Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: WELCOMING JUSTICE – Charles Marsh / John Perkins. [Vol. 3, #4]

“The Beloved Community
of Conversion and Discipleship”

A Review of
Welcoming Justice:
God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community
by Charles Marsh and John Perkins.

Reviewed by Thomas T. Turner II.

[ Read an excerpt of this book here ]

Welcoming Justice:
God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community
by Charles Marsh and John Perkins.

Paperback: IVP Books,  2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

Charles Marsh / John Perkins - WELCOMING JUSTICEWatching segments of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech , I realized that the things I saw there were black and white — literally and figuratively speaking.  The film, now pushing towards fifty years, is grainy and showing too little or too much contrast, a nostalgic look back to a time that wasn’t really that long ago in the history of things.  The American people was black and white as well, and the Civil Rights movement, in its glorious triumph, pushed forth some of the most drastic social changes in the history of America in just a few years full of climactic victories.  The battles were won, yet the war wasn’t over for many in the Civil Rights movement who saw the vision of the movement as a push not for racial equality but something far greater and more whole: the beloved community of all.  Charles Marsh and John Perkins share in their book Welcoming Justice the memories and stories of the ongoing civil rights struggle and illustrate how the movement toward beloved community should be the goal of those who follow the way of Christ.

The civil rights movement, at the height of its success, divorced itself from the church.  In saying Dr. Martin Luther King’s name, we too often forget that  that he was a reverend as well.  The civil rights movement started as a Christian social justice movement, and, in a lesson just as timely today, it was co-opted by powers within the movement that cut out the spiritual foundation of social justice. Marsh writes, “without its unifying spiritual vision, the movement’s goal was no longer to identify particular social and economic ills that could be improved upon through political organizing and social reform” (25).

John Perkins is a brilliant voice of clarity out of the ashes of this dying movement, and his voice is the prophetic call to social justice and beloved community that underpins the entire book.  Alternating chapters, Marsh provides the biographical and historical perspective while Perkins takes time to reminisce about the ongoing work of civil rights and, like a wise teacher, lend his many years of intimate stories, struggles, joy, and pain to the broader history laid down by Marsh.  Perkins writes with a terse and pointed style, and his storytelling on the pages flows as if he was speaking at you with candor and urgency in his voice.  Perkins’ reflective tone is evident in how he turns grief and joy into an extended metaphor of the complex problem of racial and cultural injustice in America, like when he shares about one of his friends, a white pastor, who was so shocked at being rejected by his church for helping the black community that he killed himself or when he tells us warmly and joyfully about his grandson’s contribution to their local community (36, 85).  Both the good and the bad point to the problem of the church, that it has become captive to our culture (37).  Perkins describes our collective spiritual inheritances as a squandering of “the good news of God’s love that’s supposed to burn through religious and social divisions” by turning it “into a religion that reinforced the status quo” (37). To correct our inherited Christianity, Perkins suggests a new hermeneutic, one that reads the Bible as the “comprehensive divine plan of human liberation from the perspective of God’s peaceable kingdom” (106).

Perkins and Marsh argue throughout the book that our churches categorically fail to read the Bible this way, not providing liberation or a peaceful kingdom to either the Christian community or the culture at large.  Our churches have preached liberation as the prosperity gospel or middle-class consumerism, and the peaceable kingdom we preach is one that is homogeneous and bland (108-113).  Poor people have been kept out of the church by “outsourcing justice” to para-church ministries that act as a buffer between congregant and poverty (108).  The wealthy spend and horde their money without giving back to their local communities (118).  The peaceable kingdom of God of God is one that is not only color-blind but is also economically sustainable and socially just.  “If people are able to see beyond skin color,” Perkins writes, “what is there for them to see? Character is formed in community, and community cannot be sustained without it” (120).

How is this character formed? Marsh uses the examples of Irenaeus, Merton and Bonhoeffer to convey how he is “encouraged by those who are turning to the contemplative—the monastic even—in the West today (98).  The  renewal of contemplative and monastic practices in the church lights a path of discipleship that teaches followers of Christ that “the Christian’s primary mission is to learn to be participants in God’s good and glorious creation” (100).  Once we learn this, “we are relieved of the burden of re-creating the world in our own image and the exhausting task of seeking to orchestrate God’s will (100).

Marsh outlines the theological framework for a beloved community in his final chapter, and Perkins fleshes out the theology with examples of the beloved community in the church today.  Using Zechariah’s critique of economic injustice, Perkins sees hope for communities broken by racial, cultural, and economic injustice in the beloved community of conversion and discipleship. The church is called to interrupt the broken systems of our world with God’s love (112).  Looking to the Mennonites as an example of a multi-generational inbreaking of God’s beloved community in the world, Perkins implores that “if people are going to choose community and have the inner strength to sustain it in the face of broken families and broken communities, the church is going to have to form young people in habits and practices that are peculiar to the world around us” (118).  We must begin to take seriously our conversions once again and get rid of the idea that once we’re converted we’re through (119).  With this way of discipleship and conversion in mind, Perkins calls us to a “time of rebuilding” that provides every Christian with “the courage to give themselves fully to God’s movement toward reconciliation and the beloved community in society” (120).

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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