The following is a lightly edited transcript.
When I came here in 1964, interracial marriage was against the law in sixteen states. When I was a senior, the Supreme Court struck down all of those laws in a decision called Loving v. Virginia, and from a historical perspective, as you can see, that was not very long ago. Laws have deep feelings behind them, and feelings don’t change at the same pace that laws do.
My aim in this message is to argue from Scripture and from experience that interracial marriage is not only permitted in the Bible among God’s people, but is to be celebrated as a positive good and as a beautiful thing. It is not only to be tolerated, but celebrated.
Is Interracial Marriage Actually Good?
Not everybody believes that. For example, many African American leaders would disagree. This is a quote from Lawrence Graham:
Interracial marriage undermines African American ability to introduce our children to black role models who accept their racial identity with pride.
A white conservative columnist named H. Millard has exactly the opposite vision for the same horrible result, namely, it must be a genocidal conspiracy.
We are seeing the death of the American and his replacement with non-European types who now have enough mass in our society to pervert European ways. White people are going to have to struggle mightily to survive the neo-melting pot and avoid being part of a one-size-fits-all human model. Call it what it is: genocide and extinction of the white genotype.
Then I got a letter from a white Christian man not long ago, who said,
As individuals, they are precious souls for whom Christ died and whom we are to love and seek to win. As a race, however, they are unique and different and have their own culture. I would never marry a black. Why? Because I believe God made the races, separated them, and set bounds for their habitations (Deuteronomy 32:8; Acts 17:26). He made them uniquely different and intended that these distinctions remain. God never intended the human race to become a mixed or mongrel race. So while I’m strongly opposed to segregation, I favor separation that the uniqueness with which God made them is maintained.
And to those views, I would add my own experience. By almost any definition, I was a racist growing up in Greenville, South Carolina. Since I am a sinner still, I have little doubt that remnants of that remain in me. It’s why I approved so strongly of Danny’s article that I read from “The Record” last spring that this is not a once-for-all issue like, “I took care of this five years ago. I had a really good experience and did some reconciliation and now I’m fine.” You’re not fine. And I’m not fine. Nobody’s fine. We are sinners in need of repenting every day because of this and a hundred other sins that are never, never leaving us alone.
“You have never met a human being who is not a wonder. And they are to be treated accordingly.”
My definition of racism is the beliefs and the practices that come from valuing one race over another. By that and other definitions, I was one of those. My attitudes were deplorable, demeaning, and disrespectful toward non-whites as a teenager. Right at the heart of that attitude was opposition to interracial marriage.
My mother washed my mouth out with soap one time — literally. It was ivory soap, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. She did that because I said, “Shut up,” to my sister. If she had known the racist things I said when she wasn’t around, she would have washed my mouth out with gasoline.
She was, in more ways than one, the means of my salvation. When I was seventeen in 1963, just before I came here, our church voted to prohibit blacks from coming into the sanctuary because they argued, “Well, the only reason they’d come is political and so that’s a bad motive and so they should be prohibited from coming.”
My mother, at my sister’s wedding in December of 1963, marched all her black friends right into the sanctuary and sat them down. You can see where the seeds of some measure of redemption in my life were coming from. I don’t blame my parents for any of my sins — none of them — and you shouldn’t either.
Better a Christian
In 1967 I attended Urbana while I was a senior here at Wheaton College. I met Noël here. We went together to Urbana and something happened that was most remarkable in this regard.
Warren Webster, a former missionary to Pakistan, was on a panel, and was asked by a student in front of 9,000 people, “What if your daughter fell in love with a Pakistani and wanted to marry him while you’re over there being a missionary? What would you do?”
He said, more or less, wish I could remember his exact words, but this is very close: “Better a Christian Pakistani than a rich, white, godless, American man.” That landed on me with unbelievable force in 1967. It was another one of those steps in my ongoing walk out of racism.
Four Biblical Insights on Racism
What I want to do is give you four insights from the Bible, and then close with some applications to our experience.
1. Fundamental Dignity for All
All races have one ancestor in the image of God and therefore, all human beings, descending from Adam, are in the image of God. And that truth about your identity, compared to any racial identity you have, is a million to one.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female, he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
And then Paul, standing in Athens, among a people who prided themselves as being intrinsically above the barbarian and the Scythian, said these explosive words,
He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth. (Acts 17:26)
He’s saying to these Greeks, “You are related to those folks, you know? You do all have the same father.” When you put that together with Genesis 1:27, every single person on the planet is not only related to you by having the same father and mother, but also, are in the image of the immortal God, and therefore, you have never met a human being who is not a wonder. And they are to be treated accordingly.
