Let’s review one more time…
This blog series has been one of the most telling and teaching for me. Examining Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail has been a joy. His articulation of his time in America as a black leader is insightful and helpful. Much is better. Much is not.
In the first week we looked at his very direct response to his critics. These white religious leaders of the South genuinely expressed concerns and Dr. King sincerely addresses them. He begins with very foundational idea that we are all one, connected, and all at least indirectly affected by injustice. This is a powerful truth, rooted in the Christ that is “all and in all” as Paul tells the Colossian church.
Then he moves on to explain the intention and preparation surrounding what he referred to as “nonviolent, direct-action.” This was not an easy process. To stand in the face of violence without reciprocating is deeply Christ-like and incredibly inhuman. It required training and testing. This aspect of his letter is most impressive.
In the third post of the series I examined Dr. King sharing his disappointment with the silence of “good people.” The idea that hate and violence against the black man could continue in the face of “good people” and be met with silence or even approval was seemingly confusing to him. He called for repentance for silence in the face of oppression. And I would say this is an aspect of his letter than transcends his time.
Turning attention to the church…
As Dr. King is wrapping up his letter he turns to the “church” as a whole in America and begins to correct it in a sense. Using its own history and impact throughout history he condemns the church for its inability to be the agent of current change.
“Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”
Many would refer to the voice he wanted to hear as “speaking truth to power.” But it’s difficult to speak truth to power when you are in bed with it. When it upholds church finances or leadership, power will be left uncorrected and immune to voices of truth.
Jesus was raised in a society under the boot of imperial power and his religious leaders were directly connected to that power. Their goal was to maintain peace. They wouldn’t dare disrupt the status quo because their livelihood was controlled by that status quo.
The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures were ostracized, killed, and led persecuted lives because much of their message and ministry was to disrupt the oppressive powers of their time. In this way, Dr. King was prophetic. His message was disruptive. And it should’ve been the message of the church as a whole. But like any institution working to survive, to maintain, it would not, and could not speak truth to power effectively.
I’m glad for the words Dr. King wrote to his church brothers and sisters. His disappointment was deep, but his hope unwavering.
I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future.”
His example to us is one of struggle and hope. I don’t know that he would look at the church of our modern times and believe that it has found it’s “voice.” The one he hoped to hear. I believe he would see the work still to be done. But I also believe he would be hopeful that the church could regain its historical reputation. One of love and unity. One of disruption to power and status quo. One that calls all of us to freedom and justice.
His letter is not trapped in its time. It transcends and includes his time. I hope you will read it and consider its implications. Join the discussion!