Right Diagnosis—Wrong Cure
John Piper offers a trenchant case for why Christians should be committed to racial reconciliation—but he badly misses the mark on how.
In Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian, well-known Minnesota pastor and author John Piper presents a compelling and cogent biblical basis for active racial reconciliation for Christians. He rightly asserts that "to be a Christian is to move toward need, not comfort" when it comes to issues of racism.
Unfortunately, that contention comprises only the back half of the book. In the first section, chapters 1 through 6, Piper misguidedly dismisses the notion of institutional racism and advocates a for a "miracle motif" that rests on Christian conversion as the remedy for racism. In total, Piper's tome on race is twice as long as would be beneficial: while his articulation of a biblical rationale for racial reconciliation is thorough and well-evidenced, his discussion of modern manifestations of racism is thin and dismissive of the bulk of social-science evidence.
Though he seems to have slight regard for sociological study in the area of race, Piper cites and briefly discusses Michael Emerson and Christian Smith's 2000 book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. As Christian sociologists, Emerson and Smith saliently describe evangelical contributions to the racialized society (where the significance of race permeates everything from life experiences to life opportunities to social relationships). Emerson and Smith argue that the white evangelical cultural tool kit so privileged personal relationships that people of this faith tradition tended to be unable to understand structural inequality and racism. In other words, evangelicals perpetuate the racialized society because of a tendency to individualize the race problem, to assign blame to minority races themselves, and to focus on interpersonal solutions that fail to address institutional injustice.
In fact, Emerson and Smith found that evangelicals tend to rely on a "miracle motif" that assumes the problems related to race could simply be solved by individuals becoming Christians. Emerson and Smith concluded that "present day white evangelicals attempt to solve the race problem without shaking the foundation on which racialization is built. As long as they do not see or acknowledge the structures of racialization, they inadvertently contribute to them. And, insofar as they continue to give solutions that do not challenge racialization, they allow racial inequality and division to continue unabated." In short, white evangelicals in the U.S. exacerbate racialization because their highly individualized sense of Christianity causes extreme myopia regarding institutional and structural racism.
More than a decade later, Piper discusses race and the race problem in the U.S. in the same desultory ways that Emerson and Smith had critiqued. In short, he largely dismisses pursuing systemic solutions while advocating for conversion as the cure for racism. I'd like to offer three critiques of the first six chapters of Bloodlines.
First, Piper seems to have no sense that whites have more culpability than African Americans in this race/racism equation. Piper indicates that whites and blacks have "fallen together" and that "there can be no white or black finger pointing." Such a perspective seems to indicate no sense of historical record. Yes, all whites and African Americans are broken sinners in need of redemption. However, when it comes to the sin of racism in the U.S., the races simply do not have equal guilt. To avoid noting that whites have been the dominant oppressor in this relationship ignores the history and continuing legacies of slavery, Jim Crow laws, red lining and block busting (techniques implemented by real estate agencies to ensure a lucrative form of residential segregation), and employment discrimination—just to name a few. It is nothing less than irresponsible for a white man not to acknowledge that the weight of this social problem rests with the white race. They bear more responsibility.
Second, Piper ostensibly offers a discussion regarding racial inequality and the two poles of explanation: in short, is racial inequality in the U.S. due primarily to lack of personal responsibility or is it about systems of discrimination? Here Piper positions himself as if he is allowing both perspectives equal time. However, in practice it is clear that he sides with the notion of personal responsibility. Piper cites the 1996 Welfare Reform and school choice as appealing structural-level approaches. The difficulty, however, is that both rest on the notion that racial inequality has more to do with personal choices and motivation than with institutional racial discrimination.
An honest discussion of structural inequality would have noted the systemic manner in which racial minorities tend to lack the same access and opportunities as whites when it comes to housing, education, health care, transportation, and employment. 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 would do well to familiarize himself thoroughly with these studies.
Third—and this is because 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.
Although it is no longer as overt, racism continues to have devastating consequences—and, in some ways, is more pernicious than ever because of its stealthy operation. Because it exists at a structural level, yes, you may be a Christian and dedicated to eradicating racism, but you still participate in a racialized society in ways you do not fully recognize.
Because of that, Christians who care about racial justice also need to be committed to addressing discrimination at the institutional and structural level. And what has been left unsaid thus far is that while racial minorities have suffered from racial injustice, whites have, in turn, benefited. People do not give up privilege easily (even Christians) and sometimes the government is necessary in ensuring a measure of equal opportunity and justice. 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.
While Piper cites the racial-reconciliation work of John Perkins (founder of the Christian Community Development Association), he seems either unaware or uninterested in the fact that Perkins frequently discusses the necessity for change in structures and public policy. Perkins, somewhat similarly to Piper, champions the need for "incarnational evangelism" and personal salvation as impetuses for racial reconciliation. However, Perkins takes a step that Piper refuses: Perkins agitates for policy and structures that pursue racial justice. Perkins would discuss evangelism and equal opportunity, welfare, residential and school integration, and affirmative action. Piper, myopically, clings only to evangelism as a remedy to racism.
Similar to his truncated discussion of Perkins' work, Piper ironically utilizes William Wilberforce (1759-1833) as an historical exemplar for modern Christians to follow. Wilberforce, who Piper describes as an evangelical Christian, tirelessly fought against the British slave trade as a member of Parliament in England. Piper correctly notes that Wilberforce found animation in his deep Christian faith. However, what Piper fails to recognize is that Wilberforce did not attack slavery through conversion efforts. (It is more than likely that committed Christians actually participated in the slave trade.) Rather, he used a government apparatus to undermine an economic structure. Imagine how limited Wilberforce's efforts would have been if he believed that conversion had been the best effort for undoing the British slave trade.
In that same way, Christians in the U.S. today cannot rely on miracles to address the racialized society. 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. In Bloodlines, Piper offers a trenchant case for why Christians should be committed to racial reconciliation. Unfortunately, however, he badly misses the mark on how.