John Perkins Has Hope for Racial Reconciliation. Do We?

The civil rights hero delivers his “final manifesto” on race and the church’s call to unity.

In this 50th year since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., some argue that our nation is more racially divided than it has been in decades. Others are quick to suggest the divisions are merely being exposed: They were always there, like fault lines hidden beneath a manicured landscape, visible only to those with eyes to see. The church is hardly exempt from these racial rumblings; indeed, to our shame, it has proven to be the cause of some of them. There are encouraging signs of racial repentance in the church; there are also signs that younger Christians of color, wearied by the fight for belonging, are beginning to make an exodus from “evangelical” churches. The fault lines run through our pews, too.

John Perkins—the civil rights activist, herald of biblical justice and reconciliation, famed author, and founder of numerous organizations, including the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA)—addresses this situation in his latest book, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race. “We’re at a unique moment in our history,” he writes. “We’ve come through—and in many ways are still in the midst of—great upheaval. The soul of our nation has been laid bare. When I talk to people all over the country it seems like everyone is looking for an answer.”

With this book, Perkins seeks not only to provide some answers but also to pass the torch to a new generation of Christian leaders who are ready to take up the mantle of reconciliation. At 87 years old, Perkins offers One Blood as his “last words” to the church. He describes it as his final “manifesto,” by which he means “my most earnest attempt to put down in …

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The Origin Story of Martin Luther King Jr.

How the civil-rights hero honed his preaching skills and prophetic vision at a Northern liberal seminary.

In this age of the blockbuster superhero movie, audiences have come to expect the hero’s origin story. Why does he wear that cape? Where did she learn to fight like that? Why do they hide behind those secret identities?

Many recent superhero movies shuffle through the origin narrative as quickly as possible. Every so often, though, films will invest the time necessary to transform their protagonists from one-dimensional archetypes into flesh-and-blood human beings.

Most biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. have focused on King the civil rights icon, spotlighting his role from the Montgomery bus boycott onward. In The Seminarian, Patrick Parr instead gives us an extended look at the formative years of the preacher’s postgraduate education at Crozer Theological Seminary near Chester, Pennsylvania, then a small, liberal-minded school of fewer than 100 students (less than a quarter of whom were black).

Parr is a wonderful guide through this pivotal season of King’s intellectual development, spiritual formation, and youthful angst. We feel the young seminarian’s anxiety as he arrives at a predominantly white school, we witness his encounters with the North’s less flamboyant but equally treacherous brand of racism, and we experience the heartbreak of his short-lived romance with a white student.

From the vantage point of a Northern city, the Atlanta-born King began to reflect on the racial injustices of the Deep South and the cleansing potential of a liberal religious activism. This was King’s first extended time in the majority-white world, and he felt obligated not to perpetuate stereotypes associated with Southern Negroes. Consequently, he worked hard to prove to his white professors and classmates …

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Interview: Visit Those in Prison. Just Remember Jesus May Have Gotten There First.

Very often, people behind bars already have a relationship with God.

Two centuries ago, philanthropist Elizabeth Fry visited an English prison and left horrified by the filthy conditions. Driven by her Christian faith, Fry spent her life building relationships with the incarcerated and advocating improvements to their physical environment. Dominique Gilliard, the Evangelical Covenant Church’s director of racial righteousness and reconciliation, points to Fry’s example in Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores, which explores the intersection of Christian faith and criminal justice reform. CT associate digital media producer Morgan Lee spoke with Gilliard about the hope and tension of restorative justice.

What does your book contribute to the current conversation about criminal justice reform?

Most people mention two particular prison pipelines: the war on drugs and the privatization of prisons. But very few people talk about what I would describe as a war on immigration that is modeled closely after the war on drugs. And hardly anyone talks about the deinstitutionalization of the mental health facilities, which is another important driver for mass incarceration.

But I’m also trying to make this conversation relevant to the church. When you look at books like Just Mercy or The New Jim Crow, you don’t see much explicit analysis of the connection between Christian theology and support for mass incarceration. Christians, as a voting bloc, have been pretty beholden to tough-on-crime legislation.

What is your opinion of evangelical ministries that work directly with prisoners?

Certainly, passages like Matthew 25 call us into communion with the incarcerated. But one problem arises when evangelical ministers or volunteers assume that they alone are bringing …

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How Billy Graham Killed Communism with Kindness

Graham preached behind the Iron Curtain, driving his critics crazy.

The Billy Graham of the 1950s reflected the political mood of the United States of that era. His visceral anticommunism expressed itself during the Greater Los Angeles crusade of 1949 in his assessment of the looming Soviet threat.

“Sleek Russian bombers,” he said, were poised to strike America. “Do you know,” he thundered at wide-eyed listeners, “that the Fifth Columnists, called Communists, are more rampant in Los Angeles than any other city in America?” Communism, he said, “is a religion that is inspired, directed, and motivated by the devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.”

