I was seventeen years old when Martin Luther King wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail. One biographer called it “the most eloquent and learned expression of the goals and philosophy of the nonviolent movement ever written.” But I was too consumed with my own petty insecurities to take note. Pimples, nervousness, girls (wondering what they thought). I was like an island of self-concern in a sea of social turmoil.
If I were the only one, this would be a trivial detail. But alas, the world — especially the white American world of the 1950s and sixties — had drifted from a World War passion against the horrors of German Nazism and Japanese expansionism to an insulated stupor of suburban security. Basement bomb shelters were the symbol of social engagement.
When Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel) wrote his song “I Am a Rock” in 1965, it was not a celebration. It was an indictment.
I’ve built walls, A fortress deep and mighty, That none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island Don’t talk of love, Well I’ve heard the words before; It’s sleeping in my memory. And I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died. If I never loved, I never would have cried. I am a rock, I am an island. I have my books And my poetry to protect me; I am shielded in my armor, Hiding in my room, safe within my womb. I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island. And a rock can feel no pain; And an island never cries.
Not only was I an island of immature, individual insecurities, I was part of a cultural island. I lived in a white suburb of Greenville, South Carolina, across the highway from a Christian university where interracial dating was forbidden until 2000. That highway, and my all-white public high school, were named after the confederate lieutenant general Wade Hampton. The school colors were red and grey, and they were named the Rebels.
I attended an all-white Baptist church on Wade Hampton Boulevard, which passed a resolution in the early sixties that blacks would not be allowed to attend — a rule which my mother defied at my sister’s wedding in December, 1962, when she welcomed a black family to sit with all the guests. They were Lucy’s family. Lucy was our “help.” She came on Tuesdays and Saturdays and helped my mother clean. But I didn’t really know Lucy. She was from another island.
I found out later during college (when it had started to matter) that a shirttail relative, who also attended the church, was a member of the KKK. He seemed quite proud of it. It just came out one afternoon at a pizza party when I was home on vacation, and was passed over with, perhaps, the awkwardness of a faux pas. Risky, moral courage was not the dominant trait of my island.
A High Price for Freedom — and a Slow Beginning
Just a hundred years earlier, the population of South Carolina was about 700,000. Sixty percent were African Americans (420,000), and all but 9,000 of these were slaves. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. Three weeks later, the Civil War began in Charleston, South Carolina.
Newer estimates of the casualties of the conflict are now around 750,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War. That would be equivalent, in proportion to America’s population, to about 7.5 million Americans today. It was a high price.
The victory of full acceptance for African Americans into all the corners of American life is still in the making. It was a slow and painful beginning. In 1867, two years after the Civil War, 535 African Americans were lynched. A dozen years after the Civil War, the efforts of reconstruction were spent, and the solidification of segregation and disenfranchisement was underway.
There were flashes of hope followed by enduring darkness. By 1890, the former Confederate states had written new constitutions that put in place the same two-tiered system of justice that had existed in the slave era. Jim Crow was established, and things often went backwards. For example, in 1897, Louisiana had 137,000 registered black voters. Three years later, that number had been reduced to 5,000.
Ninety Years of Freedom for Separate Drinking Fountains
Fast-forward ninety years from April 9, 1865, to 1955, when I was a nine-year-old in Greenville. I was learning the rules of the island. Enforced segregation was pervasive. For some reason, an image from the Kress five-and-dime store is blazoned on my memory: two water fountains, eighteen inches apart from each other on the wall. The sign over one said, “White.” The sign over the other said, “Colored.” To this day, my stomach turns at what that communicated to whites and blacks. Before there was AIDS to be afraid of, there was blackness. You might get some of it on you.
The shame and ugliness of it was everywhere you turned. Not only drinking fountains, but also 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. In spite of all the rationalizations, it was not “separate but equal” — I never saw one equal provision for blacks. And not only was it not equal, but it was not respectful, it was not just, it was not loving, and therefore it was not Christian. It was ugly and demeaning. It was a way of keeping the waves of reform from breaking over the peace and comfort of our island.
