The Piper at the Gates of Wheaton

I touched down on the campus of Wheaton College for the first time last Wednesday, an experience roughly equivalent to an Outer Rim farmboy’s first visit to Coruscant. It’s true- I did drive through once after a mission to Crossway headquarters, but all I did then was shout, “YEAH EVANGELICALS!!” out the window to a troop of students making their way to class. As noteworthy as that was, it was only a drive-by salute, not a landing, making last week’s expedition with Jeremy, Val, and James and Nicole Woods all the more historic. Kinda like Beowulf and his band of thains landing in Denmark, except I wasn’t about to tango with Grendel- I was about to get pwned by John Piper. Again.

Piper spoke for about an hour on different ways to put the vision of Bloodlines into action, which was extremely helpful for me who thinks primarily in the abstract. That book was powerfully used by God to retool my thinking on race and a host of interconnected issues, but it was a predominantly conceptual work that unpacked how Christian doctrine should demolish prejudice and compel the church to pursue racial reconciliation. As earth-shattering as all of this truly is, I know need help implementing the vision Piper outlined in the book in concrete, ground level ways, and that night’s talk was especially beneficial to me for its focus on tangibly applying gospel principles in order to pursue the supremacy of God in racial reconciliation.

Piper recommended preaching from uncommon or ignored passages of Scripture and drawing out their racial ramifications. For those of us who are not preachers, we should be purposefully meditating upon the all the Scriptures and searching out the racial implications of the entire Bible. When we do this we’ll see that racial reconciliation isn’t a fashionable new hobby horse to twist the Scriptures with but rather a genuine aim of God throughout all the history of redemption. This will fuel the renewing of our minds on this issue and open prejudices we’ve inherited (left, right, or otherwise) to biblical scrutiny.

He advised every church to draw up a vision statement and to take time formulating it in a way that is specific enough to define the goal of ministry and guide the development of policies that will make this goal achievable. A mission statement is a theology-driven  blueprint for real men and women to attack the problem and give them something to measure success against, rather than settling for the intangible, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…?” daydream so many churches do.

Overlapping with this, he also emphasized how justification by faith alone is the central issue that animates every other issue under the sun. Understanding that every problem on Earth hinges in some way on this doctrine is crucial because it instantly expels easy answers by forcing us to examine how Jesus and the kingdom change reality. When we’re defending the pursuit of racial reconciliation to naysayers and when we’re growing weary fumbling towards real solutions, it has to be justification that is at the forefront of it all, justifying our efforts and compelling us to count the fight as all joy. It reshapes our minds and emotions to see the centrality of Jesus more and more instinctually by steering us back towards worshiping him and finding rest in (and telling others to find rest in) his lordship. It realigns our thinking and feeling with the new heavens and new earth reality of perfect racial harmony and resets our priorities accordingly. In many cases it forces people to accept the fact that Jesus and the kingdom changes something besides my status as saved or lost, that he really does want to change the world we live in. Recognizing the paramount importance of justification is what allows us to champion good causes without turning them into idols.

Next, he urged us to be honest with our sins and the sins of our heroes, the last being especially significant given the pedestal many of us place the Puritans without ever acknowledging the glaring sins of racial justice some of them are accountable for. Justification enters back into this: If I am accepted by God because of Jesus Christ, I have nothing to fear in being brutally honest with Him about any and all failures I am accountable for. God is 1000% satisfied with me on the basis of Jesus’ accomplishment and absolutely nothing can ever shake that! This ought to encourage a secure vulnerability that owns up to every single sin in my life and rejoices that God’s love for me will never be jeopardized by any of it. This will help me to shed the guilty baggage I still needlessly carry, sinking me down and making me ineffective in the ministries God is equipping me for. This secure vulnerability will help me come clean with my sinful track record on race (and everything else, for that matter) and invincibly reassure me that I’m not disqualified from helping to make a positive difference on the basis of that track record.

He briefly explored an epic tangent opened up by the justification point that blessed my soul tremendously. If I am meditating often on the benefits of justification, adoption will turn my attitude on its head and pull up the weeds of pettiness I tend to cultivate. The reality of being a co-heir of all things with Jesus radically transforms my view of stuff, for instance. My favorite quote of the night came at this point, when Piper used auto envy to illustrate this principle. If I drove an old jalopy and some hipster cruises up in his phat Bentley, I can be insanely happy in spite of the apparent status chasm between us- I’m an heir of the universe! “Why would I be envious and down in the dumps because of someone’s car?” he shouted in that rapturous bellow of his. “It’s mine- they’re all mine!” 

