Thirteen years ago today Spencer Perkins suddenly passed to heaven at age 44. If he was alive now I’m convinced he would be one of the great prophets of our day – yet remembering that prophets are not measured by popularity.
Out of his Mississippi, U.S., and international (he visited South Africa during apartheid) engagement with deep racial and economic suffering, Spencer’s final breakthrough to a “culture of grace” offers a profound way toward hope in our age of growing polarities. There is little better on the relationship between injustice and justice, forgiveness, and peace, and why it matters for each of us to engage the other, the stranger, the enemy.
This talk he gave at a conference was before his breakthrough. His emphasis is “Who is My Neighbor?”, what he called the Christian “prime directive,” the distinctive mark of being Christian. He quotes Indian theologian Vinay Samuel:
“The most serious thing is the image around the world that evangelicals are soft on racial injustice…. One sign and wonder, biblically speaking, that alone can prove the power of the gospel is that of reconciliation. …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.” (Lausanne II Conference on World Evangelism, 1989)
But it took a crisis a year later for Spencer to see that the “miracle of black and white together, of racial injustice being swept away by the power of the gospel,” could not be realized by the commandment to love God and neighbor alone. His and my own relationship was deeply broken. What we lacked, said a mentor, was being grounded in a power from beyond us: grace. Later Spencer wrote of the impact:
“’Yeah, yeah, I know all about grace,’” I thought. I could quote John 3:16 when I was knee high to a duck. Grace is God’s love demonstrated to us, even though we don’t deserve it.
“But in all my 43 years of evangelical teaching, I never understood until now that God intended for grace to be a way of life for his followers. Maybe I’m the only one who missed it, but judging by the way that we all get along, I don’t think so. Sure, I knew that we are supposed to love one another as Christ loved us. But somehow it was much easier for me to swallow the lofty untested notion of dying for each other than simply giving grace to brothers and sisters on a daily basis, the way God gives us grace. Maybe I’m dense, but I just never got it.
“At our relationship’s weakest moment, Chris and I saw, as clearly as we had ever seen anything, that only by giving each other grace could we find healing and restoration. We could either hold on to our grievances and demand that all our hurts be redressed, or we could follow God’s example, give each other grace, and trust God when we lacked the ability to forgive. We chose grace.”
Yet Spencer immediately realized the scandalous implications for bringing together groups divided by racial injustice. In what turned out to be three days before his death, in a talk called Playing the Grace Card, he said:
“Nothing that I have been learning about grace and forgiveness diminishes my belief in Christians working for justice, especially on behalf of the poor and oppressed. I know many tired soldiers who, like me, have fought for social justice most of their lives. Nothing in the Scriptures even hints that these modern-day prophets of justice should soften their message.
“But I know that some of them have carried an extra weight of resentment against people they consider oppressors and against people of privilege who seem to care nothing about the poor. I recognize it in them because I feel it in myself. But what I have found and latched onto is a whole new way of looking at those who refuse to hear the message of justice.
“Although we must continue to speak on behalf of those who are oppressed and warn oppressors, my willingness to forgive them is not dependent on how they respond. Being able to extend grace and to forgive people sets us free. We no longer need to spend precious emotional energy thinking about the day oppressors will get what they deserve.
“What I am learning about grace lifts a weight from my shoulders, which is nothing short of invigorating. When we can forgive and accept those who refuse to listen to God’s command to do justice, it allows them to hear God’s judgment without feeling a personal judgment from us. Which, in the end gives our message more integrity. The ability to give grace while preaching justice makes our witness even more effective.”
The room was silent as Spencer spoke. The truth about who God is, and the claim of that truth upon each of us, put us way over our heads in need of gifts from beyond.
Spencer’s greatness was in his willingness to become a fragile “jar of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7) continually open to the surprises of an “all-surpassing power” from the One who makes all things new, who made him new even at age 44. I’m afraid who I would have become without him. I’m afraid who we will become without reaching for what he saw from afar.
For bushwhacking him by grace,
And carrying him to the top of the mountain,
Moses-like, to glimpse awesome new territory
And there, for once, to see himself with your eyes,
“My beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
For sending him back down, for a moment,
To describe the view,
We thank you, insane-loving God.
What he saw from afar,
Is now for us to possess.
To cross the dangerous river, to seize the land,
To cultivate the culture of grace,
Sowing with love beyond reason, unfair, undeserved—
The way you love.
From Hymn to an Insane-Loving God
About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.
- Following the Path of Grace: Spencer Perkins’ Long Road to Reconciliation Sojourners, 1998
- The Burden of Spencer Perkins Christianity Today, March 2, 1998
- Audio of Spencer On Race as a Unique Opportunity for Christian Witness 1996
- The memoir Grace Matters
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