Monday, January 5, 2015

5 Things about Racism I learned from John M. Perkins

John M. Perkins
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness 
like an ever-flowing stream 
(Amos 5:24 ESV).

In light of recent racial tensions throughout the country, I thought a great book to read for our next book community would be John M. Perkins' Let Justice Roll Down.  If you haven't had the pleasure of reading this enlightening book by and about a Christian civil-rights leader, it should be on your list for the coming year (because that's your resolution, right? more books!?).  Keep in mind that even though this was written decades ago, many statements he makes about our society's injustice towards other races unfortunately still hold true. Here are some truths I learned while reading to wet your appetite for his book:

1. It's all about power.
In his own experiences, Perkins realized that "The Southern white doesn't want the blacks removed.  What he wants is to have the blacks under his control, in a special relationship to him."  I suppose I always assumed that through racial tensions, one group wanted to eliminate the opposing group to make things easier.  However Perkins gives interesting insight, stating that keeping the downtrodden under the oppressor's feet allows them to keep their power.  This is truly what they want.  Not elimination, just power over them.  Who might we be keeping under our feet due to white privilege today? Think about the marginalized of our society. 

2. Taking a stand against oppression is the only way to start fixing the injustice.
"In situations of inequality or oppression, the oppressed group must take a stand somewhere, sometime.  For until the people take that stand, there is no development possible for them.  Yet when they take that stand in the face of clear injustice, an oppressed people are once again humanized."  Development cannot occur for a particular group of people if they are constantly under an oppressor's foot.  Lifting that foot, by helping gain the right to vote, work at good jobs, and live in acceptable housing begins to clear that injustice the system has pushed.  Only then can humanization truly occur for people.  Until then, people are merely existing without being able to thrive.

3. Christianity must be stronger than racism.
It seems often that church is merely a social club or a quick answer for our actions.  Perkins unfortunately witnessed this in the South, where white Christians did not acknowledge racial tensions as an injustice that needed fixed.  Rather they utilized their social status to keep many blacks downtrodden.  Jesus overcame many societal issues of his day, much to his peers' dismay.  Likewise, Perkins charges Christians to do the same, accepting the fact that it may not be easy, but eliminating racial injustices in society is what Jesus needs us to do.  Christianity is a stronger force than racism, bigger than economic struggles, and more powerful than anything against Jesus' teachings.  We have the important duty to accept this truth and act in ways according to Scripture to show others just how powerful Christianity can be, so that the following question is no longer needing to be asked: "The question on my mind and on the minds of most black people to whom we preached was whether or not Christianity was a stronger force than racism."

4. Identity in Christ is necessary to combat racism.
Perkins explains how "Everybody needs to feel important - because he or she is.  But brutality is something like dope.  Some people have to have it to confirm themselves. It's a sickness of the racist." This comes down to an identity issue.  It is something that so many of my friends have been struggling with lately, as they finish college, or go through a divorce, or leave a job.  Who are they without these things they've put their trust into?  Likewise, racists have confirmed themselves over and over with the power that comes with putting others down. This power is a drug - they need it more often and do not seem to care who they hurt in the process.  This is why people become addicted to their jobs, or obsessed with particular aspects of life: they need more and more of that "drug" to confirm who they are.  Perkins hits it on the nose by saying "Everybody needs to feel important- because he or she is."  EVERYONE IS IMPORTANT and everyone can find that confirmation through Scripture and prayer and the comfort Jesus gives us knowing this.  But when we lose focus of not only our importance, but our neighbor's importance, issues begin to arise.  Hold strong to the hope that lies in our identity in Christ.

5. We're all biased.
"Whether or not we admit it, our reading of biblical ethics is colored by our perception of the world around us."  This is an unfortunate truth.  If I grew up rich and affluent in America, I will read Scripture through this lens.  If I grew up knowing many economic and social hardships in the Global South, well then you better believe my understanding of Scripture will be different from the American's.  Regardless of where in the world you are from, there is a perception that comes along with your readings.... you are biased.  It is inevitable.  It is important, however, to understand this clouded lens and not argue with those who do not see things your way, but rather try to see how they have approached the same text in a different way.  Perkins saw how the whites in his town used their Christian privilege to keep blacks oppressed (which is obviously unbiblical).  They weren't all bad people, just confused in their theology.  We perceive things differently based upon how we were raised, but that doesn't change the one truth given to all.  What we must do is seek out true understanding and pray for clarity and justice for all God's people.

While these are all very racially-charged statements, there is so much biblical truth that is held within each sentence.  Perkins understood that God could speak through people of all races and statuses, and fights to allow more voices from the African-American culture to be heard.  The fact of the matter is that Christians need to band together to eliminate injustice to God's people - all people. 

For a discussion guide to help in your own book club or personal reading, click here for a PDF.