers to stop thinking of racism strictly in terms of individual response, since the biggest strongholds and generators of racist (and sexist) tendencies are the institutionalized sources. I didn’t sense any ill-feeling towards Piper in the article but maybe instead just frustration that the book might avoid or ignore one of the foremost examples of the problem of ongoing racism in our society.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    Seth hits the nail on the head – people think individual racism is all that’s left, and ignore the huge institutional and structural problems that mean that minorities are still more likely to be impoverished, that blacks and other minorities are more likely to be incarcerated, and that minorities are less likely to be in authoritative positions.

    One of the best articles I’ve read on this topic (unrelated to theology, to be clear), is “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. Basically, the article breaks down a number of ways in which white people are privileged above minorities. For example:

    -I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
    -If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
    -I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
    -I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
    -I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
    -I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
    -If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
    -I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.

    The list goes on and on.

    A major problem that I have with John Piper (and this is reflected in his hardline views on women, as well) is that he doesn’t see his own privilege. He can talk about racism and paint himself as someone who is learning to be post-racial, without ever actually engaging in the nitty-gritty of racism. If I can bring it up without completely derailing my point, Piper also fails to see his male privilege as well – he can, for example, give women in abusive relationships terrible advice (“endure for a season”), because he is not in a position where he has to think about abuse. And he can discuss racism as an individual problem that we all have to individually solve because he has never had to face the institutional discrimination that many POC have to face every day.

    It is also important to note: I’ve been to Piper’s church. It’s a very white church, in the middle of a very white suburb, of a very white state. If he lived in, say, Chicago, I doubt he’d be so ignorant of his privilege.

  • Alan Noble

    Christina,

    Yeah, I chose the title poorly, which is why I tried to correct it in my comment. The post is actually about two points:
    1. Piper misses the bigger picture of racism.
    2. Racism is still a big issue.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that Piper doesn’t think racism still matters, but my title is vague enough to suggest that I think so.

    And I do point out that I agree with Pioer about the centrality of the Gospel, I just think he needs to say more.

    Sorry about the confusion! Ill update the article to clarify my position.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    This is such a complicated subject. Even if we could snap our collective fingers and make all racism go away, how long would the fallout of racist practices remain with us? For example, two years ago we endured horrific tornadoes in my area of Alabama. Last night, I barely slept because we were under a tornado watch until the wee hours of the morning. Even if you could convince me that we will never see devastation in my area like that again, how long would it be before ominous thunderclouds ceased to make me afraid? So our culture isn’t only dealing with individual racism and institutional racism, but the fallout of hundreds of years of persecution and discrimination. One thing that Piper got spot on is that it would take a miracle to wipe all of that away.

    I should add that we are currently reading through Piper’s book as a Wednesday night book study. It has provoked some of our better discussions that we have had. In Piper’s defense, I would say that there is only so much that he can accomplish in one book, so I will forgive the oversight of institution as a racist stronghold. (I haven’t finished the book yet though.) And coming from a person who lives in Alabama and was raised in Alabama, individual racism is a big deal here and is worthy of a book addressing the issue.

  • http://e429.wordpress.com Wes Lauderback

    I finished the audiobook version of Bloodlines last week, & I thought Piper did an admirable job of pointing out that racism occurs on both the individual AND institutional level in this country. He may have leaned a little more toward the individual level, but he repeatedly pointed out that it is not an either/or situation but rather a both/and situation.

    I’m not sure the term “miracle motif” is accurate or helpful, but as far as promoting the Gospel as the only means to true racial reconciliation–of course he does! What other means has any hope of long-lasting true heart change?

    I also think it’s a little harsh to claim that Piper doesn’t see his own privilege (from Dianna’s comments above); he readily points out in the book that he is an outsider looking in, that on some levels he can’t fully understand what racism is like. However, he also has been able to recognize his own racism & is trying to do things that promote racial reconciliation in his own life & in his church. I get the feeling from his writing that he understands that his church is mostly white, & he would like to change that. His church apparently regularly holds joint services & other activities with minority churches in the area & is doing things to reach out to the large Somali population.

    All in all, I enjoyed the book, & it brought home some things about myself that I was not really aware of including my errant thoughts about the prevalence of racism in our society both individually & institutionally. The book is not perfect, but show me one written outside the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that is…

  • Alan Noble

    I think Mulder’s point is twofold:

    1. That institutional racism is proportionally more significant than individual racism and therefore deserves more time from Piper.

    2. That while the Gospel is important (I say essentially), it must lead us to address structural changes, which Piper did not stress enough.

    But then again, I might be misrepresenting Mulder and/or he might be misrepresenting Piper!

    For me, the important takeaway from this discussion is that we need to be more educated about this issue and look for ways of addressing it.

  • bil_

    Context, context, context.

    I was really enjoying your post (and a little shocked to hear such a strong critique of Piper) until I read this about 3/4 of the way through:

    “Although I have not had the opportunity to read Bloodlines yet…”

    Don’t you think that begins at the top of the article? How can you write authoritatively about a matter when you have only read a review about a product. This kind of half-engagement is also what’s wrong in many Christian circles. We hear what other’s think and make that opinion our own. We boycott movies or critique leaders, without ever directly engaging the material. How is this incarnational? How is this Christian?

    I appreciate your thoughts, Alan, but I was disappointed by your lack of direct engagement.

  • bil_

    “begins” should be *belongs* (sorry for the typo!)