Dream with Me - A Review

John Perkins is a hero of the faith. I have little doubt that within a few decades he will be featured in biographies written for children as an example of someone who did a great work for the glory of God.

His is far from a household name in many circles, unfortunately. In fact, it has only been in recent years that I’ve encountered his story which typically isn’t flashy, but exudes the powerful, life-changing reality of the gospel.

For those new to John Perkins’ story, he is an African American man from Mississippi. If that doesn’t tell you enough, know that his brother was killed by police officers decades ago, he himself was severely beaten while in police custody, and his son suffered mightily as one of the forerunners of the school integration efforts in the ‘60s.

This is a man who has every reason to be bitter, angry, and to despise whites. He’s been given reason upon reason to reject the offers of reconciliation and partnership from the ethnic groups who were responsible for so much of his pain.

He has not reacted that way, though. Perkins came to Christ as the result of his son’s invitation to attend Sunday School. Hearing the gospel turned his heart away from the natural bitterness of his experience and led to the changed heart who has influenced many for Christ. It also set in motion the work Perkins has done in making society more just.

His recent book, Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, is an autobiography. At 86 years old, Perkins offers this book as a self-conscious reflection on how God has worked in and through him for decades. The volume has fourteen chapters, which move in roughly chronological fashion. The chapters are thematic, telling pieces of Perkins’ story, along with a great deal of thoughtful reflection along the way.

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Like most autobiographies, the best parts of this book are not the histories that he recounts, but his explanation of his perspective. Listening to an aging man explain why he did some things and not others, and what he would have done differently is pure gold. This is distilled, bottled wisdom for those who are fortunate and diligent enough to read it.

One of the most powerful aspects of this book is Perkins’ reflection on some of the sources of the vicious discrimination African Americans faced prior to and during the civil rights movement, when public displays of racism were tolerated and encouraged. Perkins notes that some of the worst racial violence came from poor whites in the South—people who were in much the same economic straits that many blacks were in during that time. However, those poor whites had something that the blacks didn’t—white skin.

Instead of commiserating and cooperating with people in similar economic straits, some poor whites cashed in on the only asset they possessed—the cultural cache of being white—using it to gain positions of relative power, like prison guard, deputy sheriff, etc. They also took opportunities to reinforce their “superiority” over people of color, living out the idea that pushing someone else down could lift them up. The reality, of course, is that such actions simply made everything worse for everyone.

Perkins is able to reflect on this condition retrospectively with grace. He’s a better man than I am, I’m sure. Instead of being angry about how poorly he was treated and how much pain many whites caused his family and friends, Perkins demonstrates a gospel-fueled love.

That’s a big piece of Perkins’ life message and the message of this book. Love, the sort of love that comes from the regeneration of hearts by the love of Christ and the power of the gospel, has the power to change things. It’s easy to forget that. Or, perhaps it’s hard to believe that when crowds are shouting at you, death threats are coming, and you simply want the equal justice the law requires. In Dream with Me, Perkins gives an example of what it looks like.

I’m not always a fan of autobiographies, but this is a book that deserves to be read. It will serve as an encouragement and lodestar for many engaged in the slow moving process of gospel reconciliation.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A Review

Getting into a topic is the hardest part about research. Most people don’t notice this because they stop doing research when their last academic paper is due. However, if you remember trying to get started on the research for your most recent project, you may know what I mean.

Search around on the internet, check the library catalog, or scan the shelves and you may find dozens of sources, but which one is going to be the most helpful to get introduced into the discussion. Recently I began to dig into African American Christian history and was pleased to cut the Gordian knot, as it were, by asking a friend who is an expert in the topic. His recommendation turned out to be so helpful that I am passing it along for you.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity is part of the African American History Series from Rowman and Littlefield. He teaches at University of Colorado and has authored a number of volumes on the topic of race and religion in the U.S. He presents an honest account that avoids revision on both ends of the spectrum.

Summary

This brief volume contains six chapters, with a separate introduction and conclusion. The introduction outlines the major themes in African American Religious History, laying the groundwork for the remainder of the volume. Chapter One offers a sweeping overview of African and African American religious experience from the Middle Passage to the Great Awakening; this experience consisted largely of syncretism with a strong dose of opposition of Christianization of slaves by white owners due to concerns it would cause them to desire freedom.

