Jim Perkinson is a long-time activist and educator from inner city Detroit, where he has a history of involvement in various community development initiatives and low-income housing projects. He holds a PhD in theology from the University of Chicago and is in demand as a speaker on a wide variety of topics (especially race, class & colonialism). He is also a recognized artist on the spoken-word poetry scene in the inner city. Many of his works are published. In this interview, we home in on his 2014 work Messianism Against Christology: Resistance Movements, Folk Arts and Empire.
RD: What’s the difference between “messianism” and “christology?”
J-Perk: Messianism Against Christology: Resistance Movements, Folk Arts and Empire is a work committed to re-thinking the Christian tradition from the point of view of social movements rather than magnified individuals. Jesus was a movement man—as were Moses and Elijah before him, and John the Baptist alongside him. “Messianism” is a word drafted into service as a movement term. Rather than focus on a great individual called “Jesus” comprehended as “the Christ,” the book examines his effort as part of a broader resistance initiative. The social movement launched by John was already in motion when Jesus first opts to begin public action. Baptism under John’s hands meant plunging into a project centered on recovery of living relationship to the lower Jordan watershed. His movement “initiated” one into a new relationship with the land, based on much older traditions and skills of doing so, dating back to Israel’s “birth” as a maroon movement of slaves, walking out of imperial Egypt and being re-schooled for 40 years in the Sinai desert, under Moses. Re-imagined as “messianism,” “christo-logy”—the “logic” of the christos—is then profiled as referring to any initiative of courageous folk, who partially or fully step outside of an imperial domination system to begin recovery of a more just and sustainable way of dwelling in a local ecology or watershed. The focus is not on a “great man” idea of “salvation” (or “being made whole”), but on catching sight of the ways popular resistance can “open up” embodied memory of more indigenous ways of living in symbiotic reciprocity with a particular bioregion. “Salvation” or wholeness here is not aimed at some fraction of the person called a “soul,’ but an entire way of dwelling in a given locale. The emphasis is not on individual traits, but community relations between human beings and on that community’s return to a living relationship to local plants and animals, soils and waters, seasons and cycles. Any movement managing to invoke and partially embody that older ability (which we all shared at some point way back in our evolutionary history as hunter-gatherer peoples) is “read” as partially “incarnating” what we mean by “Christology.” I simply call it “messianism” to emphasize its movement character.
RD: What led you into researching and writing this book?
J-Perk: The impetus for researching and writing the book was, first of all, to clarify my own thinking. I had been initiated into a very different way of experiencing and evaluating life by more than two decades of activism and education in inner city Detroit, living in a low-income African-American neighborhood. Black culture “checked” me in my white arrogance and ignorance and gradually schooled me in a different passion and orientation. Once I began to flesh out that experiential “re-formulation” in more sustained study, I plunged into black and liberation theologies and critical race theory, to help me articulate my on-going “street baptism.” While asking ever deeper questions about how we got into the structures of inequality and hierarchy we find ourselves in, finally the climate crisis itself began to “speak” in thunderous tones, as did the continuing genocide of indigenous cultures and lifeways. Alongside that more “apocalyptic” input, encounter with the growing body of literature loosely termed “anarcho-primitivism” opened up the largest possible questions about what it means to be a human being from an evolutionary perspective. With my Filipina wife-partner, I have now been on a 15-year quest to try to recover a more indigenous sensibility and perspective and have slowly fallen in love with the beauty of ancestral ways and ferocity. Stimulated by exegetes like Ched Myers and Jim Corbett, I have grown more and more fascinated with how much the biblical tradition encodes—in spite of itself—indigenous memories of living against the grain of imperial-monocultures. The book is an attempt to begin lifting up some of the indigeneity that remains partially visible in the biblical text.
RD: You write: “untamed spaces of wandering have always been the place of both deepest pedagogy and most reliable regeneration for the social movement known as ‘Israel.'” Explain!
