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Contentment and Systematic Oppression

19 January 2015


A recent article posted on desiringgod.org, the official site of John Piper’s ministry, purported to give a Christian response to racism in the United States on the occasion of Martin Luther King day. The post summarized four things the author wished his son to remember as a black man in the United States. As it turns out, none of them were particularly Christian.

I’ll respond to each of the points in turn.

Repent or perish

In this section, the author argues that the black response to racial violence should be one of repentance and examination of their wrongdoings. This supposedly follows from Luke 13:1-3.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Of course, the purpose of the statement is revealed in the words “do you think…?” Jesus does not tell them to abandon grief and anger felt on behalf of others to consider their own lot. Actually, there’s no evidence his Galilean subjects felt any grief or anger. Rather, they were using the suffering of others to claim that they were morally better. It’s this self-righteous tendency that Jesus condemns.

If the black community’s response to racism involved inner division and taunting of those most affected, applying Jesus’s words might be reasonable. However, the exact opposite is the case. The black response to racism has largely been outrage, and rightly so. Jesus’s words should be reserved for those who use the tragedies of others to condemn.

From the article:

When black people like us are murdered because of racism, it should humble us to examine ourselves, to remember that we deserve wrath at the hands of the thrice hold [sic?] God.

Too much has already been said about the coldhearted, unempathetic response of evangelicals to suffering for me to do more than note its presence here, and unhappily move on. I would have skipped it entirely, but the words “we deserve wrath at the hands of … God” deserves special notice and condemnation.

I think it reveals a particularly nasty theology to attribute “wrath” (in the sense the evangelicals mean it) to God. This problem is close to the heart of their empathy problem: if God himself wants these people to suffer a million times worse than they are suffering now, who am I to alleviate their suffering or seek to right injustice? I have written much elsewhere about this, and so I will drop it here to avoid the deep theological water that laps at my toes.

Your identity is found in Christ

Here, the author appears to be condemning using a person’s color as an identity, as opposed to the Christian / non-Christian distinction. Here we must watch for a subtle push against “black identity”. It’s important to realize that the privileged white hand that classes all people of color together may be arbitrary, but it is powerful regardless. Because black people are oppressed as a group, it is important that they be able to respond as a group.

Similarly, gay people frequently “identify” very strongly as gay because they as a group are oppressed. It’s important that they be able to fight for their rights, and to take pride in their identity, simply because many believe that being gay should be shamed.

That’s why we recognize Black History Month — not because black people are better than white people and deserve their own month, but because by default the other eleven months of the year are all too often White History month.

God is sovereign

Again, not too much to say here. It’s the usual evangelical response to the classic dilemma between God’s omniscience, sovereignty, and goodness. I don’t think it’s logically consistent — at all.

I do want to highlight several sentences in particular:

We don’t question God’s sovereign acts, we trust him and his promises. We know he is involved in the details for the good of his people.

How can a view like this lead to anything other than complacence in the face of violence and oppression? The author may claim (in the very next paragraph, no less) that it does not, but I can’t see why. If, furthermore, the author really believes that the “deaths of countless young unarmed black men” is one of “God’s sovereign acts”, then he has made God the author of evil.

Believe and say “Good is the hand of the Lord”

Here again the author advocates “contentment” in the face of injustice. What problem is that supposed to solve? He quotes Jeremiah Burroughs:

“To acknowledge that it is just that I am afflicted is possible in one who is truly contented. I may be convinced that God deals justly in this matter, He is righteous and just and it is right that I should submit to what He has done.”

What nonsense. In the very last paragraph of the preceding section, the author has already emphasized the importance of fighting injustice. And yet here he says, in the name of contentment, that the affliction is “just.” Which is it? And how are oppressed groups to respond to their oppression?

As MLK himself would have said, non-violence and inaction are very difference things. Responding with anger to injustice is right. It is not the place of those who are not oppressed to reject that anger and demand that they be content.


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