I spent most of last week in Jackson, Mississippi, on a retreat with some good friends from the Christian Community Development Association, hosted by the John M. Perkins Foundation. Dr. Perkins, who is now 81 years old, is one of my heroes. Born into a sharecropping family in Mississippi, Dr. Perkins grew up in the midst of one the most shameful and unjust eras of our country’s history. After escaping the oppression of the Jim Crow South to go to California, Dr. Perkins had his own life transformed by Jesus. Eventually, he felt God’s call back to ministry in Mississippi, eager to be a part of God’s work in transforming other lives and entire communities.
Last Thursday, we visited the ministry Dr. Perkins and his wife Vera Mae began in Mendenhall, as well as the Post Office where they registered voters in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. At that time, as a federal property, it was the only safe place in town to do so. We also walked the streets of downtown Mendenhall, where Dr. Perkins and others protested the injustices faced by African-American with a pre-Christmas shopping boycott in 1969, and sat in the courthouse where Dr. Perkins was tried on trumped up charges after being beaten nearly to death by police in 1970 for standing up for the rights of his people. (Dr. Perkins’ story is recorded in his autobiographical Let Justice Roll Down, which also served as the inspiration for a song by the popular band Switchfoot. He will also be sharing part of his conference at The Justice Conference next month in Portland).
Beyond standing up for the rights of his own people in the face of incredible injustice, Dr. Perkins’ Christian faith has also driven him to a deep commitment to reconciliation. Rather than responding to the violence and hatred he received from white people with hatred and violence in kind, much of Dr. Perkins’ life ministry has been focused on calling both black and white Christians to faithfulness to the Scriptures. This means being reconciled to one another as equally valuable, interdependent members of Christ’s Body (1 Cor. 12:12-26).
Dr. Perkins has steadfastly refused to fall into the dualistic paradigm common amongst many American Christians that suggests we must choose between evangelism and social action, proclamation of the gospel or seeking change to unjust structures. He insists “family values and social justice aren’t separate issues,” and he refuses to allow the gospel of Jesus Christ to be co-opted by any partisan agenda. On the contrary, he recognizes “the community is broken because families are broken, and families can’t get back together because the community is broken.” Christian discipleship requires that we preach the gospel in word, deed, and sign, proclaiming the hope found in Christ, compassionately meeting the tangible needs of individuals, and struggling against structural sin that destroys entire communities.
What struck me repeatedly as I processed the experience was the heavy cost Dr. Perkins, his wife, his children, and many others like them have borne in their quest to be faithful to the biblical command to seek justice. Dr. Perkins was beaten nearly to death; to this day, he suffers the physical repercussions of that beating. His children, two of whom led us on our tour, were tormented and beaten as they integrated all-white schools. The entire family suffered as they stood up against injustice.
Injustice still exists. African-Americans—both in the South and elsewhere in the U.S.—are still treated unjustly, despite some progress and a very small percentage of African Americans, such as the President of the United States, who have done exceptionally well, despite the odds. Researchers find that (for a variety of reasons) being born as an African-American means you’re likely to face a number of challenges merely on account of your race. As compared to white people in the U.S., African Americans:
- Have about one-twentieth of the median household wealth ($5,677, as opposed to a median of $113,149 for white households)
- Are more than twice as likely to live below the poverty line
- Are more than twice as likely to lack health insurance
- Have more than double the infant mortality rate
- Are less than half as likely to have graduated from high school
- Are more than six times as likely to be incarcerated (amongst males)
Issues of justice and reconciliation are certainly not just a black-white issue anymore, though: as Dr. Perkins has noted, calling immigration “the great justice issue of our time,” immigration to the U.S. has expanded the racial reconciliation discussion far beyond just two ethnicities. The biblically inspired national belief that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” should inspire us to ensure that all human beings are treated equally and given equal opportunities. If Christ-followers of different ethnicities are to be reconciled together, we must face—look through the lens of Scripture at—the structural flaws in our systems, including an immigration system that keeps many in the shadows and divides families.
Dr. and Mrs. Perkins, their children, and many others who have gone before have paid a high cost for seeking justice and reconciliation. As I search my own soul, I see the same yearning for justice—but, if I’m honest, I want it to come easily. I want it to be convenient, and I don’t want there to be externalities borne by my family. I’m challenged by the depth of commitment I see in the story of the Perkins family and in the stories of many other civil rights leaders, many of whom came out of the African-American church. I see that sort of courage in some today, particularly amongst the “DREAMers,” undocumented students and recent graduates who have risked deportation by boldly telling their stories and challenging politicians to do justice. And I wonder, am I –and are we, as the Church in the United States, across ethnic lines—willing to seek justice even if it means paying a steep personal cost? I’m not entirely sure what that looks like, but I’m convinced that we need to figure it out. God grant us courage.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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