(originally posted on the huffington post 6/16/10)
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
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
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
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.