Twenty years after you went to Jackson, Mississippi, what is the state of racial reconciliation?
I think that it's on the map in the evangelical church. I think it's great progress that we are talking about it.
At the same time, we still have not imagined what it really means to become a new people. We ought to question "normality" and to allow our theology to interrogate the way things are. In the book that I wrote ten years ago with Spencer Perkins, our own language accepted black and white as categories. I've come to see that it accepted "normality" too much.
Certainly there are distinct cultural groups that would be categorized by the words black and white.
I believe in history. I don't believe in language that turns history into creation. In our language of black and white, we can accept black and white almost like it becomes creation—as if there is a black church and a white church that just dropped out of the sky. Black church and white church are categories that come to us through a history—a history of terror, a history of separation. For the most part, we still accept those as normal. And if we just do a little bit of adjustment here and there, do a choir swap here and there, have a meeting once a year in a stadium, and make a confession, have a hug, that somehow that's enough and we can return to our separate worlds. I would like us to be more disturbed by the fact that we still have very little of a common world as church.
What would it look like if we let our theology interrogate our practice?
We would find ourselves in shared spaces studying Scripture together. We'd find ourselves in common mission together tackling poverty. The gap between the haves and the have nots has grown enormously over the last 20 years. The African American church has become as much caught up in that growing gap as the so-called white church has. In our neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, African American churches were often no better allies for the poor than white churches. Abandonment crosses racial lines.
How have friends reacted to your book?
I think people identify with my transparency about my dark side. For example, my unveiling my jealousy with such rawness. I've had people say, "You know, I wrestle with that, too."
You say our theology needs to interrogate our practice. What beliefs are essential for racial reconciliation?
That God created one church. That we really believe in the one holy Catholic Church. Is that just a theological pronouncement? Or is that supposed to become visible on the ground? That's central.
What does somebody really have to believe strongly in order to make intentional community work?
I'm not a believer in ending up in intentional community. The story of our journey into community is the story of a journey. And if we had known that we were going there, we would have never started.
The theology that undergirds community is opening our lives up to be interrogated by the Sermon on the Mount. That defines what it means to be a church that follows Jesus Christ faithfully. Allowing ourselves to study Scripture without justifying the way our lives already exist and allowing ourselves to go on a journey whereby we will be interrupted. And to be listening together in friendship with others for those interruptions.
It takes a big commitment just to get Christians within our typical middle-class world in the same place every week on a regular basis, reading the same Scripture, and saying, What does this mean for our lives? That is very difficult.
Part of the theology of Grace Matters is how my life never went the direction I expected. We so much want to be in control of our lives and to determine the outcome. But it seems to me like the story of the Spirit in the book of Acts. It is the story of a church being constantly interrupted and being taken places that they would not choose to go on their own—to the Samaritans and ultimately to the Gentiles. Peter's on a rooftop. He has this vision that's like a nightmare, strange food coming down, strange men come to his house. He's taken to enemy territory. But Peter is listening to those interruptions. In that story, you don't know what the church is going to look like in advance.
Would you do it again?
Only if it was on a journey with people. It was an organic thing. It was the next step of faithfulness with that particular group of people. We went one step at a time.
The life we shared there were Christian virtues within what it means to be Christian in this world. The virtue of hospitality, for example. How do we open our lives to the stranger? We were able as a community to open our lives to guys just out of prison. We were able to open our lives to single mothers having their first babies. We were able to open our lives to inner-city teenagers. These are things you really don't want to do as individual families. Community provides an environment where we're willing to take risks that we wouldn't otherwise take. Community becomes very important for opening our life to the stranger.
What do we need to take most seriously in our theology in order to make team leadership work?
We need to take seriously that there is a truth in Jesus sending disciples out two by two. Leadership is not an individualist pioneer on the frontier, not a rugged individualist challenge. There's something about modeling that within community in friendship that's crucial. Spencer and I described our relationship as constantly submitting. It was important to our growth that we were not going to go somewhere unless the other one was ready to go there as well.
At the same time, there could also be a squelching of one another's gifts. And so this was a constant dialectic, the submitting and the containment of a vision within a relationship of mutual submission.
The word yokefellows is key to your story. A yoke is both a help and a restraint. So how did being yoked with Spencer lighten your load, and how did it restrain you?
