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

Citizenship Confusion: Why John Piper is Wrong and Why Racism Still Matters January 23, 2012

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.”

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