Near and Yet So Far
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 island. His name was Jesse Jackson. Jackson was born October 8, 1941, at his home on 20 Haynie Street in Greenville. When he 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 neighborhood as
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 strawbrooms 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. (Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage, 82)
Our worlds — our islands — 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. The radio waves reached across the unnavigable waters that divided us. But I never made the slightest effort to sail those few miles.
What Lucy Taught Me
I didn’t know a single black person — except Lucy. And my relationship with Lucy taught me, in a surprising way, that it is possible to like someone, and even feel deep affection for someone and treat her graciously, while considering her inferior and as someone to be kept at a distance. Which in turn has taught me that those who defend the noble spirit of some Southern slaveholders by pointing to how nice they were to their slaves seem to be naïve about what makes a relationship degrading. I also cried when my dog got run over.
But this chapter is not the story of John Piper’s racism and redemption. I told that story in Bloodlines. This chapter is the story of how to wait for God and hasten the day of multi-ethnic beauty. I will try to make plain what that means.
An Alternative to Bloodshed
As we came to the middle of the twentieth century, the flashpoint of racial justice — the fair treatment of people on the basis of character and action, not on the basis of the color of their skin or their ethnic origins — had arrived. It had been long in coming. The first black slaves had been brought to America in 1565 as part of the colonization of St. Augustine, Florida. So, when Martin Luther King came on the scene, black-white relations, based on perceived racial inferiority and rooted in man-stealing and slavery, had been part of American life for four hundred years. The Civil War had removed slavery, but not oppression.
By the 1960s, that centuries-long oppression had produced two forces in the African American communities: one complacent, the other seething on the brink of violence. Martin Luther King saw himself as a middle way, not an extremist. He believed if it were not for the non-violent protests he was leading, the streets of America would soon be “flowing with blood” in a “frightening racial nightmare.” I think he was probably right about that. King explained,
I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.
The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation. . . . Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies — a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare. (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”)
In Birmingham to Prevent “Bombingham”
That’s why he was in Birmingham in the spring of 1963. On April 3, Martin Luther King issued the “Birmingham Manifesto” (not the [Letter]). He was 34 years old, married, and with four children, one of them only five days old. The manifesto called for all lunch counters, restrooms, and drinking fountains in downtown department stores to be desegregated.
Some called the city the most segregated city in the country. Its bombings and torchings of black churches and homes had given it the name “Bombingham” — the “Johannesburg of the South.” That day, sixty-five blacks staged sit-ins in five stores, and Police Commissioner Bull Conner dragged twenty of them away to jail.
King arrived with unparalleled eloquence in the service of non-violence. In nightly meetings in the black churches, he rallied the troops:
We did not hesitate to call our movements an army. But it was a special army, with no supplies but its sincerity. No uniform but its determination, no arsenal, except its faith, no currency but its conscience. It was an army that would move but not maul. It was an army that would sing but not slay. It was an army to storm bastions of hatred, to lay siege to the fortress of segregation, to surround symbols of discrimination. (Let the Trumpet Sound, 210)
The White “Call for Unity”
On April 13, Good Friday, King and his team refused to follow a court injunction that forbade peaceful marching. Such injunctions had been used to tie up peaceful direct action for years. Not this time. King met the barricades and the shouting Bull Conner. He knelt beside his friend Ralph Abernathy, and was thrown into the paddy wagon and taken to the Birmingham City Jail. This was the thirteenth time King had been arrested.
He was put in solitary confinement without mattress, pillow, or blanket. His situation improved when Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked why he was in solitary confinement. On Tuesday, April 16, he was brought a newspaper in prison, the Birmingham News, where eight white clergymen had published their “Call for Unity.”
We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders [a reference to King]. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely. . . .
We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham. . . . We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.
Unleashed Eloquence from Birmingham Jail
This was the spark that ignited King’s eloquence in Letter from Birmingham Jail. To their admonition that Negroes overcome their “natural impatience” and renounce “extreme measures” King responded,
For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Then King rises to his most vivid and compelling picture of why the call to wait rings so hollow:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights . . . but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policeman curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she’s told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “Nigger,” your middle name becomes “Boy” (however old you are), and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
When I first read these words many years ago, they stunned me. I had never read anything about racial relations or the Civil Rights Movement more moving than these words. Every word rung true. And the cumulative force was devastating. One can sense the wonder that, in the providence of God, such a voice had been heard above the cries of those days.
