Interview by Evan C. Rosa
John 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?
John M. 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 a 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…
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