For years, Graham stayed true to that course as a fire-breathing patriotic American orator. But by 1992, he was paying a respectful visit to one of the most tyrannical communist regimes on earth: North Korea. He made comments about the North Korean dictator that made many people roll their eyes in wonder. Kim Il-sung, Graham observed, was “a gentle and logical thinker. There are statues of him all over the place. The people there really do love him.”

Well, the people probably “really did” love Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong, and other communist tyrants of the 20th century. To demonstrate anything less might have secured a lifetime pass to their country’s labor camp system. So Graham’s views changed over time. How did this happen? And why?

Change in Strategy

The answer is not that Graham actually changed his view of what communism was. Until his dying day, he believed that communism was a malevolent attempt to usurp the sovereignty of God on earth.

But he changed in how he thought Christians should behave towards Communists—the people, not the ideology—and …

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What Do We Do With the Very Real Resurrection?

Does the biblical resurrection account leave us with as little evidence as some assume?

Today is Easter and we celebrate the good news that Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!

We rise—some of us much too early—to scenes of Easter baskets, jelly beans, and all things pastel. Our children climb out of bed with excitement ready to embark on a day filled with candy consumption; candy, many of them believe, that came from the Easter bunny.

This fictitious, fluffy creature has become Easter’s version of ‘Santa Claus,’ helping retailers everywhere to sell more candy, decorations, and chocolate bunnies.

Each Easter, many of us make the distinction in our own minds between the fake bunny story and the real Jesus story without much trouble. But for others, this conclusion is not as simple. Many often conflate the holiday ‘myths’ together, asserting that the likelihood of a man being crucified, buried, and resurrected is about as probable as a giant bunny rabbit bringing candy to all the world’s children.

But is this really the case? Does the biblical resurrection account leave us with as little evidence as some assume?

Scripture discusses in great detail the importance of walking by faith and not by sight; sometimes, God calls us to trust in intangible realities we can’t possibly come to see or understand this side of heaven. That being said, God has never once asked his followers to walk through life completely blind.

The evidence in support of the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the resurrection is stronger than many think. That does not replace the need for faith, but instead shows those of us struggling with doubt that trusting in God’s saving work on the cross doesn’t first require checking our brains at the door.

We can ask tough, probing questions, knowing …

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Easter Fool’s Day

The real divine “prank” is not the Resurrection.

This Holy Week, hundreds of frazzled preachers around the world have undoubtedly heaved a sigh of relief. Instead of having to fret over what illustration to use on Easter Sunday morning to capture their listeners’ attention, they can simply seize the opportunity the calendar has handed them.

This year, Easter falls on April Fools’ Day, which means that countless sermons will be able to employ some version of the following introduction: “On Easter Sunday, we Christians celebrate the fact that a dead man came back to life. This might seem like the ultimate prank—dead people just don’t climb out of their graves, period—but this year, it turns out, God’s April Fools’ joke is actually true!” (More adventurous preachers might even try reviving the old “fish hook” theory of the atonement. According to that ancient model, in the ultimate April Fools’-style prank, God dupes Satan by enticing him to kill Jesus—only thereby to ensnare the devil and win a victory at his expense.)

Were I to occupy a pulpit this year, I too would happily take advantage of this fortuitous convergence of holidays. But I’m not sure the real divine April Fools’ prank is quite what many preachers will say it is.

The Scandal of the Cross

It’s true, of course, that Jesus’ resurrection came as a shock to his first followers. And one of them, famously, did, in fact, view it as a hoax. “Doubting Thomas,” as he’s usually called, was like me when I was a child. Every April 1, I determined that this would be the year I’d avoid being taken in by the jokes my family and friends were sure to be peddling. Thomas, likewise, having had his hopes shattered …

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The Incredible Hospitality of Good Friday

Jesus’ death demonstrates God’s love for outsiders, enemies, and strangers.

It can travel anywhere in time and space, and it looks much bigger on the inside (or smaller on the outside, depending on where you’re standing). In 1963, it blended in perfectly as a British police box. But now, the intergalactic space cruiser stands out like a sore thumb, whether it’s landed in contemporary London or in the ancient Egyptian Sahara. It is strange, a foreign object that turns up in random places. And despite it being so alien—literally—nobody seems to bat an eyelid at the presence of the TARDIS from the global hit television show Doctor Who.

The cross of Christ is a similar anomaly. Turning up in fashion era after fashion era, displayed in churches and schools and graveyards across the world, and gracing the lyrics of our worship songs and the walls of our art galleries—this ancient instrument of Roman execution has become one of the most recognizable symbols on the planet. And yet it often escapes people’s notice.

