Most people know me in my role as pastor and superintendent. My family knows me as husband, father, brother, son. While I am viewed through the lens of relationship from those I know, I am yet a single person. Today, I will share my personal practice that I follow on MLK day, the day we remember and celebrate the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I do not think it accidental (rather, it is providential) that he shares his name with the great reformer Martin Luther.
Every year, I read the letter from the eight Alabama clergymen. Then I read the profound words that Dr. King wrote from that Birmingham jail… extracting out a few of the thoughts that would apply to me today and deepen my understanding of God, justice, love and service to my fellow man. While I may from time to time make what seem to be, political statements, they are not that alone, but moreover, they are philosophy and admonishments on how we should live.
My prayer is that by sharing my reflections, readers would be edified and find themselves closer to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God whose prophets inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
2016 Commentary on Letter from a Birmingham Jail
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We as Christians are at risk of self-love and self-centeredness. Jesus said we must die to ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. Truth be told, the opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy! We are compelled by the love of God to confront injustice with love.
“I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” We are confused today about this very issue. We are far too content in our governmental approaches to poverty, inner-city crime, and failing schools to deal with effects rather than underlying causes. We would rather release criminals from prison to normalize the number of people incarcerated based on skin color (a superficial kind of social analysis), rather than deal with underlying issues of absentee fatherhood, a welfare system that rewards it, failing schools without discipline and without competition. How about giving people the choice to reject governmental solutions for programs administered through faith-based organizations? When was the last time anyone analyzed the impact of “free” abortions and the effects of planned parenthood on the psyche of the poor and creating a culture of death and devaluing of life. How about the return to the dignity that comes from our ‘work for welfare’ success in the 1990’s?
“Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”” Many today are unaware that Dr. King and his protesters spent time in prayer asking God to reveal their sins, begging forgiveness, and purifying their lives. There is a power in righteousness. The Bible says “the righteous are bold as a lion”. I have often admired that in preparation, the people in Dr. King’s movement followed Jesus example, for He was reviled, yet He did not revile in return. I am disgusted by groups that advocate violence themselves or fail to quell the chants of participants who scream ‘what do we want? dead cops’. I am certain Dr. King would would grieve these deplorable expressions.
“Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals..” What an insight into the posture of the elite. The wonderful America I know must always be a one in which our government is ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’!
“We have waited .for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God- given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six- year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” I have no words to add to this indictment. Understanding our unique national sin, draws me to God in deep appreciation for His mercy shown. I stand with all who fall upon the grace of God and move forward together.
“I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all” Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal .law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” Sadly, today, we live in both an immoral and amoral society that denies the very God whose blessing have sustained us as a nation. How can one govern with an understanding of moral law and the law of God? We have drifted so fast and so far into a progressive, godless society we can no longer discern right and wrong. The prophet Isaiah pronounced his woe’s upon his time. They fit ours as well. ‘ Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.’ The destruction of the very definition of marriage as one man and one woman strikes at the very heart of the matter. The fact that it occurred by judicial fiat and supposedly learned men and women is doubly frightening. Now the pronouncement of the apostle Paul rights true ‘professing to be wise, they became fools’.”
“Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.” I wish more civil rights leaders understood these examples. They appear to be self-seeking opportunists rather than selfless pursuers of righteousness.
“The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides-and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that an men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we viii be. We be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” In today’s discourse there has been an attempt to discredit opponents by calling them ‘extremists’, rather than to unveil and examine ideas to find them worthy or unworthy. I love how Dr. King decided to embrace the label and clarify his extremism was for love!
“Yes, these questions are still in my mind. 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. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the greatgrandson of preachers. 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.” The church is hope of the world. And Dr. King expresses the heart of a pastor who desires for Christ to be glorified in His body, the church, despite the fickle society it seeks to win to faith in God. Oh I long for the return of the Christians to full devotion to Christ and to exert the power of God in America again.
“Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.” Dr. King reminds me that a Christian should always be optimistic. A single person standing with God in righteousness is always a majority!
“Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers? If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me.” Humility still remains a virtue today. Oh God, grant me it.
“I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us. all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.” No words. Admiration.