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Letter from Birmingham Jail – Dr Martin Luther King, Jr

January 22, 2019

Yesterday was the National Holiday to commemorate the birth of the Rev, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. In between meetings and work, I was able to spend a little bit of time reflecting and reading. By the time I got home though, I was too exhausted to put together a blog.

I chose to read the Letter from Birmingham Jail as I did last year. This year it was for two reasons. The first was the experience Denise and I had at the 223rd General Assembly of the PC(USA) in St Louis this past June. Social Justice and specifically the gross injustices perpetrated by the white system against our poor and disenfranchised Sisters and Brothers was at the forefront of discussion, prayer, and political action on the part of a significant portion of the Assembly delegation. Discussions have also begun around an overture from the Twin Cities Area Presbytery to add the Letter to our Book of Confessions. The second reason is the growing embarrassment and anger I have surrounding the actions and attitudes of the White Conservative Church towards people of color and anyone else, frankly, who is different from them. Add to that the silence of so many who claim to be moderate Christians, and you have my conundrum and guilt. Below are Dr King’s words concerning the White Moderate Church leaders of his day in Birmingham.

I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say that as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it 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. I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few 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 spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and with deep moral concern serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed… The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.

Denise and I have both been advocates and allies for people of color, the economically oppressed, the LGBTQAI+ community, and others who have been quite literally oppressed by the system. That was also a part of my calling as a military Chaplain as I stood with so many who were marginalized and/or targeted, especially in the larger faith community. In the Air Force, they were the Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, and others who’s faith didn’t match up with some of our more conservative christian (lower case is intentional) military members. As I look back and remember… as I look to the present and our work in our community of Estes Park… I am, at times, haunted by the voice of Dr King’s call to meet the challenge of this decisive hour (which rings as true today as it did back in August of 1963).

Dr King was familiar with the writings of another great theologian who lived his faith on the edge. In his sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the following: Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.

Dr King, just like Bonhoeffer before him, rose to that challenge. The question… the challenge… for me… for each one who calls themselves a follower of Christ is this: Will we?

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4 Comments
  1. Thank you hot this thoughtful post Michael. I struggle with these same questions in the Catholic Church. When will we embrace the challenge of the Gospel?

  2. As always, the question is “Will we?” I think we have been called into the faith community, quite literally, “For such a time as this.”

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