To explore John Perkins’s views on such matters as the relation of Christian growth to social action and of Moral Majority to the poor, CHRISTIANITY TODAY posed several questions. Following is an edited version of the transcript.
You give a strong emphasis to the place of the church in society, don’t you?
We seem to believe, in the church, that individual growth comes from Bible study and nurture. But that’s a myth: individual growth comes from a need to be sustained. Reaching out to others then assures a person’s growth.
We give people the idea that growth comes from nurture, and so we have a church that is structured wrong. Nurture has become the end, rather than witness and service. We have stopped short of being the incarnated life of God.
I also believe that the local church does not now have the proper commitment to its own area. Until it does, it cannot be prophetic. People in the local congregation must be called to that place, and must surrender themselves to the authority of the local church. I have a responsibility to put my time and money into that church.
You have been categorized as being theologically and economically conservative. How do these points of view work themselves out in your lifestyle of Christian leadership?
Because of my conservative economic view, I believe in stewardship that is expressed in capital ownership. To achieve that ownership, a person has to gain a skill and a gift, and use the resources.
You believe in free enterprise, in other words?
I believe that God created man to have freedom and to surrender that freedom-will to some authority. The control of that freedom is in our economic system. Freedom of speech or religion does not exist without economic freedom.
Economist Milton Friedman says the same thing.
I believe that free enterprise is not outside of the prophetic call of the church. The weakness of our system is that capitalists believe that the church should not speak against capitalism, but only against socialism, communism, and fascism.
What is the role of the church in this?
To call capitalism, socialism, and communism to accountability before God. Each system must understand that it is under the control of God, that he rules the kingdom of men. The key here is that all systems must be challenged. In American society we have created socialism for the poor and capitalism for the rich. It has to be capitalism for everybody—capitalism in the sense that the free enterprise system must empower the poor to participate in the ownership of these enterprises. Otherwise, people are going to feel powerless, and when the lights go out they’re going to burn down the buildings they don’t own. The free enterprise system has to involve the poor.
How do you evaluate the church on this issue?
It doesn’t exercise its freedom. It allows wealth to affect it in such a way that it refuses to challenge the free enterprise system. This economy and these workers have provided the businessman with an opportunity. As a result, he has a responsibility in terms of housing and the quality of life of the people. Businessmen have control of the lifeblood of this nation. That’s a challenge. I believe such challenges will make the free enterprise system stronger.
It is clear that you believe progress is possible despite everything we see in society that would cause us to be pessimistic.
I think the church is responsible for hope, for being the prophetic voice of God in delineating areas where people are hurting. We have to concentrate some of our resources at these points of need.
You have said that Moral Majority will have to take responsibility for the political action of Ronald Reagan’s administration. But the pollsters seem to indicate that the election was more a renouncing of President Jimmy Carter than an election of Ronald Reagan.
I don’t believe that. Moral Majority and the Christian Roundtable represent a very broad base that picked up people outside their groups. When you put all the votes together, conservatism had its finest hour within the church, and Ronald Reagan was elected. Conservative theology and conservative politics were married.
Do you differ with Moral Majority on some issues you think are important?
They have reduced loving Jesus down to doing nothing. They don’t have a definition of truth that is deep enough. For me, truth is the certainty that God is Creator. He reflects that deity in man. Therefore, man has dignity, and anything which affirms the dignity of man is truth. In most issues, the fundamentalists hang Jesus up in the sky. The meaning of his life is not worked out in daily life.
What do you think Moral Majority will do?
They will not offend the black liberal leadership, and they will leave it to the blacks totally to deliver themselves. They will provide some resources for blacks to do the work for them.
Will they succeed?
I don’t think so. They will not put enough emphasis on social justice to produce the necessary leadership to deal with the social conditions. You know, if Moral Majority were serious it would go to Atlanta or Chicago and start a black Bible college in the black community. It would bring in young black evangelicals and retired white theologians to staff the school. It would offer a good Bible education and solid vocational technological training.
What is the main obstacle to achieving this?
Leadership. I’m afraid that tokenism will draw off from an in-depth, serious commitment to black community development, and I’m not sure that there is the depth of leadership among blacks to lead an evangelical revolution. Young educated blacks can be drawn too easily into the corporate structure instead of continuing community development.
Why have you done so well in black leadership development?
Because of white involvement; I believe reconciliation is the key to the gospel. Anyone should feel confident he can win anyone to Jesus Christ. This requires black leadership. It also requires white leadership that will facilitate the development of black leadership.
That may not be a popular view among blacks or whites.
Maybe not, but I believe the gospel is more powerful than barriers that we raise.