The second chapter documents the early stages of Christianity among slaves, which originated in the urban centers of the North and in the slave quarters. The revival of religious interest among residents of the colonies led to the evangelization of slaves and freemen, and the founding of the earliest traditionally black denominations. Chapter Three surveys the thirty or so years before the Civil War. This period included a high degree of revivalistic evangelism of slaves in the South, and the evolution of a distinct theology among slaves which emphasized liberation with an eye toward dual fulfillment in the present and the future.

In the fourth chapter, Harvey traces the history of African American Christianity from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the Twentieth Century. It was during this time that blacks began to identify as African Americans as they sought to find their identity amidst their new freedom. This was also a time when whites in the South began to form laws to restrict the freedom of blacks. African Americans also founded a number of new denominations as they sought to live and worship freely. Chapter Five summarizes the first half of the Twentieth Century. This is a period of time when African Americans began to increasingly migrate northward to urban centers and the church became a powerful social center for those displaced communities.

Chapter Six details some of the Civil Rights Movement, shifts toward religious pluralism in some areas, and the continued pursuit of justice in the African American churches. The body of the text concludes with a very brief outline that recaps the volume and makes clear the connection between the prophetic preaching of someone like Jeremiah Wright and the long, dark history of the African American Church. After the epilogue, Harvey provides a number of brief primary source documents that support and illustrate his earlier arguments.

Analysis and Conclusion

Through the Storm, Through the Night is far from an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but it provides an excellent entry point into an interesting and important part of Church History. For those seeking to gain a deeper appreciation for Black History, particularly the history of African American Christianity, this would be an excellent starting point.

Harvey does what is vital for an introductory volume: he tells a good story and makes the reader want to know more. More significantly, he opens up the conversation on a topic that is only becoming increasingly important. The history of the African American portion of the universal church may well, in future, be a model for public engagement, theological fidelity, and social endurance for others.

Against White Identity Politics and Religious Registration

For all of the tizzy that some people are in over the election and the counter finger-wagging from others, there are some signals of significant causes for concern. There have been a number of false reports that have come out about the transition team and, since they supported the prior assumptions of many, they have been run with. This is problematic. However, through the noise of exaggeration and misreporting of news, there are some signs that ought to concern people of good conscience.

Against the White Genocide Movement

This election has revealed that there are good people that are becoming attracted to a movement for white ethnic identity, which is often described as opposing “white genocide” or “cultural Marxism.” As a response to the perpetual hammering of identity politics on the left, it is an understandable development. However, as a strategy for unity and justice, it is doomed to failure. Any political system that seeks disunity over unity should be rejected. The United States has already tried separate but equal once. It failed. It was mostly separate, but hellishly unequal. We should not think about going there again.

As Christians, our identity is first in Christ. As Paul tells us clearly, in the church “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col 3:11) The church is a fundamentally political institution. We have “immigration policies” in which we offer membership to believers who have participated in the initiation rite of baptism by immersion. (At least in the Baptist context.) We seek justice in our relationships toward one another. However, the church is doomed to fail in the pursuit of justice if it retains distinctions based on nationality or ethnicity.

Photo: Lighting Strike by Fabio Slongo. Used by CC License:   http://ow.ly/48DR306gJNI

Photo: Lighting Strike by Fabio Slongo. Used by CC License:  http://ow.ly/48DR306gJNI

The future of the church is unity across ethnic barriers. This is the image we see in Revelation 7, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” This is not a vision that should fuel ethnic division or even permit us to countenance such as the body of Christ. While we are unlikely to attain to this vision while on earth, this is what we should pursue today.

Rejecting white nationalism or white genocide does not equal a call for an “open border” immigration policy. (A common accusation against many on the right and left by those supporting white identity politics.) The United States has the right to set immigration policies that take into account the good of its citizens—this is a function of nation-states in our day, and is not inherently unjust (although it may be pursued unjustly). However, the perception of some (and some that I’ve seen who claim to be Christian) is that we must build a movement of white ethnic solidarity and ban all immigration or risk being overcome. The second is implausible, despite ridiculous claims to the contrary. The first should be anathema to Christians given our eschatological hope in a supremely diverse chorus of voices joined in worship.

Against Religious Registries

Recently someone actually went onto national television to argue for a registry of Muslim believers. Or, at least, he argued there was precedent for it. Much news can be made of this person’s relation to the incoming administration. Of greater concern for me is that such a terrible idea should never have seen the light of day outside of a condemnation of our distant past.

