"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
I read "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" on a somewhat regular basis. I read it for the first time in seminary. I wish I had even known of its existence before then but ashamedly I did not. It is a powerful composition with powerful imagery of the Civil Right Era in the US, Biblical references, and American "extremist" justice seekers.
I listened to it again today: MLK Day 2022. A friend recommended listening to it on Audible. It is narrated by Dion Graham who has a distinct rhythm to his narration that allows me to not rely on the same inflections and emphases that I typically read it with.
I was particularly convicted this time of the audience of the letter. It was written to clergymen. Eight white clergymen from the south who thought perhaps Dr. King had the wrong timing.
This letter was his response. He writes:
"You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being."
The conditions that brought the demonstrations into being...
How often do we see an action, situation, or demonstration of rebellion and fail to ask why? What we see is typically a symptom or consequence of something else. A combination of systems and nature and nurture and a host of other components that all come to fruition because we don't treat people like they matter. We don't love our neighbor. Or maybe we do but we fail to see when our neighbors aren't being loved and how it hurts them.
Which leads to a shallow understanding of what we want love to look like.
"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
That statement convicted me. It reminded me of Paul's prayer for the Ephesians: "I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."
I often hold back in fear of being an extremist but one thing I heard this year from MLK's letter is that being an extremist would put me in good company. I'd be emulating Jesus, the prophets, and the founding fathers.
"But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice? -- "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? -- "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist? -- "Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God." Was not John Bunyan an extremist? -- "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience." Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? -- "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?"
If you've read this far, go read or listen to the Letter in full. And pray this prayer that I found this week. It helps me to orient to the dream of beloved community. May it fill your soul with the inspiration to live together in love.
Until Everyone Hears,
P.S. - I wrote these words in the summer of 2020. I'm frustrated that we haven't made much progress. The Civil Rights Trip that I had put together for the end of January 2022 has been postponed due to COVID numbers. We may go in April. If you're interested in joining us, let me know.
Esther 4:14 - New International Version
"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God."