J-Perk: The biblical witness is preeminently a witness to the priority of the “wild.” Wildlands emerge in its narratives as the source of both material life-support and of spiritual teaching, the incubation chamber and inspiration for folk movements of all kinds seeking to elude or exit the imperial project of domestication and enslavement. I now read the entire tradition on the largest scale possible, locating Christianity as an obviously “agricultural” phenomenon, taking shape inside the geopolitics of the Roman imperium, but drawing on memories of struggles against previous grain-based empires. Israel itself begins as a maroon movement of slaves, exiting Egypt and re-learning how to “live on the land” in the outback environment of Sinai, led by a Moses who had himself been re-schooled for 40 years by his herd animals in that ecology. Central to that generation-long re-skilling is the lesson of Sabbath-gathering, learning to trust the on-going “wild” provision of “manna,” or what Bedouin today collect as “honeydew”—a nutrient-rich secretion of aphids that regularly puddles at the base of various Sinai shrubs. The pre-history of the movement exhibits the Ur-exiting courage of Abram, memorialized in the later texts as a “wandering Aramean” (Dt 26:5) going feral from city-life by taking up herding and learning from trees (the “teaching oaks” of Moreh) (Gen 12:6). The later history of the Hebrew “outlaw” movement after it settles uneasily into subsistence farming on the colonized margins of Mesopotamia (Assyria, Babylon, Persia) is a series of prophetic movements, epitomized by Elijah, living raw and wild in wadi Cherith, pronouncing weather as weapon in the struggle against King Ahab, and learning his hunting tactics from resourceful ravens. The movement begun by Baptizer John camps out in Elijah’s old ravine, and teaches its lessons of return to what the watershed can teach and provide. Jesus “goes under” that teaching, marinates in the “wilderness lesson” for 40 days, revisiting the agony of the history while shamanically schooled by the Spirit incarnate as a dove, and then comes back into “civilization” to convene a movement majoring in Sabbath vision (”daily bread” as his “Lord’s Prayer” liturgy intones) and a Jubilee provision of resources. Which is to say, that the biblical tradition is inspired by a version of the earliest resistance tradition on the planet—pastoral nomads who went AWOL from exploitative agricultural practices, relearning their ecosystems in apprenticeship to their herds, finding Divinity most powerfully present at the head of the watershed as a Storm-Deity, granting life and nutrients in seasonal rains and riparian veins of abundance, revalorizing ritual practices (like Sabbath and Jubilee) whose significance is one of limiting human aggression on the environment in favor of trusting the land to produce “of itself” (Mk 4:28; Lev 25:5, 11).
RD: How do you and your partner Lily find these “untamed spaces of wandering” while living and working in Detroit?
J-Perk: My wife and I struggle to re-locate our own nurturance in such places—which are indeed being “corporatized” out of existence all over the planet. Certainly, growing in our attentiveness to such wild life as we do have around us—squirrels and birds and opossum and foxes, in a mature locust grove just outside downtown Detroit—is part of the effort. As is growing a bit of our own food in raised-bed plots! Growing plants in the house and conversing with them as best we can, knowing we have lost much of that capacity as “modern” conscripts—but knowing too that the ability is dormant not defunct. Giving ritual offerings back to the wild to remember our dependence, our taking of wild beauty simply in the necessity of living, even as we recognize our destiny is ultimately becoming part of someone else’s body, as food for them. Mutual metabolism is perhaps the deepest truth of any spirituality worthy of the name—we eat to live, and will be eaten in turn. Beyond that is the way “wildness” shows its face in the irrepressible creativity of life in a tight space—whether blues-singing chicory growing from cracks in sidewalks or black folk poppin’ and lockin’ in doing judo on their incarceration in a hot kitchen of struggle called a ghetto, making percussion and call/response antiphony into a lifestyle ethic of survival, hip-hop intelligence among underground youth organizing gardens and garbage into blight-busting beauty and nutrition, or elders from get-happy churches and hard-core ‘hoods leading a lifetime of effort to push back against foreclosures and water shutoffs, school closures and land grabs by gentrifiers and banks. The “wild” is alive and well in the city, if one looks close and is willing to stand on the front lines. Indeed, Detroit exists today as 139-square mile region of floodplain, 30 % vacant, that could become a new model of urban possibility, re-combining “the wild” and “the made” into a hybrid of food self-sufficiency and innovative co-efficiency of human- and other-kind.
RD: How would you describe a community of faith that reads this book, discerns its implications together and then lives it out?
J-Perk: Such a community would no longer necessarily be recognizably “church,” congregating under a steeple, lining hymns by Luther, and dozing under a two-thousand year-old rehash of “magic” bible words called a sermon. It would be a community making common cause over the local commons with whoever was willing to act towards a recovery of watershed health. It would live in plain view of the history of pain beneath its feet, honoring ancestors of every color and faith that had made the place livable in the past, but anchored especially in remembrance of native savvy still haunting the soil and African work generating cultural pith and humor. It would open its girth of concern to the future of apocalypse careening in on us from the near term of climate chaos. It would open its mirth to street life and singing, even when it comes in the form of curses coded into diss-rhymes like a Jesus-rant on a Lucan plain naming oppressors (Lk 6:24-26). It would embrace rabbits and bears as kin, plants as teachers, finned ones as aquatic angels, bringing messages from the liquid depths of God, soils as the Mothers of all things living and green, jails as likely prayer closets in embodied appeals for an end to the violence. It would love things indigenous and fiercely colorful! It would love to dance. It would groan like Abel on his way down and yell like James Brown on his way up from lying supine in moan and shaking the stage like an earthquake incarnate. It would embrace what Fannie Lou Hamer meant when she said “I couldn’t tell nobody with my head up I’m fighting for equal rights with a white man, because I don’t want it. Because if what I get got to come through lynching, mobbing, raping, murdering, stealing, and killing, I didn’t want it, because it was a shocking thing to me, I couldn’t sit down.” This would be a little community hip to the power of little gestures and friends, working collaboratively with any who would similarly love the soil and face the history with resolve and courage.