Like the TARDIS, the cross is a strange entry point to something much greater than its humble appearance would suggest. Something that seemed so small and insignificant—such as a relatively unknown Jewish man dying an unremarkable death at the hands of the Roman Empire—is, in fact, an invitation into a much larger reality. It opens up something of the cavernous depth of meaning of the love, grace, wrath, and compassion of God. It offers fresh faith for the doubter, new hope for the despondent, belonging for the lonely, and salvation for the lost. The cross is not just a commemoration of death, but an invitation to life.

At the heart of the atonement is divine hospitality, where God invites the undeserving and unexpected to come home with him.

The final …

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Is the Wrath of God Really Satisfying?

God’s anger against sin is real on Good Friday, but he doesn’t “turn his face away” from the Cross.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words come from the lips of Jesus as he hangs on the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). They are powerful and haunting, and they are surely very important. But what do they mean—how are we to understand them?

Here is one line of thinking that has recently become very popular in some circles. According to C. J. Mahaney, this cry from the lips of Jesus is the “scream of the damned.” He takes this line from R. C. Sproul who exclaims that when Jesus is crucified it is “as if a voice from heaven said, ‘Damn you, Jesus.’” This is because Jesus becomes the “virtual incarnation of evil” and even “the very embodiment of all that sin is.” Thus God abandons Jesus, turns his back on him, “curses him to the pit of hell” and “damns” him.

For many who hold this view, the Trinity is somehow “broken” as the communion between the Father and the Son is ruptured in the darkness of that Friday afternoon. And this is said to be good news and the heart of the gospel because Jesus absorbs the wrath of God in taking the exact punishment we deserve. God is changed from wrath to mercy and can no longer justly punish those for whom Christ died.

Such preaching is very powerful. But is it right? We should, of course, want to proclaim all that the Bible says about the work of Christ (at least as much as we are able), and we should be committed to affirming all that this teaching implies (what older theologians called “good and necessary” consequences). But we should also be very cautious about going beyond what is explicitly taught or implied— especially where the Christian tradition …

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Taste and See That the Lord’s Supper Is Good

A biblical understanding of food whets our appetite for the fullness of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday.

Evangelicals need to thicken our theology of the Lord’s Supper, first by drawing more of the Bible into the discussion of the Supper, and second by drawing more of the Supper into discussion of the Supper.

Even a fine recent treatment of Reformed sacramental theology, Todd Billings’s Remembrance, Communion, and Hope, is still too thin on both counts. Billings does discuss the key New Testament passages—the institution narratives, Jesus’ resurrection meals, 1 Corinthians 10-11—and makes passing references to Passover and other Old Testament passages, meals, and festivals. But the richness of Old Testament theology still feels lacking. Billings observes that Paul sees manna as a type of the church’s covenant meal, but he doesn’t follow up the clue. If manna is a type, might there be others?

Many examine the Supper through a “zoom lens,” focusing narrowly on the most disputed point in historic debates—the metaphysics of the bread and wine. Much to his credit, Billings pulls back the camera to give us a wider view. In several “congregational snapshots,” he reminds us that the Supper involves people gathered to say and do, eat and drink. He rightly shows that a theology of the Supper must be integrated with the theology of the church.

But we need an even wider angle. Communion bread doesn’t fall from heaven. Wine doesn’t come tricklin’ down the rock. As one Eucharistic prayer puts it, the bread and wine are “fruit of the earth and the work of human hands.” Bread and wine represent nature transformed into culture by human action. A thick theology of the Supper needs to broaden beyond the theology of the church into a theology of …

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Our Blood Exposes Our Physical—and Spiritual—Health

When we are sick and need to know what can make us whole again, there is no other fount we know.

In the time it takes to read this sentence, your body will produce 17 million blood cells deep in its marrow. To put that in context, that’s as many cells as twice the population of New York City. Once created, those red blood cells move into the bloodstream—red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, all bobbing along in plasma through 60,000 miles of vessels in the human body.

And in the time it took you to read the first paragraph, all of the blood in your body has completed its regular journey—it has traveled from your heart to your extremities and returned, there and back again. Your blood knows your body better than your brain does, as your blood has seen all but the cornea, from the brain to the toes and everything in between. It has sailed on the quick current of the great arterial rivers and through the smallest cholesterol-clogged creeks. It has seen it all.

Because of this Hobbitesque journey, remnants of all of the battles waged by the white blood cells against the enemies of your body, foreign and domestic, persist in your blood. Evidence of aberrations developed over the course of your life lurks behind, indicating future problems on your health’s horizon.

Your blood is a biomarker. Biomarkers, according to epidemiologist Barbara Hulka, are “cellular, biochemical, or molecular alterations that are measurable in biological media such as human tissues, cells, or fluids.”

While your body has many types of biomarkers, blood is in many ways the most promising. Several drops of blood increasingly give doctors a multitude of physiological data about your health. It is thought that blood records all the biological events of your life.

For example, doctors can now analyze a drop …

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