Dr. King Still Speaks

This most recent presidential election season saw the normalizing of white nationalism and fanning of racial tension for the cause of political expediency.  The Black Lives Matter movement reminds us that racism, particularly within the judicial system, where people of color make up a disproportionate percentage of those incarcerated, remains a persistent stain upon the soul of our nation.

We have much work to do.

Dr. King was a prophet.  He spoke truth to power. His message was rooted in the righteous anger of prophets like Amos 5:24 and Jesus who wept over Jerusalem and said ‘If now, even now, you knew the things that make for peace.’

Dr. King’s letter from his jail cell in Birmingham still speaks.  Speaks to those of us who are complicit in our silence.  Speaks to encourage those standing up for those on the margins (people of color, the poor, refugees, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ, women denied equal rights).

Dr. King still speaks.  Let us listen.  Let us respond. ~ Kent Harrop

mlk-jail

Letter from Birmingham Jail or Letter from Birmingham City Jail, is an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an American civil rights leader. . He gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the Reverend Wyatt Walker began compiling and editing the literary jigsaw puzzle.

King’s letter is a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963, titled “A Call For Unity“. The clergymen agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets. They criticized Martin Luther King, calling him an “outside agitator” who causes trouble in the streets of Birmingham.  Below are highlights from the more lengthy letter penned by Dr. King.

 

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

16 April 1963 My Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” ….

…But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;

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. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. There are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. 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 Councilor 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; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.”  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 for love?

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. 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.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin of the Poor

The last major speech Dr. King delivered, four days before his assassination, was on poverty at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968. Dr. King´s sermon was entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” containing the quote below:

“There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia; I see this poverty in the United States.”

Poverty is a reality in Massachusetts where I live: According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless http://www.mahomeless.org/advocacy/basic-facts 728,514 people live below the poverty line; in 2013 19,209 people experienced homelessness; in the 2012-2013 academic year 15,812 students were homeless; on Nov. 25, 2014 4800 families with children were living in shelters. The level of poverty in this state is double what it was in 1990.

In the face of these daunting statistics, on this anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday what would Martin have us do?

photo Dr King marching

I think he’d encourage us to get involved in local initiatives like Family Promise. In my community Christians and Jews partner to house three homeless families at a time in our places of worship.

He’d encourage interfaith worship gatherings that reminds us to work together. In the town I live we will conclude our interfaith worship with a candlelight procession to a corner of our main street (Cabot Street). We will stand in solidarity with our neighbors who are homeless. For a few moments we will feel the bitter weather that accompanies those who camp in doorways and alleys.

Dr. King would remind us that beyond offering kindness to our neighbors we are to understand and confront the political, economic and social factors that push so many into homelessness and poverty.

He’d invite us to wrestle with these words: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Dr. King’s dream of a world governed by equality and compassion remains compelling and elusive. His words are rooted in the wisdom of Jesus who said, ‘whatever you do (or don’t do) to the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do (or don’t do) unto me.’

The dream continues to capture our heart and imagination. The opportunities to serve are on our very doorstep. Let’s get to work.

Note: If you live in Beverly, MA join us for interfaith worship January 19 2015 7 p.m. St Peter’s Episcopal Church 4 Ocean Street; First Parish and First Baptist Beverly partner to house 3 families with Family Promise January 25 – Feb 1 contact either church if you’d like to help. Beyond Beverly, find partners in your local community, religious and secular to make a difference.

Israel and Palestine: Revenge Begets Revenge

Recently three Jewish Israeli teenagers living in the West Bank were kidnapped and murdered. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of ordering the murders. Prime Minister Netanyahu said: They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by beasts.” Hamas denied any involvement.

A few days after the three boys bodies were found, three Jewish Israeli’s intent on revenge, kidnapped a Palestinian Israeli teenager living in East Jerusalem. They tortured the boy and then set him on fire while still alive.

Incensed members of Hamas living in the Gaza Strip unleashed missals into Israel. Israel responded with devastating military might. As I write 500 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have died. 3000 Palestinians have been injured in bombings by Israeli artillery and jets.

Gaza Photo

What we are seeing is a seemingly endless cycle of violence fueled by a mindset of revenge. Is there any hope?

Our answer was voiced 2000 years ago as Jesus wept over Jerusalem and said: ‘If now even now, you knew that which makes for peace.’

Jesus also lived in a time of great violence as Israel lived under the heel of the Roman Empire. Jesus realized that the path to a true and lasting peace comes only through the spiritual practice of forgiveness and the hard work of seeking reconciliation.

Is such a path possible? In the past two decades South Africa, Nicaragua and Ireland by choosing the path of reconciliation have found their way to a lasting peace.

What we need are leaders in Israel and Palestine with the wisdom and courage to say ‘no’ to revenge. In the United States we can lobby that our tax dollars support only those who support the path towards reconciliation.

In the 1960’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s house was bombed while his children were sleeping. Soon supporters intent on revenge gathered outside the King home. Dr. King spoke these words to the crowd:

“Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky. Don’t get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”

By refusing the way of revenge, Dr. King set our nation on the path towards ultimate justice and reconciliation. The path isn’t easy nor is it quick. But in the long run it is the only way that we as the human family will find our way to a lasting peace.