King was not done explaining. He used his method because he truly believed that waiting would be forever without it.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
How long would the wrong be ignored? King’s answer: “No longer.”
It was a flashpoint in our nation. A mid-century wind. The islands were colliding. Bob Dylan released his song “Blowin’ in the Wind” the same year King published Letter from Birmingham Jail. They both asked the same question: How long?
How many roads must a man walk down Before you call him a man? Yes, ‘n’ how many seas must a white dove sail Before she sleeps in the sand? Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly Before they’re forever banned? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind. How many years can a mountain exist Before it’s washed to the sea? Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist Before they’re allowed to be free? Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head Pretending he just doesn’t see? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind. How many times must a man look up Before he can see the sky? Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have Before he can hear people cry? Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows That too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind . The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Yes, it was an anti-war song. But in the middle of the song were the words that in the 1960s could not be heard without racial implications:
Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist Before they’re allowed to be free? Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head Pretending he just doesn’t see?
When this song was sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary in March, 1963, it bumped “Puppy Love” from the top of the charts. What this symbolized was that a lot of young John Pipers were about to be shaken loose from their immature, insulated, petty insecurities and catapulted into a bigger world. The personal islands of isolation and ignorance and indifference, and the cultural islands of segregation and suspicion and derision were all sinking in the sea. For me, it was the sea of gospel awakening. A Jesus awakening.
Jesus, Love, Church
For all of King’s theological and personal flaws, he pointed us in the right direction: to Jesus rather than self, to love rather than hate, and to the sacrificial church rather than the religious social club.
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”? Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll to down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”? Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus”? Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God”? And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “Thus this nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? . . .
There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. . . . But the judgment of God is upon the church [today] as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century.
A Judgment on Both Your Houses
In the last fifty years, this judgment has come upon white and black churches alike. Mainline Protestant denominations, white and black, in large measure, have sold their gospel soul for the pottage of trendy social issues mingled with secular unbelief. And many trendy, so-called evangelical churches marched right behind them.
But this has turned out quite the way Martin Luther King envisaged it. The seeds of gospel displacement were already present in his message. Few people have analyzed these developments since King’s day more profoundly than Carl Ellis in his book, Free At Last. Nothing I have read eclipses the insights of this book in understanding what has happened in black and white churches since the Civil Rights Movement, and how they relate to each other.
The Missing God
What Ellis sees so clearly is that the so-called white and black churches have both been compromised theologically. Ellis’s vision for the rebuilding of a God-centered black culture is profoundly relevant for the rebuilding of a God-centered white American evangelicalism. One sentence took hold of me in 2001 when I first read this book. Ellis wrote, “White historians had sold us a bill of goods by leaving Black folks out; Black secularists sold us a bill of goods by leaving God out” (23).
The reason that sentence cuts deeply both ways is not mainly because it criticizes white historians as bad historians, or black secularists as bad theologians, but mainly because it makes us focus on that particular weakness of the black community which it had taken straight from the dominant white culture, namely, secular humanism, in contradiction to the deeper, more authentic, God-soaked roots of the historic black culture in America — and, I would add, also in contradiction to the deeper, more authentic, God-soaked roots of the white evangelical culture in America.
The Problem Deeper Than Ethnocentrism
There is no doubt in my mind that God raised up Martin Luther King in the middle of the twentieth century to accomplish the gracious biblical purposes of truth and justice. But it is also true that King was already influenced by the theologically liberal white establishment at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University. The great God-centeredness of the gospel of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection to propitiate the wrath of God and save sinners from hell and from sins like racism — this gospel had already slipped to the margins of King’s message.
What Ellis makes clear is that something deeper than ethnocentrism has been at work in the fifty years since Martin Luther King’s vision was heralded so powerfully. Ellis’s ax cuts through to the compromises of white and black churches alike that have lamed us deeply. These compromises certainly include the kinds of ethnocentrism that infect our lives and push us apart. But there is something deeper. His aim is the rebuilding of a God-centered Christianity, not “Christianity-ism” (214). He calls for authentic, God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated Christianity out of white and black and every other color.
