Review: Welcoming Justice

welcoming justice

Welcoming Justice (expanded edition), Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018 (original edition 2009).

Summary: A renewed call for the church to pursue Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community” even in a day of increased white nationalism and polarization.

When this book was first published in 2009, the first African-American president had been elected. Nine years later, the vision of “beloved community” that appeared to be on the horizon, now feels like a distant memory. Charles Marsh, in his new preface acknowledges the current circumstances in the events in his home town of Charlottesville where Heather Heyer, simply standing in solidarity against the demonstrations of white nationalists, died when struck by a vehicle driven into the crowd by a white nationalist from Ohio.

Yet Marsh, and his co-author, John M. Perkins, a leader in Christian community development work, have not given up on the vision of Dr. King. Both believe that despite appearances, there is a movement of God afoot toward “beloved community. In alternating chapters, the two authors share why they are still hopeful, and what they believe needs to happen.

Marsh leads off with the contention that the Civil Rights movement lost its vision and cohesion as a movement when it lost its connection to a church-based and gospel based vision of “beloved community.” At the same time, he sees movements, like that which Perkins has led at Voice of Calvary, continuing this gospel-based vision in its focus on relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation. Perkins, however, contends that the church, to realize such a vision, needs to give up its captivities to culture which has so divided it. He makes the fascinating observation that the neglect of outreach to a white underclass has made them open to the counterfeit community of the Klan. The challenge is to forsake the dividing lines of our captivities to reach out across those lines in the power of Christ.

Marsh then writes of the need for true conversion in our lives, a conversion that is always personal, even as it has social implications. He movingly recounts his first encounter with Perkins as a student staying with his segregationist grandmother. Perkins answer came not in an argument of what was wrong with segregation, but to send a gift of blueberries from his garden as his gift to her. Marsh in reflection writes:

“The existence of a compelling Christian witness in our time does not depend on our access to the White House, the size of our churches or the cultural relevance of our pastors. It depends, instead, on our ability to sing better songs in our lives. True conversion is always personal, but it is never sole about the individual who experiences God’s love and knows the good news of salvation. True conversion is about learning to sing songs in which our life harmonizes with others’–even the lives of those least like us–and swells into a joyful and irresistible chorus” (p. 78).

Perkins responds with stories of the young men and women he has the joy of working with, and the hope this gives him for awakening. He doesn’t speak of programs but of loving people, those of his own community, and those who come to learn, and then go and pursue a vision of community development across the country. Marsh in turn writes about the inner life of silent embrace of the gospel of the kingdom that sustains the practice of peace over the long haul. Perkins writes the final chapter calling for a re-building of our cities, interrupting the brokenness of our cities as churches re-assert their own love of the places and people to which they are called, forming the character of their young.

The question I had as I read this in the light of the present time is how Marsh and Perkins can be so hopeful. I think the difference between them and writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (whose Between the World and Me I reviewed yesterday) comes down to the former’s belief in the gospel of the kingdom. Perkins knows the violence against blacks as well, or perhaps even better than Coates, growing up in Mississippi. He was beaten and thrown in jail unjustly by police. Perkins has experienced the power of the love of God in his own life, and devoted a life to loving his place and pursuing reconciliation. What he and Marsh describe seems to be illustrative of the parable of the mustard seed, where small, seemingly insignificant efforts, like Perkin’s work in Mendenhall, not only bring local healing and reconciliation, but spawn movements of people committed to King’s vision of the beloved community. Perhaps the real question is not how Marsh and Perkins can be so hopeful, but will we forsake our cultural captivities and join them in their hope and embrace God’s movement toward “beloved community?”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

I Need Diverse Books

This post is inspired by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign that developed when the first ever BookCon, which took place this past weekend, announced an all-white author lineup. The Twitter campaign that followed garnered 162 million impressions in its attempt to raise awareness of the need for more books by and about people of various ethnicities and races. This post is not about that campaign (which you can read about here), but about my own growing realization that I need diverse books.

Nope, I’m not going to try to persuade you that you need more diverse books, or your children or your school or your library need more diverse books. So take a deep breath and relax. I’m just going to share how important reading diverse books is for my own life.

For one thing, even the local world of my neighborhood doesn’t look like me. I see saris and headscarves and skin much darker than mine. I hear other languages, and even sing some of the worship songs in our church in Spanish because we have Spanish speakers who are part of our worship. Certainly the world of the university where I engage in campus ministry doesn’t look like me. We have over 3,000 students from China alone and growing numbers from India and South America. We also have students from  the “hyphenated” communities in this country: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans. And there are many from all these groups who call themselves “brother” or “sister” in my faith who I believe I will spend eternity with. Better start understanding each other!

Reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow for example portrayed to me afresh what it is like to be stopped simply for driving or walking while black, and the practices of illegal searches in this country that violate our Fourth Amendment protections.  Sheryl Wu Dunn’s Half The Sky reminds me of the systematic injustices and violence we do to women around the world, and how women have courageously fought back.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, helped me look at life through the lens of immigrants encountering very different value systems and trying to hold onto something of their identities. Julie Park’s When Diversity Drops helped me see  our collegiate ministry as students of different ethnicity encounter it. John Perkins books and the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. help me begin to understand the difficult experience of Blacks in America, and challenges me to match their Christ-likeness in pursuing justice and reconciliation.

This year I have been listening to a variety of voices, mostly outside my own faith community, who are writing about the future of higher education. Some of this has to do with a conference on this subject I am leading this summer. Why this is valuable for me is that if we are going to participate as responsible partners in conversations about the future of the university, we need to understand the issues and each other well. For similar reasons, I’ve read science writers like J Craig Venter on genetic research and Sir John Houghton (actually a committed Christian) on issues of climate change. Sometimes they open my eyes to issues I haven’t thought about. I don’t agree with all I read–what would be the fun in that?

I need diverse books because I believe God’s intention is to form a “beloved community” that is a mosaic of the peoples of the world. What a great design for engaging the diverse peoples and problems we confront in this world! Yet I come from a white, working class background that has shaped my outlook, for good and less than good. Beginning with the diverse narratives of the Bible, diverse books that help me understand the parts of the world that are “different” for me, and diverse friendships, I hope to be able both to offer what is unique in my own gifts and background and to welcome the abundant variety of gifted people that make up a “God sized, beloved community.”

Those are some of the reasons I need diverse books. What diverse books would you suggest I read? Who knows, you might see them in future reviews on this blog.