Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the date Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., penned his passionate call to nonviolent direct action, Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
In King's time, the status quo that everyone took for granted was called segregation. King's challenge to segregation threatened the entire social and moral order. Operating in the context of the established Christian church, clergy were keenly aware of the disruption to the established social order that would result if they embraced integration. To challenge segregation would cause division within congregations, would alienate mainstream congregants, and could expose parishioners to the risk of violence.
The clergy of Birmingham were no different than the clergy of today, in their fears and realistic appraisal of effects of taking on issues of "social justice" in their congregations. The particular issue is different, but the challenge is the same. In every time in history, clergy and lay people alike are called to weigh whether our social structures and individual beliefs are based in timeless principles, or whether instead some of our deeply held beliefs or rooted practices reflect our cultural bias. The clergy of Birmingham urged King to proceed cautiously and with restraint, to avoid causing tension and confrontations that, perhaps, could drive away donors, offend constituents, split churches, or even result in violence.
In response to those fears, King wrote:
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
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. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.
I ask, are you willing to walk the streets of Albany?
In 2010, I reproduced the letter in entirety on this blog, at the following link:
Please take time to read it!