In this 50th year since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., some argue that our nation is more racially divided than it has been in decades. Others are quick to suggest the divisions are merely being exposed: They were always there, like fault lines hidden beneath a manicured landscape, visible only to those with eyes to see. The church is hardly exempt from these racial rumblings; indeed, to our shame, it has proven to be the cause of some of them. There are encouraging signs of racial repentance in the church; there are also signs that younger Christians of color, wearied by the fight for belonging, are beginning to make an exodus from “evangelical” churches. The fault lines run through our pews, too.
John Perkins—the civil rights activist, herald of biblical justice and reconciliation, famed author, and founder of numerous organizations, including the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA)—addresses this situation in his latest book, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race. “We’re at a unique moment in our history,” he writes. “We’ve come through—and in many ways are still in the midst of—great upheaval. The soul of our nation has been laid bare. When I talk to people all over the country it seems like everyone is looking for an answer.”
With this book, Perkins seeks not only to provide some answers but also to pass the torch to a new generation of Christian leaders who are ready to take up the mantle of reconciliation. At 87 years old, Perkins offers One Blood as his “last words” to the church. He describes it as his final “manifesto,” by which he means “my most earnest attempt to put down in writing the principles I believe to be vital to a complete ministry of reconciliation.”
‘Overwhelmed by the transforming power of God’
What are those principles? With characteristic gentleness and prophetic verve, Perkins lays them out across nine main chapters, in addition to an introduction and epilogue. We must start by seeing and embracing God’s great vision for his church, biblical reconciliation. Unity and diversity are sown into both the very fabric of creation and the essential nature of the family of God (Chapter 1). Based on scriptural testimony and scientific evidence, we must accept that there is only one race, the human race that is bound together by one blood (Chapter 2). We must lament the brokenness of our past as a crucial part of our journey back this God’s vision for the church (Chapter 3). We must confess our sins, both individually and corporately (Chapter 4), and forgive one another by the power of the Holy Spirit (Chapter 5). We must practice repentance and tear down the walls separating us from one another (Chapter 6). And we must do this work with resolve and commitment, following the example of heroes who were willing to risk all for the cause of reconciliation (Chapter 7). We must pray, recognizing the reality of spiritual warfare and refusing to fight this fight with man-made solutions, which will only fail (Chapter 8). And finally, we must fix our eyes on the greatest motivator of all—the unconditional love of Jesus, which is experienced most powerfully in mutually supportive friendships (Chapter 9).
Many books have been written on the topic of race and “racial reconciliation,” particularly in recent years. One Blood stands out for the unique perspective, integrity, and wisdom supplied by its author—one born into a sharecropping family in Mississippi, who, despite losing his brother to racial violence and nearly losing his own life after a severe beating by racist cops, renounced any “right” to be resentful and angry and instead devoted his life to the twin ministries of justice and reconciliation. John Perkins writes as one whose life, formerly filled with prejudice and hate, is now overflowing with the love of God, “the ultimate reconciler.”
In this regard, this book also stands out for its tone. Perkins writes with urgency but without anxiousness or self-importance. His words are full of faith and encouragement, which makes it a helpful, gentle guide for those just starting on a journey of racial awareness and reconciliation. A sense of awe and gratitude blows through every page, even when he is at his most prophetic. Everything he is and has, Perkins testifies, is “by His amazing grace.” This, I believe, is the secret power of the book, which attempts to address one of the most daunting and intractable problems in society. Perkins is “overwhelmed by the transforming power of God” in his own life—and he lets you know it continually. His testimony and doxology make you believe that God really can change anyone’s life. Even yours.
‘We must go back before we can go forward’
The book’s title itself, One Blood, is a call to unity: a reminder that we are a single human race. Together, we are descendants of Adam—all nations were created of “one blood”—and a redeemed people who stand on level ground because of the “one blood” of Christ. Again and again, Perkins calls us back to this “one blood” identity as the foundation for biblical reconciliation. As he does so, an important message emerges: The church must reckon with its past. For many, reconciliation seems needlessly mired in yesterday’s mistakes and troubles; according to Perkins, there is no other way. “We must go back before we can go forward.”