2. Believer and Unbeliever
The Bible forbids intermarriage between believers and unbelievers clearly, but not between races.
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39)
“Whomever she wishes, only in the Lord.” There’s this one biblical restriction put upon whom you marry. Namely, if you’re a believer in Jesus Christ, you marry a believer in Jesus Christ.
When the Old Testament forbade intermarrying with the nations, it wasn’t because of cultural and racial preservation. It was because of religious preservation. Let me read it to you. This is Deuteronomy 7:3–4:
You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.
The issue is not color-mixing or custom-mixing or clan identity. The issue is: Will there be one common allegiance to the true God in this marriage? That’s what you should care about more than anything. Will there be one common allegiance to the King of kings in this marriage?
The prohibition of God’s word against interracial or interethnic marriage there was not to preserve ethnic identity but to preserve faith. And therefore, the transfer over to us is: Let the true Israel of God marry the true Israel of God, made up of people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
3. From Barrier to Blessing in Christ
In Christ, our oneness is profound — beyond words profound — and transforms social differences from barriers to blessings. Colossians 3:9–11:
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Now, that does not mean that every minority culture gets swallowed up by the majority culture in the church. God doesn’t obliterate all ethnic and cultural differences — he redeems them. He refines them. He purifies them. He enriches them in the togetherness of the kingdom.
“God doesn’t obliterate all ethnic and cultural differences — he redeems them.”
So the final image that we get in the book of Revelation of the kingdom is that God redeems a people for himself from every people and tribe and tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). All of those trying to stretch out to the magnificent countless diversities of the peoples and has made them a kingdom and priest to our God. They are the peoples and they are a kingdom and they are a priesthood to God. The distinctions are not obliterated in the kingdom any more than they are in the church.
The point of Colossians 3:11 — “Not Greek, not Jew, not barbarian, not Scythian” — is not that there are no cultural or ethnic differences, or that they are of no significance, but that those differences are no hindrance to deep, profound, intimate fellowship and unity in the people of God — including the family of God, including marriage.
4. Discipline from God
Criticizing one interracial marriage was severely disciplined by God in the Bible. There was an interracial marriage that was criticized, and God got very angry — not at the marriage, but at the criticism. This was Moses’s marriage to a Cushite woman. Moses is a Jew and he marries a black African. Numbers 12:1:
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.
Now Cushite and Ethiopian in Hebrew are virtually interchangeable. Cush was a land just south of what we know as Ethiopia, and they’re all black-skinned, very black-skinned, historically and to this day. We know this biblically because of Jeremiah 13:23 where it says,
Can the Ethiopian change his skin
or the leopard his spots?
Now that’s the same word for Cushite in Hebrew as you have in Numbers 12:1. So clearly, Cushite signified somebody with dark skin, and Moses married a Cushite. Daniel Hays says,
Cush is used regularly to refer to the area south of Egypt and above the Cataracts on the Nile where a black African civilization flourished for over 2,000 years. Thus it is quite clear that Moses married a black African woman. (From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, 71)
Now, what is most significant about the way Moses tells the story is that when he did that, and his sister, Miriam, got very upset along with Aaron, God got angry at them, not him. How he gets angry is suggestive at least. They are upset about the way Moses is using his authority, but the explicit statement goes like this. Numbers 12:1:
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.
And then what happens? I’ll paraphrase. God says to Miriam, “You like being light-skinned? I’ll make you light-skinned.” Numbers 12:10:
When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow.
“You want to be white? I’ll make you white.” God says not a critical word to Moses about this marriage to the Cushite woman. Miriam is bent out of shape about it, and God makes her leprous, white as snow. So, a warning: If you are ever inclined to think that the color black is used in the Bible to signify wrong or sin, you better think again and do your homework because God just might strike you with white if you like white. He’s really serious about these things, isn’t he? Of course, there was a huge mercy for Miriam, as there is for us. So here’s the summary of those four points.
All races have one ancestor in the image of God, and therefore, all of you are wonders created in the image of God. You never met a person in this room or outside who isn’t a wonder, a little statue to God Almighty.
The Bible forbids intermarriage between unbeliever and believer, but not interracial marriage.
Our oneness in Christ, in union with him by faith, is profound and transforms racial barriers into blessings.
Criticizing one interracial marriage in the Bible brought down God’s wrath, not on the marriage, but on the critic.
