John Piper on Race and the Christian

John Piper on Race and the Christian

A Discussion about Race and the Christian with Tim Keller, Anthony Bradley, and John Piper (Photo courtesy of Crossway Books)

The Rev. Dr. John Piper has, by his own count, written 30 books. His latest is Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, a book that is rooted in Reformed theology and Piper’s personal story of growing up as a Southern racist who was redeemed by Christ and later transformed by the adoption of his African American daughter, Talitha. Piper says he will retire as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in about a year, and will be replaced by another white pastor with a personal commitment to racial reconciliation. Piper is one of the first and the few white evangelical pastors to issue a public statement about the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. He says revelations that Martin may not have been as wholesome a boy as initially portrayed are irrelevant to the case and the outcome could have been different if Zimmerman had been constrained by the gospel.

On Wednesday, March 28, Piper, Redeemer Presbyterian Church pastor, the Rev. Dr. Tim Keller, and The King’s College theologian Dr. Anthony Bradley participated in a vibrant discussion about Race and the Christian at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in New York City. UrbanFaith talked to Piper Thursday morning about the discussion, the book that inspired it, and his own journey toward racial harmony. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UrbanFaith: What are your initial reflections about Wednesday night’s discussion about Race and the Christian?

John Piper: I come away from all events revolving around race with ambivalence. I’m never confident that I have said anything helpful. I generally come away from those things feeling like I learned another blind spot. I work with such an awareness of how little I see, so when Tim, in particular, was talking, I thought: I never thought of that. My next thought was: Okay, don’t be paralyzed by that. Don’t run away. Take that in. Learn. Build on that. Stand there. Take another step. Try to grow. In my younger day, I felt like quitting so many times after conversations. Now I put my feet on God and say, “Move forward.”

You communicate a lot of humility about your own failures and struggles in the area of racial reconciliation. Why have you been able to resist the temptation to give up?

One short answer would be that I adopted Talitha. That’s a real inadequate answer, but it’s a true answer, meaning that when we made the decision to adopt an eight-week old African American baby when I was 50 years old, I thought: Oh man, when she is 15, I’m going to be 65. What is it like for a 15-year-old girl to have a 65-year-old dad? What is it like for an African American girl to have a white 65-year-old dad? All those questions were tumbling around inside of me 16 years ago. My wife and I just looked at each other and said, “This is the right thing to do. This locks us in to the issue forever.” That’s why I can’t walk away. I signed on with blood. You can sign with ink or pencil and erase that, but when you sign with blood, you don’t erase that. And so, we’re in. There is a deeper reason. Biblically, socially, historically, my history, globally, it’s just too big to walk away from.

There are only two paragraphs in Bloodlines about your daughter. Can you tell us more about your experience of raising her?

We began to take race seriously 20 years ago maybe, where I’d preach on it every Martin Luther King weekend. Into that, we were heavy into the pro-life [cause]. I was getting arrested. I spent a night in jail. That’s how serious it was. The guy next to me in the cell, Rod Elofson, leaned over and said, “There’s probably a better way to do this.” His next step was to adopt two black kids who might have been aborted. So the two issues conjoined for me and they’ve been conjoined for 20 years with a pro-life sermon and a race sermon every February.

[Rod] lives across the street from me and he named a fund the MICAH Fund after his kids. [It’s an acronym for] Minority Infant Child Adoption Help, which means it raises money to help people pay for adoptions. This began to spread through our church and Phoebe Dawson (a black social worker from Georgia, who’s kind of the Underground Railroad to us) was bringing these kids up and my wife got to know her. My wife [Noël Piper] was 48 and I was 50. She got a phone call from Phoebe one day, and Phoebe said, “I have a little girl here. I think she’s yours.” You don’t say that to a 48-year-old woman that has four sons and no daughter, who always wanted a daughter. The dynamics here are just explosive emotionally.

We took long walks at the arboretum and talked and talked about the implications for our lives. We were done having kids. These kids were on their way out and we were going to have a chapter of freedom after the kids. We locked ourselves in for another 16- 20 years. (Of course, now we’ve got adult kids and we know you never stop parenting.) At eight weeks old, she came to us in her beautiful little white dress and there she’s been ever since.

There’s a distinction between [adopting an infant] and becoming acclimated to a person who is culturally black. Talitha is not. We’ve labored hard to make her aware, to have all the history, to connect her with friends, so there would be some link with African American culture. But, by-and-large, she is white inside. Everybody knows that. She talks white. She thinks white. She relates white. What that will mean long term for her, I don’t know. That’s just one of the huge issues. We have black folks in our church who think I’m stupid. One of my elders thinks trans-racial adoption is not a good idea. He’s tolerant, but he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, because he thinks it just deculturates [adopted children].

