“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. would have turned 90 years ago this past week. Tomorrow, we as a nation will commemorate Dr. King’s legacy. We remember Dr. King as a hero of the Civil Rights movement. An example of courage and hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable injustice. A martyr for the cause of the liberating, life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ. And so, this morning, Arianne and I decided it would be appropriate to spend some time reflecting on Dr. King’s sacred witness.
This morning, we read part of the introduction to Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Remarkable. The letter reads almost like one of the Epistles of Paul. Like Paul, Dr. King addresses a specific concern by appealing to the Gospel and offering a universal application. And, as we do whenever we read scripture, it’s important to consider the context in which this letter was written.
Birmingham, Alabama was widely considered one of the most deeply segregated cities in the United States in the 50s and 60s. This was in part due to the severity of the segregation laws and ordinances in places. And due to the severity of the violent backlash that met anyone who spoke out against them.
In 1963, the Alabama Christian Movement for Civil Rights invited Dr. King and other leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to come to Birmingham and take part in the Birmingham Campaign. The campaign was series of protests and direct actions they had devised to resist segregation in Birmingham.
Just over a week into the campaign, the city banned all forms of protest and public demonstrations. Believing the ban to be unconstitutional, Dr. King and the SCLC announced their intention to continue their demonstrations. On April 12, 1963, Dr. King, along with other SCLC leaders and protesters were arrested.
That same day, 8 white Alabama clergymen, including, embarrassingly, 2 Episcopal Bishops, published an open letter condemning the demonstrations in general and the involvement of the SCLC and Dr. King in particular in the local paper. They wrote:
We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
Letter from Birmingham City Jail is Dr. King’s response to the 8 white clergymen. The story goes that he was so enraged by their patronizing tone - that he began writing his rebuttal in the margins of the newspaper.
In it, Dr. King lays out a robust and biblically sound defense of the use of nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience, as a form of protest. He argues that we, as people of faith, are compelled by the Gospel to combat systems of injustice. Each of us, he says is called follow Jesus’ example to be, as he puts it, “an extremist of love” in the face of injustice.
He also criticizes the Church for our impulse to protect the status quo, which he identifies as contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and the witness of the early church. In one section, he compares thermometers and thermostats. A thermometer tells you the temperature in the room right now. A thermostat measures the temperature in the room and then makes adjustments to bring it to where it ought to be. The Church is called to be a thermostat, not a thermometer.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
I’d encourage you to read the letter in full. Set aside an hour or so today or tomorrow. It will likely make you uncomfortable, as it made me. That’s probably a good thing. When we feel that happening, ask yourself: why. Why am I so upset, why am I putting up my defenses?
Dr. King’s words are almost as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in that jail cell 55 years ago. We still live in a world in which the sin of racism holds sway. In which people of color are told that their lives matter less than the lives of those of us born with white skin.
Re-reading this letter, I was struck yet again by how much it, and the context that surrounded it, continues to resonate today: Black Lives Matter and Border Walls, Detention Camps and #MeToo and Taking the Knee. Conversations and movements that often make that knot form in our stomachs. We feel the air catch in our throats. Our pulse quicken.
I often hear people say that Jesus wasn’t political. This is entirely untrue. Jesus was remarkably political, but he wasn’t partisan in the ways our society is today. Jesus’ death was in no small part motivated by a backlash to his radical message of love and grace.
God loves all of us, this is true. Scripture also shows a God who consistently sides with the oppressed, the poor, the outcast. The other. Jesus consistently chose to spend his time with the very people we often consider beneath us. Less than.
And yet, we have a tendency to put up our defenses and either dig in our heels and shout at one another or avoid the issue altogether.
But this is not how we’re called to live together. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. We are all Children of the same God, called to build community with one another.
So what are we supposed to do? The answer is love.
Now, I don’t mean cheap, easy, fairy-tale love. But the real, hard work love that only comes from allowing yourself to truly see and know another person. This is the same love that burns at the heart of creation. The love that caused God to live among us. That led Dr. King to march in Birmingham. A love that changes us. That lays the foundation to undo systems of injustice.
It’s no accident that Jesus’ first miracle took place at a wedding. Marriages are joyous celebrations of exactly that kind of love. The kind of love that causes us to make the completely illogical decision to commit to loving another flawed, broken, beautiful human being for the rest of our lives.
By turning the water to wine at the wedding of this unnamed couple, Jesus makes it clear that this kind of love is the foundation of everything he does.
Many of you know how challenging the work marriage can be. How hard it can be to push aside our own egos and be fully present to the needs and joys and fears of another person as they are. And yet, in marriage and in community, that hard work is what begins to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.
We are called to live into this network of mutuality. To lose ourselves in love for one another. To be extremists of love.
There is no one way to do this. As Paul says, each of us, as members of the Body of Christ, has many gifts that all spring from the same spirit. And so, when it comes to love, we’re all going to show it differently.
Some are called to protest. Some to legislate. Some to teach. Some to march. Some to make art. Some are called to feed the hungry, while some are called to eat. Some are called to speak and some to dream. Some are called to sit and listen. Some to forgive.
But all of us are called to love.
I’ll close with the last lines of Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail. May they be our prayer in these days to come.
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”