For over 40 years Dr John Perkins has been an understated evangelical presence. In the constellation of Euro-American evangelicalism he has not had the profile or exposure of a Jim Wallis, Ron Sider or Tony Campolo, but as an inspirational conductor of biblical justice, he stands firmly in the slipstream of Martin Luther King, whose call to justice was authenticated by suffering.
To be honest I can’t remember where I met this unassuming man over thirty years ago, but I do remember the impression I was left with: a passionate black evangelical activist who isn’t bitter, despite the suffering he has endured, and who believes in justice as much as evangelism. These qualities revealed a narrative I could relate to, first in his brilliant book, A Quiet Revolution (1976), which harmonised evangelism, social action and justice at a time many evangelicals regarded such themes as mutually exclusive. And then in his strategy for community development unveiled in With Justice for All (1982).
As the former General Director of an Evangelical Alliance which sought to re-position a message of justice as consistent with evangelicalism, Perkins’ work remained a part of my own biblical awareness and subconscious narrative informing my public teachings and writing at that time. But, looking back, I am amazed at how little I drew consciously on his work as a Christian activist.
The new powerful film about his life – Redemption – arrived just in time for me to rectify this sad omission. While addressing a denominational conference in the Caribbean on the theme of “Redeeming the Times” just a few days ago, Redemption provided an excellent reference point. Mainly it reminded me that our opportunities invariably emerge from adversity.
In this engaging video a justice veteran talks about his own beginnings. It’s a powerful current account of the personal experience of the evangelical leader in his home town of Mendenhall, Mississippi, where the events took place and where his international influence began. It’s the testimony of a family man who is aware that poverty killed his mother and the story of a civil rights activist whose work gained impetus from the unjust killing of his own brother.
It is also the account of the impact standing up for justice can have on those around you. Perkins sent his eight children to a desegregated school in order to promote race equality, knowing full well they would be ostracised by the white pupils. In Redemption we see a snapshot of Perkins’ personal life with the wife he still adores, “Grandma Perkins”, who stood by him in some of the darkest moments of his civil rights work.
The similarities between the activism of Perkins and King are evident in this short documentary. As the story unfolds, it is from a jail cell that Perkins admonishes his own community and says that a Kairos moment had come “to not turn back” and to do something about the abuse and hatred experienced by black people in Mississippi. From his prison cell the local civil rights movement was born.
Perkins’ work as a civil rights evangelical leader came from an experience in which “the memory of dying” led him to a gospel marked by forgiveness, which was strong enough to destroy the madness of segregation and hatred.
Redemption demonstrates that Perkins has earned the right to speak to the world about reconciliation and to challenge American Christians about the dangers of wrapping political ideals around their faith so firmly that embedded prejudices becomes obstacles to biblical justice.
Redemption is a fitting description of a man who has all the reasons to hate but whose entire ministry has been about breaking down the barriers of hatred and promoting a ministry of reconciliation.
Redemption is another way of reading Perkins’ thoughts through his life in the community, which has been an integral part of his amazing journey.