Which is why he insists that we revisit the notion of “race” itself. Citing relevant passages of Scripture (Gen. 1:26; Mal. 2:10; Acts 17:26) as well as the research of Dave Unander, professor of biology at Eastern University (and author of Shattering the Myth of Race: Genetic Realities and Biblical Truths), Perkins argues that race as commonly understood does not exist. From the unified perspective of biology, history, and Scripture, there is only one human race. Indeed, “race as we know it today is mostly a social theory that was devised and refined over the centuries to serve the economic and religious goals of a majority culture, first in European territory, then later in America.” Our job, then, is to discern ways the American church has “color-coded” Christianity on the basis of the myth of “race” and allowed cultural prejudices to creep into our understanding of the Bible.
The call of reconciliation requires us to lament these historic wrongs, giving voice to the groaning of our soul. “I believe strongly that the church in America has much to lament,” Perkins declares, inviting us to “dig up the deep wounds of our history” and insisting that the church must “take more ownership for our collective sin.” He leads us to lament numerous failures from our collective past: the enduring racial segregation of our local churches, the egregious misuse of Scripture to defend slavery and protect the interests of slave-owners, our neglect of ministry to (and with) the poor and marginalized as a crucial aspect of biblical reconciliation, the prioritizing of global missions at the expense of local mission, and our lack of remorse for the sin of racism in the church.
Lament, which “requires that we acknowledge that something horrific has happened,” must also lead to confession. Our racial wounds will not be healed without first being exposed. As he provides examples for corporate confession, Perkins is notably inclusive in his approach. He names areas of common failure: the sin of creating Jesus in our own image, our debilitating fears around the issue of race (1 John 4:18), and our unwillingness to endure suffering (1 Pet. 1:6–7). But he also identifies specific areas of confession for black Christians and white Christians.
Perkins clearly acknowledges that “racism still haunts” the black community. Nevertheless, “for many of us black folks, there has been an anger that has not always been managed well.” Prior generations channeled that anger into nonviolent resistance and the building of black institutions (colleges, hospitals, churches), but now “we have turned that anger on ourselves, and our cities and communities have become unsafe places.” White brothers and sisters, on the other hand, “may need to confess denying that racism exists, choosing to ignore the implications of privilege, and at times acting to reinforce a double standard.” Some will resist the idea of a historically oppressed group having any obligation to admit wrongdoing, while others will resist the notion of privilege, but Perkins will have it no other way. We must revisit our past sins in order to grow in reconciliation.
And forgiveness, which Perkins describes as “the linchpin of reconciliation,” must be the response. “Forgiveness is possible even in the midst of the most traumatic and horrifying experiences,” Perkins writes. Citing stunning examples such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, family members of the Charleston Nine, and Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom, Perkins invites us to cancel the racial debts that we are owed. Forgiveness is “a decision of the will” rather than a feeling. It starts with a full disclosure of the facts of the offense. “When a wrong has been done, the pain is real,” Perkins teaches. “It cannot be wished away or ignored.”
In all these ways, Perkins illustrates how reconciliation requires an honest yet hopeful dealing with our past racial wounds. Church, we must go back before we can go forward.
‘The church has got to do it’
“I tell you, the church has got to do it,” Perkins pleads with his readers, underscoring one of the central arguments of the book: “The people of God have got to do it.” Many people, dismayed by the historic failures of the American church in the realm of racial harmony and justice, are suspicious of the church’s effectiveness. Some have given up on the church entirely. Young activists embrace a “new civil rights movement” in which the church is neither front nor center.
But Perkins believes the church must be central to any work of reconciliation. Early in the book, he remarks, “I am aware that community development can only take us so far”— an eye-catching comment, coming from the founder of the CCDA, easily one of the most influential evangelical organizations laboring for reconciliation. Perkins elaborates as follows:
The problem of reconciliation in our country and in our churches is much too big to be wrestled to the ground by plans that begin in the minds of men. This is a God-sized problem. It is one that only the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can heal. It requires the quality of love that only our Savior can provide.
