Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Re-reading Letter From a Birmingham Jail

            Today as I write these words people are gathering on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place 50 years ago.  At that event, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.  The words of that speech along with the events of that day have been whitewashed (pun intended) in our collective memory so that we forget the turmoil of that time, the stakes involved in that movement and the sacrifices made to fight virulent racism in our country.  MLK's words did not magically make the United States a better country; less than three weeks later four girls were killed while attending Sunday School when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, AL.  I heard one scholar state the civil rights leaders understood that the more victories they achieved the more the white racist mind would be driven to violence in order to stop them.
            Perhaps a way in to remembering the risks taken on by the Civil Rights leaders is found in re-reading King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  It was written in April of 1963 four months before the March on Washington after King was arrested for leading a non-violent action in Birmingham.  Before that action, white religious leaders published a letter denouncing the tactics of outsiders provoking violent retaliation in Birmingham and urging Blacks and Whites to negotiate and let the courts work out the issues surrounding segregation.  The religious leaders included a Catholic bishop and auxiliary bishop, a prominent rabbi, two Methodist bishops, an Episcopal bishop, the Presbyterian moderator of Alabama and the pastor of First Baptist Church in Birmingham.  These men were not violent racists but rather men who claimed to not like segregation.  They wished to move slowly in changing the system of repression. 
            This powerful writing became a living document to me rather than a piece of history when I was in graduate school at Emory University.  I was a TA at Candler School of Theology, a Methodist divinity school that is a part of Emory, when one of my African American students pointed out to me some ornate paintings of Methodist bishops that hung on a classroom wall.  I had given them little thought, but he pointed out to me that two of the giant oil paintings were the Methodist bishops King addressed in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  One of those bishops was a trustee at Emory until his death, while the other remained an adjunct faculty member until only a few years earlier.  The latter maintained in his autobiography that the letter by King was a "publicity stunt."  The men who had urged the slow change of segregation without ever bearing any of its oppression are not long gone from us.
            In a spiritual sense, the moderate white church has not left us at all but remains a living reality among us giving lip service to social change but refusing to bear the pain of its tardiness or hear the cries of those who suffer from its slow pace.  The comforts of peace and security for myself trump the cries of pain from others in terms of racial justice, immigration reform, fighting poverty, standing against sexism, fighting for LGBT rights and so many other areas.  As I re-read King's jail letter, I am once again reminded of my complicity in insulting calls for moderation by a Christianity that has more often than not lost its soul.  Here are a few excerpts that were painful for me to re-read:

"History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily."

"An unjust law is a code inflicted on a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating. . ."

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
"Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured."

"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."

"I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows."

"In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular."

"But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust."

This day, I invite you to re-read King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail and see what strikes you in uncomfortable places. 

Grace and Peace,

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