3 Jun 2019

Spencer Perkins and the “Prolife Credibility Gap”

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Apologetics, Black History, Bobby's World, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, Discipleship, Kingdom, Love, Mission, Politics, Race Relations, Reading, Unity

Before you go further, this is not written to make you angry. And if you get angry, go pray before you comment.

I am “prolife.” I have always been prolife. I believe that abortion as a means of birth control, simply to get rid of an inconvenience, is wrong. There are gut wrenching exceptions in my view. Any wise person must recognize this.

Over my 25+ years of ministry I have worked with a surprising number of women, older and younger, that have had an abortion. I remember counseling with a dear sister in her sixties who had an abortion in her twenties. She now (at that time) was dealing with serious emotional issues because of it though she had not thought of it in years.

In my experience compassion, gentleness, and simply love is all God has called me to do. Love first!

But what is “Prolife?” Prolife is not simply “anti-abortion.

Listening to Others

One of my first reads in racial justice

Let me shift gears for a second. I am convinced, yes convinced, that white Christians need to get to know black Christians. We need to know them personally. Not an acquaintance, but knowing.

We need to read black history.
We need to read black authors.
We need to read black thinkers and theologians.

Black folks already know and read and see the perspective of white folks far, far, far, far greater than whites do blacks.

Spencer Helped Me See My Shortcomings

I first became aware of Spencer Perkins, and his father John, while preaching in Mississippi. Spencer went to his reward in January 1998. There are few people I know who speaks on matters of Christianity and race with more integrity than John Perkins and his late son Spencer. Spencer Perkins book, More than Equals, was one of the first books I read in the 90s, when confronted with my own unbelievable blindness by a loving sister and brother (who bravely confronted me! I was not happy but hopefully I have learned something).

Many years ago while doing research on the town I preached in and the social history of our community, and I was still learning (I am still learning how ignorant I am), I came across a challenging essay by Spencer in Christianity Today. It had the provocative title of “the Prolife Credibility Gap.”

I cannot speak for other readers of the article but for the not quite 30 year old Bobby, it hit me and has never left me. (Spencer edited the journal Urban Family: A Magazine of Hope and Progress and was the editor of The Reconciler for many years).

Spencer writes that he often wondered, growing up, “if there were no white Christians south of the Mason-Dixon line.” Why would he even say such a thing? It surely offends white Christians. (Trust me, I know from personal experience, it does!).

Isn’t there a large majority that crowd into church buildings every Sunday? DO not these folks post Jesus stickers on their cars (or memes on FB)? Do they not abhor liberalism? Do they not crusade for the inerrancy of the Bible? Do they not pass out Focus on the Family voter guides that tell everyone how this or that candidate stands on homosexuality and especially abortion?

But Spencer confesses, “Abortion–and the prolife movement–present black evangelicals with a dilemma.” Why? And this, my beloved friends, is where we white folks — if you claim to be a Christian — need to pray for the Spirit to anoint our ears so we can hear. One of the most common exhortations in the Bible (or laments) is having ears to hear or not having ears to hear. It is a call to perceive, to understand. And brothers and sisters we need the gift of the Spirit to put down our defensiveness long enough to “hear.”

In spite of all the noise, Spencer insists, there is a huge “credibility gap.”

Spencer continues, “It is not that we [black Christians] question the evil of abortion; Jesus clearly would have condemned it. But for me, a black man, to join your demonstrations against abortion, I would need to know that you understand God’s concern for JUSTICE EVERYWHERE” (my emphasis).

Spencer charges that while these white antibortionitsts claim to be prolife, that it typically extends to people not yet born. So he asks, based on historical trends, “Am I not right in assuming that as ghettos become larger and more dangerous, these same antiabortionists move farther and farther into suburbs, taking little or no responsibility for the social consequences of the lives they have [supposedly] saved?”

Prolife Demands ProJustice … for All

God is not only concerned about the unborn. As John Perkins wrote in the Bible, “just laws aren’t just about punishing sin; they’re also for preventing oppression” for the living. (See on John Perkins my “Loving When it Isn’t Easy)

So Spencer illustrates the credibility gap, as he perceived it, with an episode that took place at his own church in Mississippi. The congregation was actively involved in the pro-life movement. A group held a planning session at Voice of Calvary. As it turned out about the crowd was 50-50 of blacks/white. A white Christian woman who did not realize that VoC was a black, though integrated, church, dropped her kids off at the nursery. Finding the nursery filled with children of color said, “What kind of church is this?” She proceeded to tell her little boy to be careful about what he touches.

After relating the story, Spencer asks, “Does loving my neighbor mean loving blacks too?”

So Spencer boils his understanding of “prolife” down to this. More than 22 years later of reading, and pondering it, I think Amos and James would sign their name to the statement.

“Being prolife and demanding an unborn baby’s ‘right to life’ is a high calling. But I believe that God cares about a deeper principle – a ‘right to justice’; that is, a right to a decent QUALITY [sic] of life.”

White Christians protest for this “right to life.” But Spencer argues they do almost nothing to support the life that is born. They demand a policy change on abortion (a law!). But they vociferously oppose any policy (law!) that helps those unwed mothers, those babies born rather than aborted.

See my article in Wineskins, The Most Unpopular Teaching in the Bible

White Evangelicals, Perkins opined, often do not support justice but in fact, so often, simply mirror the unredeemed culture in matters of justice. They are antiabortion but they do not love those black girls in the inner cities, those poor with such limited options and even less opportunities. If we are genuinely prolife, our advocacy does not stop with a protest outside Planned Parenthood. It is defending the cause of the least of these. Does our prolife position protect the “dignity” of those who are born.

Spencer ends his thought provoking essay with these words. “As for answering the question, ‘Where do black Christians stand on abortion?’ it looks to me as if we are on the same side of a moral issue. But if, from where you stand, you insist the battle is against abortion, while we believe the battle is against injustice, our strategies must remain different.”

I know some are already riled by Spencer’s words. But he did not write those words out of dislike for white Evangelicals. It is hard not to read what he wrote and not become defensive. We want to defend ourselves! Before we defend why don’t we try to listen and see if at least he might perceive an inconsistency in our ethic and perhaps even our theology.

Antiabortion? Or Prolife?

John Perkins, who has labored valiantly for biblical reconciliation from before Spencer was born, has noted that “for the most part, in the past the white church in America has not embraced this kind of justice thinking.”

If Spencer were here today, I wonder if he would say we have “come along way.” Or would he lament and say “We are still here.”

The question is a good one: Am I Prolife? Or am I merely antiabortion?

Thank you Spencer Perkins. Thank you John Perkins. I think we need our black brothers and sisters, and they need us, to be what God has called us to actually be.

I cannot recommend John Perkins Dream with Me enough. Click on the title and order it today.

One Response to “Spencer Perkins and the “Prolife Credibility Gap””

  1. I'm Just Passing Through Says:

    This is why I really hope the American Solidarity Party (http://solidarity-party.org) can get itself off the ground, as they’re anti-abortion while also being concerned with the sorts of things you’re talking about. “Pro-Life for the Whole Life” as they say.

    Maybe I’m naive to believe that they’re the party that will finally break the duopoly, but I feel their platform has a lot more appeal to the general population than the various other third parties.

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