The week leading up to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is becoming increasingly important to me. (NOTE: Moving to Alabama has it’s jarring effects on just how deep the issue of racism still runs in our nation. Monday will be “Robert E. Lee Day” in Alabama and Mississippi.)
I purchased a compendium of Dr. King’s significant writings, sermons, etc., a few months ago, so I have used it in the past week to browse through other writings still unfamiliar to me. But when it comes to an annual practice, I have been reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” every year. This is probably more read (at least in parts) than even his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Every year this letter has something that pierces my soul. Last year I read this letter privately, then read huge portions of it in one my classes because the president had once again made racist comments that only magnified the importance of Dr. King’s letter over 50 years later.
It would be great if we had the habit of reading at least this letter every year and I invite you to do so this year. It is lengthy. Dr. King would not be a good Twitter user. We need to get over our Twitter reading habit as well. It would do us good to read this letter JUST as a well-reasoned document as to the WHY of nonviolent protest… and the WHY of the “now”.
Dr. King writes this letter to “moderate” white Christian leaders in Birmingham, AL who have written an open letter to Dr. King about the unnecessary use of nonviolent protest. It’s the typical white drivel of, “I support what you need to happen, I just don’t support HOW you are going about it.”
Dr. King lays out the case for understanding “just” and “unjust” laws. (His words STILL ring true in our day.) He gives examples.
He is reasoned. He is passionate. He is determined.
He is direct. He is truly fed up with lip service to the movement on behalf of whites… but more specifically the white church.
He writes: “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership… (and he gives notable exceptions)… But despite these notable exceptions I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say that as one of the 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 the spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen…
“There was a time when the church was very powerful… Things are different now. The contemporary church is 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 silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
We need our hearts disturbed. We need a fire lit within us once again. Dr. King then speculated on the possibility of not finding “the church” in the big organized structure of his day, but it might be what he called “the inner spiritual church.” The true ecclesia, as he put it. Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking on that as well. My term has been the “remnant.”
It will be the “remnant church” that leads us through the time ahead as the American Church will be exiled to Babylon. There will be simple hunger and simple worship. This is always what the Spirit has through every age. In Europe, it was the monastic movement. In World War II, it was Bonhoeffer’s underground church. There is always a movement.
We need to find that movement and be a part of what the Spirit wants to do. We need to move from our complacency and hear these powerful words of Dr. King once again.