Let’s Review Some…

Over the month of February we have decided to share some of our thoughts about the 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This letter was a response to the critiques of prominent, white pastors of the South. Fr. King sensed their sincerity and decided to craft a thoughtful reply. This letter is a powerful look inside the mind of a revolutionary.

In part one we addressed the interconnectedness Dr. King felt with his brothers who were oppressed in all states. He had traveled from Atlanta to be with the nonviolent protests in Birmingham. This wasn’t an easy decision but one he felt necessary. I believe his courage demonstrates an even deeper truth within the truth.

It was not just him that was connected to these oppressed, black people of the South. It was and is everyone. There’s a oneness to humanity we cannot ignore. We believe we are all from one Source. This belief should compel us to the aide of anyone unjustly oppressed. Anyone made in the image of God; which is everyone!

Last week we examined the process and importance of what Dr. King and his constituents referred to as “nonviolent direct-action.” The thoughtfulness, urgency, and intentionality of these actions were something of legend. We can all learn from the amount of preparation and patience required to successfully engage the tension without the all-to-natural urge for violence taking over.

We will not be silent…

As Dr. King continues he begins to turn the critique on the religious leaders. He holds up a mirror to their non-action. To their silence. You see, he didn’t just hold the openly racist violators culpable for the horrific violence happening in these communities and cities. He held accountable the quiet, comfortable “moderates” who watched the violence and oppression and did nothing. Said nothing.

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

At this point he isn’t “pulling punches” so to speak. These men were all to ready to critique him. To write a letter. To speak out against his protests. But they sat silently as their surrounding community carried out heinous violence in racist hate. All to often we are all to quiet in the face of injustice simply because it’s easier to criticize a victim than to call-out the violators, especially when they are our friends, our coworkers, and even our economic and social buttress.

Dr. King goes on to express, in a litany of articulate phrases, the plight of the “American Negro” of that time and in times past. I cannot ignore the implications that are still relevant today. He even goes so far as to implore these men, and us, to allow the resentments and pent-up frustrations of black people to be properly expressed in the public square.

I couldn’t help but read this and think of the Psalms of Lament, the book of Lamentations, and other biblical literature that expresses the plight of the enslaved and oppressed. God doesn’t seem to have an issue with expressions of oppression. We must remember that the Bible itself was written by a people often conquered, assimilated, and killed. Yes, they did some of their own. But we miss the cries of hurting people when we placate the scriptures and shut out the suffering saints of today.

Dr. King moves from this idea to one more pointed. He directly addresses the men calling him an extremist. He does this in an unusually impactful way. He owns it. He owns the title.

“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, 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?”

He then appeals to Jesus. When Jesus commands his followers to love their enemy, that was extreme. When Jesus said to pray for those who persecute you, that was extreme. When Jesus died sinless for the sins of the world, including those killing him, that was extreme. Dr. King’s hope was that white religious leaders and political “moderates” would understand that extremism goes both ways.

Hate or love. Which would these men go to extremes to see promoted in their city, country? Which would they see grow in their hearts and the hearts of their white brothers and sisters?

Extremism exists. The hateful extremes usually get the most attention. They are more destructive and divisive. But loving extremes are healing. Dr. King was committed to healing this country.

Silence is damaging. What should you be speaking out for today? Join the discussion!

The Letter Part 3: A Series of Thoughts on MLK’s 1963 Response to White Pastors

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