06/11/2020 Listening to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Today – By Pastor Katie

I feel the call to allyship with our siblings who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), rising like the tide within me. As Christians, we talk about solidarity, especially the solidarity of Christ. God became human in the form of Jesus, and not just suffered like us, but suffered with us. In turn, we are called to be in solidarity with others, especially those who are marginalized, hurting, and oppressed. Jesus’ ministry focused on seeking out the least, the lost, the last, and the lonely.

This summer, our sermon series is 10 Pairs of Biblical and Public Figures. Next week I will be preaching on Moses and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so this week I have been reading the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. as part of my preparation. A Civil Rights paragon, a renowned speaker, a prolific writer, and a Christian called by faith to work for change. Read about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here. 

Dr. King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” from April 1963, has been sounding in my ears this week. It convicts me of my reticence, and it underscores that the rhetoric resistant to change continues today as much as it did 57 years ago. 

Dr. King wrote this letter as a response to “A Call for Unity,” a statement by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods. These same clergymen had written “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense” in January of 1963. 

I confess, as a white clergyperson, this letter could certainly be written to me. Read the full text of “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” here. 

So, this week, I want to share selections of that letter and I encourage you to really hear what Martin Luther King Jr. is saying. If it ruffles your feathers, I invite you to sit with that discomfort and examine it; question yourself what is the feeling within you, what anger or grief are you feeling? What can you learn from these feelings of tension?

Dr. King writes,

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.”

The protests in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown’s death were one of the first times these same issues we are facing at present became a nationwide conversation. Then, nothing changed. 

Jamar Clark – Minneapolis, November 2015

Philando Castille – Falcon Heights, July 2016

George Floyd – Minneapolis, May 2020

(Those are just a few of the local ones, we’ve had so many more BIPOC lives lost and taken.)

Dr. King continues, 

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…In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

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. 

Dr. King draws on examples of Civil Disobedience from our own Biblical tradition: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, there is also Daniel (and the lion’s den), and the persecution and martyrdom of early Christians. 

Legal versus illegal is not a sufficient measure of what can or should be done. Once upon a time, slave ownership was legal and aiding their escape was illegal. The Boston Tea Party was illegal and a huge destruction of property, yet we herald it as the beginning of the American Revolution. 

Dr. King goes on,

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 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; 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.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than    absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I confess, this is the same language I continue to hear today: ‘order’ over ‘justice;’ those who ‘don’t agree with the methods;’ those who think we should ‘wait for a more convenient season.’ It has been 57 years since Dr. King wrote this letter, how long are we going to wait for a “more convenient season”? The call to ‘wait’ means ‘never.’

Many of us have said, “I’m not racist,” or “I’m not a member of the KKK,” or “I never owned slaves.” It is easy to distance ourselves from these overt evils, and keep them at arm’s length. It gives us comfort and relief to know we’re not ‘bad’ like X, Y, or Z. This is part of the problem. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is calling us—“white moderates”—on ‘lukewarm acceptance.’ 

Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, said “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” 

We cannot choose neutrality and silence. 

Black Lives Matter. 

Black Lives Matter. 

Black Lives Matter. 

Dr. King continues, 

…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.” 

And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” 

And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” 

And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” 

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? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? 

In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps…the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

“Extremists” sounds scary, terrifying even, upon first glance. Then Dr. King breaks it down and gives us other ‘extremists’ who we regularly turn to for guidance and inspiration. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the public figure we are learning about this week in our sermon series, said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Our generation might not be guilty of building the system that is steeped in racism and broken across all areas of our society, but we are all responsible for working to dismantle racism and build the beloved community. 

Pastor Katie


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