The Common Good
November-December 1998

Gospel Proof

by Chris Rice | November-December 1998

Spencer Perkins showed us what reconciliation looks like.

Hindus can produce as many miracles as any Christian miracle worker. Islamic saints in India can produce and duplicate every miracle that has been produced by Christians. But they cannot duplicate the miracle of black and white together, of racial injustice being swept away by the power of the gospel. Our credibility is at stake. If we are not able to establish our credibility in this area, we have not got the whole gospel. In fact we have not got a proper gospel at all. -Vinay Samuel, at the Lausanne II Conference on World Evangelism, 1989

Over the years of our public ministry together, Spencer Perkins repeated this quote dozens and dozens of times all over the nation. His legacy is that the miracle of "black and white together" with "racial injustice swept away" took on flesh and blood in his own life.

"Black and white together," "racial injustice swept away" wasn't about some kind of harmonious, integrated American society. Spencer's expectations for America were low; the national creed didn't ask that much of its citizens. But the standards for kingdom citizens were differenttheir Master required everything.

Igniting Spencer's vision was a great evangelistic sermoone that was not preached, but demonstrated. In the daily life of several thousand believers in first-century Jerusalem, a miracle of togetherness and justice swept away social barriers. "All the believers were together and had all things in common" (Acts 2:44). "There were no needy persons among them." (Acts 4:34). The witness was simple, but the result was extraordinary: "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47).

In Spencer's eyes, in a nation bedeviled by race, racial reconciliation was a historic litmus test, a monumental opportunity for Christians to "prove it"a "my-God-can-whup-your-God" showdown. It puzzled Spencer that Christians didn't "get it." When he and other blacks had moved into a racially changing Jackson neighborhood, there was no difference between the white Christians and non-Christianseverybody left.

He publicly confronted thousands of evangelicals about racism. He could hardly stomach spoiled white Christians for whom affirmative action was a minor historical blip and a temporary inconvenience to offset centuries of imbalance. And why did ministries like Reconcilers Fellowship struggle to make ends meet, he asked, while money poured into hundreds of large white-run evangelical ministries?

SEVERAL MONTHS BEFORE his death, a beautiful day fishing with his son Johnathan was interrupted by a white security guard (no doubt a faithful church-goer) who questioned his presence on the lake. His funk and anger lasted for days. "I wish you could just experience it once, Chris," he said.

Spencer wanted no role as "black high priest"absolving whites, only to see them continue to live as if they were never forgiven. But what is even more interesting was his dismay that blacks weren't taking God any more seriously when it came to deep reconciliation. It was not truth about whites that counted, but Truth.

"The bottom line is that for most black Christians, it is more important to be identified with a black, non-Christian cause than with a white-initiated Christian cause," wrote Spencer after Farrakhan's Million Man March. "Even if we are honestly faith-driven, we are still vulnerable to charges of ‘Oreo,' 'Uncle Tom,' or ‘Wanna Be.' With our common heritage in Christ-which is supposed to be stronger than race and culturearen't we obligated to respond in Christian love to whites who truly want to break down the old dividing walls?"

The souls of not only whites, but blacks, were in danger. It was simple biblical math to him: "If I do not forgive them their sins, God won't forgive mine." In the end, it didn't really matter what whites did. "I forgive for my own sake," he told me.

"As African Americans, we have considered much of white Christianity illegitimate, and rightly so, because it accommodated itself so conveniently to racism," he wrote in his last published article. "But lately I have been questioning our own brand of Christianity. What does our inability to forgive and embrace undeserving whites say about our knowledge of and intimacy with this God of grace?"

It was not justice for blacks that counted, but Justice. While he and the rest of Antioch welcomed a recently paroled black inmate into our community life, a white inmate also found a home there. A struggling black single mom was surrounded with support. And so was a white teen-age mom (Spencer made it his personal mission to teach her to type, failing despite a valiant attempt). Because of his probing but patient friendships with white Christians of influence, they began to exercise their power more intentionally for justice.

He passionately favored not only affirmative action, but interracial adoption. When his white brother and sister-in-law asked his blessing to adopt a black child, he not only encouraged them, but took an active role in his new niece's life. He was always in search of new allies for racial justice. What better converts than an influential white couple for whom racism was now a personal issue?

THE LAST MONTHS of Spencer's life marked the end of our long conversation about race that endured 12 years of living in Christian community together and the growing pains of tumultuous conflicts around personality, culture, style, and ego. We were familiar with each other's dark side. Last fall, we walked through the darkest passage of our partnership. Our own powers to persevere were depleted. In his last two months, we began to reach for a new plateau in living out grace with one anotherpushing our understanding of reconciliation in territory that was unfamiliar to us. So it was that a relationship birthed through an explosion about race came to peaceful death in an explosion of grace.

Just showing up, standing together, a black man and a white man who cared for one another and stuck it outthat was our greatest witness. Our most important message, even before we stood up to speak, was our story.

Walter Wangerin's words come to mind: "For the Lord did not say, ‘Blessed are you if you know,' or ‘teach' or ‘preach these things.' He said, rather, ‘Blessed are you if you do these things.'"

Spencer did it. He loved me like a brother, to the end. He showed us what reconciliation looks like. His life was proof.

Chris Rice was Spencer Perkins' partner in ministry and community, and longtime friend When this article appeared. Together they co-authored More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel (InterVarsity Press, 1993) and co-founded Reconcilers Fellowship.

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