Wednesday, January 18, 2012

MLK's Letter From Birmingham To Me

Forty-nine years ago, in April of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned for his participation in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.  He was peacefully protesting segregation and, in so doing, was violating a court ordinance against such demonstrations.  In the tension surrounding these protests, a group of eight white clergymen had issued a public statement questioning the timing and methods King was employing. King penned a 21 page response while in prison that has come to be known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” now considered a classic in civil rights literature.  It is an eloquent expression of the philosophy and rational of the non-violent movement.  It is brimming with passion and clarity. 

It is disturbing to read, particularly as he writes of why he can no longer wait patiently for change.  Example after example is given of what prejudice looks like, day in and day out, for black men and women and children.  The string of examples concludes, “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”  That line alone conveys the power of King’s rhetoric, and the pain that incites it. 

Even more disturbing is that the letter is written to me.

Not directly, of course.  I was still eight years shy of conception at the time the letter was written.  But I am reminded that King was writing to people in agreement with his goals.  He opens the letter with “My dear fellow clergymen” and closes with “Yours for the cause of peace and brotherhood.”  These were men who agreed with King’s goal of racial harmony but questioned his methods.  They implored patience, particularly as the brash segregationist Eugene “Bull” Connor had recently been voted out of office as Public Safety Commissioner.  The rationale was that the new leadership should be given time to bring about change. 

The focus of the letter is not on the active prejudice of segregation, but the passive prejudice of those who will do nothing (but wait).  King goes as far as to say that “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”  He goes on to say, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” 

I don’t consider myself prejudice.  I suppose no one ever does, not in polite society, at least explicitly.  I can build my case, point to all the relationships I have with black men, and women, and children.  They are customers, co-workers, friends, and even family (I have two black nieces).  I don’t think much about the color of a person’s skin. 

But I also recognize that I have done little to combat the racism that still exists today.  I am, I suppose, one of those white moderates.  My goodwill runs deep, but my understanding is shallow.  I have only known life in the privileged majority.  I don't know what it is like to be treated with disrespect because of the color of my skin.  It is a hard pill to swallow when King suggests that my passivity may be a greater stumbling block to racial harmony than the activity of true racists.  But it is the pill he prescribes. 

The book of Revelation offers a vision of the kingdom of God, the culmination of all things.  It is a time when all wrongs are made right. Creation is redeemed and mankind is judged.  It includes a picture of people from every tribe, people group, language, and nation worshipping around the throne of God (Revelation 5:9).  The net is thrown wide with the use of the adjective “every” to define how expansive this racially diverse choir is.  Every tribe, every people group, every language. every nation.  And this racial diversity, wide as we can fathom, is held together in racial unity.  Their worship is introduced with the phrase “In a loud voice they sang” (Rev. 5:12).  “A loud voice” is relentlessly singular.

This is what history is plodding towards.  Racial diversity as wide as we can stretch it and racial harmony as narrow as we can hem it in.  As a Christian, my roll is to offer a foretaste of that terminus now. To be truthful, I’m not sure where that leaves me.  This is a reflection with no real conclusion.  I know I gravitate toward what King describes as peace as the absence of tension rather than as the presence of justice.  This is a pattern that infects all spheres of my life - my marriage, my parenting, my workplace, and, yes, my reaction to prejudice.  I know I don't like it.  I am making progress in many of these areas.  This opens my eyes to one more sphere. And awareness is a first step.  So I keep at it...plodding on.

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