Interview with Dr. John Perkins
Dr. John Perkins is an American minister and trailblazer in the civil rights movement. He has 13 honorary doctorate degrees, including one from Wheaton College. Perkins spoke with The Record about his new book, Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, and about how the church can continue to engage in racial reconciliation.
Was there a particular event or inspiration that prompted you to Dream with Me?
[Racial reconciliation] has been part of my task since I became a Christian. And I was aware of being black in Mississippi and seeing basically that the white church had removed justice — particularly as it related to blacks as full human beings — and they consequently had taken justice out of the presentation of the Gospel. In my first book, “Let Justice Roll Down,” was the idea that justice was not rolling down as it related to black and white, and then I began to learn why that happened. Because slavery is a contradiction to human reconciliation. And reconciliation is not a side issue of the Gospel, it is the very intention of the Gospel, it is living out the Gospel.
What do you hope millennial readers will take away from your new book?
I think they will take away the necessity to change our language — instead of a language of hate and instead of a standard of inferiority … that we would follow the idea that we’ve got to develop a language of love and a language that expresses this in the world like Jesus intended: “By this they all may know you’re my disciples, because of the love we have one for another.” And he said if we don’t love our brother, we have deceived ourselves, and the love of God is not in us … I think the new millennium will listen to this … The Christian church should be an ideology of love: “By this they all may know that you are my disciples.” That’s what I wish with my new book, come and “Dream with Me,” I wish it could do that.
In “Dream with Me,” you told the story of your brother being killed by the police. Even though this happened decades ago, it is still a very familiar story to those living in 21st century America. Can you speak to the state of police brutality in the U.S. today and how it has changed or stayed the same?
I think it’s coming back. I think it started in the 70s, about the time that I was beaten in the Brandon jail. I felt the death, I felt the same kind of death that my brother experienced, and I thought that I was the one who experienced that same thing. But when I saw myself, too — that I would’ve been willing to kill others — then I saw that I needed help. And I promised that night in jail that if I got out of there, I was really gonna give more attention to trying to win poor white folks, you know, because the poor people were being exploited by the rich and the powerful … So we both [were] being destroyed, we [were] killing each other by our own inferiority. In Chicago now, it’s genocide there, so many blacks killing blacks in addition to a few white policemen. And that’s too many. One is too many.
Regarding integration of churches, much of church segregation is based on the fact that black and white churches have very different cultural approaches to worship, and people want to worship where they feel most comfortable. How do we overcome this barrier and practically create a multi-ethnic church that respects the culture of all members of the congregation?
I think that’s a mistake, that thought that we ought to be comfortable, that we ought to be working for that comfortability in terms of worship across those cultures. I think that’s what Pentecost was, when we begin that reconciliation, when [Paul] went to Antioch and from there began to take that message out to the world. But I think that we got satisfied within our culture barriers. I think the Gospel should run through our culture and make us one in fellowship, going to all the world and preaching the Gospel to every culture group. And when this Gospel of the Kingdom is preached to all culture groups, that then we will know that we are fulfilling God’s work.
You said that America’s welfare system “creates dependency and entitlement.” Are there any ways the government can do a better job of accomplishing redistribution?
I think we, the church, should try to demonstrate that. Many people are beginning to see the church as an old religious organization. They’re beginning to see that as better than anything the government can do. So I think that we should have a greater passion than the world. Christians should be encouraging the government and our society and other institutions to get involved because they see we are doing it more effectively.
What are specific ways that young Christians at colleges like Wheaton can be working toward reconciliation in our day-to-day lives?
See, justice is really an economic issue. Justice is how do we share the world’s resources with each other in a way that defines our dignity, and motivates us and brings us passion and joy. Justice is not stated. We must be working for it all the time, and that’s the church’s call … but because we are sinners, it’s become much more difficult … We want to be comfortable in our church, and I don’t know when he calls us to that. I think he calls us to be comfortable out of fellowship, comfortable out of the fact that we love each other.
Have you seen any ways in which the Trump administration and the 2016 election have impacted race relations in the US?
We should pray for President Trump. I think we should be calling on him to pray, we should be praying for him and encouraging him, but I don’t see that being done that well … And many of the other presidents have brought people in along beside them to help them in their own daily walk. Abraham Lincoln said it’s difficult to be the president without having a relationship with God or some kind of a compact with God and God’s Word because the burden of society is laid upon you, the pain of society. So I haven’t seen it yet with President Trump, but I really will be praying that it could really happen in life and that he could take on a precedent of love instead of hate. So I’m not walking around now condemning the president. All of these are issues that we got to give more attention to … we got to do it together. That’s what I’m trying to say in “Dream with Me,” that we got to do it together, and it’s all of our responsibility. When a young black boy [falls down] in the street and asks does his black life matter, that’s all of our responsibility. I don’t think God wanted us in the church to see little boys doing that. I think we should be trying to bring good news of great joy to these people, you know? So we need to take responsibility. Whites need to take responsibility, blacks need to take responsibility, all of us need to take responsibility, and we all need to do that together.
This interview has been edited for concision and brevity.
You can follow Dr. Perkins on Twitter @JohnMPerkins and on Facebook at the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation.