One of the most inspiring stories of a man loving his enemies is that of John Perkins. John grew up as a black man in Mississippi. He dropped out of school in the third grade, and in his teen years he headed for California, seeking better employment. While there he became a Christian. Perkins soon came to believe that God was calling him to preach the Gospel and develop black leadership for the poor black people he’d been raised with. So he returns to Mississippi.
On February 7, 1970, a Saturday night, police arrested a group of black college students. Perkins and two associates went immediately to the jailhouse to post bail. But when they spoke up, five deputy sheriffs and highway patrolmen surrounded them, placed them under arrest, and began beating them violently. Perkins had done nothing wrong. He didn’t even have a police record. But he was a black leader trying to help young African Americans, and that was all it took in that particular town.
The beating went on for most of the night. The aggressors stomped on Perkins and kicked him in the head, ribs, and groin. One officer picked up a fork and jammed it first up his nose and then down his throat.
John Perkins was unconscious most of that interminable evening. He was so swollen and mutilated that the helpless students around him were sure that he was either dead or approaching death. But by the grace of God alone, he did not die.
A nonbeliever reacting to such a beating would have been embittered. He would have sworn revenge and used every recourse, legal or possibly otherwise, to strike back at his attackers and perhaps at others he perceived to be of the same ilk. A person could merely ride his rage and seethe with anger for a lifetime after such an experience. He could work out his revenge on a lot of people. And there would always be more yet to inflict.
John Perkins did not chose that road. He had come to Mississippi on a mission for black people. They needed his support and guidance, and that guidance had to begin right now with his example.
He later wrote of his attackers, “I remembered their faces — so twisted with hate. It was like looking at white-faced demons. For the first time, I saw what hate had done to those people. These policemen were poor. They saw themselves as failures. The only way they knew how to find a sense of worth was by beating us. Their racism made them fell like somebody.”
As a Christian, Perkins could not receive hate and deal it back. Such an option was not open to a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Even as he lay on the floor of the jail cell, crimson puddles around him, welts rising on his body — he was in prayer. Lord God, he murmured, if you will only get me out of this place alive…
He knew he shouldn’t be bargaining with the Lord, but he couldn’t stop the pleadings that rose from his heart. I want to preach to these people, too. I want to preach to those driven by hatred, and I want to drive out that hatred forever,
Perkins refused to hate. All he felt was pity.
It required months for his battered body — and his emotions — to heal. Two doctors, one white and one black, laboured over the physical wounds gently and compassionately. And Jesus Christ, the Physician of hearts, laboured over his mangled emotions. In body and spirit, Perkins healed and regained full strength, and the changes within him would soon be channeled into a ministry he wouldn’t have been capable of without suffering.
He knew now that it wasn’t just “his” people who needed to be free; it was everyone. The age-old prison of racial hatred had to be opened by more than just laws and movements. There could be no real reconciliation unless Christ was the reconciler. “Now that God had enabled me to forgive the many whites who had wronged me, I found myself able to truly love them,” recalls Perkins,. “I wanted to return good for evil.”
He knew the Spirit of God was moving within him, for a vivid image began to fill his mind: an image of Christ suffering on the cross., Christ knew what Perkins was feeling. He knew what twisted justice felt like. He knew about the punches, the kicks. And His response was, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Evil draws its power from its viral nature,. It spreads the disease of anger and vengeance. You hurt me, and I either hurt you back of take it out on someone else — maybe a series of someone else’s. Sin is born into us, but it is reinforced by the spread of its billions of malignant missionaries in the world. It is stopped when we refuse to pass the infection, when we let Christ heal us and we deal out blessing rather than reprisal. And then, through the power of God, love can spread virally, too.
John Perkins said, “Let it stop with me.” They hated him; he forgave them. They cursed; he blessed. He didn’t do it because he was some kind of saint; in fact, the opposite was true. God had shown him that he was no better than those who had assaulted him. The sin in his heart was not of any higher-quality blend; it was the same nasty stuff. In the eyes of God — the only standard that matters — he had no high ground to claim. He needed forgiveness, too. So John Perkins set out on his long journey of reconciliation, of bridge-building between black and white, of defusing hatred, of living the miracle of grace.
John Perkins went on to become a successful pastor and founder of the Voice of Calvary Ministries, dedicated to racial reconciliation. He has received many awards and honorary degrees and even served on a presidential commission on inner-city problems under President Ronald Reagan.
The great question that faced John Perkins also faces us: Can we let love change everything in our world? Can we stop living in an endless cycle of evil for evil, or even of apathy for apathy? What would happen if we actually began to treat people as lost members of God’s family?
For more on John Perkins go to: John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation at www.jvmpf.org