Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

I am beginning a series this week from Amos called “Strong Words for Serious Faith.” One of the commentaries I am using referenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King wrote this letter in 1963 after his arrest for leading a non-violent, “direct action” civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama, which he referred to as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” King wrote his open letter in response to a document circulated by eight white clergymen titled “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” in which they expressed support for the cause of civil rights but urged it to be pursued in the courts, not in the streets.

The clergymen lamented that “outsiders” (including King) were leading the demonstrations, and that they were “extremists.” King noted that the eighth-century prophets (including Amos) “left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns.” He also noted that Amos was an “extremist” for justice. Hence my commentary’s reference.

King’s letter is a breathtaking, extraordinary expression of biblical ethics and a vision for God’s kingdom reign in the world. I printed it out to quickly glance through it and discovered that first, at ten typed pages there is nothing quick about it and second, it deserves deep reflection.

King is particularly eloquent, though it is painful to read, about his deep disappointment in the southern clergy and white churches. He notes with grateful appreciation the white Christians who “have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms, have marched with us down nameless streets in the South, have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as ‘dirty n___r-lovers.’” But he expresses his dismay that far more have been “more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows,” or have “stood on the sideline and mouthed pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

“In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church… Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists… There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. [Christians were] small in number but big in commitment. … By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo.”

This letter stands in the tradition of prophets like Amos who called God’s people out of their complacency, saying “Woe to you who are at ease in Zion.” When I read these prophetic declarations I am filled both with hope for God’s kingdom and trepidation for my personal status quos. Which may be the start of having ears to hear.


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