It lightened the load because Spencer had gifts I didn't have. Spencer had the incredible gift of bluntness. Spencer had an ability to get to the heart of the matter and to name it—to get stuff on the table and to get people to deal with it. He was able to do it in a way that you knew that he was after the truth and it wasn't about people.
Now that was not the gift of diplomacy. I think I had more the gift of diplomacy, of looking after people's feelings. I certainly had the gift of organizing. It took me five years to get Spencer to carry a DayTimer. And even after he started carrying one he wouldn't write stuff down.
There's a dynamic tension in Grace Matters between spirit and structure. What advice would you give to readers who find themselves in that dynamic tension between spirit and structure?
I think that structure came to us through a tradition. At Voice of Calvary, we were shaped by traditions of disciplining ourselves to live in a particular neighborhood and to be faithful to that ground and to share our lives with those poor.
But in the end all those traditions, all that structure, can become an idol, as if that is all there is to know about God. And part of the interruption of the Spirit for me in Spencer's death was being brought to this point of seeing how that tradition was how I defined my significance. And so I was not able to be still and know that God is God. For me it was, "Be busy and know that I am God."
For 17 years the word sabbath was not part of my theological vocabulary. Activism was. Trying harder was. While embracing structure and tradition, there has to be an openness to the interruption of the Spirit.
How was it both for you and for Spencer to operate in either the shadow (or the aura) of John Perkins? To be leaders in the shadow of great visionary leadership?
It was much harder on Spencer. The public thought that Spencer was supposed to be a certain way. And it imposed upon Spencer a blueprint of how his life was supposed to look. Spencer had an enormous respect and loyalty to his parents, but he was not able to free himself of this expectation of being the Anointed One until the very end of his life.
Our greatest clash came because I believed that our life together had become very stagnant. And Spencer could just not imagine not living in community, not doing national racial reconciliation work. His identity and mine were very much captured within that. It wasn't until this incredible breakthrough to internalizing grace that he was able to look at himself through the eyes of being unconditionally loved by God.
The John Perkins dynamic was also incredibly difficult for me because it pressed on all of my weakness of jealousy and envy. I saw Spencer getting so much more attention than me, and people wanted to hear from him more than me. But that just didn't compare to what Spencer faced.
Let's go back to the subject of race in America. For a long time, our history of black and white has set the agenda for reconciliation. But the growth of the Latino community in North America is shifting a lot of the attention in that direction. Are we in danger of losing anything on the black-and-white front?
First, as Christians we're called to embrace the stranger and the alien, and we're called to open ourselves up to new growth and to see the world truthfully. That's at the core of our faith, Old Testament through New Testament.
Second, the arrival of a third party helps to clarify things and put history into perspective. Here in Durham, for example, there's been an explosion of growth in the Latino population. And it's putting new stresses upon relationships between African Americans and Latinos where now African Americans are being pressed to embrace the outsider and to see if their Christianity can welcome a new minority. There have been cases of Latinos worshiping with African Americans and leaving those ecclesial fellowships because they feel treated like second-class citizens. So this challenge is testing our faithfulness.
Third, there is a danger of trying to reduce ethnicity to some kind of homogeneity whereby we don't recognize the particularity. The history of African Americans and whites in America is long and it has over those 300 years malformed us in ways that we still are largely unconscious of. We have to continue to deal with that particularity in the midst of the new phenomena that are coming on the scene.
Where do you think you're headed after studying at Duke?
I came to Duke to disengage from activism, to deepen myself intellectually and theologically, and to broaden my idea of the church. I had lived 20 years of my life in an evangelical subculture, which is only one segment of the holy catholic church. Being here at Duke has really expanded my understanding of the church. As to what comes after this, I really have no idea.
There is an enormous need within the church to connect the world of faithful practitioners with the world of faithful scholars and theologians. There's a huge disconnect between those two worlds. Five years ago I would have said that practitioners lead very deep lives and often have very shallow theology. I've discovered that theologians often have very deep theology and lead very shallow lives.
We've made a dichotomy between these two worlds whereby you don't have time both to lead a deep life and to have a deep theology. There is something crucially import about being able to stop and reflect, but activists don't think that we have time to do that because the world will come apart if we stop doing. We're caught up in our doing, and it says something about our theology that we don't think we can stop.
It's like we really don't understand that creation wasn't complete without God's rest. Creation was not just in God's doing. It was completed in God's rest.
There's an enormous need to connect deep reflection with deep life and practice. There really needs to be a much richer discourse between those two worlds within the church.
By David Neff