Systemic Injustice: Disagreeing With John Piper

As a pastor I am constantly telling our people the importance of thinking as a Christian. By this I mean processing everything through the worldview God has given us in his Word. This is his world, and if we want to understand it rightly, then we must understand it on his terms. Lately, I have written on justice twice (here and here). I have done this because much of what I read in Reformed Christian circles on justice ignores what God has revealed to us about this topic. This is no small thing. Justice flows from God. It is inherent to his character. If we get justice wrong, we get God wrong. Moreover, justice is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He came to satisfy the demands of God’s justice on our behalf. If we get justice wrong, we will get Jesus wrong. In other words, justice is pretty important to Christians. 

So I have spent time reading and thinking about justice as a Christian. Specifically, I have focused on how to apply the biblical truth of justice to our day. This is what has spurred my prior posts leading to this discussion on systemic injustice. It is here we find the capstone of so much of secular thinking on justice. Unfortunately, far too many evangelicals have swallowed this thinking hook, line, and sinker. 

So today I am writing on this topic to foster discussion and to call Christians to talk about this topic as Christians. We must not follow the lead of those who are far from God when discussing justice. If we continue to do this, we will reap the fruit of rebellion—spiritual death. The only remedy is a ruthless commitment to the authority of God found in his revealed Word. If we do not do this first, everything else is a waste. But it must stop there, Christians must also communicate with each other as brothers and sisters, not as political adversaries. In such heated discussions we must show each other grace and we must possess a heart which seeks to understand, not to accuse. There be a stark contrast between how Christians discuss these topics and how the political left and right discuss them. 

So building on my previous two posts on justice, I want to apply the biblical understanding of justice to the discussion of systemic injustice. How should Christians define this term? Does it even exist today? If so, how and where? 

In order to answer these questions, I will start by offering a definition of systemic injustice. Then I will discuss where the most prominent forms of systemic justice exist today. 

Systemic Injustice According to Piper

In a recent post, John Piper (who I respect greatly), offered his defense of structural racism (i.e. systemic injustice). Piper boils his understanding of this topic to fallen human and the influence Satan possesses in this age. He writes, “In this worldview, I can think of no sin that is not systemic or structural (I’m using the terms interchangeably).” According to Piper, there is no tangible difference between systemic injustice and normal, run of the mill, injustice because we live in a fallen world where Satan exerts his influence. Therefore, we have systemic gossip, systemic self-righteousness, systemic stealing to go along with systemic racism. 

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While I agree with Piper mankind is fallen and under the influence of Satan, if this is all that systemic injustice is, then the term is both meaningless and redundant. If everything is a systemic injustice, then nothing is a systemic justice. If when define something your definition includes everything, then your definition lacks definition. Piper's argument renders the term so broad it is becomes meaningless.  I believe systemic injustice exists, but we must do a better job defining it. I fear Piper is so intent on proving his point about systemic racism that he broadens the definition and in the end weakens the validity of his argument. 

I will attempt to better his definition. There are two necessary parts which work together to bring about systemic (or structural) injustice. 

A Structure of Power

In order for something to be systemic, there needs to be a system of power in place. Systems use their power to promote, enforce, and enshrine values, beliefs, and behaviors. If there is no power structure, then we are not talking a system. For example, if Johnny commits murder, but the state (system) has outlawed murder, then there is nothing systemic about Johnny’s actions.  In fact, since the system is exerting its power to combat murder the system is actually being just.  If the local government instead made murder legal, or promoted it as a good, then there would be clear systemic injustice.

Moreover, even if a thousand people committed murder, it would not rise to a systemic issue unless the system is partaking in it. If the system is against the action, then it bears no moral responsibility for the rebellion of individuals. Again, if the system where to enshrine, protect, and advance murder, then we would have a systemic problem. 

To put it another way, there needs to be a structure of power which directs said power toward wickedness in order for something to be systemically unjust. Otherwise, we are just dealing with the sin of individuals. 

Now there are a variety of systems of power in our day which could be unjust: governments, schools, businesses, and even families. In any of these structures the power structure could implement injustices through laws, ordinances, policies, procedures, etc. 

This is where so many definitions of systemic injustices run afoul. Just because a lot of individuals commit a certain sin, does not mean there is a system of power in place enforcing and promoting that behavior. In fact, many of our systems use their power to combat wickedness and enforce justice. For this Christians should be grateful. One cannot rightly charge a government for being systemically unjust for having laws which outlaw and justly punish murders, even if the murder-rate was high in its jurisdiction. Why? Because the system is using its power to combat the injustice. Note also, that just because the system is behaving in a just manner does not negate the presence of individual sin. We need to careful when using the term systemic injustice to be sure we are talking about an actual system, and to be specific about which system we are talking about. 

