Racism as Relational Division

In 1994, Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice published a book that became something of a sensation in the American church. The book, More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake for the Gospel, was an extended treatment of both the necessity and practicality of living in cross-racial relationships as a way of bearing witness to the reconciling power of God. Perkins, the son of legendary African American civil rights activist John Perkins, and RIce, a northern White Mennonite who lived in an intentional interracial community in Jackson, Mississippi, stood side by side on the cover, and the book was heralded as “living proof that white and black Christians can live together.” At the heart of their argument was the claim that the Christian church in America desperately needed to transcend a debilitating contradiction in its life: being a community of reconciliation that contributes to a culture of social estrangement. 

Writing in the early 1990s, they recognized a phenomenon that is easily recognizable in our own day. Though America has legally renounced segregation, we nonetheless remain profoundly segregated along racial lines. And the church itself – the community created to bear witness to the reconciling power of God – remains deeply segregated. For RIce and Perkins, the work of developing cross-racial or multiethnic friendships – what they call “racial reconciliation” – is at the heart of the work of the Christian church in America. This book had a considerable impact on the Christian church. Membership grew tremendously in the Christian Community Development Association, a Christian ministry founded by John Perkins and devoted to the work of racial reconciliation. Duke Divinity School created a Center for Reconciliation, led by John Perkins and Rice, to train pastors and congregants in the work of reconciliation. In communities across America, deliberately multiethnic churches began to emerge to embody and bear witness to the reconciling power of God. And in our own time this work of raising up multiracial Christian communities continues to grow.

Embedded in More Than Equals, and the various endeavors to which it gave rise, is a particular way of seeing American racism. They describe American racism not primarily in terms of personal prejudice but in terms of relational division. And rightly so – this is surely part of our racial inheritance. It could hardly be otherwise. From the very beginning, American culture was both rooted in and dependent on an inviolable form of racial distance between White Europeans and the Africans they enslaved. Over time, as Americans chose to become more dependent on slave labor, this division was formalized into highly choreographed rituals of intimacy and distance that characterized the system of slavery that persisted in America from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century.

From “Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair” by Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson