Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Out of His Lane

Last Tuesday, John Piper used his mega-platform among Reformed Christians to come out in favor of COVID vaccination and to implore his fellow believers to go out and get jabbed:

“My aim in this article is to encourage Christians to be vaccinated, if they can do so with a good conscience and judicious medical warrant.”

Hey, at least he had the decency to include the caveat of “a good conscience”.

Russian Roulette

Piper is concerned that people who might otherwise happily line up to play perpetual Russian Roulette with their own immune systems may be inclined to hesitate in case their radical Christian friends think poorly of them for caving in to public pressure:

“The people I have especially in view are those who are not vaccinated because of fear of being out of step with people they respect, and in step with people they don’t admire.”

Later on, he addresses this hypothetical group directly:

“Your conscience is increasingly clear. It says, ‘Get vaccinated.’ But there is this niggling fear of looking left wing, or progressive, or Democratic, or compromised, or woke!”

Well, his article shouldn’t do too much damage then. If people like this exist in mid‑October 2021, I suspect it is only in John Piper’s imagination. I certainly have yet to meet one. Every Christian I know who has yet to capitulate to the ever-increasing pressure to board the Vaccination Express has fistfuls of very tangible reasons for his or her hesitation, none of which have anything to do with fear of being looked down on by others. Many are more than happy to tell you all about it, send you links to the websites of medical experts who disagree with the conventional wisdom, and fill you in on any recently released data of which you may be unaware that contradicts the current media narrative. These people are not on the fence, and they are not just posing for their social media pals.

In fact, if there are any Christians left struggling with the issue at all, for every person in their lives who might heave a sigh of regret and begin to pray for them when they confess to having finally got in line with (allegedly) 80% of the world, there are at least four who will happily cheer them on and enthuse about their willingness to join the ranks of the enlightened. Anybody who is still holding out is holding out for a reason. Nobody enjoys being continually browbeaten by family, neighbors, fellow employees and friends.

It’s an awfully weird reason to write an article, if you think about it: “Please don’t feel bad about joining the majority.” Okay then.

What does confuse me a little is why a theologian and “pastor” feels compelled to push the omnipresent narrative on his flock. It seems just a little out of his lane. They can get the same message just about anywhere else without the theological window-dressing.

Just the Facts, Jack

Before we look at Piper’s theological argument, a few thoughts about the alleged factual basis for his position:

“Nearly all COVID‑19 deaths in the U.S. are now in people who weren’t vaccinated ... From May [2021] ... infections in fully vaccinated people accounted for fewer than 1,200 of more than 107,000 COVID‑19 hospitalizations. That’s about 1.1%. And only about 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID‑19 deaths in May were in fully vaccinated people. That translates to about 0.8% (Associated Press).”

You may have noticed the stats Piper cites above are almost four months old. This might not seem important if we did not have Israel’s mortality statistics from August. It’s a fair bit quicker to vaccinate nine million people than 330,000,000, so Israel is well ahead of the U.S. in that department, and serves as a pointy-beaked canary in the vaccination coal mine. The August stats show 62% of COVID deaths in Israel occurred among those with two or more vaccinations. That’s a monumental disparity from the American stats, a difference of over 77x. Further, more than 10% of these deaths were among the triple-vaccinated. That last stat is particularly alarming: the percentage of Israelis who had received the now-mandatory booster in August was still in single digits, and yet 62 of 607 deaths in August are from that exceptionally “protected” group.

Shifting the Goalposts

Why are the Israeli government stats so different from stats reported by the American media and cited by Piper in his article? That’s definitely a point to ponder. One possible contributing factor is that the term “unvaccinated” doesn’t mean what you think it means when the American media uses it.

Without trying to overanalyze a comparatively small sample from Israel, what seems fairly evident is that it is a highly questionable proposition that “more shots” equates to “safer”, that vaccinating young people will “help save Grandma” or help end lockdowns, masking and other restrictions. Further, 95.4% of deaths in August were among Israelis aged 60 and over, which suggests there is no logical reason to vaccinate anyone under sixty, and certainly no compelling reason to force the vaccine on anyone ... or recommend it to one’s parishioners.

Excess Mortality

Finally, this Harvard study on excess mortality in the 21st century makes nonsense of Piper’s claims about the severity of the 2020-21 COVID outbreak in America, and the critical importance of the so‑called “biblically informed act of love” he is vigorously promoting. Excess mortality is the measure of the number of total deaths above average in any period. Samuel Preston and Yana Vierboom found that the year 2020, the height of the “pandemic”, ranked well behind boring old 2017 in U.S. excess mortality. Remember 2017? Apparently lots of Americans died in 2017, but nobody bothered to trumpet it from the rooftops because doing so furthered nobody’s agenda. It was business as usual. Piper’s impressive-sounding death rates (“4.5 million people worldwide”, “over 700,000 Americans”) must be compared with statistical norms for similar periods, not held up as remarkable in the absence of any legitimate point of comparison. The sad fact is that huge numbers of human beings are born and die every day in every country in the world. The pro-vaccination crowd bases their argument for action on the claim that 2020 was an exceptionally deadly year. Apparently that is not the case.