He returned to his action plan and implored us to intentionally frame the racial issue within a global context. Local neighborhood bigotry might seem like petty, small town backwardness but it takes on a miserable new dimension when it is seen as a manifestation of ongoing, global horror. Without this proper framing of the issue, focusing exclusively on the ills of the city you live in could actually hinder your efforts by minimizing their atrociousness. Genocide is real, deportation and imprisonment are real, and they share a common root with the bigotry we have either grown accustomed to in America or pretend has been remedied. This of course means we can’t just “get over it.” The civil rights movement did not secure final victory fifty years ago, it only inaugurated the fight. Naysayers have to come to grips with the fact that institutional prejudice is an ongoing, pervasive evil infecting our culture.

Seek out friends of other ethnicities and learn what you don’t know you don’t know. Enter into their stories and be educated straight from the horse’s mouth; this will help you to ask the questions all the voices within the sphere of comfortable Caucasian perspective you inhabit aren’t asking. Along with this, actively seek out leaders different from yourself; don’t pretend “competency is all that matters.” Competency does matter, of course, but so does intentionally incorporating people from every tribe, nation, and tongue who can help you with the hows and whats of fleshing out the vision.

Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, we don’t want to be colorblind- first of all, it can’t be done, and second, it’s not even desirable. We’re supposed to see color and hear accents in our interactions with folks from other cultures, not pretend they don’t exist. When we try to be color blind what we end up doing is flattening differences and repackaging people of different ethnicities as one of us- it monumentally fails to honor the things that set that person apart from the culture we belong to and reinforces our monocultural consciousness. I should see a black man I am speaking with as a black man- this is a good thing for both of us. Where I go wrong in my consciousness of his being a black man is if I presume to have him figured out because he is a black man, or Latino, or any other ethnicity. God purposefully designed the different races and ethnicities to be irreplaceable ingredients for the beauty of the kingdom, so let’s joyfully acknowledge their existence and honor the part they play in the revelation of God’s glory. Without the thousands of different cultures and their different ways of looking at things, the slivers of perspective each of us represent have no hope of ever seeing all the magnificent intricacies of new creation.

A panel discussion of varying excellence followed, but the best stuff had already gushed out of the Dr. Piper fountain. Several good insights were offered by the panel members, insights gathered from the experience of marginalized Asian, black, and hispanic Christians. Much was made of Martin Luther King Jr’s quips, “Evangelicals are supposed to be the headlights of the civil rights movement but are more like the tail lights,” and “Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection;” the panel used these to draw out how uselessness of bland, noncommittal “support” Christians are prone to offer to those who suffer under ethnic discrimination and to hold a mirror up to the evangelical world which usually wants only the ecstasy but not the transformation that comes with naming Jesus as Lord. The moderator, though, seemed less interested in directing the currents of thought than in pretending to be another panel member. He took a while articulating questions he wanted to ask which was kinda frustrating because of course you wanna leap back into the fray and hear what galaxy-exploding stuff Pipes has to say in response but it felt like five minutes was flushed every time a question was advanced. Look, I get it- I’m not the best at formulating good, probing questions (or helpful answers, for that matter!) on the fly either, but I still expect more when a Wheaton professor is assigned a responsibility like this.

All of this was uber helpful for ya boy, but I gotta admit, my spirits sank when I realized I had left my Burger King crown behind in the chapel. Val and I hoped to get a picture taken with Pipes himself and our regal head gear but alas, no dice. The Wheaton janitor scored big that night when he found that treasure! I picture him flamboyantly sweeping through the chapel, flawlessly executing sick Fred Astaire moves with his newfound crown power. Maybe he needed a pick me up, I don’t know. Epic points were regained however when I asked the Desiring God merchants out in the hall if they wanted to spread a passion for the supremacy ofGod in all things by giving me some free stuff. To no one’s surprise they said “No” (after the shocked looks melted from their faces) but the pleasure of unmitigated audacity kickstarted my Christian hedonist heart once again. All in all, a pretty stellar night and a smorgasbord of delicious food for thought.


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