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.
CHRISTINE A. SCHELLER: You teach family law at Stanford Law School. What is the relationship between family law and the decline in marriage rates among African Americans that you talk about in your book?
RALPH R. BANKS: The book chronicles some of the changes that were part of the evolution we’ve seen in the last half century. The legality of birth control, abortion, laws regulating people’s intimate lives–those are all part of the master shift that led to people being less likely to marry and more likely to have relationships outside of marriage.
TAKING THE ISSUES SERIOUSLY: Dr. Ralph Richard Banks.
Do you want the law to encourage marriage?
That’s a difficult issue. It’s one of those areas where it’s not clear that we have the right tools to surgically repair what might be a social problem. The big divide in marriage now is between the economically disadvantaged who decide not to marry and whose children are in less stable circumstances and those who are affluent and tend to marry and have much more stable marriages. I don’t think we can easily move people from one category to the other. The best thing to do is to provide more of a safety net for children: improve their educational systems, provide pre-school, high-quality day care for families, even for those who can’t afford it. And then, try to create an economy in which more people are able to be successful. Those are the indirect solutions.
You wrote that in Sweden, people often don’t marry but have long-term committed relationships so their children grow up in more stable homes than some American children whose parents are married. Have you given any more thought to what it is that makes the Swedish arrangement successful?
Sweden is a whole different cultural setting. In the United States, we put a lot of emphasis on marriage. We’re a much more religious nation than a country like Sweden. Marriage is more revered culturally. That’s part of the difference between the U.S. and many of the Northern European countries.
Are there any lessons to be learned from these countries in creating more stable families whether or not parents are married?
The government should do more for those who are disadvantaged generally. It would be great to have a nation where it didn’t matter which school one went to because all the schools are great, where poor kids go to schools that are as good as the schools that the rich attend, where everyone has healthcare. These are issues that are hugely important in helping the next generation to thrive. Our approach in our nation is to privatize too much, so that it depends on your family and your family’s resources. Marriage decline among the poor, in particular, is just one consequence of the fact that privatization hasn’t worked for that segment of the population.
I read lot of compassion in the book, especially for the struggles black women have in the relationship market, that critics seemed to have missed.
Thank you. Most of the critics haven’t read the book. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think it’s utterly indefensible and so dismaying that people would write about something they haven’t read. Imagine if you were a teacher in a classroom and you gave students an assignment to review a book and they wrote about why they would not read the book, you would fail them. With blogging, that has become acceptable and I think that’s just bizarre.
Some black women who don’t want to read your book said they are tired of people like Steve Harvey, who you mentioned, telling them what is wrong with them and their lives.
I understand that.
You’ve been invited to speak to African American women’s groups, so obviously that is not the overall consensus. A Chicago Tribune article about one event said the majority of women in the audience appreciated what you had to say.
The women in that audience who read the book said it changed lives. It’s like global warming. People have been hearing about global warming for so long, they don’t want to hear anybody else talk about it. Actually, the information might be useful information for someone who wants to understand something.
Do you think it taps into pain and that explains some of the response?
It does. I think that explains a lot of it, but I think over time that’s going to change. The issues are tough. Black people say they want their issues to be treated seriously, but when the issues are treated seriously, people can’t take it. They’re so accustomed to sensationalism and superficial treatment that when something comes along, they’re actually too wounded or too resistant to acknowledge it and consider it. This happens with a lot of issues in society where they’re treated very superficially and people get upset by that. But then the reason they’re treated superficially in part is because the serious treatment is something that is not always easy to take. Frankly, it requires all of us to examine ourselves and to think more deeply about things that we might prefer to not think about.
One area of criticism was the suggestion that black women more seriously consider having relationships with men of a different race.
I don’t at any point suggest that black women should think more seriously about having [interracial] relationships. I don’t ever make a suggestion. I don’t ever offer advice. You’re getting that from people who, again, by their own admission haven’t read the book.
I got that sense from reading the book, whether you used the words directly or not.
This is the thing: there’s a genre of books, self-help books, and this is actually not a self-help book. This is a book for somebody who wants to understand some major changes in American society, with respect to marriage and family. That’s what this book does. That’s how I started writing the book, but we have such an anti-intellectual society that people don’t actually want to understand stuff. They just want to know, “What should I do?” So, the book has been sliding into the advice category, but in the actual writing of the book, I don’t say that.
But the reaction that you’re getting seems to indicate that people are, on some level, looking at it as a relationship manual.
I think people slide it into that, but this is not an advice book. It’s not an opinion book. It’s not a Steve Harvey book. This is a book that provides information based on actual research. It’s the most comprehensive distillation of the research ever on these issues. It’s written for a popular audience in a way that people will find accessible. It took an extraordinary amount of work to bring all this to bear. It’s hard to control how people construe it, especially when many of the people writing about it haven’t read it.
In the chapter on fears black women have about interracial relationships, particularly with white men, you discussed their concerns about having biracial children. One woman is quoted as saying to her white fiance, “If we have twins, one dark and one light, we’re putting the light-skinned one up for adoption.” As a white mother who gave birth to a biracial child, that was a very difficult thing for me to read. I thought it sounded incredibly racist.
