Thursday, January 15, 2009

Martin Luther King, Jr. - Extremist for Love & Justice

It's been awhile since I read King's powerful Letter From a Birmingham Jail, written April 16, 1963.  Addressed to Birmingham clergy and the local ecumenical religious community, it's a masterful apologia for his lifetime's work: as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as a clergyman son, grandson, and great-grandson of clergymen, as an African-American citizen, and as a human being and citizen of the world.  The letter vividly displays his courage, his honesty in the face of criticism, his vulnerability as a human being, his passion for justice and human rights of all people, his diplomacy, his way with words, and his great love of humankind.

His message is even more potent these 46 years later as we prepare for the inauguration, in five days, of our country's first African-American president.  We've come a long way in the effort for racial justice: that's indisputable.  But, particularly as the recent tragic event in Oakland graphically reminds us, we're nowhere close yet to that for which Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped and gave his life.  

In this short tribute to a great modern prophetic witness, short because it's impossible to express fully the importance and reality for which MLK stood, perhaps just a few excerpts from his letter will suffice:

"...I am in Birmingham because injustice is here...I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town..."

"...Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality...Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly...Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country..."

"In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: 1) Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive.  2) Negotiation.  3) Self-purification and 4) Direct action..."

"My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.  History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.  Individuals may see the moral right and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals...freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed...This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never'...when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness', then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait..."

"...Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust...Segregation substitutes an 'I-it' relationship for an 'I-thou' relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.  So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful.  Paul Tillich said that sin is separation.  Isn't segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?..."

"...human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.  It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.  We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right..."

"Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.  The urge for freedom will eventually come...Consciously and unconsciously, [the American Negro] has been swept in by what the Germans call the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa, and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, he is moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice..."

"Was not Jesus an extremist for love...Was not Amos an extremist for justice...Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist...Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist...So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we 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?...So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists..."

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Martin Luther King, Jr. has much to say in the letter about the contemporary Church, and it's not a pretty picture.  Yet, in clearly loving and respectful, but brutally honest, images and words King describes the attitude of the religious establishment in this country which, unfortunately, largely rings true even today, despite the great strides taken:

"...I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.  Of course, there are some notable exceptions...But despite these notable exceptions I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church...I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it..."

"I had the strange feeling...several years ago, that we would have the support of the white church...Instead, some have been outright opponents...all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of the stained-glass windows..."

"So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice..."

"...I have wept over the laxity of the church.  But be assured that my tears have been tears of love.  There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.  Yes, I love the church...Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformists..."

"...But even if the church does not come to aid of justice, I have no despair about the future...We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom...If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail..."

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The letter concludes with these eloquent words:

"If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me.  If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me..."

We definitely need more "extremists for love & justice"!



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