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Friday, July 26, 2013

Comparing John Piper and Cornel West Regarding Trayvon Martin

The George Zimmerman's acquittal of murdering Trayvon Martin has caused more than a disturbance across the country. Why? It is because this acquittal is seen as being a part of an ugly pattern, a pattern where Blacks continue to get the short end of the stick of justice and many in the Black community righteously want that to end that now.

How should the Christian respond to all of this? The answer is not that simple since there are multiple ways Christians could and are currently responding. So this post will be about reflecting on two different Christian responses to see what we can learn about each one. 

Here, we will compare John Piper's response with that of Cornel West's. Please note the degree of inaccuracy this post is inviting by using only two sources for John Piper (click here for an audio interview and there for a blog post) and an interview with Cornel West by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now (click here for both the interview and its transcript). I should add that John Piper has a book on racism called Bloodlines. Unfortunately, I do not have access to the book for writing this post.

Both Piper and West are distraught over both the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. In his article, Piper questions the total innocence of Zimmerman as he notes Zimmerman's stalking behavior despite the instructions given him by the 911 operator. He also notes Zimmerman's size and age advantage over Martin and that he was carrying a gun. In addition Piper reflected on Martin's response of "they always get away"to the 911 operator. We should consider that despite Zimmerman's history of having positive race relations with Blacks, his comment lends weight to fact that Zimmerman's stalking of Martin could have been the result of what West calls the criminalization of poor people and the Black poor.

Neither Piper nor West have isolated the killing of Martin and Zimmerman's acquittal from the racism that Blacks have suffer here.  Piper goes on to assure those who are distressed by Zimmerman's actions as well as other racist actions by reminding us that justice will be accomplished during the final judgment. Piper goes on to say that either Zimmerman himself will receive God's full justice for whatever he did wrong against Martin or that justice will be transferred to Jesus on the cross if Zimmerman repents and believes. At the same time, both advocate working for social justice. Piper makes a point of saying that our hope in the full justice of God being satisfied is not an excuse to refrain from working for social justice here.

What are the key differences between Piper and West with regard to the Zimmerman killing of Martin and his subsequent acquittal? One key difference is in their urgency to establish justice here on earth. Most of Piper's hope for the restoration of justice lies in the future and thus he, despite his exhortation to Christians to work for social justice, lacks energy and focus when talking about what to do on earth. It is just the opposite with West. Saying nothing about the final judgment, West's total focus is on rectifying our problems with racism and poverty here and now. And not only is West zoomed in on changing the present, he includes continuing the rich traditions of past activists in battling today's evil.

What can we gain from this? We can gain if we do a version of the Miller-lite combination of "tastes great" and "less filling." What we should want to do is to combine strengths of both--we should note that synthesizing two different views is an approach that Martin Luther King sometimes took. Piper's strength is his hope in God's judgment as restoring justice. Of course, that idea should strike fear in everyone because we have all practiced injustice against others. At the same time, not only should our hope in God's final justice not excuse us from being involved in reversing the injustices of the world, we need to work for this justice with all of the grit and energy that Cornel West so naturally demonstrates. In other words, our hope for the future should give us more energy, at least more than those who have no hope, to work to bring justice now rather than act as a distraction. 

Another difference that exists between what we have of Piper's material and that of West is the scope of their vision. Listening to and reading Piper, we see his deep concern for Blacks and what they have had to endure in America. But West immediately links Zimmerman's attack on Martin with Obama's drone attacks on the children of color in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Obama is, according to West, a "global George Zimmerman" he justifies the drone killing of children claiming self-defense. West brings the drone attacks on these children up because he wants to be concerned with all of God's children, all are made in God's image. Their blood is no less important than ours or the blood of our children. Here, West follows the example King set when he spoke out against the violence suffered by the Vietnamese people during the war.

What we see here is that West's vision is wider than that of Piper's. This larger vision allows West to challenge Obama's words of sympathy for Trayvon and identification with young Black men by stating how Obama has not only worked to change their plight in this country. West continues by criticizing Obama's praise and choice of Ray Kelly for director of Homeland Security because, as  police chief of New York City, he defended and supported New York City's Stop And Frisk procedures. On the other hand, Piper can only celebrate Obama's exhortation that we should appreciate our current system of justice. He cannot look beyond Obama's words to see if he is walking the talk. 

There are other things on which we can compare  Piper and West, but let's stop and speculate why there are the above listed differences. Some of my fine fellow flaming fundamentalists friends and family might point to Piper's preaching of the traditional gospel, of redeeming those who repent and the judgment that awaits those who do not believe as the key to understanding the difference between the two. The problem with this line of thought is that the Gospel of individual salvation which Piper preaches, which seems to be absent in West's rhetoric, does not contradict West's concern for social justice. West's caring for all people regardless of race and nationality is very consistent with Galations 3:28, James 2:1-7, and the Scriptures that tell us we are all made in God's image.

Another factor that could explain the difference between Piper and West is their primary congregation and on which end of the whip each congregation lives. This is speculative and I could very well be wrong but it seems that Piper's congregation consists of a White majority. That does not mean that he does not preach to minorities, quite the opposite is true. And this does not imply any kind of racism on his part. We should note that Piper is just as opposed to racism as West. But, if this country is still mired in White supremacy, we should note that Whites will generally feel less urgency to change the status quo than Blacks because they don't live on the receiving end of the whip. Thus, generally speaking, Whites not only live in more comfort than Blacks, they have less reason to worry about their children and the future. 

On the other hand, West's listening seems to consist of a Black majority. This does not imply that no Whites are included in his congregation--I listen to him. We are simply talking about which group makes up the majority of his audience. 

As both Piper and West tailor their respective messages for their audiences, it would be quite natural for West to speak about changing the status quo and for Piper to pay more attention to keeping one's faith and the coming Kingdom of God. Generally speaking, Whites who live in a White supremacist society, do not feel the dire need for things to change that Blacks feel. And we should note that we are talking about generalities here. 

Finally, West sees himself as a revolutionary. From all appearances, Piper does not. This means that West wants a new system while Piper wants the current one to be repaired. Again, both are strongly opposed to racism. But both experience the world differently, something Piper readily acknowledges though not referring to West specifically, in part because of their race, and they have different immediate needs to address because of their primary targeted audience. 

As was written before, what we can do is to take the best of what both men have to offer and see what kind of mixture we can create that helps us to better apply God's Word to faith and to the world's problems with racism. 


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