We need to remember this, whether it is theft, racism, murder, or drug-use, sins by individuals, even lots of individuals, do not necessarily rise to the level of being systemic. Injustice is only systemic when it is being implemented through a power structure. 

An Injustice

The second necessary part for a systemic injustice is there must be an actual injustice. I know what you’re thinking, “Levi, you just are using the two words of the term for your definition.” You’re right. Words are important. If we insist on using terms like systemic injustice, then those words carry meaning with them.

This is why I spent so much time defining justice biblically in prior posts. What is justice? At its root it means individuals receive what they have earned. An injustice is receiving punishment, or ill treatment, which a person did not earn. In order to determine what an individual has earned, we need a moral standard to judge by. For the Christian, this is God’s word. For the modern secularist, this is more often than not a morality determined by Marxism. Here is the rub, the Christian and the Marxist will necessarily have vastly different moral structures by which they make this judgment. 

For the Marxist, justice is about equality of outcome.  For the Christian, justice is about rendering unto someone what he has earned. The Christian view necessarily means outcomes will differ. The Marxist view necessarily says this is unjust. This is why the disagreement between a biblical view of justice and the Marxist idea of social justice are not only incompatible, but they are necessarily in conflict with one another.  At their core, their allegiances vastly differ which makes common ground nothing more than an illusion. It’s like two fans of rival sports teams, then will never agree because of their prior commitments. 

So the definition of systemic injustice is as follows: when a system of power (government, business, etc) uses its power to promote, enshrine, or accomplish that which is morally evil, wicked, or unjust. 

Examples of Systemic Injustice

With a clear definition in place I can offer examples of systemic injustice from both the past and present. The early church had to deal with systemic oppression from the Roman Government as Christians refused to practice the state religion. The Roman Government exerted its power to promote evil and punish righteousness by sending Christians into the coliseum. This is a clear injustice empowered by a powerful system. 

More recently, the Nazi’s attempt to exterminate Jews is another clear example of systemic injustice; as is the gulags of the Soviet Union. In fact, throughout world history as governments grow in power they generally grow in wickedness. The historical examples could fill countless volumes of books. 

In America we are not innocent either. The enslavement of Africans is a clear example of systemic injustice. Jim Crow Laws are another example of state and local governments systematically enforcing wickedness. Christians are to stand against such wickedness, and many did. 

Thankfully, systems can change, they can repent.  This does not mean all the repercussions of an injustice have been dealt with, but it is a good thing when systems move from injustice to justice. The US Government has repented of its wickedness found in the form of slavery. It further repented in the Civil Rights era. Our state and federal governing bodies no longer behave in such wretched ways. In fact, this repentance was spear-headed by Christians working toward establishing justice. For this we should be grateful. This does not mean there are no lingering ramifications for those systemic sins, but repentance has occurred at a systemic level. 

Do we see systemic injustice today? Of course. The clearest examples of systemic injustice in our government are no longer tied to slavery and racism. In fact, we now have laws which outlaw and punish discrimination against minorities. The system now exerts its power in the opposite direction. So we can say to extent, our system is just in this area. 

Yet our government still promotes systemic injustice in heinous ways.  The clearest example is abortion. The power of the government enforces, promotes, and protects the slaughter of millions of defenseless children. This is the greatest systemic injustice in the West today. Other examples would include same-sex ‘marriage,’ and the attempts of many local governments to limit the free exercise of religion. These are just a few examples of grave systemic injustices which need to be repented of.  As Christians, it is our job to the salt of the world by calling our system and its people to repentance. 

If Christians desire to speak prophetically to the power structures of our day, as our forefathers did, then we need to do so with a Christian understanding and a uniquely Christian voice. This means our targets include abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and the protection of religious liberty. It is easy to rebuke the sins of prior generations, it takes far more courage to look the current power structure directly in the eyes and say, “Repent or face the judgment of God.”

Conclusion

Often our discussions are being shaped by secular thinking and some desire to signal our virtue to the virtueless, instead of by the careful study and application of God’s word. If the American church continues to flirt with such morbidly anti-Christian thinking it will reap its due fruit—death. Those who profess Sola Scriptura need to act like they actually believe it. 

There is more we could discuss, and I will perhaps write on in the future, but the call here is for Christians to think, communicate, and act as Christian’s first and foremost. This is our charge as who call Christ our Lord.