December 16, 2013 / Theology
Recent attention to the body opens a discussion of bodily practices to which St. Paul contributes principles for Christian practice.
TOJ: It’s a great honor for me to be able to interview you, so thank you very much.
So I will dive in and throw out some questions.
After growing up in an environment where you felt the realities of a racist, oppressive society, you decided to return to the South from California where you were experiencing, by many standards, a successful life. What made you leave that lifestyle?
Perkins: I think it was the call of God upon my life. It was a burden—it was a passion that God nurtured in me. There came a time that it was something I almost had to do. And of course, I think the whole idea that I needed to go back to Mississippi and live my life out here, as well as this passion to make a witness to the people in the community whom I realized had not heard this wonderful message. It was so new and fresh to me and it transformed my life—it made me think that other folks who I grew up with (and I know those whom I grew close to) had not heard that message. And so I felt like I needed to come back here; but before I came back here, I came and spent six weeks just listening and being involved with people. And then I made the decision that, in fact, they were not hearing clearly the call of Christ on their lives; and so that’s sort of what drew me back here. It was the poverty, too, but at that point, I really felt that knowing Jesus Christ is so wonderful than possibly all the other not-necessary economic needs, that this joy was most important.
TOJ: This issue is on capitalism. Some theologians have been critiquing capitalism as something that captures our desires and places them in a direction that is competitive, one that often manifests as climbing the financial ladder. Do you think that capitalism warps our desire, and if so, how do you feel it changes our desire and our ability to love each other?
Perkins: I think capitalism has become a system in the hands of wicked people, fallen humanity. And I think, possibly, it can more easily—the strong can more easily exploit the weak in capitalism. But I don’t know whether or not it’s altogether the system or if it is just wicked men controlling that system. There’s a discussion we’ve got to have, but you know there’s got to be some type of restraint on it. Capitalism fits neatly under what we call the “free enterprise” system, but then there are other systems in which we don’t have free enterprise, where you have socialism and dictatorships, and they also exploit their people. Do you see what I’m saying? So it’s hard—but I think unless we can bring some kind of a discipline to it, then that’s where it becomes deadly; and I think most people who control it don’t want any discipline in it. So I think they over exploit—you know, we were held as slaves, as black people within the capitalistic system—you understand what I’m saying—but on the other hand, just totally condemning that system: that system could be used and good people then would be able to develop it and care for each other. If their hearts were changed, and if they had an understanding of their stewardship under God in that system, then I think it could be used creatively; but the way we are using it now in terms of greed…. but I don’t know if there is any other economic system, per se, to replace that–I come back almost to the idea that it is the greediness of man. You also have to realize that that is a system that greedy people have organized to their own advantage.
TOJ: So how do you think we as Christians can begin looking differently at financial success so that we might better take care of the marginalized and those who have been forgotten?
Perkins: I don’t see how we can do it apart from community. It looks to me that we have to do it on a neighborhood, community basis—a church basis—almost like a denominational basis. There’s got to be a body of people who witness to this, who are living in some type of a community where the people can see the value of the quality of life that we live in and how we reach out. I do think we have to set some kind of boundaries. If we don’t set some type of boundaries, then people would take advantage of us and exploit us; so I think that we say that within this community we set some type of boundaries for what it means to be a part of this community, because we have to bring some sense of responsibility. Otherwise, we create a situation where a few good people have to feel responsible for the whole world. And so we need to think in some form of community, in some form of boundaries, and that we welcome people to this community; and if more people want to come, let’s then create a new community within that geographical area, you know what I’m saying, and that’s the only way that I see that we can make it. And I really believe that that model was in the New Testament at Pentecost, you know, and I know that many communities have come and gone, and that it’s a challenge to do that in this individualistic, selfish, greedy community. So what we’re trying to do here is that, in my last years (I’ll be 75 in June) we’re creating something here we call the “Zachariah community,” and that’s going to be in about an 8-block area where we are going to care for each other and look out for each other. We want this to be sort of a Christian community, but it doesn’t mean that every house and every person in it will be Christian—but we want to witness to the fact that we are the people of God, and that we are salt and light in this neighborhood and we welcome you to come and join and be a part of what we are doing. I think that’s what church ought to be.
