Monday, January 16, 2012

M.L. King's Brilliant, Compassionate, Truthful, Prophetic "Letter From Birmingham Jail"

Some years ago, as I was mentoring one of my doctoral students at Palmer Theological Seminary, I read, for the first time, Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail." My student, a black denominational leader, was doing her doctoral project on the "prosperity gospel" and its negative, un-Jesus-like influence in the African-American churches under her leadership.

I distinctly remember reading King's letter and being stunned by it - by its clarity, its Jesus-likeness, its prophetic nature, it's love, and its brilliance. Note a few of King's statements below. Better yet, read it in its entirety.
  • "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." (King was viewed as being an "outside agitator." His point here was that, if we are all interconnected, then there is no such thing as "outside agitation."
  • "In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action."
  • "There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts." King wrote this in 1964. I was a sophomore in high school, and quite ignorant of what was going on. Now I feel embarrassed by this. I was not a Jesus-follower, and was unfamiliar with the Real Jesus and his words in the four gospels. Of course now we see that there were white Christians who: 1) looked aside at the racial injustice in America; 2) actively persecuted blacks; and 3) walked hand in hand against the racial injustice. Group #3 - the real, actual followers of Jesus. Group #2 - little antichrists. Group #1 - not following the Real Jesus, for whatever reasons.
  • "I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth." I love this statement, for its recognition of truth. Conflict (non-violent), in itself, is not only not bad but becomes the soil from which resolution grows. Needed: "friction." Unneeded: fight (violence) or flight (avoidance/denial).
  • "Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals." Agreed. And again, a wonderful insight, a very strong point for King to make (whether it was listened to at the time or not). I have found that the ethos of the "herd" often dissipates when the individual is isolated. That's one reason why I pay little attention to how people posture and perform in their peer groups, in the sense that herd-activity is not a good indicator of individual heart-thoughts. I also know this personally, especially since I was once and have been at times since someone who has "gone along with the crowd," only to have a troubled conscience about this as I lay in bed, alone, at night.
  • "For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied.""
  • Read this next part... and weep... "We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern."
  • King then writes about "just laws" and "unjust laws" using thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Jewish philosopher Martin Buber's famous ("I and Thou"/Ich und Du) distinction. He emphasizes that he in no way wants to defy a law, but clarifies things by saying an unjust law is no law at all. That King has to defend himself at this point brings a sadness into my heart, and an anger against the racist anti-Jesus political system he is standing against.
  • King is simply brilliant and poetic as he uses logic to reason out his protest: "In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?"
  • The entire section on "extremism" is brilliant and beautiful. Here's a portion to ponder and stand in awe of: "Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists." O my...  Martin Luther King the prophetic truth-teller...
  • What about "Christians" and "the church?" King writes, correctly and humbly: "I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen... In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. 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."" The archaic suggestion that social action is not about "Christianity" is, simply, exegetical blindness. It's true that Jesus did not give us some political solution to our societal problems; it is also true that Jesus brought in the upside-down Kingdom of God which reaches down to society's marginalized and oppressed. Fortunately today we are seeing a resurgence of the full gospel of Jesus's active compassion for "the least of these" (Matthew 25).
  • King writes: "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." It's important to note that King's "Letter" is not mean-spirited. In fact, there's a grace and mercy throughout that for me makes what he writes so compelling, and brings a sadness into my heart. Just look at how he ends it...
  • "If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me. I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.