The Big Thaw
With Justice for All
By John Perkins. Foreword by Charles Colson
Publisher: Regal Books
Review Author: Steven Hayward
This book, you will doubtless be astonished to learn, caused me to think of a recent movie, The Big Chill. “How,” you may rightly ask, “does he make that association?” Back in my college days — not so long ago — several of us in the campus Christian fellowship started an “ecumenical service organization,” which we boldly called “Christians for Social Action.” We had some modest accomplishments: we raised money and held a clothes drive for refugees, did some language tutoring, put out a punchy little journal, “raised consciousness.”
But mostly we talked and talked about “Vision.” We had a vision for a “holistic” Christian community very much along the lines of Perkins’s Voice of Calvary Ministries. But, alas, none of us had yet reckoned with what we then anxiously referred to as the “Real World.” After graduation, we all went our scattered, confused ways, ending up as doctors, lawyers, nurses, schoolteachers, stockbrokers, airline pilots, and travel agents. In short, we became Yuppies (young, upwardly mobile professionals) and started voting Republican.
In The Big Chill, an aging group of former college radicals gathers for the funeral of one of their comrades, a suicide. It is evident from their reminiscences that they have all “sold out,” that their “values” have changed. They are all phenomenally successful in their own professional fields — with the conspicuous exception of the suicide, Alex — but they no longer have any vision or inspiration for their lives. The film is an unwitting expose of the emptiness of Yuppiness.
I often wonder what would happen if my old college Christian circle got together again. Would anyone “bring it up”? Would we be embarrassed or chagrined by our youthful idealistic vision? We’re all Yuppies now, and though our faith remains unshaken, most of us are leading lives very different from what we so emphatically envisioned. Most of us, having been mugged by reality and the income tax, dismiss our old vision as “unrealistic.”
Perhaps the greatest deficiency of my Yuppie generation is its inability to be inspired by anything. John Perkins realizes that true inspiration is not based on poetic flights of fancy, which is both the fount and failure of youthful idealism. Rather, he seeks to inspire us with nuts and bolts examples of faith at work in visionary ways. A title such as With Justice for All suggests an abstract polemic; perhaps John Rawls in a clerical collar. Instead, Perkins’s book lays out the three-step strategy behind the success of his Mendenhall, Mississippi, community, the cornerstone of Voice of Calvary Ministries.
If Christians everywhere will put this strategy to work, we can begin to bring a greater measure of justice to the world. “I am persuaded that the church…holds the key to justice in our society,” he writes. “Either justice will come through us or it will not come at all.” Perkins’s strategy is very simple, and can be condensed into his own “three Rs” — Relocation, Reconciliation, and Redistribution.
As in his previous book, Let Justice Roll Down, Perkins illustrates his ideas with poignant examples from his own community’s experience. “Relocation” is the key to putting the vision in practice. Our compassion and empathy will be misdirected unless we come to see our neighbor’s need as our own. And to do that we must indeed be neighbors with those in need. (This is ultimately why my college group dissolved; we had no genuine commitment to each other or to the people whom we wished to serve.) Perkins actually left a high-paying job in California to go to Mississippi. His move entailed many hardships for him and his family, but he never doubted that he was answering the call of God. The results of Voice of Calvary Ministries, recounted in this book, are an inspiring confirmation that the vision works.
Among the great joys of this book is that, in this age of supercharged ideologies, Perkins can write about justice in a manner virtually untainted by ideology of any kind. It is to his credit that he can cite both radical black theologian James Cone and serve on President Reagan’s much-maligned Task Force on Hunger. On the one hand, he is comfortable talking about “social justice” (a term I particularly dislike because of its insolvable ambiguity and demagogic applications); yet in a chapter titled “The Not So Great Society,” he excoriates government welfare programs in terms that sound very much like those of the black neoconservative economist Thomas Sowell. “One of the greatest enemies of the American black family today is the welfare system,” Perkins writes. More: “The government cutback of social services offers the church a golden opportunity as never before…. The only institution in America with the human resources adequate to meet the needs of the poor is the church.”
There is much this book to make both conservatives and liberals squirm, which suggests that Perkins is closer to the authentic Christian social vision than is either Jerry Falwell or Father Drinan. Perkins, it can be fairly said, presents a vision that is truly “radical” in the original sense of the word — getting at the root of the matter — and therefore his vision is in keeping with the radical simplicity of the Gospels.
Something to thaw out The Big Chill generation.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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