Martin Luther King, Jr. the Prophet

“Unfortunately, King is known more today as a poetic patron saint of racial harmony than a provocative prophet of social justice, someone who by the end of his life had managed to get on just about everyone’s last nerve.” (Edward Gilbreath, Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church)

The narrowness of my evangelicalism

The story is from Birmingham Revolution, but it could be my story. It took place in 1968, but for me it could have been 1988.

Edward Gilbreath relates the story of Glen Kehrein, who founded Circle Urban Ministries in Chicago. When he was a student at Moody Bible Institute in 1968, a group of students were on a retreat in Wisconsin and on the same campgrounds at that time were members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and others.

As an evangelical in Chicago, Kehrein had been warned about the civil rights movement. Dr. King had been labeled a “communist,” and Chicago had turned into a war zone after King’s assassination. Even with all those warnings, somehow the professor leading the student retreat invited Ralph Abernathy to come over and give a few words to the students. Could Abernathy give his perspective on race and justice in America?

Kehrein remembered that when Dr. Abernathy finished talking, all the students could think to ask him were questions about his personal salvation and his understanding of the conservative tenets of evangelical doctrine. Kehrein noted many years later, “We were clueless.”

That could have been me in 1988. It could have been me in 1998 as well, I suppose. And I must confess that I still hold back when it comes to broader issues because there is such a narrowness in each particular “tribe” of Christianity. We only want to discuss what is important to us.

Even now, when I venture “off the reservation” and want to talk about issues beyond abortion, traditional marriage, or personal salvation, my comments are meant with silence. The crickets just chirp away.

Healthcare? Nothing, unless it’s a Tea Party fan who wants to repeal Obamacare and act like nothing else is wrong.

Immigration? Nothing, unless it’s someone who simply says, “Close the borders!”

The poor? “Let them get a job!”

Even more “theological” issues like the presence of Christ in communion, or the place of women in ministry, or other matters… mostly we just don’t know how to talk. If I can get something moved to a theological issue, maybe we yell.

But if it’s a cultural/policy issue… nothing. It’s almost like someone looking at me and thinking, “What are you, a socialist?”

But the narrowness of my evangelicalism comes out in my own denomination when I gather with my fellow pastors in our urban section. There are some who quietly vote for Democrats, and in my denomination that’s just… just… socialist.

Yet, for them in their situations, there are issues far beyond the narrow things we talk about as evangelicals. There are poor all around them. There are immigrants all around them. And those issues matter. These are great men who have the issue of personal salvation settled. That’s not the issue. The issue is the poor and the immigrant and how to minister to them, not lecture them or figure out a way to ship them back to Mexico.

Gilbreath’s book, Birmingham Revolution, succinctly drives at the narrowness of my past views. It exposes what has been a weakness. It exposes what I still don’t feel comfortable talking about in “mixed” company.

Book Review — Birmingham Revolution

The year 2013 brings us to significant moments in our nation’s history. Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address.

This week is a somber revisit to the assassination of JFK 50 years ago.

Birmingham Revolution by Edward Gilbreath reminds us of another significant movement 50 years ago. Martin Luther King, Jr., sat in a Birmingham jail and it was a critical moment for the civil rights movement.

King himself had been a far more modulating voice in the movement. His education and ability to connect in white circles were significant. But the issues of injustice in Birmingham were boiling over and there were significant steps being made to increase the non-violent protests. King was pastoring in Montgomery, Alabama, but Fred Shuttlesworth from Birmingham had persuaded King to come help with the civil rights movement.

White supremacists had also decided to “up their game” in stopping any sense of “uprising,” so they were meeting marches with violence. King ended up in jail over a march. Then, as he sat there, eight white pastors wrote a letter printed in the newspaper. They were “moderates” who supported the rights of blacks. They also wanted the rule of law to keep order, so they were appealing to King (without naming him) to stop the protest marches. Let the law take its course was their advice.

Gilbreath sees this moment as a critical turn in the approach King took toward getting the nation’s attention regarding the injustice of segregation. Gilbreath wants to take the reader from the somewhat placid view of King we have in our minds where he delivering the very powerful “I Have a Dream” speech to the jail cell where King’s underlying anger at the injustice of segregation finally brought him to better articulate why he sat in that jail cell and why those eight “moderate” clergy were wrong for calling him out like that.

The book is far too short for the depth of King’s reasoning that is uncovered. I truly hope Gilbreath explores more in the life of Dr. King and the civil rights movement. He gets to the prophetic voice King truly had, and ties it directly into King’s Christianity.

Gilbreath does not brush aside the “humanness” of Dr. King. There were the mistakes, the moral issues, all of it.

But King had a prophetic voice that was driven by his Christian worldview. Gilbreath wants us to hear that voice again.

“Unfortunately, King is known more today as a poetic patron saint of racial harmony than a provocative prophet of social justice, someone who by the end of his life had managed to get on just about everyone’s last nerve.” (p. 93)

Birmingham was a defining moment where King finally stated out loud that people can be an extremist, but it’s just what kind of extremist you choose to be that is vital. He decided to call out the white clergy and ask the hard questions. WHEN would be a good time to address these injustices?

If the white clergy were calling on the blacks to “obey the law” regarding protests, why were they not calling on the KKK and white supremacists in power to obey Brown v. Board of Education and allow blacks into southern educational institutions?

If they were going to label King an extremist for non-violent protests, he decided to own it. If he was an extremist, what about Jesus?

Gilbreath sees this moment as truly defining in King’s life. Where were the white Christians in this movement? Why weren’t all Christians on the side of justice?

It had been 100 years since Gettysburg, and approaching 100 since the 13th Amendment, yet blacks were still suffering injustice. Just when would be a good time to act?

Sitting in that jail writing that letter, King decided this was his time. And it needed to be everyone’s time.

I need more from Gilbreath. He touched around the edges of things that need to be said. As an African American evangelical, Gilbreath exposes things that are still not right in “Christian” America, especially “Christian” American evangelicalism.

I am ashamed that while I have broadened my thinking as a believer over the past two decades, I have not voiced that change in a more articulate way. I’ve tried to protect myself. But Gilbreath exposes in me my own narrow “evangelical” view.

While I have broadened out, my Christianity truly has been limited to “individual salvation, traditional marriage, and pro-life issues.”

Over the past year on this blog I’ve tried to articulate a more radical view I simply call “TRULY Pro-Life,” which takes me far beyond the issue of abortion. Yet, I’ve only dabbled in it.

Gilbreath exposes that weakness in me and I truly hope he writes more on these subjects. We need, as evangelicals, to get away from looking at someone as “too liberal” because they might vote Democrat or seem to support some political agenda that seems like “socialism.” Our Christianity just needs to be more mature. (I might add new “emergent” Christians need to do the exact same thing in the other direction.)

This book is a starter for being eye-opening. Gilbreath helps us see a less gentle King. There is more depth to the man we equate with one speech. Birmingham was a turning point in the development of this great man.

NOTE: I received this book from IVP Press for the purposes of a book review. I am under no obligation to give it a positive review.