Since the death of George Floyd, people in our communities and our country – and even other parts of the world – have protested, rioted, and posted. University presidents and coaches, pastors and priests, politicians and pundits, teachers and homemakers and stay-at-home dads and all sorts of other folks have sent out statements – trying to urge those given to violence to refrain from it and at the same time acknowledging the tragic and horrid nature surrounding Mr. Floyd’s death. Adding to their collective feelings of the tragic, however, is the absence of surprise.
Perhaps it is out there, but I have yet to hear anyone express any degree of surprise by the way Mr. Floyd’s life was taken, nor have I heard anyone express shock that there have been riots that have ravaged communities across the US. It is unfortunate that people generally aren’t surprised but it is just the way things are and they have been this way for a while. We have a complex problem in this country, and it is taking a toll on us.
Complex problems take time, thought, persistence, and patience to solve. They also require courage and a willingness to act – especially if the solution is challenging and requires something of us. It also requires a willingness to toss out overly simplistic, reductionist solutions. However, humanity, broadly speaking, isn’t all that good at any of those things, which helps to explain – at least partly – why we are where we are.
As a pastor, I am tempted to say, Jesus is the answer. Honestly, I want it to be that simple and I do believe that my faith and that of those who share my faith in Jesus have a role to play – but just saying Jesus is the solution – just tossing that into the mix of things – comes across as one of those simplistic, reductionistic solutions that need tossing out. That may sound counterintuitive, but, sometimes people add their baggage to Jesus or they don’t fully appreciate what it means to look to Christ to bring hope and healing to a complex problem – like what we are experiencing in the US right now. And yet I believe that being a Christian means stepping into the mix of things and there are those who not only understand the complex problem of race and violence and murder – they also know how Jesus speaks into those things and what is needed from His people. One of those people is John Perkins.
I first met John Perkins in Charlottesville, VA – through a book that he wrote jointly with Charles Marsh. It is called Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community (I’ve mentioned it before). Perkins and his wife Vera have worked to teach and promote the principles of Christian Community development and racial reconciliation for over 56 years. And while Perkins is no stranger to the pulpit or to the demands of ministry, he is also no stranger to the violence of racism, nor to the brutality of some within law enforcement.
In 1947, Perkins’ older brother Clyde, a man who had fought in World War II and earned a Purple Heart, was shot and killed by a police officer in New Hebron, MS after Clyde responded to a derogatory command from the officer. Perkins – at the urging of his family that feared for his life – fled to California and vowed never to return to Mississippi. However, in 1960 – after coming to faith in Christ and being discipled for three years – Perkins, his wife Vera, and their family returned to Mendenhall, MS where they started a church, a day-center, youth programs,
a cooperative farm, thrift store, housing repair ministry, a health center, and an adult education program.
At the same time, Perkins provided leadership and support for civil rights, and voter registration, which lead to harassment, an arrest, and a subsequent brutal beating by law enforcement. The beating was so bad that Perkins nearly died and spent significant time in the hospital recovering. As he lay recovering, Perkins realized that he had a choice. He could either hate or he could live out of the Gospel.
Frankly, I would find it difficult not to hate the men – the people – who did the things to me that they did to Perkins. I think, if we are being honest, most of us would. In fact, someone I love deeply experienced prejudice and racism and I know hurt that caused him. Even as I write this I am having a tough time because I know the folks and I see them from time to time. And so, I can’t imagine how Perkins must have felt or how his family felt at the loss of his brother and after he was beaten and left to die.
And so, I pay close attention to a man who – after experiencing all of that – recognized that racism and bigotry of any sort cut across the intent of the Gospel. In fact, it was out of that understanding that Perkins began to promote the notion that racial reconciliation, as well as the development and re-development of poor communities, is a necessary part of the church’s mission and of discipleship.
Perkins wrote, “But in these latter days of my ministry, God is calling me to help churches see and incorporate reconciliation as an essential part of discipleship. The captivity of the church to our culture has left us so divided. And we think division is natural. We think the traditions we’ve inherited from our forebears are the way things have to be. But Jesus came to drive a wedge in the status quo and create space where new life can happen. ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,’ Jesus said; ‘anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:37-38). The call to reconciliation is a call to commitment—to take up the cross and give ourselves to this community in this place. The world needs a church that does something to interrupt business as usual where we are.”
These are the words of a man who experienced the murder of his brother from law enforcement. These are the words of a man who experienced the blows and beat down on his own body from law enforcement. And this man’s words to the church is that Jesus’ people are the solution to a complex problem. But the solution will require something of us all in order to overcome the way things are.