Q & A: John Piper on Racism, Reconciliation, and Theology after Trayvon Martin's Death
John Piper was one of the first and the few white evangelical pastors to make a public statement on the controversial shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Not only is his passion for racial reconciliation informed by his self-proclaimed history as a Southern racist; it also fueled by his experience as the father of an adopted African American teen daughter. Piper is the author of Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, a book that inspired a public discussion about Race and the Christian at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in New York City Wednesday night. The Minneapolis, Minnesota, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church was joined onstage by New York's Redeemer Presbyterian Church pastor Tim Keller and Anthony Bradley, a theology professor from the King's College in New York City. Christianity Today spoke with Piper on Thursday about various kinds of reconciliation, including what it would mean to reconcile with someone like author Rob Bell. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You were one of the first and one of the few prominent white evangelical pastors to make a public statement about the Trayvon Martin case. You said George Zimmerman wasn't tested by police to see if he was intoxicated. Does it matter if Martin was not as wholesome as initially portrayed?
It matters for some I'm sure. As I've read those things and I've read what he was saying on his Twitter, when he called himself a certain kind of nigga', I thought: Would that alter what I've written? I read it carefully and I don't think I'd change anything. I knew as I was writing that I didn't have a lot of data. I didn't have a lot of data on George Zimmerman. I didn't have a lot of data on Trayvon. I didn't know what really happened there. Given what I do know, I think what I've said was valid. If the kid was a total jerk, it wouldn't change the fact that a man with a gun doesn't track down and put himself in a position of likely having to use it if the kid turns out to be violent, unless his mindset is: That wouldn't be so bad after all. What I tried to ask was: What would the cross, what would the gospel do here? I think the gospel would disincline a person from wanting a person to be hurt, or disincline a person from being disrespected, or from putting the worst possible face on the kid's walking here. Maybe he has a friend or whatever. So, I think the gospel has a lot of relevance to whether that could have been avoided or not.
You ground your thoughts on racial reconciliation in Reformed theology. Is it possible to ground racial reconciliation in other types of theology?
That was [Evangelical Covenant Church Pastor] Efrem Smith's critique. He spent the next two weeks after reading my book defending the fact that Pietism would be a better foundation than Reformed theology. I would say it's not better because Pietism and Reformed theology are like cars and bananas. They're not in the same category; they're not apples and oranges. Reformed theology is a group of convictions around how God saves and keeps sinners, he chooses them, he dies for them, he converts them, keeps them, and he glorifies them. And, he's sovereign in all of that. That's the Reformed soteriology or theology from which I built my arguments. Pietism was a movement in the Lutheran church in Germany and then farther with Jakob Spener, in which there was a renewal of vitality with prayer, Bible reading, and personal devotion that gave life to a moribund church. Those are not alternative views of reality. I think I'm a pietistic Calvinist or a pietistic Reformed theologian, which means I take all the truth of Reformed theology. I incorporate all the renewal aspects and vitality, inner subjective aspects of Pietism and embrace them. So, yes, you can take all that and make that serve racial harmony.