Let Justice Roll Down: The Autobiography of John Perkins

This post is by Gabe Coyle, the downtown campus pastor for Christ Community Church in Kansas City and our Kansas City regional coordinator.

It’s been a few months now since Christ Community Church, where I am one of the pastors, did something that most pastors — and frankly, even I — thought was a bit crazy: We had a sermon series on…drum roll please…economics.

I know, right? And yet, amidst it all I’ve never been more stretched and simultaneously more amazed in the many situations where our faith and work naturally intertwined. We called the series Neighborly Love because in Jesus’ telling of the parable of the Samaritan we saw how the best economic structures — where even the vulnerable flourish — are driven, designed and directed by God’s commanded love for our fellow human beings.

Each week we had congregants approaching us and telling us how thankful they were for this series and how much it spoke into their everyday life. It’s no small word to say the series stretched me, and even now I’m trying to swim through all that we learned in those six short weeks. One book I wanted to share that has helped me keep swimming in the right direction is Let Justice Roll Down. If you’ve never read it, get it and read it.

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John Perkins has changed the landscape of community development in the Christian Community Development Association, become a well known author and speaker, and has received honorary doctorates from prestigious institutions like Wheaton College, Geneva College, and more.

And here, in his autobiography, you discover he didn’t start with prestige or privilege. Instead, being born into poverty in Mississippi, Perkins dropped out of school after third grade, and without a mother or a father, Perkins fled to California by age 17 after seeing his older brother killed by a town marshal.

Having his fill of sharecropping, he swore he would never return, but something happened. Perkins realized his own spiritual bankruptcy and accepted the free gift of the gospel in Christ, which changed everything — and not just how he saw his individual life before God, mind you. It changed how he saw oppressive systems, and how the oppressor and the oppressed needed rescuing within that system. In other words, the gospel changed his economics, and in return for his outspoken leadership, he was harassed, unlawfully imprisoned and even beaten nearly to death by prison guards.

Being someone who had formative years of my own life in Mississippi, I have to admit that I didn’t see what Perkins saw while I lived in Mississippi. Not that I didn’t literally see it, but I didn’t understand what I saw. In the words of the wise 20th century rabbi, Abraham Heschel, “The principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see rather than see what we know,” and I needed his story to help me know what I saw. To begin to feel what he felt. To enter the economic brokenness on the page as I remember the economic brokenness of the past and how it lingers on today.

Then upon seeing, Perkins points forward to how the gospel gives us a more robust vision that fills every corner of our lives. “If Christ is Savior, He must also be Lord — Lord over such areas as spending, racial attitudes and business dealings. The gospel must be allowed to penetrate the white consciousness as well as the black consciousness.”

And we need stories of those who have allowed the gospel to do just that. To show us the way in the midst of racial injustice, economic inequality, and media informed values. We need Perkins’ story — his leadership — more than ever. May we read, repent and respond. Then repeat.

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