Jonathan Soder, Assistant Faith Editor
Though produced in 2011, John Piper’s video testimony regarding his personal battle against racism still offers insights to families seeking to address the topic from a Christian worldview amidst today’s political and social atmosphere.
“One of the great sorrows of my life, and one of the reasons I love the gospel of Jesus so much is because I grew up in this home as a full-blooded racist,” Piper said in the video’s opening statement.
Piper grew up in Greenville, South Carolina in the 1950s and 60s during the height of Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful protests. In 1952, the Supreme Court legally ended segregation in public schools through the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, but the decision was not administered with “all deliberate speed” by many states.
“Separation was as deep as you could imagine, and it was demeaningly deep,” Piper said. “I grew up in it with approval. I didn’t look upon it with indignation. I looked upon it as the way that things should be, in spite of the fact that I grew up in a Christian home.”
Though racists, Piper recalls reminiscently that his family had consistent interactions with at least one black American woman, their maid Lucy.
“We all loved Lucy, but it was relationally so dysfunctional,” Piper said. “She was just a presence of another kind.”
The inconsistencies of racism in a Christian home showed themselves blatantly to Piper through the institution of marriage. The first occurrence he relates occurred in 1962 on his sister’s wedding day. Acting as an usher, Piper was responsible for seating Lucy and her family when they arrived.
“There weren’t any blacks at this church, and in fact, there was a tacit assumption, and later an explicit statement, that blacks wouldn’t be welcome,” Piper said.
Piper was instructed to lead Lucy and her family to the balcony seating, but his mother, Ruth, stepped in and led them by the arm into the sanctuary.
“Into my life were flowing these contradictory impulses,” Piper said. “I saw my mother intervening against a system at that point which was going to further demean Lucy and her family, and so that was sinking down in.”
It was after this encounter that Piper consciously recognized what hampered his belief in racial integration.
“The thought came to me, and I forget where it came from, or who sowed it in my mind, but it was, ‘Red birds mate with red birds, and blue birds mate with blue birds, so why can’t blacks marry their own and whites marry their own?” Piper said. “‘Why is there this pressure to be together?’ Because in those days, whether people articulated it or not, and it’s true today as well in many places, togetherness meant, ‘Your kids are going to start liking each other, and one of them is going to fall in love with the other, and they’re going to marry’. That was the deepest justification in my sinful mind for all kinds of segregation.”
While at the 1967 Urbana Missions Conference during his time as a student at Wheaton College, Piper’s view of marriage had changed, and he accepted his earlier realization that at the root of racial tension were marriage and the family.
“They actually did a Q and A for 9,000 students in the audience, and somebody stood up and said, ‘Now, you were a missionary in Pakistan. What if your daughter had fallen in love with a Pakistani? How would you feel about her marrying a Pakistani?’ [Warren Webster] said, “Better a Pakistani Christian than a rich, white, American banker.’ And I thought at the moment, ‘That is exactly the right answer’.”
From Wheaton, Piper and his wife, Noël, moved to California so he could attend Fuller Theological Seminary. While there, he was given the chance to explore his convictions regarding race and marriage further in an end-of-term essay.
“I concluded God does not, in his family, disapprove of interracial marriage. In fact, I argued, and I’ve preached on it since then, I think God blesses interracial marriage,” Piper said. “I severed the root of that old issue of interracial marriage which felt, as a teenager, like it was at the bottom of so much segregation.”
Following his time at Fuller, Piper would vividly experience the life of an outsider while he earned a PhD in Munich, Germany in two ways. He struggled heavily with not speaking the language and also visited the Nazi camp Dachau. In 1980, after his graduate studies were completed, Piper felt God calling him to the pastorate.
“The first church to contact me was Bethlehem Baptist Church in downtown Minneapolis,” Piper said. “I’d never been there. I didn’t know where it was, even though it was just eight miles from where I lived in New Brighton. I got in my car and I said, ‘I’m going to go see where this church is so that I can wonder if I should even consider going there.”
Upon visiting for the first time, Piper found the church to be situated in an area marked by diversity.
“To the west was the high rise, the ritzy downtown hotels and business people, and to the north was kind of a light industrial Valspar paint company. To the east was the university, 50,000 college students just across the highway, and to the south, Phillip’s neighborhood, Elliot Park neighborhood – the poorest neighborhoods in the city. And I thought, ‘This is gold’.”
Piper dove in, deciding that if he was to serve there, he would also settle his family there amongst the ethnic and racial diversity which had become a cornerstone of his mission. In 1996, Piper’s family dynamic reached a culmination in his battle against racism; he and Ruth adopted a newborn black girl named Talitha.
“God did a remarkable work in us,” Piper said. “He taught me this, ‘If you act consistently with your convictions about interracial marriage and the nobility and beauty of diversity, this choice would commit you to this issue till you’re dead.’ And that swung it for me, those three things: love for my wife, love for this little girl, and love for the cause – the cause of Christ-exalting racial harmony and racial diversity.”