I know it does. I was on a radio show in San Francisco and a black woman called in and said, “If my daughter married a white guy, I could understand that, but if my son married a white woman after all the energy we’ve put into him, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.” The next caller said, “This woman called in to say that and if she were white, we’d be ready to sign her up for the local Ku Klux Klan, but because she’s black everybody thinks it’s okay.” This is an honest story. There are lots of black people who feel that way.
I’ve experienced that anger.
So it’s not a surprise that people feel that way. I’ve had resistance even from family. One of my sisters, who’s since come to be a big champion of the book, basically said, “Why are you going to write about this stuff in a way that white people can read it.” There are a lot of things that we know and feel are true in our lives, but we don’t want other people to know about them. People don’t want to expose some of that, and it is difficult.
It’s our perspective at UrbanFaith that we need to be talking about these difficult issues in ways that aren’t polarizing.
With race, what typically happens is people prefer to have very superficial, simplistic, meaningless conversations rather than real ones. It’s kind of like your social friends rather than your real friends. You’re not actually revealing things that are deep and meaningful to social friends because once you do that, people are vulnerable. What a lot of people don’t want, frankly, is to be vulnerable to people of other races.
What has the reaction been to the chapter on the fear of interracial dating?
I don’t have a random sample, but the people who read it love it. That’s what they want to talk about, not only African Americans, everyone, because, again, these are issues that might arise in the context of African Americans, but they are actually universal issues about fear of the other. One of the points I make in that section is that black women in particular are asking themselves, “Will he accept me and will his family accept me.” For non-black men, there’s a similar worry: will she accept me and what will her family say?
NEW YORK PRIDE: Marchers in the weekend NYC Gay Pride Parade celebrated New York's legalization of same-sex marriage.
Calls and emails to numerous New York clergy went unanswered over the weekend as Urban Faith sought reaction to the passage of a bill that makes same-sex marriage legal in the state. Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law after it was passed by the Republican-led state senate Friday.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) told the Wall Street Journalthe move was a “disaster for the Republican party,” and said NOM will spend $2 million to defeat legislators who voted for it.
Former New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree was widely criticized last week for speaking out in opposition to the bill in a video for NOM. Tyree said it is “doing God an injustice by not making his heart known” on the issue, and was especially taken to task for suggesting that if a gay marriage bill passes in New York, it will be “the beginning of our country sliding toward … anarchy.
In some truly disheartening relationship news, a new Pew Research Center study indicates that while only 9 percent of Americans said more interracial relationships are bad for society, 16 percent of white evangelicals did and 13 percent of white mainline Protestants, Christianity Today reported.
“The views of white Christians stand in stark contrast to two other groups: black Protestants and those with no religion. Only 3 percent of either group said interracial marriage was bad for society. Eight-in-ten respondents said the trend ‘doesn’t make much difference.’ Those who are not religious were more optimistic, with 38 percent saying it was good for society,” the article said.
“Malcolm X once warned African Americans that no one can exploit and hate on black people with the dexterity, efficiency and ruthlessness as other blacks. Case in point: a black Stanford law professor is gainfully profiteering off the collective marriage misery of middle-class African American women with a blog-level, contemptible book.”
The book advises black women to find love by marrying white men.
“While some intelligent points were sprinkled into the book at irregular intervals, overall, it answers none of the questions and relies on haphazard, shabby research and unsubstantiated theories wrapped in hollow, sophisticated rhetoric to make you give it a good look,” Shropshire concluded.
In other news, black leaders met last week in Washington to call for an end to the 40 year war on drugs, the Seattle Medium reported.
“This is a crime against humanity. [The] War on drugs is a war on Black and Brown and must be challenged by the highest levels of our government in the war for justice,” keynote speaker Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. told more than 200 people gathered at the Institute of the Black World event, the statistic and solution filled article said.
Among the statistics cited were these: “African-Americans are 62 percent of drug offenders sent to state prisons, yet they represent only 12 percent of the U. S. population” and “black men are sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men.”
Among the solutions offered are these: “Ask Congress to create new and fully-funded drug treatment facilities rather than more prisons,” and “Encourage and support religious leaders to assist incarcerated persons and providing community and moral leadership.”
In related news, dark-skinned black women receive considerably harsher sentences than light-skinned black women in the North Carolina prison system, a new study conducted by researchers at Villanova University found.
“Black women who were perceived to have a light skin tone were sentenced to considerably more lenient sentences, roughly 12 percent less time in prison than those with a dark skin tone,”The Grio reported.
“The current study adds to a growing body of colorism research that underscores the complexity of racism in our society,” one of its authors told the outlet.
One can only hope that shifting demographic realities will erase this prejudice.
A preview of the final 2010 census report indicates that minorities make up a majority of babies in the U.S. for the first time, but it also reveals that more African-American households are now headed by women — mostly single mothers — than by married couples, the Associated Press reported.
