One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race by John Perkins

One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race by John PerkinsSummary: At 87 years old, the message John Perkins will be focusing on the rest of his life is the importance of racial reconciliation within the church.

One Blood is John Perkins’ last book. So I read it conscious of several of several others books that I have read that were consciously the last books written. John Stott’s last book was about discipleship. Johnny Cash’s last album was about death and regret. This book is about racial issues within the church.

I wish that everyone was familiar with John Perkins. (If you are familiar with him you can skip to the second half where I actually get to the book.) He grew up the son of a sharecropper. His mother died when he was two years old of Pellagra, which is a disease that is most often caused by such a poor diet that the person is essentially starving to death. When he was 16 his older brother, after returning from serving in the military during World War II was killed by a local police officer. Perkins was sent to California because his family feared that he would be killed as well.

When John Perkins was 27, his son Spencer invited him to church and he first became a Christian. Three years later (in 1960) he and his family moved back to Mendenhall, Mississippi to start Voice of Calvary. That ministry expanded to include an early Head Start program, social services and bible training program. In 1965, John Perkins started registering African Americans to vote and helped form a food cooperative to care for people that were blocked out of their jobs as a result of registering to vote. In 1967, his children were the first to desegregate the local high school. In 1969, he lead an economic boycott of White owned businesses, which directly lead to his false arrest and torture at the hands of local police officers. That torture required the removal of part of his stomach and life long health problems.

Later John Perkins and his wife Vera Mae started similar ministries in Jackson, Mississippi and then in Pasadena California. In 1989, he co-founded the Christian Community Development Association which gathered together similar organizations around the country that were mostly evangelical leaning theologically and agreed on the basic principles of the 3 Rs (relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution). Most recently the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation was created as a training center for Christian community development and leadership.

Although Perkins only formally completed third grade, One Blood is his 11th book that he wrote or co-wrote. I recommend his Let Justice Roll Down, a 2006 memoir as the best place to start with his books.

John Perkins is an elder statesman of both Christian Community Development and the Civil Rights era. We should listen to what he has to say because he has earned the right to say it through his life’s work. This is not an abstract theorizing about racial issues. We do not have many civil rights icons left.

That being said I do have some concerns about One Blood. Because I have read almost everything Perkins has written and I have met and heard him in person multiple times since 1992 and listened to videos or recordings of him, I know his heart on racial issues. I fear that those that have less background, if they do read this book, will read it as individualist response to race.

Perkins emphasizes the need for individual relationship across racial lines. Which is important, but is not the only thing that is important racially. Maybe that is where we should start (and I think that is why Perkins does emphasize it.) He never denies the need for systemic changes to culture, but Perkins is a political and economic conservative. Historically he has emphasized local community and personal responsibility and not government. So there are a couple points here that he I think go a bit too far in resisting the role of government in integration.

Because Perkins is a political conservative I do think he speaks in a way that many White Evangelicals who are also political conservatives might be able to hear. Perkins quotes a lot of people, from Bono to Russ Moore, but unless I missed it, it is nearly half way through One Blood before he quotes an African American. He tells stories about African Americans, but quotes are about authority. By predominately quoting Whites, but telling stories about African Americans, it may make it easier for White readers to read One Blood because they are finding identifiable authorities that they can relate to, it does seem to minimize the authority of African Americans and other minorities, especially around racial issues where they are the authorities.

Which leads to another problem, Perkins addresses both White and Black reluctance to racial reconciliation. Again, maybe this is a rhetorical device that is designed to assure White readers that they are not solely responsible for racial issues within the US. But it feels like moral equivalence arguments. And he does not address the largest African American reluctance that I have heard, the inability of Whites to actually stick with racial reconciliation as an issue.

I fully support the theological argument he is having, “Biblical reconciliation is the removal of tension between parties and the restoration of a loving relationship.”(p13) But there is a sociological reality that we can have relationships across racial, cultural, economic or class lines but not actually see how we are at the same time perpetuating those lines. John Perkins knows this and the focus of his ministry has been wholistic. He just doesn’t spend much time talking about it here.

It isn’t Perkins’ biblical exegesis I question. Perkins is one of the best bible teachers I know. His focus on Acts and the discussion of what biblical reconciliation looks like are shown in quotes like,

“There has been the suggestion that we can be reconciled to God without being reconciled to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Scripture doesn’t bear that out.” (p28)

He cites the 2016 election as a point when we first started looking at poor whites in the country, which just isn’t true. Yes, there was additional attention paid to poor whites. But Trumps’ support was actually more wealthy than the white supporters of Clinton. And many ‘successful’ anti-poverty programs have historically excluded minorities (early social security, FHA loans, etc.)

