Takeaway: Very few topics get more to the heart of Christian love and community more than racial, class and economic reconciliation.
I first heard about John Perkins in the spring of 1992 as I was preparing for a summer missions trip with Wheaton College. We read one of his books (cannot remember which one, but according to his Wikipedia page, only A Quiet Revolution was published in 1992, now out of print). Later that year, after working for a summer in Houston with kids in a long term homeless shelter, attended my first Christian Community Development Association meeting. It was there that I first heard John Perkins speak. Since think I think I have read almost everything written by or about him. He truly is one of the modern prophets that has done much to change the direction of the modern Evangelical church. So I am always surprised how many people have not heard of him. A the last Catalyst conference, Perkins was one of the main speakers and I saw dozens of tweets quoting him and many questioning why they had never heard of him.
This book is a good overview of his heart and focus. Written with alternating chapters (much the same format as Follow Me To Freedom written with Shane Claiborne), Charles Marsh give some context and outside insight into both Perkins and the theology of developing community.
One of the aspects of Perkins that I most appreciate is his commitment to scripture within this socially active message. He is not a quote scripture out of context speaker. He knows scripture deeply, like few that I have ever heard speak or write. So when he speaks about scripture, it is not because he is writing a book, it is because he lives within scripture. He has had a 5:30 AM bible study for years. He invited young men that he is mentoring to come and be weeded out at his morning bible study. It is not just the early time, it is the intensive actual study of scripture and the development of character that he really focuses on.
Perkins is not simply a bible teacher or social activist, his is focused on the redemption of community. “When the MIA held a weeklong Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change near the end of their boycott, King looked back at their long hard struggle for justice and made clear its ultimate aim. Though a boycott had been necessary to end discrimination in Montgomery, that boycott was not the end. “The end,” King said, “is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”
For me the real message, other than the importance of scripture, is that the belief is not as important as the action. The church says it is about the love of Christ, but it often does not live as if the love of Christ is all that important. “One of the most lasting effects of racism on white churches is an intellectual wound that makes people think they’ll do right if they believe right. So they put all of their emphasis on believing the right things. Preachers work so hard to get their doctrine right, and then they try to think of clever ways to get their congregations to sit and listen to their good theology. I ask them, “How are you helping your church learn to love? ” And they tell me, “Well, if they’re Christians they will love.” But I’ve met a lot of Christians who don’t know what love means. I talk to white Christians all the time who say, “I love black people. I had a black nanny growing up, and I really loved her.” Love isn’t just a good feeling. It’s an action that requires conversion.”
I picked this up free on kindle early this year. It is part of a series from Duke Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation. There are currently five books in the series and they all look good. They are all relatively short (there is really only about 100 pages of content here), with discussion questions for a class or small group. I would not recommend this as an introduction to John Perkins because it only focuses on a small part of who he is, but it is a good introduction the need for a focus on community within the church. If you want a good introduction to John Perkins, Beyond Charity is a good introduction to his thought, Let Justice Roll Down is the most complete autobiography. Stephen Berk wrote a good biography, A Time to Heal in 1997. Although it is out of print, it is easily available from Amazon and many other stores for under $5.