Reconciliation in a Racially Divided Country
John M. Perkins’ ‘One Blood’ adds a hopeful voice to a heated national conversation
The most heated conversations I’ve witnessed on Facebook had to do with race. Whether the topic was Confederate statues or Black Lives Matter, the conversations typically began politely enough but almost inevitably degenerated into the online equivalent of a shouting match. Many words appeared in ALL CAPS. These conversations both surprised and disappointed me.
Unfortunately, most of these conversations were between Christians. American society is divided, and American churches all too often reflect rather than correct those divisions. That saddens me immensely. We can do better. For the sake of the gospel, we must.
One Blood, according to its subtitle, contains John M. Perkins’ “parting words to the Church on race.” I’m not sure that’s right, however. While race is the context of the book, its text is reconciliation. Perkins writes: “Biblical reconciliation is the removal of tension between parties and the restoration of loving relationship” (emphasis added). Given America’s tortured history of race relationships, how can Christians lead the way in reconciliation? That’s the question the book examines.
Perkins leaves no doubt that reconciliation is a gospel issue.
Perkins is the founder and president emeritus of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation and cofounder of the Christian Community Development Association. Born in 1930 to black sharecroppers and raised in New Hebron, Mississippi, Perkins knew sorrow from an early age. His mother died of pellagra when he was an infant. (Pellagra is a vitamin deficiency that causes its victims to starve.) His father abandoned him at a young age. His brother, a World War II veteran, was murdered by a deputy marshal. When he was 17, his family urged him to migrate to Southern California in the hope he wouldn’t suffer his brother’s fate.
It was in California, at the age of 27, that Perkins became a Christian. In 1960, he and his wife and children returned to Mendenhall, Mississippi, to start Voice of Calvary Bible Institute, a ministry focused on personal evangelism and biblical literacy. Alongside this ministry, however, he and his wife, Vera Mae, began to minister to the material needs of members of their community. And he began to advocate for civil rights and public school desegregation. In 1970, he led a boycott of white-owned businesses that landed him in jail, where he was beaten by police.
In the following decades, Perkins increasingly became a black evangelical voice for civil rights, at a time when many white evangelicals were suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement. He advocated justice, of course, as well as help for the economically disadvantaged, but above all, he continued to urge reconciliation.
One Blood outlines the biblical case for reconciliation, as well as the kinds of practices that make it possible. More than any other, this single paragraph encapsulates the message of the book:
The Church must speak out with one voice against bigotry and racism. We have been too quiet. The time is now. A platform has been placed in front of us and we must speak with clarity and truth. We’ve made a mess of things, but there is a path forward. It will require us to hold fast to [God’s] vision for one Church and the biblical truth of one race. We need to lament our broken past and be willing to make some personal confessions about our own part in that mess. Then we’ll have to be willing to forgive and move forward toward true repentance. We must be committed to the right until the battle for reconciliation is won. And we must never forget that our power is not in guns, weapons, or armies. Our power is on our knees before God.
Perkins leaves no doubt that reconciliation is a gospel issue. “For too long, many in the Church have argued that unity in the body of Christ across ethnic and class lines is a separate issue from the gospel. 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.”
At the outset, I mentioned my surprise and disappointment with conversations about race I have witnessed on Facebook. One Blood was surprising, too. Given what Perkins has seen, heard, and been subjected to in his 87 years of life, the lovingkindness of his message is stunning. It doesn’t detract from the hard truths he mentions about our nation’s — and the Church’s — failings with regard to race. Nor does it lessen the responsibility to make things right. But it does engender hope.