Welcoming Justice - A Review

John Perkins will be remembered as a significant figure in the 20th century, mainly because of his practical work toward racial reconciliation and community development. Perkins is a man who has had every reason to reject the pursuit of reconciliation, and yet has doggedly invested his life in those efforts.

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Charles Marsh is a professor at the University of Virginia, whose book God’s Long Summer offers several biographical accounts of the Civil Rights movement, especially how the faith of its supporters was essential to their motivation and its prosecution.

IVP has recently issued an expanded edition of Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community that combines the practical experience of Perkins with the historiography of Marsh. It is framed in light of ugly rise of white supremacy, especially through the Alt-Right. Marsh’s preface to this new edition specifically frames it in like of the riots and violence at Charlottesville in 2017.

This volume speaks to people in two directions. Marsh, a moderate theological revisionist, speaks to the need of the work of the Civil Rights movement to continue. He notes that faith has been a central part of that movement, and should remain at the center of it. His plea functions most clearly to entice those in the majority—those who are tempted to ignore or minimize to continue pursuing racial justice–to remain engaged and faithful. Perkins, who is theologically evangelical, communicates both the need for patience and continued engagement by the offended, as well as the possibility of work toward racial reconciliation by the theologically orthodox. In other words, Perkins offers a reminder that one does not have to abandon historical doctrines of the faith to pursue justice.

As a textbook for action or a firm theological foundation for a movement toward racial justice, this book falls short. There is evident discontinuity between the theology of Perkins and Marsh, which leads to a somewhat garbled message. However, as an example of the ability to cooperate for a common cause despite theological differences, this is a very helpful book. The succinct volume functions largely as an artifact of collegial co-labor.

Although not earth shattering in its intellectual heft, this brief book fills a distinct need. Given the increasing polarization between racial, political, economic, and religious tribes, the cooperation of these men and the similar message they share is a reminder that a great deal can be done in this world despite our disagreements.

It is certain that there is a great deal left to do with racial reconciliation. I am hopeful that Welcoming Justice falls into the hands of readers that need to hear the message that unity is possible without unanimity, that the pursuit of a just society is a way to honor Christ, and that this issue is altogether too important to be ignored.

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

Reflections on "The Souls of Black Folk"

The quality of classic books varies based on a number of factors. Some old books stick around and continue to be read because they have historical value—they tell us something about how a particular group thought or lived at a given time. Some old books remain popular because they are foundational—they are so regularly referenced and alluded to by later literature that they are necessary for understanding culture. Some old books deserve to be read because they are fine literature and point effectively toward the good, true, and beautiful.

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I recently picked up W.E.B. DuBois’s classic volume, The Souls of Black Folk, because I believed it fell cleanly into the first category. It might one day fall into the second category, but I hope that we don’t need it to. I was pleasantly rewarded while poring through the book to realize it also fell into the third category as well. The Souls of Black Folk is an important piece of history, but it is also a beautiful piece of literature, too. That made this book an enjoyable (if convicting) read.

DuBois is best known to many of us because many cities and towns have an urban renewal center named after him. He was an influential voice for the rights of African-Americans and the pursuit of racial justice.

The Souls of Black Folk was originally published in 1903, nearly 50 years after slavery had officially ended in the U.S. However, this was also decades before the Civil Rights movement really got popular traction. The shame is that in many ways, despite the clear advances in legal rights for African-Americans, the situation has not changed nearly as much as it should in the past century.

The book centers around a major problem in America. The problem is the color-line. Or, more properly, the place of people of color in a land that does not seem to want them. As DuBois writes,

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better, truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

That is a simple vision and one that should have come to pass long before this day. In some ways it has come to pass and things are hopeful. In other ways, if we are honest, it is a long way away.