TOJ: I love that. And yet I get nervous as a white person moving into a multi-cultural neighborhood because of this idea of “gentrification”—even personally as I have felt this call of God on my own life, but then feeling the fear of being part of “gentrifying” a neighborhood, and yet not knowing how to avoid this.
Perkins: I think we have to overcome that. I think we need to somehow begin to see people as created in the image of God, and I think that what we call “gentrification” has got to be dealt with too. But I don’t see us creating a resistance as Christians; I think that we need to have a better witness ourselves within the community. You know, people raise that all the time, and I know that you might feel it if you are going into a minority community, you know what I mean, that you might be taking houses that some Blacks ought to have; but I don’t think that is totally—you know, I understand that—but I don’t think that should be a legitimate fear. I think that the motivation for you going there, and the service you’re going to render, I think is going to identify you not as a “gentrifier,” but is going to identify you as one who cares for the community. I don’t think we can let these words scare us away from the reality that we need to be involved in society. And we need to be intentional though in our reconciliation, particularly in the way we want to live. But I’m getting that all the time—getting it as a fear, and we’re getting it as a fear, that we can then do something about it—but then I think that would be like a reverse discrimination. I think it’s a matter of our hearts: what do we come for? Do we come to enhance the community? Do we come there to maybe even break down racial barriers? Do we come there to talk about being brothers and sisters in faith? And so I think that’s an ongoing management problem that we must be conscious of, you know, and I think God calls on His Christian people to be conscious of all of these issues, to be conscious of justice; but I don’t think we can make a hard rule for everything. Just like I would say, “I’m against abortion as a means of birth control—I’m against it—I think that God is the Author of life and wants to enhance life.” But I’m a little bit afraid of over-legalizing it, you know, un-legalizing it, bringing government to bear on everything, you know. I wish that we could still have some persuasive room in our society. I wish that we could have enough freedom to challenge and to be God’s prophetic voice where people can hear the voice of God.
TOJ: So what would you say to other white, suburban men and women who want to participate in what God is doing to bring change and healing?
Perkins: I say come join our Zachariah community. I can’t offer everybody and I shouldn’t try to speak for every community—I think communities ought to be strong enough to begin to speak for themselves—but what I can do is to welcome you to my neighborhood, welcome you to my community, welcome you to come and struggle with us; come and let’s enrich this neighborhood, and let’s make this neighborhood a place where freedom and justice can reign and we can be brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. We’re developing this Zachariah community and we’re welcoming people to come and join with us, and I think if we continue to do it I think people are going to come. I think we would be conscious that we need white people in this neighborhood now; we need some wonderful black people; we need some wonderful other ethnic groups to come here. I think we need to reflect the Body of Christ much more multi-racially. Because I think as we get more and more in this battle in terms of Islam and the world, we’ve got to offer more healthy, healing community as this world becomes more violent and more terrorism takes place. I think we’ve got to be more reflective of all people, enjoying the prosperity of this nation.
TOJ: So what do you think are the systemic evils of a capitalistic society? And how is the Church blindsided–specifically the wealthy churches—by not being able to critique a capitalistic society because they are so embedded in it?
Perkins: That’s hard. I think you would find that Jesus probably talked as much about people using mana (using wealth in the wrong way) probably as much as He did about anything else and I think the warning to the rich, who would then be more exploitive to the poor and the oppressed. And again I’m saying I would hate to do too much tampering with the system, but of course have some kind of responsibility, you know—like if the man who was head of the Stock Market could retire and end up with 250 million dollars as sort of a severance pay and then 11 million the rest of his life—I wonder, where is that money coming from with an institution that is supposed to be a public institution? So there’s something wrong with that, and what would a person do, and why would a person need that many resources, you know? But, boy, I think there need to be some regulations, some government accountability there. But I would be careful, on the other hand, if this gentleman would have taken these resources, and if they were legitimately his and if he had legitimately earned them. And if he would give those away, I think we would look at him as some kind of hero, you know, if he would have gone out and built some houses for the poor—you get the idea? It’s the heart that is so deceitful above all things, the Bible says, and who could know it? So it’s not altogether capitalism, it is altogether greed and selfishness in our society. And so I think sometimes we look at that, sometimes we like to give it a system name, you know. And again, I’m saying capitalism would need discipline, that socialism would need discipline…and any other economic system would need some kind of accountability or discipline in it, you know. So I don’t think we have arrived at an alternative apart from community. That’s what I’m saying. I think we could practice this capitalistic system within the context of community and… recognizing the fact that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof and all that dwelleth therein, and that we are stewards under God to utilize these resources in some kind of a just way in society. Because you would almost hear Jesus affirming a free enterprise system when He says that when the steward went away, he gave one steward five talents, one two, and the other one, but then he wanted the one that had five to multiply that and that one who had only one, he wanted him to multiply that also. But the key there that he recognized is the fact that he was responsible to the owner—and the owner, of course, was God, and that the owner of this earth is God, and that we are stewards of it under God—and I think that’s probably the only kind of consciousness that I see that could make us function much better, so I really believe it would be the Christian Church; but you asked another question—how did we allow the Christian Church to be so accommodating to the greedy part of the system—and I think that’s what we’re talking about; we’ve lost our prophetic voice to our own system for our own good.