You feel Ellis’s two-edged sword in sentences like this:
Black is truly beautiful, but it is not beautiful as a god. As a god it is too small. Afrocentrism is truly magnificent, but it is not magnificent as an absolute. As an absolute, it will infect us with the kind of bigotry we’ve struggled against in others for centuries. . . . Whenever we seek to understand our situation without [the] transcendent reference point [of the Word of God] we fail to find the answer to our crisis. The white man’s religion has failed us [namely, Christianity-ism]. The Arab ethnic religion has failed us and will fail us again. (154)
White systems that adapt the gospel’s radical message to the spirit of the age have failed. Efforts at establishing churches and movements on “black is beautiful” have failed. We need a bigger vision, a deeper vision. We need a transcendent reference point. We need the supremacy of God. The centrality of God. The word of God. The radical gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullest and deepest biblical proportions.
When I first read Ellis’s book in July of 2001, everything in me was crying, “Amen,” not about the weaknesses of black church, but about the so-called white church — my own puny-god, market-driven, materialistic, middle-class, comfort-seeking, truth-compromising, wishy-washy, white, evangelical, American church. What became clearer to me then than ever was that what both communities need is a transcendent reference point in the sovereignty of God and the supremacy of God and the centrality of God in all things, expressed supremely in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
First the Bride, Then the World
One of the implications of this radical, God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, gospel-cherishing passion is that the pursuit of increasingly natural and beautiful racial diversity and justice and harmony will happen first in the churches where these values are loved. I don’t mean that these churches will be blind or indifferent to the wider secular culture. Rather, I mean that the community where God is central, and Christ is exalted, and the Bible is believed, and the gospel is cherished — this is where God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, gospel-cherishing racial diversity and harmony can be advanced. And from these churches, only God knows how deep and vast the wider cultural transformation might be.
If the church focuses on efforts toward racial diversity and justice and harmony where God is not central, and Christ is not exalted, and the Bible is not believed, and the gospel is not cherished, the inevitable result will be what we have seen for the last fifty years — the marginalization of God, the centralization of noble slogans, and the loss of power to change human hearts and the institutions they create. Where the fruit of the gospel is made the gospel, the power of the gospel to produce its fruit dies.
It Does Not Come by Passive Waiting
This primary goal — the goal to lead churches, not first the entire secular culture, into the beauty of ethnic and racial diversity and justice and harmony that Christ purchased by his blood (Revelation 5:9) — this primary goal is urgent. It will not arrive by waiting for it passively. Martin Luther King was right that traditions that are blind to the need for change do not change without effort. Mere waiting does not work. There must be pursuit.
But someone may ask, doesn’t the Bible say, “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 27:14)? Yes, it does. But this call to wait for the Lord never meant stop doing what God commanded you to do in the pursuit of holy goals.
Recall, for example, that when Israel murmured against Moses that they were trapped by Pharaoh at the Red sea, he said, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. . . . The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:13–14). That sounds like the right thing to do was wait and nothing else. But God comes and says to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground” (Exodus 14:15–16).
God was not telling the people to stop waiting for him. He was showing them how to wait for him. God was going to work a miracle for them. He was going to divide the sea. That would be a miracle. They could not make that happen. They could only look for it. But God was going to use Moses to do it. And he was going to do it for a people on the march.
Waiting for and Hastening the Day
This is how it always is. Waiting for the Lord means acting with the confidence and expectation that the only way your action will bear fruit is that God will show up. “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Paul waited for the grace of God as he worked. Or again he says, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience — by word and deed” (Romans 15:18). Paul spoke, Paul acted, but God brought about the obedience of the nations. Or again, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). James says farmers must be patient and wait for the harvest (James 5:7). But in the meantime, no one works harder than the farmer.
So yes, we must wait for God. Only God can accomplish the glorious miracle of God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, gospel-cherishing ethnic and racial diversity, justice, and harmony in our churches. But this waiting on God’s miraculous inbreaking is intensely active. As with the day of God, so with the day of racial glory: “What sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:11–12). There is a holiness that hastens.
Lord teach us how to wait for you in such a faith-filled, Spirit-dependent, radically active way that we hasten the day when the terms “white church” and “black church” will be unintelligible.