Break Down the Barriers
So a little bit of application here to us now. I wonder if you could show me anywhere in the world where interracial marriage is disapproved of between two groups, and those groups, nevertheless, are full of respect and harmony and equal opportunity. I don’t think such a place or such a situation exists on the planet. You can come tell me afterward if you think there is.
Here’s the reason to draw it home: the specter of interracial marriage demands barrier after barrier to be put up to keep our young people from falling in love with each other. They can’t fellowship in the same church, same youth group. They can’t go to the same schools. They can’t be a part of the same clubs. They can’t live in the same neighborhoods. Everybody knows what the issue is here: They might marry each other. Wherever that is disapproved of — subtly or deeply — there will be blatant efforts to separate or a hundred subtle ways to just keep them moving in different directions.
So as long as we’re disapproving of interracial marriage, we will be pushing away, not only our children from each other, but each other from each other because they go together. If you don’t make a desirable spouse, or your children don’t make a desirable spouse, you don’t make a desirable neighbor or a desirable church member in my church either. This is big. And it’s not over.
There’s a great, sad irony here, isn’t there? The very situation of separation and suspicion and distrust and dislike brought about by the fear of interracial marriage is used, then, to justify why you shouldn’t marry a person of another race. It’s a catch-22. “Don’t marry that person because life will be hard. It’ll be hard for you. It’ll be hard for the children. They might be called half-breeds or something worse.”
It’s like an army being defeated because there aren’t enough troops and nobody will sign up because they’re constantly being defeated. That’s what we call a catch-22. Oppose interracial marriage and you’ll help create a situation of racial disrespect. Because there’s this situation of racial disrespect, it probably wouldn’t be prudent for you to marry across racial lines.
Life Is Hard, God Is Good, Christ Will Help
Now, right at this point is where the gospel of Christ becomes massively crucial and important. Jesus died to cover all our sins, and he died to propitiate the wrath of God, which means that we Christians are the freest of all people on the earth. We are free from guilt and we are free from the wrath of God. He is on our side and we are not driven by fear anymore. Fear is the great field in which the weeds of suspicion and disrespect and racism grow.
So if someone says to you, “You know, there’s just so much racial prejudice left in the world. I don’t think it would be prudent for you to marry her,” your response should be something like, “Christ didn’t die to make me prudent. He died to make me a God-centered, Christ-exalting, justice-advancing, counter-cultural, risk-taking, courageous, loving person.”
“Fear is the great field in which the weeds of suspicions and disrespect and racism grow.”
Will it be harder to be married to a person of another race? Maybe. Maybe not. But since when is that the way a Christian thinks? Life is hard. Life is hard and the more you love, the harder it gets, and marriage is where you love the most, and therefore, marriage is one of the hardest places on the planet. I hope I’m not wrecking your dream. But it’s one of the hardest relationships there is. Period. Race or no race. Wheaton students ought to be smart about these things and not naïve.
It’s hard to take a child to the mission field. The risks are high. It’s hard to take a child to a mixed neighborhood. They might be teased or ridiculed or worse. It’s hard to help a child be a Christian in a secular world where their beliefs might be mocked. It’s hard to bring children up with some standard like, “You’re not going to wear that in this house and you’re coming in before 1:00 a.m.”
It’s hard for a dad to do that in this world. Dads with backbones are rare. I hope you become one, guys. And moms with backbone are rare. Raising children is hard, of any kind, any situation, any race, whatever. Life is hard. The hardest thing in the world sometimes is marriage. It’s just right and beautiful and rewarding and pleasing to God and full of awesome benefits with all the pain.
Few Things More Beautiful
Few things, I think, are more beautiful. Few things are more beautiful than when Christian couples across racial lines overcome every racial prejudice, every ethnic slur, every gospel-contradicting fear, and then displaying, in that marriage, the covenant-keeping commitment and love of Christ for his church. That’s what marriage is for. Marriage is not mainly for romance and it’s not mainly for sex — as good as those are. Marriage is mainly displaying to the world the covenant-keeping love of God between Christ and his church, and his church and Christ (Ephesians 5:22–33). Dream that dream and it will profoundly affect whom you marry.
Christians are people who move toward needs, not comfort. Christians are people who move toward justice, who move toward beauty. They don’t move toward security at every point. Life is hard. God is good. Christ is strong to help.
Wheaton students, don’t underestimate the challenges of marriage, and don’t underestimate the challenge of interracial marriage. But when it comes to interracial marriage, celebrate the beauty of it, embrace the burden of it. Both of those, the beauty and burden, will be good for you, good for the church, good for the world, and good for the glory of God.