Three simple questions

I think sometimes we like to lose ourselves inside sophisticated analyses of social circumstances, not so much because they obfuscate uncomfortable truths but because they help us distance ourselves from them. Maybe this is why I like the aphorism I just found in a Theodore Dalrymple article: one anecdote is worth a thousand abstractions. Abstractions tend to obscure the truth by making you feel you’ve explained it away. Anecdotes—good ones, anyway—force you to stare a truth in the face.

Recently I discovered the writings of John Alexander, and devoured them. In his last, unfinished book Being Church he mentioned being asked to do a bit of unusual couples counselling—unusual because the couple consisted of two men, Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, who had founded a ministry promoting racial reconciliation based on their own experience, Perkins being black, Rice being white, both living in an intentional Christian community that was 50% black, 50% white. The problem was that, increasingly, they couldn’t stand one another. Worse, much of the animosity was based on racial issues.

Alexander told a bit of the story of counselling these two men, but didn’t go into much detail. A footnote mentioned that Rice had later written an entire book about his troubled relationship with Perkins, who died in 1998. Well, I definitely needed to read that! And in looking for info on that book I found that Perkins and Rice had co-authored a book about racial reconciliation, so I wanted to read that as well. I ordered copies of both.

(Side note: one of those books was not available for the Kindle at all, the other for $10. Both were available as good-condition used paperbacks for $3.50 apiece from abebooks, shipping included. I ordered the used paperbacks, and the writers won’t see a cent of my money—which is a shame, because I’d rather be reading these on a Kindle, and I’m sure the writers would have liked some of my money.)

I just started reading the first book, More than Equals, which begins with Spencer Perkins recounting life as a high school student in a white school in northern Mississippi during the late-60s period of the civil rights movement. The stories are horrible—not overwrought, fairly matter-of-fact, and maybe even more horrible due to that. He ends one particularly gut-wrenching anecdote by mentioning he left at that point to go to college, and took with him three simple questions:

Over the next two years I struggled with these issue. I went off to college with many questions unsettled in my head. If Jesus says the essence of Christianity is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself, then is it possible to love God without loving your neighbor? As far as we could tell, no one in the white community loved us, but most claimed to be Christians. Was it fair to say they were not followers of Jesus? Did they read the same Bible as we did?

I love how simple these questions are. And yet they contain a universe.


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