I was born in 1946 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and from the time I was six months old, I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. I left for college eighteen years later and spent four years in Wheaton, Illinois; three years in Pasadena, California; three years in Munich, Germany; and the rest of my life in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. But those early years in South Carolina are the roots of my racial burden.
The population of South Carolina in 1860 was about 700,000. Sixty percent were African Americans (420,000), and all but 9,000 of these were slaves. That's a mere 150 years ago—only fifty-nine years before my father was born. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, largely in protest over Abraham Lincoln's election as an anti-slavery president and the implications that had for states' rights. Three weeks later, the Civil War began in Charleston, South Carolina.
Over four years later, on April 9, 1865, the war ended with the surrender of Southern general Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House. Ninety years later, when I was nine years old in Greenville, the enforced segregation was almost absolute: drinking fountains, public restrooms, public schools, public swimming pools, bus seating, housing, restaurants, hospital waiting rooms, dentist waiting rooms, bus station waiting rooms, and—with their own kind of enforcement—churches, including mine. I can tell you from the inside that, for all the rationalized glosses, it was not "separate but equal." It was not respectful, it was not just, it was not loving, and therefore it was not Christian. It was ugly and demeaning. And, as we will see, because of my complicity I have much to be sorry about.
Which is one reason this book focuses so heavily on the gospel of Jesus Christ. I owe my life and hope to the gospel. Without it I would still be strutting with racist pride, or I would be suffering the moral paralysis of "white guilt." But the gospel has an answer to both pride and guilt. I hope this book makes that plain.
Growing up black in Greenville
Three and a half miles across town from where I grew up, in the same city, five years older than I, another little boy was growing up on the other side of the racial divide. His name was Jesse Jackson. Jackson was born October 8, 1941, at his home on 20 Haynie Street. When Jackson was thirteen the family moved to a newly constructed housing project, Fieldcrest Village (now Jesse Jackson Townhomes), three miles to the east. His biographer describes the boyhood neighborhood:
A dingy warren of flimsy little houses, with plank porch railings ranked with rusted coffee cans that, in the summer, held rufflings of geraniums and caladiums. Each house was perched on a tiny, grassless, rutted yard, some scattered with wood chips and upturned washtubs and old tires and bluish puddles of pitched-out dishwater, others whisked clean with straw brooms and enclosed by spindly fences assembled out of scraps of boards and wire, with walkways bordered by bits of brick and cement block and broken bottles set in neat parallel lines in the dirt.
Our worlds were so close and yet so far apart. His mother, Helen, loved the same Christian radio station my mother did—WMUU, the voice of Bob Jones University. But there was a big difference. The very school that broadcast all that Bible truth would not admit blacks. And the large, white Baptist church four miles from Jesse Jackson's home wouldn't either. Nor would mine.
This was my hometown. And there is no mystery in it as to why a young black man growing up there—or a Martin Luther King growing up in Atlanta a generation earlier—would get his theological education at a liberal institution (such as Chicago Theological Seminary or Crozer Theological Seminary). Our fundamental and evangelical schools—and almost every other institution, especially in the South—were committed to segregation.
I was a racist
I was, in those years, manifestly racist. As a child and a teenager my attitudes and actions assumed the superiority of my race in almost every way without knowing or wanting to know anybody who was black, except Lucy. Lucy came to our house on Saturdays to help my mother clean. I liked Lucy, but the whole structure of the relationship was demeaning. Those who defend the noble spirit of Southern slaveholders by pointing to how nice they were to their slaves, and how deep the affections were, and how they even attended each other's personal celebrations, seem to be naïve about what makes a relationship degrading.
No, she was not a slave. But the point still stands. Of course, we were nice. Of course, we loved Lucy. Of course, she was invited to my sister's wedding. As long as she and her family "knew their place." Being nice to, and having strong affections for, and including in our lives is what we do for our dogs too. It doesn't say much about honor and respect and equality before God. My affections for Lucy did not provide the slightest restraint on my racist mouth when I was with my friends.