Perkins is certainly aware of the church’s flaws, yet he echoes the sort of brokenhearted affection for the church found in King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Perkins can say at once that the majority of churches in America are “camping out in Babel” and that “everything I say is because of a deep love for the church, the bride of Christ.” He is forthright about the countless ways Scripture passages have been “misread, mishandled, or misinterpreted for the sake of making the Bible line up with people’s cultural biases and agendas.” Yet still he declares, in no uncertain terms, “There is no institution on earth more equipped and capable of bringing transformation to the cause of reconciliation than the Church.”
This commitment to the church is closely related to three other defining points of view in One Blood. First, the book is relentlessly biblical, by which I don’t mean that Perkins provides an exhaustive exegetical defense of reconciliation. True, every chapter is steeped in references to Scripture. I’m thinking mainly of the posture of the book: Every page is submitted to the authority of God’s Word. There is no doubt where Perkins gets his marching orders. The Bible is the ultimate fountainhead of all his ideas and proposals.
Second, One Blood points us to the spiritual nature of the struggle. “We’ve been looking in all of the wrong places for help in fighting this battle for reconciliation,” Perkins writes. “We’ve sought help from social service agencies and government programs. But this is something that requires divine power.” To be clear, Perkins’s model of Christian community development involves active and discerning partnerships with social service agencies and government programs. His point isn’t to dismiss their importance, but to encourage our sense of need for supernatural aid. He’s speaking to those of us who’ve reduced “reconciliation” to a set of strategies and programs or an implicit roster of “good guys” and “bad guys,” when in fact “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but … against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).
“There is more working against the church coming together across ethnic and cultural lines than just our personal prejudices,” Perkins cautions. “The Enemy has staked his claim on keeping us divided and keeping us from trusting one another.” Which is precisely why prayer, “the weapon of our warfare,” is so essential to the work of reconciliation. We should ask ourselves: For all our practical labor, do we also pray for reconciliation?
A third defining point of view in One Blood is this: Perkins abounds in hope. “I remain optimistic about the future,” he writes. Reconciliation, for all its challenges, is not a project with an uncertain outcome: “And one day it will be done. Of that I am confident.” Far too many who ache for reconciliation are now languishing in cynicism and exhaustion. Perkins anchors our hearts on more solid ground. Upon what basis do we have hope for reconciliation? His answer is clear: Not our personal resolve (however sincere our hearts may be) nor the moral track record of the church on matters concerning race (the mixed bag that it is), but the reconciled future of every tribe and ethnic group in Christ as guaranteed by God’s Word. “We know that in the end God wins. His purposes prevail,” Perkins exclaims with assurance. “We will be the church that God intended from eternity past. That’s good news!”
John Perkins has hope. Do we?
‘We will get there’
In the opening pages of 1976 autobiography, Let Justice Roll Down, Perkins introduced himself to the world with an account of his brother Clyde’s murder. Over 40 years later, the closing pages of One Blood speak of his personal longing for heaven. If this is his final book, it would give his story a fitting bookend: heartache in our racially broken world paired with the hope of heaven. For the last half-century, Perkins has called the church to lean into the former while being empowered by the latter, which includes the grand vision of multiethnic unity portrayed in Revelation 7: “I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (v. 9).
In the epilogue, Perkins shares with warm vulnerability that he reflects often on what it will be like to see his mother at last. “I look forward to crossing the threshold of heaven and rushing into her arms. I’ll tell her that I picked up the mantle of reconciliation and ran hard until my day was done.” Run hard he has, and we are all blessed because of it. Now who will pick up the mantle of reconciliation next? Perkins has written this book so that you and I will. And it’s to us that he offers this final word of heavenly hope, the confidence of reconciliation one day made complete: “We will get there. We will get there—together. We will get there—as one.”
Yes, we will. By God’s grace, and because of your blessed leadership over all these years, Dr. Perkins, yes, we will.
Duke Kwon is the lead pastor of Grace Meridian Hill, a congregation in the GraceDC Network in Washington, DC. He is a contributing author of Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church (White Blackbird).