Perkins calls for a period of national unity like was brought about by the period after the assassination of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy. And while he was right that there was collective horror over the assassinations, MLK Jr at his death had a lower approval rating than Trump currently has. There was not a national unity, there were riots and protests and division.

I do think that Perkins’ prescriptions of biblical change through repentance is right. Perkins cites that biblically repentance is not just saying, ‘I’m sorry’ but changing and walking in obedience and making restitution in order to reconcile the relationship. Perkins cites the SBC statements against racism and their repentance of participating in slavery as part of their origin as an example of this biblical repentance. And he cites the election of the first African American President, Fred Luter, in 2012 and then the President of the SBC Pastors’ Conference in 2017 (Dr HB Charles Jr) as proof of the earlier statements.

Perkins quotes Russ Moore after the election of Luter saying, “A descendant of slaves elected to lead a denomination forged to protect the evil interests of slaveholders is a sign of the power of the gospel that crucifies injustice and reconciles brothers and sisters.” And that is a great quote. But I follow a number of Black SBC leaders and the amount of racism that they endure on Twitter from other SBC pastors is a sign of how far there is to go. (There was an attempt last year to oust Russ Moore as the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in part because of his focus on racial issues, charging that he was being divisive.)

In the end I am glad I read One Blood even though I was frustrated. Because I want to read what Perkins has to say. I will never give up as much for Christ as he has. His words do, and should, carry much more weight than mine. For those that have ears to hear the quote below will be inspiring. But for those that are resistant to understanding racism as more than just personal animus, I fear that they may come away from this book assuming that African Americans and other minorities that are resistant to coming to their church or that continue to assert the power that racism has in their lives are the ones that are hindering racial reconciliation.

I do think this quote from near the start of the epilogue is worth reading to understand Perkins’ heart in racial reconciliation.

“Well…I’ve had my say. I believe that if we can get it into our hearts that we are one, we will make it. We are one human race. We are one blood, all created from one man, Adam. And we are saved by one blood—the blood of Jesus, the Son of God who gave his life to reconcile us to the Father—and to one another. Blood carries the idea of suffering. It’s this concept of suffering that I’m most aware of now. Not just suffering for the sake of suffering, but suffering coupled with joy. If we’re going to make the kind of progress that we need to make with reconciliation, we have got to be willing to suffer. And we’ve got to be able to see joy as the end product of our suffering.” (epilogue, page 171)

The Gospel Coalition has a much more positive review than I do if anyone is interested 

One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race by John Perkins Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition (Audiobook projected to be released April 6)

One Comment

I had a comment on goodreads asking what I would recommend if I don’t recommend this.

My response from Goodreads copied here:

“There are lots of good books and I don’t think this one is bad or I wouldn’t have given it 4 stars. I do think it can be misread.

Depending on what you are looking for, I would have several suggestions.

If you are looking for a better understanding of the divide between white and black Christians I would read Divided by Faith by Emerson and Smith, which while a bit dated, is still I think the best intro.

If you are looking at a more general discussion about racial disparity in and outside of the church, I think The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma is good.

If you are looking about how to understand racial issues as a white person, I think White Awake by Daniel Hill or Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey are good.

I would also recommend a lot of history because lots of history has been distorted. Depending on how you like to learn, the podcast of the David Bright’s Yale college history class (Civil War and Reconstruction History 119) is very good. (it is also free)

Also good is Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner and The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Captalism by Edward Baptist.

If you are more interested in the church parts of this discussion then I think Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership is Overlooked in White Churches and Institutions and Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove are both helpful to hear different part of the issues of racism within the church. (first is predominately from minority viewpoint and the later is predominately from a White majority culture viewpoint.)

There are also secular or historical books that are well worth reading.

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman was an inspiration for MLK and written in 1949.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is entirely secular. Coates is not a christian and I think that matters to his view of the world, but I think he also is a great writer. Between the World and Me is also consciously modeled on James Baldwin’s Fire Next Time, again from a secular perspective, but both are focused on how the world has not changed around the fundamental issues of many Whites believing that they are better than other racial groups regardless of law or civil liberties.

The documentary I am Not Your Negro which is free to stream on Amazon Prime and some other places also covers some similar ideas.

I also would recommend listening to podcasts like We Talk Different, Pass the Mic and Truth’s Table that are all by Christians talking about racial issues within the church. ”

(almost all of these have reviews here)

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