February is Black History month. I began February with a pioneering hero, Dr. John Perkins, who at 87 is a living legend of what gospel justice means. Here are five lessons from my conversation and his amazing book, Let Justice Roll Down.
Lesson One: Black Lives Matter
John Perkins was born in rural Mississippi in 1930. From earliest memory he’d been told black lives didn’t matter as much as white lives. His brother Clyde was shot and killed by a white Marshall for no other reason than being loud while waiting in the black’s only line at a movie theater.
John didn’t grow up religious. As he wrote,
“As I looked at religion, it was not something to suffer for; it was something to suffer with. (p.68)… It was totally impossible for me to imagine that the white Church, the private club of the oppressors, had anything to do with reality and justice.” P. 63 Let Justice Roll Down
But a decade later John came to understand that while many white men thought black lives didn’t matter, God did. God doesn’t make mistakes. John was created in his image. As he wrote,
“God for a black man? Yes, God for a black man! This black man! Me!” p. 70
Long before it was a hashtag, this pioneering hero understood the depth of what it means to cry, “Black lives matter.” For too long such lives have been denigrated as sub-human or lesser than white. God claims otherwise. He says, “Black lives matter.”
Lesson Two: Civil rights are not anti-gospel
I spoke with John at the Evangelical Free Church’s Theology Conference on Compassion and Justice. At that conference, John commented on how he bristles against the question, “When did you join the Civil Rights Movement.” When he joined Jesus and His kingdom he joined the civil rights movement. As he wrote,
“Even now, I do not understand why so many evangelicals find a sense of commitment to civil rights and to Jesus Christ an ‘either-or’ proposition.” P.99
The evangelical church tragically sat on the sidelines in the 1960’s.
“In terms of social justice, evangelicals just didn’t have a team on the field. And the sadness came in from the other directions, too. I had to watch ardent civil rights activist who could see the social inequities, but who left God out of the picture and thereby ignored the basic spiritual needs that existed. Still I decided that if something was right, I would do it as a command from God and not be scared out because some non-Christians also thought it was right.” P. 197
Too often the evangelical church still sits on the sidelines in issues of race, immigration or other civil rights issues. How can standing for the dignity of people created in the image of God be anti-gospel? Jesus stood on the side of the poor and marginalized. Why do we not stand with him?
Lesson Three: Stand up for justice
We must all ask Dr. Perkins profound question: “What should the church do – what should I do – for the cause of human justice?” p. 103
John was 16 when his brother was murdered and he left Mississippi shortly after moving to California. While in California, John did well. He organized a union, moved up the ranks, and was getting comfortable. After John accepted Christ at the age of 26, God would not let him be comfortable. God’s call is not to comfort. Now married with a young family, John took a simple approach that continues to govern his life: to find needs and to fill them in the name of Christ.
John saw the needs in Mississippi and he returned to establish a school to “unite biblical training for young people with the understanding of Christian responsibility in society.” P. 203. He would pioneer a school, health clinic, co-ops, a foundation, and the Christian Community Development Association.
John’s philosophy was “we could live among them more like friends helping friends than like well-off outsiders coming to do good.” This principle of relocation and entering into community came at a cost. John was arrested twice and beaten nearly to death on one of those arrest. A broken criminal justice system never punished the white perpetrators of these acts.
Why? Why risk so much in the service of neighbors in need. This was never a question for John.
“for the sake of yielding to God’s will, we could not do otherwise. Yielding to God’s will can be hard. And sometimes, it really hurts. But it always brings peace.” P. 82
Lesson Four: Help them break the cycle of despair
John learned to enter the pain of others. He never wanted to do for someone else what they had the capacity to do for themselves. As he wrote,
“In situations of inequality or oppression, the oppressed group must take a stand somewhere, sometime. For until the people take that stand, there is no development possible for them. Yet when they take that stand in the face of clear injustice, an oppressed people are once again humanized.” P. 115
We restore the dignity of being made in the image of God when we help others stand against injustice. As we stand beside the individual, we must address the systems that stand opposed to equal opportunity.
“If sin can exist at every level of government, and in every human institution, then also the call to biblical justice in every corner of society must be sounded by those who claim a God of Justice as their Lord.” P. 185
Lesson Five: Love does
John signed his book for me with Galatians 2:20 and ‘with love’. These are core to who this pioneering hero is. When we recognize we have been crucified with Christ and we no longer live but Christ lives in us, then we will live and love differently.
“If Christ is Savior, He must also be Lord – Lord over such areas as spending, racial attitudes and business dealings. The gospel must be allowed to penetrate the white consciousness as well as the black consciousness.” P. 101
With our consciousness awakened to the things of God we will see what John saw:
“I was seeing more clearly than ever how important it is for Christians to be the people of God, and not just a collection of individual believers who gather weekly for the convenience of joint worship on Sunday.” P. 197 “The purpose of the gospel is to burn through racial and social barriers… It’s not just tell, tell, tell – it’s love…. And when we understand the gospel, we see each other as equal. That’s reconciliation.” P. 210
When we understand the reconciling work of Christ on the cross that destroyed barriers, we will no longer create such barriers on the basis of race, status or ethnicity. We will see each other as equal. When one part hurts, all parts hurt and the body of Christ will rise up to address the wound inflicted on another part of the body.
Faith without action is dead.
Dr. Perkins has pioneered seeing a need, and meeting that need. Read his books, investigate Christian Community Development Association, and look for needs near you. We believe one of those needs will be legal and we want to help you meet that need. Visit gji.org/lawyer or gji.org/churchleader to download our guide to get started. While there is no cost financially, there is a cost to your comfort.
Will you trust a man who has walked miles of faith for Christ? Believe him when he says, “Yielding to God’s will can be hard. And sometimes, it really hurts. But it always brings peace.” Discover that peace and joy in the loving service of neighbors in need.