My mother: gutsy Yankee fundamentalist
My demeaning attitude was not mainly my parents' fault. In fact, in some ways, it was in spite of my parents that I was a racist. My mother, who grew up in Pennsylvania, literally washed my mouth out with soap once for saying, "Shut up!" to my sister. She would have washed my mouth out with gasoline if she knew how foul my mouth was racially when she wasn't around.
In 1962 my home church voted not to allow blacks into the services. The rationale, as I remember, was that in the heated context of the civil rights era, the only reason blacks would want to be there would be political, which is not what church is for. As I recall, my mother was the lone voice on that Wednesday night to vote no on this motion. I could be wrong about that. But she did vote no. In December of that year, my sister was married in the church, and my mother invited Lucy's whole family to come. And they came. I remember an incredibly tense and awkward moment as they came in the door of the foyer (which must have taken incredible courage). The ushers did not know what to do. One was about to usher them to the balcony (which had barely been used since the church was built). My mother—all five feet, two inches of her—intervened and by herself took them by the arm and seated them on the main floor of the sanctuary.
She was, under God, the seed of my salvation in more ways than one. As I watched that drama, I knew deep down that my attitudes were an offense to my mother and to her God. Oh, how thankful I am for the conviction and courage of my gutsy, Yankee, fundamentalist mother.
My college years were fairly insulated. This was not the fault of Wheaton College. There was plenty of activism and political engagement among students and faculty at the time. It was owing to my own retiring and timid bent (another story that I tell elsewhere). I would describe myself as simply disengaged from the wider social and political world for most of my college days. Large things were happening intellectually and spiritually, but they were happening in the furnace of my soul, not in the fires burning in urban America.
One of the most memorable moments of my awakening from the sinful oblivion of racism was during my senior year in college. Noël, whom I married a year later, came with me to the great Urbana Missions Conference in December 1967. During a question-and-answer time before thousands of students, we heard Warren Webster, general director of the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society and former missionary to Pakistan, answer a student's question: What if your daughter falls in love with a Pakistani while you're on the mission field and wants to marry him?
The question was clearly asked from a standpoint of concern that this would be a racial or ethnic dilemma for Webster. (This was four months before Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.) With great forcefulness, Webster said something like: "Better a Christian Pakistani than a godless white American!" I think the answer was even more colorful than that (perhaps including a reference to a rich American banker. But I'm not sure). Whatever the wording, the impact on Noël and me was profound. From that moment, I knew I had a lot of homework to do.
The perceived wrongness of interracial marriage had been for me one of the unshakeable reasons why segregation was right.
The Fuller Seminary Years
In the year that I finished Wheaton and started seminary in California, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was April 4, 1968. These were explosive days, and I was fortunate to have seminary professors who cared about the issues and were committed to finding the biblical perspective on racial relations. One of those professors, Paul Jewett, compiled a 208-page syllabus of readings for us called "Readings in Racial Prejudice."
These readings were absolutely shocking. I had never seen or heard anything like this in my life. I still have this syllabus on the shelf across the room in front of me right now in my study. I could not read about the crimes of vicious hatred toward blacks and come away without trembling. Jewett's introduction to that syllabus ends like this:
And now let us listen to the groans of Frederick Douglass, feel the lash with Amy, endure the satire of Du Bois, and measure the wrath of Malcolm X; let us contemplate the pathos of black childhood and the tragedy of black womanhood. And let us not forget that [as Martin Luther King Jr. said] "he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." And let us also remember that if God has given us a revelation of the true nature of man, surely we will render account if we do not live in the light of that revelation, and especially so if we are called to the holy office of the Christian ministry.
Finally, in a class on ethics with the imposing figure of Professor Lewis Smedes in the spring of 1971, I faced head-on the biblical question of interracial marriage. I did a research project and wrote a paper called "The Ethics of Interracial Marriage." I have it here in front of me on the desk as I write. It was typed on the kind of sticky white paper that let you erase typing ink without using Wite-Out. He wrote six comments in the margin and gave me an A.
