John M. Perkins was born in 1930 on a Mississippi cotton plantation, a son of a sharecropping family. When John was 17, a police officer shot and killed his older brother Clyde, a World War II hero who received a Purple Heart.
In the wake of the shooting, John fled New Hebron, Mississippi for California, where he became a follower of Jesus and a vocal community organizer. After 10 years of civil rights activism back in Mississippi—working for desegregation, the right to vote, and economic justice—Perkins was arrested in 1970 after a protest march, and then jailed, tortured, and beaten to within an inch of his life. His response was forgiveness. A forgiveness that included a determination to see the conversation around race and injustice improve. His life’s work speaks for itself. And it speaks a language of love.
The Table: Dr. Perkins, you’ve been thinking about race relations for a long time. In your opinion, is the current conversation about race a constructive dialogue? And if not, what can we do to think—and speak—differently about race?
Perkins: We could think biblically. Think, with the Declaration of Independence, that all humankind—saved or unsaved—is created in the image of God and has inherent dignity. That all human beings bear the face of God, and then to treat them with dignity.
But we don’t have that conversation.
That would be a language of love. A language of respect. And I think our language in reconciliation is not a good language. Our conversation is not a good conversation.
Racism as we know it now—especially for Christians—never should have been. That’s what the gospel was designed to do. That’s the experience we get at Pentecost and in the early church. It’s very clear that God had made from one race, from one blood, all the nations that dwell upon the earth. It was their dispersing that created the language differences and ethnicities, which are now taken as race. So our language gets confused when we make the assumption of race.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all human beings were created equal…” That seems to me—a third-grade drop out—pretty simple. So we are not doing well, because we are talking past one another. We can’t have that conversation that we want to have. And we’re fearful of each other. Our language is so violent, you understand; so we have to then be so careful, in order to have that difficult conversation.
What are the consequences of talking past one another? What’s the result?
We’re missing each other. In Ferguson, in New York… we’re missing each other. People don’t feel like they have been affirmed. Those who have so long been held in captivity because our nation, our people, our church won’t truly acknowledge that racism was hideous. It was damaging. We often create inferiority in our very methods, in our behaviors.
We have to find a language of love. A language of affirmation.
So we’re missing it. We’re missing it. We’re just fighting fire in our society.
How can we recover a language of love and reconciliation?
One model would be to take that Chronicles verse very seriously. “If my people that are called by my name would humble and pray and seek my face…” God said he would hear from heaven, forgive us our sins, and heal our land. But our society has benefited from segregation and slavery. And black folks don’t feel like white folks have repented sufficiently.
So you get young folks who are angry, who seek freedom at any cost. And we see the damage of that. But which is more important? Stealing the cigar? Reaching for the gun? Or killing those kids? Now, none of those should have been. You know?
But the idea is that we can’t communicate when we don’t affirm. We’re still operating out of an environment of superiority and inferiority, instead of operating out of a deep respect for humanity.
I think that people like you and me want to do something about it. But the only way we can do it is to have dialogue, and to have dialogue in an affirming way in our society.
How do you encourage people to listen? And how do you teach people to speak in a language of love?
Can we have a conversation? Come now. Let us reason together.
The very thought of “reasoning together” assumes that we’ve got some major disagreement. So we’re going to reason together so that we might come up and heal that disagreement. So we need to be affirming of the humanity. Not cursing or violent as we make our approach.
As we listen to each other and share our differences—not in a violent way—looking for and believing that our mutual understanding comes first.
Asking, “Where does our pain come from? Why are you hurting?” And I give you your pain. And I say that you’re hurting. And you give me my pain. And we say that we’re hurting.
Frantz Fanon, who was a mid-20th-century Algerian psychiatrist, said the oppressed would have to come to the place in a way that they can tell the oppressor, “You’re oppressing me.” And the oppressor is open and hears that person. That’s the language—the dialogue—you’ve got to create. You’ve got to create a language where we really hear each other. Where we feel each other’s pain.
And I think Jesus would say that’s a language of love.
That would mean that we would have to sit down and reason together. That we must have this conversation. That we must listen to each other.
We’ve got to be close enough to the situation that we can listen to the pain. So Christians have to be present. Be there. I’m hoping and praying that this will create a deeper conversation.
So it’s a loving, genuine conversation we need at this moment. That’s no small task.
It’s a conversation. It’s a holistic conversation that we need. But we start with the affirmation of human dignity, and then an understanding of justice. Because if we don’t have justice, we don’t know where to go. We won’t have balance.
That’s why the prophet says, “He has shown thee O Man what the Lord requires of you.” To do justice, and love mercy, and then to walk equally—humbly, respectfully—before both God and the world, our society. “Give none offense: neither to the Jew, not to the Gentile, not to the church of God.” Be respectful. It’s that respectful conversation and that listening that we’ve got to get a hold of and I pray that what comes out of this moment is a language of love.