The book as a whole traces out DuBois’s critique of the situation. It is filled with beautiful prose and clear evidence that DuBois had a fine mind and good education. DuBois provides a survey of the progress and sometimes lack of progress of blacks in the South. In some cases, they had advanced and were prospering. In other cases, the intentional roadblocks and legalized (or overlooked) abuses had managed to keep African-Americans back. His book is a short study in the need for careful study and the avoidance of generalizations.

This volume also offers a balanced criticism of whites. He notes,

First, it is the duty of black men to judge the South discriminatingly. The present generation of Southerners are not responsible for the past, and they should not be blindly hated or blamed for it. Furthermore, to no class is the indiscriminate endorsement of the recent course of the South toward Negroes more nauseating than to the best thought of the South. The South is not “solid”; it is a land in the ferment of social change, wherein forces of all kinds are fighting for supremacy; and to praise the ill the South is to-day perpetrating is just as wrong as to condemn the good. Discriminating and broad-minded criticism is what the South needs,--needs it for the sake of her own white sons and daughters, and for the insurance of robust, healthy mental and moral development.
To-day even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant Southerner hates the Negro, the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him as a laborer, some of the educated see a menace in his upward development, while others – usually the sons of the masters – wish to help him rise. . . . To praise this intricate whirl of thought and prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh indiscriminately against “the South” is unjust. . . [but to critique those worthy of it is an imperative duty.]

In DuBois’s approach we see neither toleration of injustice, nor unfair animus toward those who did not create the problem. There is a message for a wide range of readers in DuBois, which should urge us to make things better without blaming those who did not cause the problem in the first place, even if they benefited from it.

One does not need to agree with all that DuBois writes to benefit from this book. This is the sort of book that, even if you disagree, makes you better because you have to explain why. For example, DuBois takes a somewhat dim view of Christianity in the book. There may have been good cause, particularly as Christians did not represent Christ well in many cases. But even though I disagree with his final analysis, his critique is written well and in good faith.

The Souls of Black Folk is the sort of book that is easily read in a few days and much easier to read than to read about. It is a book that should be more regularly included in reading lists, since it is clearly written and balanced in content it could easily be digested by a high schooler. This is a volume that gives insight into our time specifically because things aren’t as much better as they should be. For that reason, it is exactly the sort of critique of our thinking that so many of us need.

The Souls of Black Folk
By W.E.B. Du Bois

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.

Reclaiming Hope - A Review

Michael Wear’s recent book Reclaiming Hope is a call for Christians to remain hopeful about the future, despite the misuse and abuse of religion in politics in recent years. Although similar messages have been promoted and led to failure, Wear’s message is a worthwhile one: authentic Christian hope should lead to Christians continuing to participate in politics as Christians. This means that we need to seek the good of the city in which God has placed us and remain critical of both political parties.

Wear is one of the many in the millennial generation who believe that greater government participation in redistribution of wealth is a good thing. The front half of the book recounts his alignment with the Obama White House on the good of passing the Affordable Care Act, which has made purchasing medical insurance legally required with financial penalties for those who choose not to participate in the market. Wear recounts Obama’s use of religious language in supporting things as way that faith can influence policy. For those that oppose the seemingly ever increasing growth of the government through programs like the Affordable Care Act, the front end of the book seems like a bit of tedious hero worship of President Obama. Those who find themselves so frustrated should continue on through the volume. Wear is recording the events as he saw them at the time, though he appears to more critically examine those events later in the volume.

Aside from Wear’s bias toward the government as a means for achieving economic justice, a portrait of the President Obama’s faith begins to emerge. Wear, a socially conservative evangelical Christian, participated in both of Obama’s campaigns and in the first term White House Staff as part of the faith outreach. Part of Wear’s job was to counter the attacks on Obama’s faith, which came from more conservative Christians based on Obama’s apparent support of the continued legalization of abortion and other causes supported by the platform of the Democratic National Convention.