So then, either Piper is deliberately engaged in misrepresenting the significance of the statistics he cites, or — let’s be charitable to a fellow believer — he is simply parroting someone else’s talking points. What Piper portrays as an “increasingly clear reality” is actually a whole lot murkier than anyone cares to admit.

The fact is that there are multiple data sets to examine, and multiple agendas being pushed simultaneously. Anybody who insists the reality is clear at this point reveals little more than his own naiveté.

The Theological Argument

As for Piper’s theological argument, it consists largely in reiterating that God alone owns us and God alone rules us. “Christians are free from all human ownership and rule.” (I will assume what he means by this is that Christians are not obligated to obey arbitrary human attempts to interfere with our duties to God, rather than that Christians never experience oppression by the secular authorities. The falsity of the latter claim is easily demonstrated.)

Piper repeatedly asserts this claim to freedom from the New Testament — a claim which I do not dispute, and which I can’t imagine any mature Christian would. Of course we are free to make personal choices in matters that are neither of faith nor practice. His argument is not so much wrong as irrelevant to the vaccination question. He finishes with an exhortation to free ourselves from the “yoke” of expectations in the matter of vaccination not only from the left, but also from the right. I don’t disagree with his theological point, but I greatly disagree with his perfunctory assumption that he (or any of us, for that matter) is in possession of unassailably accurate data, and with his conclusions about how other Christians ought to respond to it. These are what really matter.

If Piper’s data is correct and his analysis accurate, it may not matter much that he is misusing his spiritual platform to weigh in on matters well outside his area of expertise.

If he’s wrong, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.


  1. I wish I was surrounded by a cloud of the faithful exhorting me to follow my conscience. Piper is at best out of touch. At worst...

  2. Yep. And millions pay attention to what he says.

  3. And you Tom fell into a similar trap re. the efficacy of COVID vaccines by quoting statistics and trying to prove a counter argument from data which you have collected. Simply put this area of epidemiology is one which we should stay away from in terms of touting ourselves as knowing better and having a better line on the truth. Same can be said about many scientific disciplines which are outside of our ken. The best we can say is that the scientific community (which is by no means decided on everything) appears to be in the majority in favour of X or uncertain on Y. BTW I am not sticking up for Mr. Piper. Like the rest of us, he gets to look at data and make a decision for himself. Unlike us, he should be very careful when he starts making public statements when he knows he has a large audience and who perhaps did not ask for his opinion.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts.

      A couple I know and love were recently told by one of their deacons that church policy is for the unvaccinated to "stay home and Zoom". The man was talking out of turn, as it happens, but it speaks to a common mindset, one that you can find coming from Christians all over Facebook.

      Believers who are currently experiencing this mild (and in some cases not so mild) form of vaccine apartheid deserve to have someone present the data that backs their choices, do they not? Contrary to the media stereotype which Mr. Piper has obviously bought into, they are not all ignorant conspiracy theorists, fearful and/or insensitive to their impact on others around them. They are just looking at different numbers than you are.

      It remains the case that there are two narratives in circulation. One has tremendous political and media power behind it, and, as you point out, has a larger number of adherents within the scientific community. That fact says more to me about about the current politicization of science than about the truth or falsehood of the claims being made.

  4. Well yes.. one can find numbers that appear to show a different story than what the consensus of the scientific community is saying. But as I stated above, this puts one in the position now as a statistician, attempting to make conclusions and assertions based on data. And many of us are not skilled in that discipline and certainly do not have access to the wide corpus of data which the scientific community does. So we are free to pick data as we wish, but to make firm conclusions from it is not advisable... from the perspective of the scientific disciplines of say bio-statistics, virology and epidemiology. If as you state above you believe the entire community is defiled by politics etc. and hence can not really be trusted, that's quite a different matter.

    For me, and it is only my perspective from a person who has worked in science his entire life, I acknowledge that I can't know enough to make my own independent conclusions. So I tend to trust what is being said re. the co-relation between vaccine uptake and its effect in slowing the spread of the virus. I don't see it in any different light as e.g. when I get told that the best solution to my cardiac symptoms is angioplasty. I believe that the risk benefit statements I am hearing are true and in my best interests of health.

    Lastly I don't believe in apartheid of any kind, but I do understand leadership which might for example believe a certain aged segment of their congregation would be at a higher risk given a the unvaccinated and so in the interest of public health ask or recommend people to be vaccinated. I personally do not believe in mandating, requiring or forcing people to be vaccinated.

    1. We are in total agreement on that last one.