How do you deal with that criticism?

I say, “This girl had a mom who came to the clinic to get rid of her.” Phoebe is in the business of persuading women that that’s not a good idea, that there are better alternatives. We were the better alternative, and so I said to Talitha, “Culture and ethnicity has some value. Being in the image of God has infinitely more value. So, on balance, that she’s a human being and that she comes to know Jesus Christ and lives forever in the family of God is like a billion and that’s she’s black is 10.

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‘October Baby’ Celebrates Choice of Life

‘October Baby’ Celebrates Choice of Life

While The Hunger Games received most of the attention at the box office last weekend, another film also opened that, in its own way, was equally as notable. October Baby, a small-budget Christian film with a pro-life message, earned $1.7 million, which may seem negligible when compared to the $155 million of Hunger Games, but October Baby opened on less than 400 screens (compared to more than 4,000 for Hunger Games), and was produced for a fraction of the cost. The fact that it was ranked number one for limited-release movies demonstrates the continuing demand for quality Christian films. Not that long ago, a film made by overtly Christian filmmakers and released nationwide happened infrequently. Thankfully, that is changing. The quality and quantity of faith-based movies is increasing and so are the topics these films are addressing.

October Baby tackles admittedly provocative questions like: What would you do if you discovered you’re not exactly who you think you are, and that what you assumed about your origins is not true? What if you found out that you almost weren’t born, and furthermore that someone wanted it that way? It’s not easy to approach a subject like abortion, but October Baby does it with grace, class, and love. Rather than beat you over the head, or even tap you on the shoulder, the film wraps its arms around you and simply waits for your reaction to all it has to say.

I recently had the privilege to chat with brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, the co-directors/writers/producers behind the film, both in person and by telephone. Excerpts of our conversations follow, edited for clarity and conciseness.

CHANDRA WHITE-CUMMINGS: Considering that this is your first foray into filmmaking, why did you pick such a provocative and emotionally charged subject matter? 

ANDY ERWIN: If you had asked us a few years ago, what would our first feature film be, we would have probably picked something other than this one. Not because it’s not a compelling story, but because it’s such a risky subject, and there’s so much heated emotion attached to both sides of this issue. I think as a filmmaker, sometimes you go out to find a film, but nine times out of ten the story finds you. Jon heard a woman speak named Gianna Jessen. She gave her testimony of surviving a saline abortion and having cerebral palsy as a result. She just has a beautiful spirit, and when we heard her story, Jon was so moved by hearing her speak.

CWC: Jon, what was it about her story that captured your attention and moved you?

THE STORY FOUND THEM: 'October Baby' filmmakers (and brothers) Jon and Andrew Erwin decided to tell a story that is a 'celebration of life.'

JON ERWIN: Andy’s right — sometimes a movie finds you, and when I heard Gianna speak … just the concept of an abortion survivor, those are two words I had no idea fit together. I was jarred, surprised, and shattered by it all at the same time. The more I researched it, the more I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I just felt this was a unique take on the topic, and it made a political issue become very real. When you look at it through that lens, when you put a face on it, you look at the person. You look beyond the politics to the human issue. And the whole thing moved me. People have said, “You’re very brave taking on this issue.” It’s really not that at all. I’m an artist and whatever is going on in my life works its way out in what we do. In this case, God moved in my life, shattered me over the issue, and it worked its way out into a movie. I felt like we’d been given a gift, a tool to shed light on the issue, but the challenge became how to do that. We ruled out a documentary, so we thought maybe we could take a different approach and make an entertaining film about a beautiful young girl.

AE: Yes, we used the context of Gianna’s life and inserted it into a coming-of-age love story in which a 19-year-old girl finds out that she’s a survivor of an abortion, goes on a road trip to find answers, and ultimately finds forgiveness. But our goal going into it wasn’t to do a political film but to do a human film, a human story that looks at the issue of abortion as a human rights issue, not as a political debate. So it was very interesting that through the eyes of the victim the story became much more entertaining and engaging. That’s when we knew this was the story we wanted to tell.

CWC: So the film was really story motivated and story driven, rather than message driven?

AE: Any movie should be. I think the movies that engage me the most as a viewer are not the ones that try and get a message or agenda across. I think that comes across as propaganda. Our goal is to tell a good story. The story that captivated our hearts as filmmakers was hearing Gianna’s testimony of survival. That’s what motivated us to tell this story of Hannah in October Baby. Being story driven allowed us to speak on a lot of topics we’re passionate about in a way that was not forced.