The portrait of Obama’s faith that emerges is of an authentically faithful, liberal Christianity. In this sense, I am not using liberal as a dismissive insult, but to qualify the form of Christianity that Obama appears to hold and to have held. That is, a Christianity that truly holds to certain tenets of the orthodox faith, but sees fit to accept other elements that do not accord with biblical Christianity when historical orthodoxy appears to conflict with modern understandings of the world. This is the sort of Christianity that sees the gospel as primarily a call to social justice rather than personal conversion that leads people to pursue true justice in society in response to God’s justice. Wear, whose doctrine appears to be more consistently orthodox than Obama’s, paints a portrait of a President who sees the impetus toward apparent goods from within Christianity and finds motivation from that, but who may not have accepted the authority of Scripture over all areas of life and practice.

The first half of the book recounts the Obama political machine’s pursuit of doctrinally conservative Christians and efforts to enact a unifying vision for politics. The second half of the volume, however, outlines the ways that the Obama White House subverted those processes, discarded efforts to meaningfully work for a common vision of the good. This failure to seek common cause is highlighted by the Obama Administration's refusal to drop the contraceptive mandate despite the large number of Roman Catholic Bishops who would have otherwise have supported the measure. Wear documents his frustration that the White House staffers were unable or unwilling to understand that prohibition of contraception is a longstanding, significant tenet of Roman Catholic doctrine and to unnecessarily impose a violation of conscience on Roman Catholics in the marketplace would result in alienation of a large base. Additionally, Wear recounts the instant amnesia sexual revolutionaries developed in their efforts to excoriate and persecute those who held a vision of marriage that even Obama held until 2011. Wear reveals a political machine that, at least in part, did not (and likely still does not) understand the place and power of faith in the lives of the faithful of many religions.

Later chapters document the anti-religious influences in the White House overcoming the efforts of Wear and other faithful staffers. This was punctuated by the DNC’s overt pushing of social advocate, shock-value entertainer Lena Dunham’s video comparing voting for Obama in 2008 with her first sexual encounter. Also, the Obama campaign in 2012 used profanity laced e-mails to rally support. The shift into a post-religious White House (which is not to say a post-religious Obama) could be seen in the demonization of Louie Giglio prior to the 2013 inauguration, whose 20-year-old sermon expounding traditional sexual morality was sufficient to result in many public attacks and his ouster from praying at the inauguration. As Wear notes, “In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to expel all dissent.” (pg 190) This is the reality that many have experienced, which has alienated many of the faithful from the Democratic National Convention, and has helped to push some to vote against Hillary Clinton in the most recent election.

Wear closes the volume with a constructive appeal to a biblical concept of hope, which Christians alone can bring to politics. Whatever policy disagreements I have with Wear, these chapters are helpful. The loss of real hope is detrimental to politics, it leads to fragmentation, hatefulness, and eventually a politics that must win at all cost for fear or retribution. If nothing else, this last section is worth the price of the book, since it reveals the reality of socially conservative, faithfully living evangelicals who have participated in politics with the Democratic National Convention and don’t hate orthodox Christianity. Wear’s willingness to communicate his basis of support for some of the DNC’s policies while seeking to effect change from within. He should be honored for such efforts.

This is a helpful book in many respects. It undermines the notion that being a faithful, socially conservative Christian prevents engaging in politics with the DNC. It provides a glimpse to some of the machinations of the political machine, which should cause both the right and left to question exactly who wrote and how sincerely are meant statements that seem faithful from politicians. It may be that people like Wear are, in good faith, helping politicians craft statements that allow them to seem rather than be truly faithful. Finally, and perhaps the most important lesson in this bleary eyed post-election season, Wear’s volume reminds the reader that we cannot cease participating in politics even when both parties hold positions repugnant to faithful Christians. We must, necessarily, seek to gracefully engage in politics for the common good as we best understand it. We must also seek to be gracious with those with whom we disagree and seek to critique their policy, not their faith.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume as part of the launch team for this book. There was no expectation of a positive review.