Dream with Me (John Perkins) -- A Review
DREAM WITH ME: RaceLove, and the Struggle We Must Win. By John M. Perkins. Foreword by Randy Alcorn. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017. 218 pages.
I've been acquainted by name with John Perkins since at least my seminary days back in the 1980s. Perkins was in Pasadena working with his Harambee Christian Family Center at the same time I was at Fuller Seminary. What I knew of him was that he was a respected African American evangelical leader with a strong commitment to social justice and civil rights. While I knew of his book Let Justice Roll Down, I don’t remember reading it. Having the opportunity to read Dream with Me allowed me to finally become fully acquainted with his life and ministry.
As you read the book you’re reminded that a concern for social justice doesn’t require a liberal form of theology. Theologically Perkins is conservative, and yet he spent his life pursuing social justice, even as he proclaimed the gospel of Jesus. The book’s title touches base with Martin Luther King's dream. That dream plays an important role in his story, that includes both civil rights activism and a commitment to reconciliation. That dream is further defined by the book’s subtitle: “Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win.”
Perkins the dreamer was eighty-six years old at the time he completed the book. This is a memoir with a message. It begins with his birth into a Mississippi share-cropping family. He admits that he dropped out of school in around third grade, though he has been honored with quite a number of honorary doctorates. From humble beginnings, he eventually found his way into the church, and heard a call to ministry. That road was not easy. He got into some trouble growing up, and he had to deal with the justified anger at the death of his older brother at the hands of a white deputy sheriff. His brother had been a decorated World War II vet, but that didn’t stop that deputy from killing him. He writes: "My big brother, a heroic survivor of World War II, was defeated by the unspoken war at home" (p. 27). That even marked John Perkins. It drove his eventual engagement in the civil rights movement, during which he was arrested and beaten in a jail by white deputies. As time progressed, and he came to faith, and entered ministry, he discovered a calling to build bridges between divided worlds of black and white.
In many ways this book serves as a passing of the baton to a younger generation. He’s not stepping back too far from his calling, but he’s convinced that it’s time for younger generations to take the lead. In fact, he has great confidence in the upcoming generations. So, he sees his ministry now as one of mentor to this new generation of leaders.
In many ways, this is a book about social justice. That concern has been at the heart of Perkins's ministry from the beginning. While he is committed to the pursuit of justice, he is even more committed to a ministry of love. It is out of this commitment to love that he finds himself engaged in speaking directly but lovingly to white evangelicals, people who share his theology, but not always his commitment to justice.
As a white left-of-center Protestant male, it is not my place to decide how Perkins should engage in ministry of reconciliation, which speaks both to the African American community and to White American Christians. His message is one that calls for White Christians to deal with the racism is still present in society, but he is not interested in engaging in angry rhetoric. There is forgiveness and love at the heart of the work, with the hope that communities might be reconciled. Ultimately, writing a review of someone else’s memoir is a complicated act. In the end, it’s best to let the author speak for himself or herself. That means, reading the book.
One element of the story that is extremely important, especially now after Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. Trump found a way to win over lower income/lower educated white Americans. Perkins addresses this community, which tended to be just as poor and oppressed as their black neighbors. Even though the two communities had much in common, wealthier white leaders used race as a wedge to divide and conquer. Perkins’ white neighbors who were poor, like he was, had just enough in privileges that they could themselves as being superior to persons in the black community. But what that meant was their natural allies were pushed further to the margins. Things may have changed to a degree, but divide and conquer power politics remains with us. Perkins would like to see that come to an end.
In laying out a vision for the future, Perkins speaks of the "three Rs": relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. The first involves "living in the community where God has called you." For Perkins that R has led him to move from Mississippi to Pasadena and then back to Mississippi. In each location, he sought to be used for good. According to Perkins, this is what incarnation is about. As for the second R—reconciliation—it is the process by which God brings us to Godself and then keeps us. Much of the book unfolds this message, for this is the heart of Perkins’ ministry. The third R is redistribution. This word is a controversial one. It has political implications. But, Perkins states upfront that when he uses this word he's not talking about taking from the rich to give to the poor. However, he does believe that Christians need to have a new view of resources. He writes: How can there not be enough to meet everyone's basic needs—food, housing, clothing, health care, and so on?" (p. 85). This R is the driving force in the creation of the Christian Community Development Association. Perkins' is concerned that the current welfare system, while well-meaning, can create dependency. He wants to equip the poor to move out of poverty. He’s not against government help, but he believes the church can be an important part of the solution.
I should note as well that role played in the story by his son Spencer, who was among the first black children to attend a white school in Mendenhall, Mississippi, and the first to graduate from previously all-white Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi. Spencer struggled with his call to ministry, but found that reconciliation was at the heart of it. Unfortunately, Spencer died of a heart attack at the age of forty-four, a death that had a devastating impact on Perkins and his family. So, in part this book is dedicated to Spencer’s memory.
There is much to this story, and you just should read it for yourself to understand who John Perkins is and how he envisions his own call to ministry. If you read the book you will get a sense too of his dream, which at least in some ways is an extension of that of Dr. King. So, in the book's penultimate chapter, Perkins speaks of his vision of what the church will look like in the future. He writes about his fear that the church of today is known more for its divisions and emphasis on hot-button issues, than it is for living out the gospel. He notes that most people on the outside know the church more for what it condemns than what it loves—"they hear the voice of the church speaking a language of hate, rather than a language of redemption and reconciliation" (p. 188). Now eighty-six, he envisions a new day when love not hate will mark the church's message. He envisions a church that is diverse and reflects the multi-ethnic nature of the kingdom of God. When we reach that day, then the message will break forth much more effectively.
Perkins closes by inviting the reader to dream with him. He speaks of the dream that has marked the American spirit, but which we have failed to embody. It is a dream of being a place where all people are equals and a voice. It is the dream that Dr. King announced. While it has yet to be achieved, he lives in hope that this day will come. However, he believes that to get there we'll need a new language, "one of love—that affirms and heals, instead of wounds and destroys" (p. 203). As I've noted, this is a message that the church needs to embody, because it is the message of Jesus. Although Perkins addresses an evangelical audience, I believe that even those who like me are more liberal mainliners might find this to be a valuable read. We may pride ourselves in our commitment to diversity, but our churches are as segregated as any others. So, take and read, and dream!