John Perkins and the Road to Galatians 2:20

Just nine hours ago, on the eve of this nation’s 28th annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I had the privilege of standing near an elderly black gentleman by the name of Dr. John Perkins.  Now please understand, in my life, I have had the somewhat unique opportunity to meet and speak with several well-known individuals, most notably Bono, N.T. Wright, and even, on one occasion, President Jimmy Carter.  But as I stood in that lobby at Willowcreek Community Church this morning, trying hard to summon the right words to explain the importance of Dr. Perkins to my seven-year old son, I couldn’t bring myself to stand in line for the chance to meet him.  Something in me just knew that I would have nothing to say.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dr. Perkins, he is the son of an impoverished sharecropper who grew up in New Hebron, Mississippi. When his older brother was killed at the hands of a town marshal, Perkins fled to California in the hopes of never returning home.  But God had other plans.  In 1960, at the age of 27, Perkins returned to Mississippi to share his new found Christian faith.  And it was then that he began his public ministry, working to bring about racial reconciliation and healing through the Gospel of Jesus the Christ.  Dr. Perkins has been a leader in the black community for over 50 years, and has dedicated himself to galvanizing people and ministries to take up the call of working in concert with the poor and vulnerable.  He does this because he believes in the mighty truth of Galatians 2:20:

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

Tonight, as I continue to ponder what it means for me to try to raise my sons in a way that encourages them to spend their lives in the fight for the fullest expression of the Kingdom of God, I find myself thinking of two passages penned by Dr. Perkins.  I leave them with you in the hopes that they will challenge you in the same way that they have challenged me.

“After one horrific night of torture in jail, Perkins underwent a crisis of faith.  ‘It was time for me to decide if I really did believe what I’d so often professed, that only in the love of Christ, not in power of violence, is there any hope for me or the world.  I began to see how hate could destroy me.  In the end, I had to agree with Dr. King that God wanted us to return good for evil, not evil for evil. ‘Love your enemy,’ Jesus said.  And I determined to do it.  It’s a profound, mysterious truth, Jesus’ concept of love overpowering hate.  I may not see it in my lifetime.  But I know it’s true.  Because on that bed, full of bruises and stitches, God made it true in me.  I got a transfusion of hope.”[1]

* * * * * * * *

“The existence of a compelling Christian witness in our time does not depend on our access to the White House, the size of our churches, or the cultural relevance of our pastors.  It depends instead, on our ability to sing better songs with our lives.  True conversion is always personal, but it is never solely about the individual who experiences God’s love and knows the good news of salvation.  True conversion is about learning to sing songs in which our life harmonizes with others’ – even the lives of those least like us.”[2]

Finally, for those of you who might enjoy the opportunity to hear from Dr. Perkins directly, I offer you this half-hour video from an interview he did at St. Norbert College.

[1] Charles Marsh and John Perkins, Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Towards Beloved Community (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press: 2009), 12.

[2] Charles Marsh and John Perkins, Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Towards Beloved Community (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press: 2009), 70.

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9 Responses to John Perkins and the Road to Galatians 2:20

  1. Mary DeVries Yager says:

    Scott: You missed out on an amazing conversation. I was so honored to spend about 6 hours with Mr. Perkins and his grandson, Big John, last semester. We had dinner together, then he and I did a Q and A session for the LBC Social Work students. It was the highlight of my teaching career. He is an amazing and humble man. He spoke for three chapels – I have them on tape if you want to hear them!

    • I’m sure I did miss out. But for some reason, Perkins made me feel “small.” His choice for the Gospel in light of the hatred he experienced … would could I possibly say into that context? He’s a giant. And someday, when the New Heavens descend to the New Earth and we are all made whole … on that day I will look for Dr. Perkins and say “thank you.”

      On a separate note, could you please send me anything you have regarding your interview with Dr. Perkins? I’d love to see the video (if it exists) and I’d love to see the questions and the written transcript. Thanks.

  2. Greg Warren says:

    John Perkins was commencement speaker for the Class of 1994 at Wheaton College.

    • And what did you think? Were you really listening? Or just waiting to graduate?

      • Rich Bennema says:

        To be honest, I was unimpressed. I wished I had gone through with smuggling in a portable radio to listen to the Bulls – Knicks playoff game. As I remember, the summary of his message was “your career isn’t taking you into the inner city? For shame!” I could appreciate passion, but the broad brush judgement of God’s will can only be within the inner city turned me off.

        And I’m not sure it was that memorable for Dr. Perkins either. He spoke at our church a couple years ago. After the service, I introduced myself as part of the Wheaton College class of 94. His response was, “Wheaton College? I have spoken there before.” I didn’t want to press the point, so I thanked him for coming and moved along.

        • Rich … What leaves me speechless is not the leadership that he has brought to the Civil Rights Movement, although I admire and respect what he has fought to achieve. It’s that moment in jail where he has to decide what it means to be a Christian. I have never faced hatred like that. And I have never had to questions whether I could truly love a human being. Forgiveness on that scale brings me to my knees because I don’t know if I have the faith to live in the way that he has.

  3. A perfect post to remind us why we have a day off today. Thanks, Scott!

    • Oops. Hit “post” too soon. I know you are focused on the faith side of the equation, but I’d love to hear how your faith perspective would interpret the current economic crisis, demographic change and precarious future of our nation in this new report from some leading social thinkers: “America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model” Good day to grapple with such things.

  4. Amy Lin says:

    Thanks Scott for sharing about Dr Perkins great example. I, like you am so humbled at the obvious work of God in his life and heart, to bring him to such a place of forgiveness when the hatred he had experienced in life ran so deep! thanks for sharing this.

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