One Blood | Book Review


The most heated conversations I’ve witnessed on Facebook had to do with race. Whether the topic was Confederate statues or Black Lives Matter, the conversations typically began politely enough but almost inevitably degenerated into the online equivalent of a shouting match. Many words appeared in ALL CAPS. These conversations both surprised and disappointed me.

Unfortunately, most of these conversations were between Christians. American society is divided, and American churches all too often reflect rather than correct those divisions. That saddens me immensely. We can do better. For the sake of the gospel, we must.

One Blood, according to its subtitle, contains John M. Perkins’ “parting words to the Church on race.” I’m not sure that’s right, however. While race is the context of the book, its text is reconciliation. Perkins writes: “Biblical reconciliation is the removal of tension between parties and the restoration of loving relationship” (emphasis added). Given America’s tortured history of race relationships, how can Christians lead the way in reconciliation? That’s the question the book examines.

Perkins is the founder and president emeritus of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation and cofounder of the Christian Community Development Association. Born in 1930 to black sharecroppers and raised in New Hebron, Mississippi, Perkins knew sorrow from an early age. His mother died of pellagra when he was an infant. (Pellagra is a vitamin deficiency that causes its victims to starve.) His father abandoned him at a young age. His brother, a World War II veteran, was murdered by a deputy marshal. When he was 17, his family urged him to migrate to Southern California in the hope he wouldn’t suffer his brother’s fate.

It was in California, at the age of 27, that Perkins became a Christian. In 1960, he and his wife and children returned to Mendenhall, Mississippi, to start Voice of Calvary Bible Institute, a ministry focused on personal evangelism and biblical literacy. Alongside this ministry, however, he and his wife, Vera Mae, began to minister to the material needs of members of their community. And he began to advocate for civil rights and public school desegregation. In 1970, he led a boycott of white-owned businesses that landed him in jail, where he was beaten by police.

In the following decades, Perkins increasingly became a black evangelical voice for civil rights, at a time when many white evangelicals were suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement. He advocated justice, of course, as well as help for the economically disadvantaged, but above all, he continued to urge reconciliation.

One Blood outlines the biblical case for reconciliation, as well as the kinds of practices that make it possible. More than any other, this single paragraph encapsulates the message of the book:

The Church must speak out with one voice against bigotry and racism. We have been too quiet. The time is now. A platform has been placed in front of us and we must speak with clarity and truth. We’ve made a mess of things, but there is a path forward. It will require us to hold fast to [God’s] vision for one Church and the biblical truth of one race. We need to lament our broken past and be willing to make some personal confessions about our own part in that mess. Then we’ll have to be willing to forgive and move forward toward true repentance. We must be committed to the right until the battle for reconciliation is won. And we must never forget that our power is not in guns, weapons, or armies. Our power is on our knees before God.

Perkins leaves no doubt that reconciliation is a gospel issue. “For too long, many in the Church have argued that unity in the body of Christ across ethnic and class lines is a separate issue from the gospel. There has been the suggestion that we can be reconciled to God without being reconciled to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Scripture doesn’t bear that out.”

At the outset, I mentioned my surprise and disappointment with conversations about race I have witnessed on Facebook. One Blood was surprising, too. Given what Perkins has seen, heard, and been subjected to in his 87 years of life, the lovingkindness of his message is stunning. It doesn’t detract from the hard truths he mentions about our nation’s — and the Church’s — failings with regard to race. Nor does it lessen the responsibility to make things right. But it does engender hope.

Book Reviewed
John M. Perkins with Karen Waddles, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018).

P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet | Book Review


Today is the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Douglass. Born a slave in 1818 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass escaped slavery in 1838, fleeing to New York but eventually settling in Massachusetts. Three years later, he began his lifelong work as an abolitionist and civil rights activist.

There are many excellent biographies of Douglass, including three autobiographical works. D. H. Dilbeck’s Frederick Douglass is valuable because it is a “religious biography,” the goal of which is “to explain the substance of Douglass’s faith and show how it shaped his public career.” In Dilbeck’s judgment, Douglass was “the most significant spokesman of his day” for “black prophetic Christianity.”