“Demographers say the numbers provide the clearest confirmation yet of a changing social order, one in which racial and ethnic minorities will become the U.S. majority by midcentury,” the article said.
Perhaps when that happens undocumented immigrants like Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas will have an easier path to citizenship. In a first-person essay in the New York Times, Vargas told his story of being sent from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the United States when he was 12 years old. He described how his grandfather, educators, and employers at The Washington Post and The Huffington Post helped him keep his secret. Media critic Jack Shafer questioned the ethics of Vargas’ actions first on Twitter, then in his column at Slate.
All these stories involve complex spiritual and moral challenges that the church must continue to wrestle with. What is the appropriate Christian response to the legalization of gay marriage, to the 40-year “war on drugs,” to colorism, to African American marriage prospects and disheartening statistics, and to the plight of undocumented immigrants?
The Dr. Laura Schlessinger N-word flap once again highlights the Black community’s uneasy relationship with a depised word, and the double standard many Whites believe we promote.
Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans … Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego (Daniel 1:3-4, 6-7, NRSV).
My secondary school teaching experience was brief but enlightening. I first entered the classroom as a fifth-grade teacher in 1999. As a wide-eyed and eager teacher in a Southern California public school system, my life was filled with new experiences and a roomful of not-so-eager-to-learn students.
My days were full and eventful. I can remember one particular event on the school playground where my class was playing. Two young fifth-grade girls that were in my class ran up to me; they were visibly distraught and somewhat undone (both were African American). Trailing behind them was a young Armenian boy, also in my class. He appeared agitated, nervous, and somewhat defensive.
The girls told me that the Armenian boy said the N-word on the playground. The young man chimed in and said he was merely rapping the same song the young ladies were rapping — the latest hip-hop cut no doubt — and repeating the same words they said. One of the girls then said, “You’re not Black, so you don’t have a right to say that word.”
I was taken aback. This was 11 years ago. The N- word is now even more widely promoted in the public space in many rap songs and entertainment circles. Thrown out predominantly by some African American rappers and comedians, this term (epithet to many) has become public domain; however, does this give everyone the right to spew it out freely — essentially naming all of us like in the Daniel passage above?
Over the past several centuries, Black folks in America have been named and renamed — boy, colored, Negro, Afro American, Black, etc … The naming of self, as opposed to being named, has been and continues to be a sensitive issue. What one feels comfortable with being called depends on personal preference or perhaps it is informed by a generational context — would the 18th-century enslaved Africans in America refer to themselves as African American or, rather, African, Ghanaian, or Ashanti? What did Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah prefer to be called?
The recent spate of public racial insensitivity has seemingly reached an all-time high. Not to be compared with the horrors of the American slave period or the legalized racial segregation of the18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, in a postmodern 21st century climate, racial sensitivity is becoming virtually extinct. Although thought to be somewhat curbed in light of America’s first African American president, prevalent attitudes suggests otherwise.
Discussion on race and racial insensitivity resurfaced once again a couple weeks ago on the Dr. Laura Schlessinger radio show. Schlessinger explicitly uttered the N-word 11 times when an upset African American female phoned in to ask advice concerning racially insensitive remarks made by her White husband’s family and friends. Schlessinger dismissively told the woman that she was being hypersensitive and that “when Black people say [the N-word], it’s affectionate.” Schlessinger told her caller that Black guys, like comedians on HBO, use the term all the time when referring to themselves. After an awkward exchange that found Schlessinger continually cutting off the caller, Schlessinger hung up!
The good Doc went on to say that if you’re too hypersensitive, and don’t have a sense of humor, then you should not marry outside your race. Dr. Laura seemed to suggest that she, too, should not be too hypersensitive when being racially demeaned as a Jewish woman — well we know where this argument ends!
Despite Schlessinger’s apology the next day, it became clear that her bizarre comments were the result of a deep-seated resentment that probably stemmed from the growing national backlash against what many White Americans perceive as a double standard when it comes to race — i.e., “If Black people can say it, why can’t we?”
This same backlash could be detected in the infamous meltdown of comedian Michael Richards (formerly of Seinfield), who referred to hecklers in his audience as “n—–s,” or in the callous banter of shock jock Don Imus when he referred to the sistas on the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy headed hoes.” Where and how did these public figures get the idea that they could name us?
The unfortunate fact about this deplorable language is that much of its use is due to a cavalier and self-deprecating attitude among a minority of vocal and visible folks within the African American community. Some don’t think the N-word is negative until it is turned on them by someone who isn’t Black. The term is publicly used and promoted by rappers, opportunistic professors who peddle popular commentary disguised as scholarship, and a wide array of youth and self-adulating persons. These are the people who ensure that racial resentment and division will continue to fester. Most significantly, these persons attempt to re-name us all similar to the example seen in the Old Testament narrative of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Dr. Laura Schelessinger photo by Phil Konstantin from Wikipedia.
By now you’ve heard about the Louisiana justice of the peace’s decision to deny an interracial couple a marriage license. He says he’s not racist, just concerned about how the children of such unions will be rejected by society.