TOJ: So what do you feel is the most encouraging part of the past work that the Church has done on racial reconciliation and against the greed of capitalism, and where do you feel like the most work needs to be done still?
Perkins: I think it is so vast. What is even scarier to me than almost [as as] scary within this system is this whole prosperity theology. Sometimes I almost feel that needs some kind of control in it. I think people are doing that within the freedom of the system, but I think it’s a big error and its exploiting people, and I think its taking advantage of the weak. I think it’s more the weak people—the little people—who send in all this money to these radio and television preachers who promise people that they’re going to be prosperous if they send them a towel or a paper???? …That’s unfortunate. So I think our best defense is going to be a strong offense if we as Christians create more livable communities where people can see some hope in being in fellowship, being in community, being in relationship. And I think we who are in community and relationship have got to show some value and quality of life—that then becomes a struggle within itself, because so many people get in a community and then want to get out of it because the outside forces of television and media and credit cards and of that, it’s so [couldn’t understand] and so much individualism, but I think again we have to live in this world. And I think living in this world in some form of community, in some form of responsibility—we as Christians—is probably the best we can do.
TOJ: Any last thoughts in terms of capitalism?
Perkins: What has happened to us in our society is that we have demonized words and ideas; and once you demonize words and ideas, they can be used any way people want to use those words—especially use them against you. If somebody says that “John Perkins railed against capitalism,” I don’t know if I’m railing against capitalism, so much as I’m railing against greed, do you see what I’m saying? People today have demonized affirmative action, you know: black folk were held in slavery all these years and now if we say that they get a job, if it’s ten white folks on the job and we say now, “hey, the population here is 50% white and 50% black, then why don’t we then get 50% white and 50% black,” then Whites are going to say there were 10 Whites already there and they’re going to say, “well, that’s affirmative action against us.” You get the idea….and in this case, affirmative action was an equalizer. But if you ask somebody about “affirmative action” they’re going to make it a demonized word, and that’s the same that we’ve done with “capitalism.” The person who has been so exploited by capitalism, if he says that capitalism is bad in the sense that media has ruined it, it’s to the media’s advantage to destroy that person…so just railing against it without us thinking about some form of alternative to it—at least some form of alternative in terms of how we can form some kind of an alternative that helps people. Again, I think good-thinking people would say that it’s hard to do that within the context of a capitalistic system; I believe there is freedom within—I believe there is freedom within it if people have the will to do it.
TOJ: So is that what your Zachariah community is doing?
Perkins: That’s what we want to do. We’re just getting started….I don’t want anybody to think of it as already finished, I want to think of it as an initiative that we are trying to implement, and it’s something very fresh in my mind; and I figured I’ve got a few more years to go, and it’s the only way I want to live out my remaining years.
TOJ: Well thank you so much, Dr. Perkins. I know you are an extremely busy man, and I just really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me out here in Seattle.
Dr. John Perkins, a resident of Jackson, Mississippi, has been a man passionate about seeing the Gospel mend restore and reconcile divided relationship across racial and socio-economic divides. He has founded Mendenhall Ministries in Mendenhall, Mississippi, Harambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena, California, of the Christian Community Development Association in Chicago, Illinois (co-founder); and founder of the John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation and Development in Jackson, Mississippi.