Racial reconciliation at ‘pivot place’ for evangelicals, says Perkins in Julius B. Gay Lecture
A new generation of evangelical Christians is on the verge of racial reconciliation and economic justice in its churches, said John M. Perkins in the Julius Brown Gay Lecture on Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Oct. 27.
“We’re at a pivot place in history,” said Perkins, 84. “This is the first generation of people who are beginning to understand that and values diversity. There’s an underlying movement today that now people are wanting to do mission with people, and they want to learn from people, and they see human beings different as a value in life.”
The Julius Brown Gay Lectures are among Southern Seminary's most prestigious lectureships, dating back to 1895. The lectures have brought some of Christianity's most significant figures to the seminary campus, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. in 1961. Perkins said the opportunity to deliver the lecture at Southern Seminary was “one of the honors of my life” as the culmination of his life’s work.
The civil rights leader lectured on “Theology and Race in American Christianity” to a standing room-only crowd of Southern Seminary students and African-American pastors with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. He stressed that racial reconciliation and justice are fundamental aspects of Christ’s redemptive work.
“Anything outside of developing a multicultural church is a disgrace to the gospel,” said Perkins. “It belittles the gospel to have a church based on race. It’s a slap in the face of a God who created from one human being all the nations that reside upon this earth and a gospel that its intention was to reconcile people to God and to each other.”
Perkins suggested that the solution to racial divisions is to “come back to the Bible and totally believe it.” He emphasized the need to understand the reconciling work of Christ in the incarnation with a sense of economic justice rooted in the creation account.
“The big issue is an economic issue. Justice is how we manage the earth’s resources,” Perkins said. “There is no biblical trace that God gives us ownership. The earth is the Lord’s, and he gives it to us as a stewardship.”
Perkins, a Mississippi native, fled to California as a teenager when his brother was murdered by a town marshal. After he professed faith in Christ in 1957, Perkins returned with his wife and children to Mendenhall, Mississippi, where he established a ministry to provide both Bible training and community development programs such as health clinics, thrift stores, and housing cooperatives. In 1989, Perkins and other Christian leaders founded the Christian Community Development Association to spread this philosophy of rebuilding poor neighborhoods with biblical principles.
“I think every church should have a non-profit because it broadens your movement out into the midst of your members and other folk who might be poor,” said Perkins, who insisted that nothing can replace the local church’s efforts in benevolent ministries.
In a panel discussion following the lecture, Perkins elaborated on his comments that racial justice is an economic issue because “all resources come from God” in creation and mankind is called to steward those resources.
“Work is the best welfare program in the world,” Perkins said. “People need more than charity. What do they need? They need a job. It provides you the greatest affirmation — you earned it.”
Perkins also shared insight into the “three R’s” of his philosophy for community development: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. He explained redistribution was not in spreading the wealth but in determining who controlled the means of production.
“God’s love for the humanity is the motivation for redemption,” Perkins said. “It’s his love, it’s his justice, his tender care, his land from which we get the food to live.”
Perkins joined in the panel discussion on racial reconciliation with T. Vaughn Walker, WMU Professor of Christian Ministries and professor of black church studies, Jarvis Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation, and Curtis Woods, associate executive director for convention relations at the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Walker, who became the first African-American faculty member at any of the six SBC seminaries in 1986, said racial reconciliation in Southern Baptist churches today remains a difficult issue because of the changing cultural landscape.
“This is a multicultural world. If we’re still playing the black and white game, we’re going to be far behind where the real game is,” Walker said.
Woods spoke on behalf of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, which organized a conference for African-American pastors following the lecture and panel discussion. He noted the efforts of KBC leaders to preach in a diversity of churches if they are invited to preach God’s Word.
“We believe in gospel-centered racial reconciliation,” Woods said. “We are sincerely wanting to see the church to look like heaven before we get there.”
Williams, whose research in the New Testament includes a focus on gospel-centered racial reconciliation, emphasized the importance of defining terms when discussing the issue.
“When we start talking about what’s the foundation underneath the problem of injustice, the problem of racism, I think it’s Adam’s transgression,” Williams said regarding the universal power of sin. “The greatest hope I think every single human being needs is to be transformed by the supernatural power of the bloody gospel that focuses on a Jewish Messiah who died and resurrected for Jews and Gentiles to make them one new man in Christ.”
Perkins has authored or contributed to many books, including A Quiet Revolution, Let Justice Roll Down, With Justice For All and A Time to Heal. He is the founder and president of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation.
Audio and video of the lecture are available at sbts.edu/resources.