July 27, 2015 / Ruthie Johnson

Beyond Black and White: Dr. John Perkins, The Ecclesia, and Reconciliation

“What’s different this time?”

As a young person just beginning my journey in reconciliation, I have had this question swimming in my mind for quite a while. I know the history, I’ve read the stories. I watch (or have to keep from watching) the news. Race, justice, reconciliation are words being tossed around rather casually in light of a (growing) list of recent news items, like Ferguson. But the reality is Ferguson has been going on for years. We’re just now becoming more attuned to it. As I listen, read and write, the question returns.

“What’s different this time?” I want to know. How is this different for me, a millennial in 2015, then it was for Dr. King or Harriet Tubman? What's my place? What matters?

Last week, I got to hear (and meet) one of my long time heroes of the faith, Dr. John Perkins.

If you aren’t familiar with his work, you may have have heard of an organization called the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). That association exists because of John Perkins. It is no understatement to say that this man put the racial reconciliation conversation on the map for the Evangelical community. Dr. Perkins is walking theology and it was a privilege to hear him speak on what he has seen over the course of his 84 years of life.

As he shared stories and made observations, I started to hear answers to my questions. I want to take some time to unpack what I observed from Dr. Perkin’s statements. Reconciliation is an important question for the Ecclesia. Many are saying we are in a "kairos" moment regarding race and justice in America. For the Church, reconciliation is the foundation for the gospel and it plays out in many aspects of our lives. We have the fullness of reconciliation in Christ. Because of this, It’s time that the Church not only engages in, but leads the conversation of reconciliation. It's time we stop being reactive and become proactive.

So here are my questions:

1. What is different this time?

As I mentioned, I have been asking this in response to all the civil action and national dialogue. While at this conference, I found myself amongst leaders of Ethnic specific ministries for one of the largest para-church organizations. Two weeks prior, I was at the Global Conference for my church. There, we experienced a holy moment where our USA & UK National Directors apologized to our minority national leaders. It was a true moment of repentance and acknowledging the systemic racism imbedded in our nation, faith communities and systems of practicing faith together.

When I sit back and listen to the conversation, I am encouraged by what I hear. There is an awakening starting in the Ecclesia. Conversation in both the church and para-church spectra is taking place.

We are beginning to recognize that this conversation isn’t about who is or isn’t leaving or leading the church, but rather who we are as the Church.

We are awakening to the reality that how we value life, diversity, and social action is the embodiment of the church.

We see that this race and reconciliation conversation needs to happen because there is brokenness in our family. 

John Perkins put it this way:

For the first time we are measuring the value in diversity; this is a pentecost of multiethnicity.

We are reaching for the Imago Dei in others. Value is not in what we can do for one another, but the way we reflect Christ. We are starting to strive and honor the dignity in other cultures and the way the understand God.

2. How has our conversation on reconciliation changed?

This question comes from a few general observations. In the 50s advocacy heavily focused on law – desegregation, voting rights etc. Martin Luther King was centric to this happening. While much of advocacy still is connected to the legal system, the tone is different. Racism has become much more nuanced. There is also no ‘central’ figure leading the charge. What does that mean?

John Perkins mentioned that for the first time we are collectively talking the language of Incarnation.

I believe that the lack of a central figure opens a doorway for it to not be about one specific race, class, ethnicity or gender. Rather, we all can take part. Its a heralding of the prophetic words of Joel that are repeated in Matthew where his Spirit is given to ALL: men, women, young, old, rich, poor, slaves, and free.

Shifting to this dialogue places us all in the conversation. Valuing the incarnation shows us our restored image beyond our frailty and failing. The incarnation is our faith in action. When Jesus embodied himself in this earth he was reminding us of how we were originally created. He was a reflection of the Imago Dei and a model to us of reconciliation.

3. Where’s my place?

It’s on my facebook wall, blog and twitter. I am an activist. I tweet that #BlackLivesMatter and challenge white folk to think twice about the media they absorb. I show up at protests and sign petitions.

At the root of this I’ve had to ask some hard questions. It’s easy to get lost in the chants, but I’m not black. Where is my place? It’s easy to divide this into a Black/White conversation.

Finding my place has driven me to find the history of my own ethnicity. Indians were also enslaved – first by the Dutch, then by the British. They were sold along the silk road and coasts of Africa. Years of colonization oppressed Indian economy and created a caste system. We have more in common with black folk than most acknowledge.

On the other hand, Indians have also been used as the “model minority." We are held up as doctors, engineers, artists; the affluent. The success we collectively carry has been used against other minorities. This has caused hurt in the minority community as others are judged against our successes.

We have all been oppressors and we have all been oppressed. Its when we do the hard work to acknowledge both sides of the equation we are able identify with Christ in our weakness. We are too weak to fix the hurts we have caused. We are also, too weak to heal our own hurts.  It doesn’t mean excusing or minimizing behavior, but repenting and allowing Christ to come into our feelings of helplessness.

Knowing my own history creates space and ability to repent, reconcile and advocate. The same equation works for the church. We need to recognize the way our histories have hurt or helped others (both within and outside of the Church). We need to repent of the sin of our history and use the hurt we've received to move toward solidarity.

The Ecclesia holds a true solidarity; a humanity that glories the reflection of Christ. When we lead the conversation on reconciliation we can center it on the fullness of God, which pushes beyond a hope of legal systems and laws to spiritual renewal and restoration.