The person speaking was correct to note that the U.S. has a precedent for registering people. He was also correct to note that during World War II we registered and interned ethnic Japanese, some of whom were immigrants. There is a precedent for such a registry.

However, the internment of ethnic minorities during World War II is an instance of protectionist government overreach. This is a black mark on our nation’s history, not the sort of historical event we should dust off and try to recreate in the present. We should not even consider it an option, though I will engage in a thought experiment for the sake of discussion.

Let’s assume we create a registry of everyone in religion X. To do so, we have to ask ourselves how we will determine whether someone is part of that religion. Is it attendance at a worship service? Is it being born into a family that has at some point attested to being part of religion X? Is it having grown up in a nation that is perceived to be predominately filled with religion X? What happens if someone converts to another religion? How do we determine whether that conversion is authentic?

All of a sudden, the government is trying to make decisions about things that it is simply not qualified to do. Religion isn’t ethnicity, where a family tree justifies inclusion. Even when dealing with ethnicity, how much is too much? One parent? One grandparent? A brother in law? For religion, the government would have to ask a different, more nebulous set of questions.

The obvious and necessary outcome is that the government steps into the role of religious authority. Person A has demonstrated sufficient effort to be considered Christian even though he grew up in a Muslim home. At the same time, since Person B simply stopped attending the Mosque and hasn’t picked up another active religion, should he be considered to still be Muslim? Unless he eats some bacon and draws a cartoon of Mohammed? Would open sacrilege be sufficient (or necessary) to change a classification?

Suddenly, I’m catching a whiff of the Inquisition. That’s not a high point in human history, much less in Christian history. I’m also hearing echoes of the persecution of the Jews under the Nazi regime. Certainly it wouldn’t start there and it might never get to that extent, but the echoes of that horror of the persecution of the Jews should be enough to steer us clear.

So what happens when the anti-theists get hold of the government? Now we can get parallel registries of Muslims and Christians. No worries, they will just be keeping tabs on people of faith. Why? Just to keep everyone safe and ensure the government knows what is going on. And then to perhaps ensure that we don’t have people of certain faiths in certain government positions. Does this sound like a dystopian fiction? Yes, but it’s only a step or two beyond registering Muslims, which someone felt comfortable bringing up as a possibility in a TV interview.

This is the sort of thing that Christians (and any reasonable people) should speak against. It’s not a good idea. It’s not going to make us safer. It’s not going to end well. If we’re for religious liberty for some (ourselves?), then we need to hold out the same rights for all. That needs to be the principle we stand on.

The government does not have the wherewithal to regulate religion. The common good is not enhanced by the government regulating religion. Making people register their religious affiliation is not simply information gathering, it is regulating. We must keep this power away from the government.

Just a Media Overreaction?

One of the tragedies of contemporary society is the 24-hour news cycle. This creates the problem of the proliferation of interviews of people who might know someone that knows something speaking authoritatively about stuff. There is such a need to fill the airwaves that they bring people that might float the idea of something like a Muslim registry on national television. This, then, fuels dozens of hot takes (like this one), replays, edits, and discussion panels. Sometimes the furor is over nothing.

I’ll be glad to find out that this suggestion is really nothing. Unfortunately, there are some that will hear it and begin to think that such a simple encroachment on civil liberties is really worth it to prevent the explosion of another IED or another religiously driven night-club shooting. Because of the protectionist stance some (particularly whites) are taking, this will begin to sound like a good idea. Reading Twitter and some of the Alt-Right propaganda sites provides evidence that this idea isn’t just nothing.

Sometimes there is an overreaction that deserves to be neglected. The media cries wolf too often, as a rule. However, we can’t let their failures in the past prevent us from seeing problems in the present. These are issues that have the potential to take root in the minds of some in our churches and we should be careful not to let sin get a foothold.

The purpose of this post, therefore, is not to fuel the overreaction, but to offer some consideration for the ideas that are actually being floated as plausible and to encourage Christians to think about how these ideas betray the gospel (as with white nationalism) and put impartial justice in jeopardy (as with the Muslim registry). People are actually talking about some of these things as if they are good ideas. They aren’t, and we should make sure that the church is clear in standing against them.