Smedes was a realist, as the title of one of his best books shows (Love within Limits: A Realist's View of 1 Corinthians 13). He approved of my exegesis and what I wrote in conclusion:
Since … opposition to interracial marriage tends to perpetuate discrimination, the neighbors to whom one must be loving in this situation are not only the spouses and children of the interracial marriage. The welfare of society as a whole and the rights of the race discriminated against come into view.
However, his realism moved him to write in the margin:
This is a tough question, I think, especially at the present . It is extremely hard to see the positive effect of specific interracial marriages. Perhaps Black identity stress at present makes the positive effect of interracial marriage even less clear. I suspect we are left, for the present, with the burden of destroying discrimination while accepting the minimal of interracial marriage whose goodness has to be evaluated in terms of expediencies rather than absolute moral principles.
I doubt that Smedes would talk this way today (he died December 19, 2002). I don't know. His hesitancy to give a wholehearted affirmation to the goodness of interracial marriage was rooted in his desire not to minimize the struggle for the intrinsic worth of authentic black identity. My own take, then and now, given what I knew from my own background, is that affirming the beauty of interracial marriage, especially in real, concrete cases, carries a far greater dignity-affirming wallop than the more subtle threat to minority identity in marrying a person from the majority culture. But one can understand the concern.
That biblical study of interracial marriage that I did in seminary was for me a settling of the matter. I have not gone back from what I saw there. The Bible does not oppose or forbid interracial marriages but sees them as a positive good for the glory of Christ.
In the shadow of Dachau
I spent the next three years (June 1971 to June 1974) in Germany, taking one trip home for Christmas in 1972. It is difficult to measure the effect of being removed from one's own country for three years—and feeling oneself becoming part of a much larger reality than America and the American church. Add to that the fact that Germany's history of horrific racist Nazism was only twenty-six years old. Hitler killed himself the year before I was born.
The Dachau concentration camp, preserved with its "Nie Wieder" (Never Again) memorial, lay ten miles northwest of where we lived in Munich. It was not the place you went for a Sunday outing. But we did go.
Barbed wire, barrack rows, triple-decker trough beds, cremation furnaces and hanging rooms, the ostensible shower rooms—they are all there. This was the witness to the belief in the evolutionary superiority of an Aryan "master race." Living in the literal and figurative shadow of such horrific effects of racism solidified the merciful reorientation of my mind.
From suburban classroom to urban parish
I took my degree from the University of Munich in the summer of 1974 and for the next six years taught biblical studies at Bethel College in a suburb of the Twin Cities of Minnesota. They were good years, but God's call to the pastorate became irresistible in late 1979. One of the impulses was the sense that my classrooms were too distant from the front lines of seeing the gospel change different kinds of people. The students represented a very small slice of humanity.
This is not a criticism. College education is necessarily self-selecting in many ways. Mostly the students will be between eighteen and twenty-two and well educated. I thank God for teachers who are called to give their lives to the task. I am deeply thankful for my own college days at a school much like Bethel.
But in the fall of 1979, the passion to preach and to apply God's Word to a wider range of people led me to a vocational crisis, and I gave my notice at Bethel and sought a church. In the summer of 1980, I accepted the call to Bethlehem Baptist Church, a 109-year-old centercity church on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. To my mind the location was perfect for the kind of impulses I felt. To the west was the upscale business district. To the north, the Metrodome (just being built) and light industrial district. To the east, the University of Minnesota. And to the south, the poorest and most diverse part of the city—the Elliot Park and Phillips neighborhoods.
We moved into the city and have lived within walking distance of the church in Elliot Park and Phillips ever since (now almost thirty years). The 2005 ethnic breakdown of our neighborhood was 24.6 percent Caucasian, 29 percent African American, 22 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Native American, 5.9 percent Asian, 7.4 percent other. Immigration patterns have changed over the years with various groups swelling and shrinking from time to time. But that is pretty much what I see out of my study window on 11th Avenue South.
