52 Years After Letter from a Birmingham Jail

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52 years ago today, April 16th, Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama responding to Christian leaders who questioned his actions and the actions of civil disobedience committed by African-Americans throughout the South. As with all significant moments in history, we look back to celebrate our progress and grieve how far we still have to go.

52 years ago, Dr. King went to Birmingham because he said injustice was there. He wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” He challenged us to reconsider our individualistic American mindsets that our neighbor’s actions don’t affect us, and that injustice if left untreated, would continue to spread like cancer from city to city.

52 years later, segregation is illegal in the United States, but it remains the preference of many ethnic groups in the United States. Cries for justice are no longer declared just from podiums and pulpits, but also through hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter. Diverse groups of people have rallied behind the Black community as awareness is being raised at the reality of unarmed Black men being killed on a weekly, if not daily basis. However, far too many find “#BlackLivesMatter” offensive. It is seen as an attempt to elevate the concerns of the Black community above others. The lives of the deceased are devalued, and there isn’t a broader conversation about the injustice that created the communities that restricted the options of life for these troubled youths.

52 years later, the laws in the U.S. have changed but not so much the hearts.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. – Martin Niemöller

52 years ago, Dr. King wrote the formula for civil disobedience/non-violent protest: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation to determine if justice can be brought, self-purification/preparation to meet violence with non-violence; and direct, non-violent action. He was always inviting people to engage in peaceful protests, love the person and hate unjust actions. He stood against riots because he accurately believed that while “a riot is the language of the unheard,” it still only creates more problems and solves none.

52 years later, after the assassination of most of the leaders committed to non-violence, after decades of police corruption, unemployment and underemployment, and inadequate schools throughout the country, it seems as though “the cup of endurance” Dr. King spoke of has indeed run out. There is little to no respect of the lives of Blacks in the United States, apart from the world of entertainment. There are videos released consistently of them being killed by the police. Beyond the Black community, higher levels of unjust policing of ethnic minorities are emerging around the nation. This swelling of anger at injustice has led some to angrily turn weapons on the police themselves. We have amazing, sacrificial, kind police officers in every city—I pray. There are also so bad, corrupt, cops. Sadly, we have entered into a time where the regards for human life—civilian or law enforcement—have diminished. We apparently have not opted for “peaceful co-existence but mutual annihilation.”

52 years ago, Dr. King wrote to clergy and communities alike, calling them to see “justice too long delayed is justice denied,” “why we can’t wait,” and his disappointment with the silence of Christian leaders (if you’ve been following my blog, clearly most of my posts regarding race and ethnicity are reflections of Dr. King’s writings.) He called for communities to see time does not inevitably lead to change, but rather change comes from tireless efforts of leaders. He told everyone the pain of “waiting.” He grieved how people who bare the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus would support or silently submit to racial inequality but proclaim Jesus’ good news to the poor and freedom for the captives from Luke 4.

52 years later, have we made progress? Of course. 2015 is not 1963. But let’s not pretend the progress has been monumental. Our progress has been on the sidewalk, not in a car, or by plane. Our progress has been begrudgingly slow, and painful. We still cannot have an open discussion about race and ethnicity in our churches. There’s still deafening silence on matters of race, and tremendous levels of cross-cultural distrust.

Time has not healed our wounds, not by a longshot. Yes, the President is bi-racial man, and while he has been in office since 2008, race relations have moved in the opposite direction. If you don’t believe me, read the comments on any news report on any medium of your choosing.

On a personal note, I have been in numerous meetings with ethnic minorities around the United States this year as multi-ethnicity and racial reconciliation are hot topics. I have had too many cups of coffee while having the same conversations. On one side, I have met with Christian white leaders that want diversity in their churches and organizations, but there is a stout unwillingness to share decision-making power and introduce cultural elements that affirm the groups they want to reach (i.e. hire a staff of a particular ethnic group, sing diverse songs, diverse speakers, etc.). To join many—not all—majority white communities of faith means we’ll need to leave much of our ethnicity at the door. We are welcomed in the room, but not at the table unless we assimilate. On the other side, I have Black, Asian, Latino, and even White friends who are going to two different churches. They attend the majority culture churches because they have a heart for diversity, and then they go to their second church because, well, they are heard and understood. It shouldn’t have to be that way.

52 years later, our laws have changed but our hearts haven’t as much. There are glimmers of hope. Chinese-Americans have been championing injustice in the Black Community as many of us have lost our voices from the endless screaming and tears. Many White brothers and sisters have stood beside Blacks and Latinos as advocates and bridge-builders. Native American and South Asian communities are finding their voices, advocating for others and themselves. There is progress being made, but I honestly don’t know if we will ever arrive. What is needed in our country is a transformation of the heart, and only God works from the inside…

…and He was asked to leave our schools and courts of law some time ago.

Hence, my concern.

–SMW

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for continuing to speak and inform even though it is the same conversation over and over and over. I stand (sit? kneel?) with you in prayer that we all will be transformed.

  2. Sean,

    Thanks for putting this into words. Thanks for your leadership and ministry.

    I’m sorry that, while there has been change, there isn’t enough change. I’m sorry for the racist comments about our President. I’m sorry for the brutal police injustice, in some places, where there is obvious racism evidenced in violence toward blacks. I’m sorry that I can drive in most communities in the US unafraid of being stopped by a cop and that you have to be cautious in certain communities. The list could go on, of course, …

    This gets into a little theology but I’m reflecting on your last sentences. I do not see the US as a “Christian” nation, in fact, I’m not even for Christian or other religious nation-states, e.g. Muslim or whatever. I see that we have a pluralistic nation state that is made up of Christians, Jews, atheists, Muslims, agnostics, Hindus, etc., etc. So, this is part of my theology where I see it biblically: I don’t have hope in the nation being transformed from the heart because many (most?) are not believers in Christ and do not even have it as a goal to be transformed; they operate from a different base. But, I DO have hope in the Church, the Kingdom, which transcends every national boundary and is composed of believers in every nation state. And, I see your call as primarily directed to the Church- and there is need for transformation of the heart there.

    So, I see the call to the Church to be based on what Jesus has called us to: breaking down walls (Eph 2, etc.), loving our neighbors AND enemies (Matt 5:43-48), etc. Transformation of the heart. I see the call to the State (USA or any country) to be a call to basic fairness, equality, goodness, fairness, etc.- but it is not based or rooted what Jesus would say because most are not believers and we can’t call them to something (e.g. loving their enemies) that they haven’t committed themselves to.

    So, there is where I see the difference in the call to followers of Jesus and the call to a pluralistic nation state.

    I appreciate your words and call. It is what we should share with students on our campuses, in our Bible studies, etc. For me, one of the ways I felt called to live that out in my context where I was a pastor in Toledo for 17 years was to initiate a relationship with a neighboring pastor. Ours was a predominately (not entirely) white, Mennonite church; Duane’s was a predominately black (100% black when we first met), Baptist church. Long story short: he and I became friends, our churches started doing some things together, we worked together to start a microenterprise program for lower-income persons starting their own business (I became the Exec Director, but that’s another story 🙂 ), we had pulpit/church exchanges twice a year (yes, this white bro preached twice a year at that black Baptist/Full Gospel church…and loved it!!!), etc. We were trying to model what it meant to be black and white churches, and building friendships and breaking down walls. It was good.

    I wanted to share some of my story prompted by your writing.

    Thanks, bro, and will look forward to talking tomorrow.

    Phil

    P.S. I’ll need to tell you the story of my gift of the salt and pepper shaker I gave Pastor Duane and the congregation…

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