This prophetic Christianity involved both judgment and hope. “Throughout his long public career,” Dilbeck writes, “Douglass ardently denounced slavery, racism, and bigotry in all its forms.” His opposition to slavery and Jim Crow are well known, but Dilbeck reminds readers that Douglass was an early advocate of women’s suffrage, as well as the rights of Chinese immigrants.

Even so, Dilbeck writes, “if Douglass pursued any single calling that tied together his entire life, it was simply to force Americans to confront the disjuncture between the Christianity they professed and practiced and ‘the Christianity of Christ.’” White Southern Christianity drew particular scorn from Douglass throughout his life, for its defense of white supremacy and the practices of first slavery, then Jim Crow. But he also critiqued Northern Christian complicity and Black Church passivity in the face of injustice.

Douglass had an evangelical conversion in his teens, and he never repudiated the Christian faith, which in fact undergirded his civil rights activism. But the injustice, complicity and passivity of Christian churches led Douglass away from formal affiliation with any congregation or denomination. It also led him to criticize churches that cultivated doctrinal orthodoxy and personal piety, but never engaged in struggle against the great injustices of the day.

After Douglass’ death, Christian Recorder, the leading black Methodist newspaper, summarized his understanding of Christianity this way:

His religion was not a religion of creeds, churches, hymnals and prayer books, but he believed in precept, the life and practice as taught by the Master of “doing unto others as we would have others to do unto us.” It was the “cups of cold water in His name,” “feed the hungry,” “clothe the naked,” not in professions of church phraseology and beautiful song, but in the example with love to our fellows and our neighbors as ourselves, which, after all, is the greatest and only evidence of our love to God.

And yet, alongside the prophetic judgment, there was prophetic hope. Throughout his career, Douglass held the settled conviction that God was on the side of justice; therefore, justice would ultimately prevail. “I recognize an arm stronger than any human arm,” he told an 1853 American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society meeting, “and an intelligence higher than any human intelligence, guarding and guiding this Anti-Slavery cause, through all the dangers and perils that beset it.”

Divine providence did not excuse human beings from taking action, however. Waldo Martin argued in The Mind of Frederick Douglass that by the time of the Civil War, Douglass had replaced his “traditional God-centered religious philosophy” with a “liberal human-centered religious philosophy.” Dilbeck disagrees. He explains:

…the apparent changes in Douglass’s later theology had less to do with some new understanding of God and far more to do instead with the new social and political challenges confronting African Americans after emancipation. Douglass feared that a certain passive spirit might spread among African Americans, especially slaves, if they embraced too-simplistic notions of providence.

“The Lord is good and kind,” as Douglass put it in 1893, “but of most use to those who do for themselves” (emphasis in original).

Douglass’ optimism in the postbellum Reconstruction period — with the abolition of slavery and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution — was tempered in the post-Reconstruction period because of the recrudescence in the South of the power of white supremacy, which expressed itself by disenfranchising black voters, segregating Southern society and lynching black males.

“I have seen dark hours in my life,” Douglass said in an October 1890 speech. He had just outlined the injustices mentioned above. Yet, he went on to say: “I have seen the darkness gradually disappearing and the light gradually increasing.” Most importantly, “I remember that God reigns in eternity, and that whatever delays, whatever disappointments and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.”

It is easy, more than 100 years after Douglass’ death, to lionize the man, and there is good reason to do so. He was right on fundamental issues of justice and equality, when so many Christians in his day were wrong. That is a historical fact that all now acknowledge.

As a Christian reader, though, I cannot help but think that D. H. Dilbeck’s religious biography poses an implicit challenge to American Christians today: Are we in fact on God’s side? Are we working to ensure that “truth, justice, liberty, and humanity” will prevail? That is, it seems to me, an open question.

Book Reviewewed
D. H. Dilbeck, Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Pentecostals, Race, Justice and Reconciliation | Influence Podcast


In episode 123 of the Influence Podcast, I interview Pastor Walter Harvey about “Pentecostals, Race, Justice and Reconciliation.”

Harvey is pastor of Parklawn Assembly of God in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well as vice president of the National Black Fellowship of the Assemblies of God. He also has the lead article in the January-February 2018 issue of Influence magazine, titled, “A Place Called Sherman Park: Eight ministry lessons that can help bring renewal to communities in chaos.”

 

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