Adoption at fifty
This is where I wanted to be. And this is where I would like to die. God could move me. But it will take a crystal-clear divine call to make me leave this kind of diversity. Noël and I raised four sons in this neighborhood. We used to joke that the reason we don't have a television is that the boys can watch the nightly news on the streets outside their house.
Not long after I turned fifty in 1996, Noël got a phone call from a friend and pro-life social worker in Georgia. "I have a little girl here who needs a family," she said, "I think she's for you." Was this the answer to Noël's prayer for a daughter that so far God had answered with four sons? It was not an easy decision. I was fifty, and this little girl was African American. Starting the parenting role again at age fifty was not in the plan. There were those who thought I was crazy to consider it.
Noël and I took long walks together in those days as we sought the Lord together. Finally, I knew the answer. Love your wife, love this little girl as your own, and commit yourself to the day of your death to the issue of racial harmony. Nothing binds a pastor's heart to diversity more than having it in his home. That was over fifteen years ago. In those years, we have tried to pursue as a church a deeper and wider racial and ethnic diversity and harmony.
I am not a model multiethnic urban pastor
If any of this sounds valiant, don't be too impressed. I am not a good example of an urban pastor. Because of the way I believe God calls me to use my time, I don't have significant relationships with most of my neighbors. Nor does our church reflect the diversity of this neighborhood.
There is diversity, but nothing like the statistics above. Probably I could have been far more effective in immediate urban impact in this neighborhood if I had not written books or carried on a wider speaking ministry. Some thank me for this ministry, and others think I have made a mistake. Again, you may see why I cherish and cling to the gospel of Jesus.
The Lord will be my judge someday. I will give an account to him of how I served him. I expect that as he goes down the list of the choices I have made, none will have a perfectly pure motivation, and many will appear as unwise in the bright light of his holiness. I hope I have been a good steward of my gifts and time. But my confidence in the judgment is not in that. It's in the perfection of Jesus that God has credited to me through faith and in the punishment Jesus endured for me. And I believe there will be in my overall ministry sufficient, imperfect fruits of love that witness that my union with Jesus by faith was real.
I am not writing this book as a successful multiethnic leader. I am not successful. I am not an expert in diversity. If you came looking for the pragmatic silver bullet for the multiethnic congregation, I may as well bid you farewell. I don't have it. I write because of truth I see in the Scriptures, convictions I have in my mind, and longings I feel in my heart.
I believe that the gospel—the good news of Christ crucified in our place to remove the wrath of God and provide forgiveness of sins and power for sanctification—is our only hope for the kind of racial diversity and harmony that ultimately matters. If we abandon the fullness of the gospel to make racial and ethnic diversity quicker or easier, we create a mere shadow of the kingdom, an imitation. And we lose the one thing that can bring about Christ-exalting diversity and harmony. Any other kind is an alluring snare. For what does it profit a man if he gains complete diversity and loses his own soul?
Taken from Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian by John Piper, copyright ©2011. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles on John Piper include:
Q&A: John Piper on 'Think' | Also, why the high-profile pastor and author invited Rick Warren to Desiring God's national conference and how he has been spending his 8-month leave of absence. (October 4, 2010)
John Piper v. Rick Warren Postponed | Despite controversial invitation, Rick Warren missed the Desiring God conference due to family health incidents. (October 4, 2010)
CT also wrote about how John Piper announced Bethlehem College and Seminary, when he went on a leave of absence, and when he invited Rick Warren to speak at Desiring God.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingAfter Nashville, Moral Numbness Is Our EnemyShootings have become normal to the American public. But as Christians, we know better.
- From the MagazineBhutanese Nepali Refugees Turn Their Trials into Zeal for EvangelismThousands found Jesus while displaced, which prepared them to plant churches and settle in a new land.
- RelatedHillsong Says It Is Moving ForwardNew revelations will require increased accountability, but pastor wants to look to the future.
- Editor's PickLiberty Appoints Retired General, Air Force Chaplain as New PresidentAlumnus Dondi E. Costin steps in to lead years after Jerry Falwell Jr.’s scandal.