CWC: Let’s talk for a moment about the idea of “messaging” in films, especially those made by Christian filmmakers. I know you weren’t message driven with this film, but if you had to identify a message, what would it be?

AE: The message of October Baby is very much about forgiveness and healing. Those are universal and relatable topics and they allow you to address issues that you normally wouldn’t. This film deals with everything from abortion to adoption, from abstinence to post-abortive realities. There’s a line in the movie that says to be human is to be beautifully flawed. I think the reality that some films miss out on is that as humans, we are broken and we have issues. We use that reality to touch on these topics through the eyes of grace and through the eyes of the gospel in a way that I think a secular world can engage with.

JE: We hope the film doesn’t tell anybody what to think, but the biggest thing we wanted the movie to confront was indifference and inaction. This is one of the crucial issues of our time, and we very rarely stop and think about it. We wanted to address that apathy.

CWC: Do you consider this a pro-life movie? Are you comfortable with that term?

JE: Yes, I do consider it a pro-life movie. Is this a political movie? Absolutely not. The movie is about celebrating the value of life. In my opinion, that should be the definition of pro-life. It’s not an “anti-anything” movie. This film has a broad brush and encompasses not only the abortion/pro-life issue, but also adoption and caring for those who can’t care for themselves. I believe there’s an awakening in our culture, especially among our youth, to the value of life. I think we can all agree that we haven’t valued life enough, which manifests itself in a lot of different ways. So I would even go beyond pro-life and say the film is a celebration of life.

AE: I don’t think people will be offended at the way it’s presented. We don’t vilify or demonize anybody as much as we look at a very harsh reality, the very hard subject of abortion in a fresh way — through the eyes of someone who survived one.

CWC: But given that October Baby speaks to so many universal themes, like forgiveness and healing, do you have any concerns about people pigeonholing it as just a theatrical vehicle for the pro-life movement? Conversely, are you at all concerned about groups intentionally minimizing that aspect of the movie?

AE: My job as a filmmaker is to stir the pot and get people talking. If I can do that, then I’m able to step back from the process and trust that God will allow it to be productive. There are a lot of hurting people from all walks of life that will watch this film and it will stir all sorts of emotions and issues in them, and they will need to deal with those things. This is why our ministry partners are so valuable. For example, a ministry like Surrendering The Secret can step in and minister to post-abortive women. Or Care Net and Heartbeat International can minister to girls that are in a crisis pregnancy and don’t know what to do. I’m very excited about that.

I’m very comfortable with how Jon and I present the message in October Baby. I think we took an honest look at it. So I’m not ashamed at all, because I don’t think there’s anything about the way the story is told that I would apologize for. I think one thing my generation craves is a positive way to engage these issues. We’re tired of the negativity and the hurtful rhetoric. But we do want to stand for life and to raise awareness of the value of human life.

CWC: The value of human life is an important theme in the film. How have you extended that theme beyond the movie-going experience?

AE:  Every life deserves a chance. Every life has value, no matter what. Jon and I decided that our film needed to be a catalyst for active involvement on these issues, so we started the Every Life Is Beautiful Fund. We and our distributors agreed that once the movie turns a profit, 10 percent of that profit will be set aside and distributed to frontline organizations that work with crisis pregnancies, post-abortive care, and care for orphans and adoption. We’re still working out all the details on that, but we’re excited to be able to give back with our movie.

CWC: Given the disproportionate incidence of abortion in urban communities, what do you think is an effective way to bridge the gap and use a film like this to penetrate that audience?

A DIFFERENT ROLE: Actress Jasmine Guy's time on screen is brief, but her character is pivotal in 'October Baby.'

JE: Great question. I think one of the biggest ways is to persuade people in all communities to wake up to the value of life and realize that faith without works is dead. Let’s get beyond politics and bring help to girls making this incredibly difficult decision, especially in our urban communities. As Andy stated, that’s one of the reasons we started the Every Life Is Beautiful Fund. We want those funds to go straight through to pregnancy care centers, including those in black and other urban communities.

CWC: One potential draw for the black and urban community is the role of Jasmine Guy. So many of us remember her from her role as Whitley on A Different World. Talk about the significance of her presence in this film.

JE: Without giving away the story line, she plays a character that ends up being the key that unlocks the mystery for Hannah. Hannah understands exactly what happened to her after her encounter with Jasmine. The whole movie hinges on Jasmine’s scene. If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t have a movie. You can get ostracized for taking a role like this, so I’m just grateful she was bold enough to take it.

October Baby released nationwide March 23, 2012. Check the official film website for a list of cities where it’s showing and for resources related to the issues and themes presented in the film.