Sunday, April 16, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Reproving the Contemporary Church as ‘An Archdefender of the Status Quo’)

“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. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ 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. 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 even vocal--sanction of things as they are.

“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”—Civil-rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Apr. 16, 1963

Sixty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., jailed for participating in a nonviolent civil rights protest in Birmingham, Ala., read a statement in a local newspaper from eight fellow clergymen, taking him to task for “unwise and untimely” direct action rather than pursuing justice through the courts. Veering between profound disappointment and righteous anger, the civil-rights leader began to scribble his response—at first in the margins of the original article itself, then in paper provided by a black jail trusty, even on toilet paper.

After the scraps were smuggled out by aides and reassembled in a nearby hotel into 20 typed pages, the resulting “Letter from Birmingham Jail” proved as startling in content as in composition. It transcended its origin as an open letter to the seven Protestant ministers and one rabbi to become a seminal document of the civil-rights movement.

Many passages have become among the most famous in King’s entire eloquent output, including:

*History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily”;

* “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will”; and especially

* “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

The letter is filled with allusions to religious figures, providing a common frame of reference with the ministers who criticized him and laying the groundwork for a powerful rhetorical answer to them: Jesus, St. Paul, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich.

Most pointedly, he cited St. Thomas Aquinas to prove that “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law”—part of his justification for the necessity of civil disobedience against segregation.

Read even in the context of its own time, King’s letter demonstrates an aspect of his career that often is forgotten today: his radicalism, even when it came to criticizing Southern white moderates, such as the eight clergymen who sympathized with his goals but disagreed with his tactics.

At the same time, it points to his understanding of the need for broad-based activism beyond simply voting rights and de jure segregation. In our time, that concern has been given the unfortunate, academic-sounding coinage “intersectionality.”

But King, with his typical pungency, expressed the matter more memorably: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states….Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In the last years of his short life, King took a stance that, again, many activists—including longtime allies—regarded as a bridge too far by assailing the Vietnam War. He took his fateful trip to Memphis in 1968 to aid a sanitation workers’ strike that had been sparked by low wages and appalling working conditions. (In early February two black employees, forbidden by city policy from taking refuge from storms by standing on porches and forced to take refuge in the barrel of their garbage truck, died when the vehicle malfunctioned.)

Today, he would protest inadequate health care, environmental injustice, and gun laws that rip apart people of all races, ethnicities, and classes—all operating under the conviction, like the demonstrators sitting down at segregated lunch counters in his time, that they would be “standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.”

(Asking whether an “email, tweeted press release or lengthy text message from Birmingham Jail [would] carry the same gravitas,” Vanecia Carr’s thoughtful January 2022 blog post considers “The Power of a Paper Letter.”)

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