As a reconciled group, we can be more effective in society because we will know what goes into reconciliation, and our commitment will have to be to Jesus instead of race. Then our differences can call us to a fuller service to people. I don’t believe we can talk about reconciliation tomorrow if we don’t talk about reconciliation today. I don’t believe homogeneous units will make these relations better tomorrow.
Inerrancy is a vital issue in contemporary theology. How does it affect the black community?
My inerrancy experience was a direct result of reading the Bible. So I believe the Bible is inerrant. But inerrancy is a non-question to the black community, which takes the Bible literally. It believes the Bible is the Word of God.
Even the liberal black churches?
The liberal church person who will disagree at critical points, maybe the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, or somewhere else, would not express his view very much. For example, if you were to tell a member of such a congregation that the pastor did not believe in the Resurrection, that church member would be shocked. You see, there’s an assumption that what the Bible says is God’s Word.
Are you talking about a real assumption?
I think black people believe in the Bible without necessarily believing in Jesus Christ. They tend to believe that the Bible is God’s Word. They might tell you that they don’t believe in Jesus, but at the same time they will tell you that they believe the Bible.
Is that because they have a tradition of belief in a spirit world?
I think it’s because we have heard or seen someone in our family who believed the Bible, and it’s that person’s virtuous life that has caused us to believe in the Bible although we have not believed the God of the Bible.
Is that true of this generation of blacks, too?
Oh, yes! Young people who reject God reject him because they don’t believe people who call themselves Christians are good representatives of what God would have them to be. That’s why it’s so important for the Bible to become incarnated in our lives. Just to believe that the Bible is inerrant is to become a Pharisee. Some white people who champion that doctrine tend to be the most racist.
Why is that?
They are legalistic. To us blacks, abstract doctrine and syllogisms are not as important as truth personified. The great defenders of inerrancy generally haven’t shown me that they have a good sense of justice. Truth displays itself in righteousness, and justice is what truth is designed to do. Some of these people say that military arms are necessary against the Russians, but blacks should not use violence to remove oppression. Such people need some good biblical preaching.
Wheaton College gave you an honorary doctorate in 1980. Some people might feel that it is another example of tokenism. White people like to find a black person to honor; therefore, they don’t have to deal with all the other black people. Are you the black person that white people like to honor?
I believe Wheaton College gave me the honorary doctorate because I confronted Wheaton College, and because of President Armerding’s awareness. He has become concerned that Wheaton should reclaim some of its heritage as an abolitionist school with a strong belief in the Bible. I also believe Dr. Armerding and I have become close, and he has gotten a love for me and what I stand for.
Right after I got to know him real well, he asked me what I thought of Sojourners and The Other Side. I said we need those organizations to confront the church and to increase our awareness. What I said did not back him up at all.
Another time, I was sitting next to Dr. Armerding at a National Association of Evangelicals meeting when a resolution was made against nuclear war. As the debate continued it became apparent that the resolution was about to be defeated. I turned to Dr. Armerding and told him, “We need that. We need a resolution spelling out the military danger within the world.” He thought for a moment and then stood up and championed that resolution. Because of this, the NAE has a resolution that is acceptable to the Mennonites and other denominations that have opposed war.
And the resolution passed because of the efforts of a retired U.S. Navy commander?
How have you confronted Wheaton College?
I have spoken there and have challenged its faculty and students. They have responded. For example, two students from Wheaton came to Mendenhall, and in two years they organized as fine a preschool program as there is in the country. Each year there are 30 children enrolled in that program.
Our readers may not know that you are the first black person to serve on the board of World Vision. That organization has not demonstrated involvement in the black community domestically. Does your appointment therefore mean a change in World Vision concerning domestic issues?
It reflects World Vision’s desire to be more responsible to a broad constituency here in this country. Previously it gave money to black organizations in the U.S. that had development programs. Now World Vision is creating an American division that will be concerned about domestic issues. I think if we can tie in some of the expertise that World Vision has developed and spotlight some model developments in this country, the focus will be on developing leaders.
Why did they ask you to be on the board?
I think it’s because of my concepts of development. World Vision wants to look at development through my eyes. I’ve done development work, not just talked about it.
Where is Voice of Calvary headed?
The Lord doesn’t want me to build anything. I should teach the Bible, do more with personal relationships, and encourage people. I have to allow our young leaders to develop more fully. I shouldn’t do any more development work.
We have developed leadership that is creative. Our young leaders are just beginning to have an impact. They believe the Bible, and yet they are so strong that they are not letting justice be forgotten because they have become successful. It thrills me because now VOC has a whole new day.
I don’t ever want the success of VOC to be above the struggle of the people. We should blow the agency clear away if there is injustice and we do not serve the people.
Will Norton, Jr., is chairman of the Department of Journalism at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
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