John Perkins: Historic time for race relations

John M. Perkins, an 84-year-old evangelical pioneer in race relations, sees “a pivot place in history” among churches in racial reconciliation and economic justice.

“This is the first generation of people who are beginning to understand that.” It’s a generation that “values diversity,” Perkins said at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in this year’s Julius Brown Gay Lecture on Christian Ethics.

“There’s an underlying movement today that now people are wanting to do mission with people, and they want to learn from people,” Perkins said, and they see the diversity of human beings as “a value in life.”

Perkins, a Mississippi native, fled to California as a teenager when his brother was murdered by a town marshal. After he professed faith in Christ in 1957, Perkins returned with his wife and children to Mendenhall, Miss., where he established a ministry to provide both Bible training and community development programs such as health clinics, thrift stores and housing cooperatives. He is the founder and president of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation.

In 1989, Perkins was among the founders of the Christian Community Development Association to spread this philosophy of rebuilding poor neighborhoods with biblical principles. He also is the author of several books, including “Let Justice Roll Down” and “A Quiet Revolution.”

Southern Seminary’s Julius Brown Gay Lectures are among its most prestigious lectureships, dating back to 1895. The lectures have brought some of Christianity’s most significant figures to the seminary campus, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. in 1961. The opportunity to deliver the lecture at Southern Seminary, Perkins said, was “one of the honors of my life” in his longstanding work in biblical reconciliation.

Perkins lectured on “Theology and Race in American Christianity” to a standing room-only crowd of seminary students and African American pastors who attended an afternoon pastors’ conference.

Racial reconciliation and justice are fundamental aspects of Christ’s redemptive work, Perkins said in his Oct. 27 lecture.

Anything outside of developing a church that is intentionally multicultural is “a disgrace to the Gospel,” Perkins said. “It belittles the Gospel to have a church based on race. It’s a slap in the face of a God who created from one human being all the nations that reside upon this earth and a Gospel that its intention was to reconcile people to God and to each other.”

The solution to racial divisions, Perkins suggested, is to “come back to the Bible and totally believe it.” He emphasized the need to understand the reconciling work of Christ in the incarnation with a sense of economic justice rooted in the creation account.

“The big issue is an economic issue. Justice is how we manage the earth’s resources,” Perkins said. “There is no biblical trace that God gives us ownership. The earth is the Lord’s, and He gives it to us as a stewardship.”

On the topic of community development, Perkins said he believes “every church should have a nonprofit because it broadens your movement out into the midst of your members and other folk who might be poor,” though noting that nothing can replace the local church’s efforts in benevolent ministries.

In a panel discussion following the lecture, Perkins added to his comments that racial justice is an economic issue, noting that “all resources come from God” in creation, with mankind called to steward those resources.

“Work is the best welfare program in the world,” Perkins said. “People need more than charity. What do they need? They need a job. It provides you the greatest affirmation — you earned it.”

Perkins also shared insight into the “three R’s” of his philosophy for community development: relocation (into communities of need), reconciliation and redistribution, which he said is not spreading the wealth but in calling to biblical action those who control the means of production.

“God’s love for humanity is the motivation for redemption,” Perkins said. “It’s His love, it’s His justice, His tender care, His land from which we get the food to live.”

Joining Perkins in the panel discussion on racial reconciliation were T. Vaughn Walker, WMU Professor of Christian Ministries and professor of black church studies; Jarvis Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation; and Curtis Woods, the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s associate executive director for convention relations.

Walker, who became the first African American faculty member at any of the six SBC seminaries in 1986, said racial reconciliation in churches today remains a difficult issue because of the changing cultural landscape.

“This is a multicultural world. If we’re still playing the black-and-white game, we’re going to be far behind where the real game is,” Walker said.

Williams, whose research in the New Testament includes a focus on Gospel-centered racial reconciliation, emphasized the importance of defining terms when discussing the issue.

“When we start talking about what’s the foundation underneath the problem of injustice, the problem of racism, I think it’s Adam’s transgression,” Williams said regarding the universal power of sin. “The greatest hope I think every single human being needs is to be transformed by the supernatural power of the bloody Gospel that focuses on a Jewish Messiah who died and resurrected for Jews and Gentiles to make them one new man in Christ.”

Woods noted the efforts of church leaders to preach in a diversity of churches if they are invited to preach God’s Word.

“We believe in Gospel-centered racial reconciliation,” Woods said. “We are sincerely wanting to see the church to look like heaven before we get there.”

— by S. Craig Sanders | BP

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