The Living Blues: John M. Perkins
by Jon Foreman
Last week we arrived in Trnava, Slovakia, and played rock and roll in the town square; it's the easternmost point in Europe that we've ever played. There's a watchtower in the square that overlooks the stage. It's been there for generations, watching armies come and go -- the Mongols, the Turks, the Nazis. The Velvet Revolution gave Slovakia an independence that generations had hoped for. And yet, the memory of communist oppression is still fresh in the minds of the folks I talked to. To be able to play songs of hope here was a remarkable privilege.
As we all know, freedom is more than capitalism, liberty more than self-governing politics. We like to play a song about a hope that I have for my own country. A hope that our country would rise to a freedom from racism and intolerance. A hope that the United States would rise above its past, embracing a future of true freedom. That we might rise above the disgrace of inequality and learn to love the ones we share our breath with on this planet -- that the "land of the free" might find freedom from hatred, freedom from the shackles of self tyranny. We play a song for a hero of mine who spent his life living out these dreams: the Reverend Dr. John M. Perkins.
Dr. Perkins is an American civil rights leader. Born a Mississippi sharecropper's son, he grew up in the dire poverty and bitter racism of the time. At the age of 17 his older brother was murdered at the hands of a town marshal, so he fled the state vowing never to return. Yet in 1960 Dr. Perkins and his wife Vera Mae Perkins felt compelled to go back to help the poor in rural Mississippi meet their own needs. So they left the relative comfort of California and moved back to Mississippi hoping to show God's love in action.
Over the next few decades Dr. Perkins' outspoken nature and leadership in civil rights demonstrations resulted in repeated harassment, brutal beatings and imprisonment. Yet even in the hands of his oppressors he chose the path of love over violence, of compassion over hatred. His story is the story of the struggle for true freedom, freedom from even the knee-jerk reaction of retaliatory violence. His song is the song of the blessed community. His dream is the dream which Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King and so many others died for. His story is living proof that love is louder than violence, louder than hatred, and louder than racism.
In the face of dire poverty, racial prejudice, and violent, brutal injustice Dr. Perkins chose to break the cycle of hate and respond with love. He has since become a well known author and leader in community development and racial reconciliation throughout the world. John Perkins' life is one of consistent, reliable, steady compassion. He downplays his moments of heroism, saying anyone in his shoes would have done the same thing. Never ostentatious, never seeking the spotlight- Dr. Perkins was a man who did what specifically needed to be done. The past and present of his story point in the same direction. The means and the ends are exact. Love for all: including those who hated him.
King and Perkins both came to the conclusion that to return "hate for hate, anger for anger, violence for violence" would be a loss of character. Violence cannot accomplish love's work. The means and the ends must be consistent. When the black community was rightly angry about the wrongs that the white community had committed against them, Perkins warned them, "If we give in now to anger and violence we would be just like the whites. We would lose what little we have already gained."
Dr. Perkins had compassion on even the people who violently beat him -- almost to his death. He saw beyond the exterior of hate and chose to forgive. He refused to believe that his racist oppressors were his enemies. Which is to say, that John M. Perkins chose to see the best in them, as they could be rather than as they are. He saw past the present circumstance towards a vision for a world that did not exist yet, for a version of his oppressors that was no longer filled with hatred.
Love looks into the future and sees possibilities that do not currently exist. Love is larger than the moment; love is larger than the present tense. Maybe it has to start with a dream, a dream of a better world. Dr. Perkins' contemporary Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. A dream so large that it couldn't fit within his lifetime. His dream was a beloved community that was larger than his contemporary reality. Larger than life. Larger than even the violent hatred, fear, and racism that led to his assassination.
These audacious dreams of equality and liberty pull us forward. These hopes drive our lives with purpose and vision; our actions become us, and we become our actions. The only way to become a runner is by running. A disciple of love must begin by loving those around her. Every dream has to start somewhere. Soren Kierkegaard said, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." And so it is with every one of our stories. You have to see the whole picture to tell the difference between a fake Monet and the real thing. Time alone can tell the difference. The final pages must be written to make sense of the past. The narrative we live today puts the past in context.
It's incredibly rare to find someone who remains true -- who has found a way to "be the self that truly is." (to quote Kierkegaard again.) Dr. Perkins' life is a song that is consistent. The tale of John M. Perkins will outlast even John M. Perkins himself. Yes, our story is being written today. Our present actions determine the context for the rest of your story. The pure acts will remain. All else is illusion. Your true soul is not a means to an end. The legacy of love will remain; these are the stories that stand the test of time
Love lays herself down for others. Love is willing to trade kindness for hate, acceptance for fear, and compassion for rage. Love refuses to recognize the walls between us, and chooses instead to find the commonalities. Love permits damage rather than damaging the other. When the highest price was asked of Dr. Perkins he rose to the occasion. "I told them -- and I meant it -- if somebody still had to suffer, I was willing. And if somebody had to die, I was ready."
A few weeks back I got a chance to meet Perkins himself. It was a day I will never forget. He talked about what it was like to grow up in Mississippi in the 1940s as a black man. He talked about his dreams, his passions, his regrets, his family. He talked about his victories and his defeats, the highs and lows. Dr. Perkins is 80 years old. His life spans across an incredible time of transition for our nation. The wisdom that comes with those years pours out of his mouth like poetry.
During our time together, Dr. Perkins treated me like a long lost grandchild. He told me that our generation was quite possibly the generation that could make our national creed a reality: "All men are created equal." Yes, for the first time in our nation's troubled history true equality might be reflected by our actions not just our words. He told me to write him a song. A song about the justice of love and the love of justice. A song about how compassion breaks the cycle of violence and creates new life.
There were several moments during our conversation where I didn't know what to say. This was one of those moments. There were no words within my reach that could adequately communicate what I felt. I was speechless.
I know what I would say now if had that moment back. In fact I left it on his voice mail the next morning. "Dr. Perkins, your life is louder than any song I could write. Your commitment to justice and compassion is more beautiful than any refrain that I could dream up." A friend of mine has a Nietzsche quote on his wall: "They must sing better songs before I shall believe in their redeemer." Reverend Perkins, your song could make a believer out of even a sceptic like myself. Yes, I will try to write a song about it- but your life will always be a better song than anything I could sing.
I heard a story that sums up my feelings perfectly. When a man naively asked Dr. Perkins if he played the blues, Dr. Perkins grabbed his hand and smiled, "Brother, no. I LIVE the blues." Yes, you do Dr. Perkins. You live them beautifully. And tonight in Trnava, Slovakia I'll dedicate our song to your living, breathing melody. Truly, love is the final fight.