Church leaders respond, 50 years later, to King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
In towns all across America, streets are not named after them. School children do not learn about them. No one waits in line to see the homes where they were born. They are ... simply forgotten.
They weren’t necessarily bad men. They weren’t unimportant men. They were men of influence, men with a voice and the respect of their community. Most would have agreed; they were good men, according to one, “men of genuine good will.” While evil men are remembered and great men are enshrined, these men … just forgotten.
They are forgotten for being on the wrong side of history. Men forgotten for being silent when “a word fitly spoken” could have made a difference. Men who are forgotten for valuing comfort and stability over justice and compassion. Forgotten because they were unwilling to call out the status quo, and show it for it was … cruel and unjust.
These are the eight men on the other side of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The recipients. Eight well educated white pastors, priests, and rabbis who by God’s providence led reputable congregations in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.
Our distaste for people who cut in line remains unchanged as we grow up. Whether someone gets to the front of the lunch line or the airport security check before us in an unfair way, our annoyance is raised. People who steal our parking spots during the Christmas season are the recipients of our worst thoughts. We might — just might — yell a string of expletives and death threats at anyone who has wronged us on the road or in a parking lot.
It’s not just about being orderly and following the rules. Instead, we rue the flouting of justice and fairness. I have been waiting patiently in line; what gives you the right to deem yourself better than me?
Yet if we’re honest, we will quickly realize that such outrageous reactions to outrageous behavior are no better than the line cutter or parking space thief. Moreover, our sense of injustice is quite attuned to moments of personal grievance even as we neglect how our actions may harm others. If anything, these moments of rage reveal much more about us than those we think have aggrieved us.
At the Justice Conference last weekend I had the opportunity to sit down with Nathan George, founder of Trade As One, and ask him about buying fair trade and his company's awesome — and newly launched — fair trade subscription service. Here is the fruit of that conversation.
The interview was edited for length and content.
The myth that President Barack Obama closed Guantanamo his first year in office persists, but four years later the detainees are still there. Can justice be served?
I wanted to find out for myself. Over the past month, the Obama administration has started prosecuting some of the Guantanamo prisoners. They are tried in a specially constructed courtroom at Guantanamo, under military commissions rules touted to restore the rights absent under former President George W. Bush’s tribunals.
The trial logistics are a challenge: the tribunals convene periodically on the Guantanamo naval base under tightly controlled conditions. Additionally, the hearings are simulcast to military bases in the U.S. where members of the public and press are allowed to view.
I went to the Ft. Meade army base in Maryland to view the proceedings via closed circuit TV. While I was there, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, alleged ringleader in the September 11, 2001, attacks, and four other men charged with various crimes related to 9/11, were on trial. The government is asking for the death penalty for all five men.
"The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice," proclaimed the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It may bend towards justice, but it does not bend gently. It bends behind sweat of the brow, creativity of the mind, and love from the soul of those who believe that every living soul not only desires justice and equality, but has a right to it. You see, justice is not a passive pursuit. The moral arc will not bend without encouragement.
Dr. King was a living example of the kind of person who encourages the moral arc of history to bend toward justice. He is also an example of the only effective way to bend that arc — non-violently. We cannot hope to bring about justice by unjust means. Might, physical confrontation, and other forms of domination will ultimately only result in nurturing an understanding that domination is an ineffective way to resolve issues of justice — and domination is the exact opposite of justice. As King says, "Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love."
In the church where I grew up, the first Sunday in Advent was dubbed the “hanging of the greens.” On that special Sunday, we sang carols in the decorated sanctuary, all culminating in the children’s live nativity scene. The service never changed from year to year. The only variables were how many kids needed roles and which young child would get stage fright, thus leaving part of the the story without visual representation.
It always seemed like the doves were cursed. The doves rarely remained on stage for the entire performance. Over the years, I was a variety of animals — a wise man, a shepherd, and finally Joseph. I never got stage fright. I was never a dove. I can only imagine what my mother would’ve done if I had been that kid.
It took me years to realize that there was a character missing from my congregation’s telling of the story. We always left out King Herod.
This was a huge oversight, because Herod plays a major role in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth.
I can remember hearing several times as a middle and high schooler that Christians lie the most when they sing. These claims generally came from the mouths of college-aged worship leaders during emotional praise segments at mission camps and conferences. They were usually followed up with a heartfelt plea to raise honest words and promises to God during the next song. (And if we really meant it, we would ignore the burning stares of our judgmental, worldly peers and come down front for our seventh altar call.)
Though I generally don’t remember these scenes and indictments fondly, I have recently been contemplating the idea of honest worship, especially in relation to the Christmas season. I mean, how often do we memorize a whole song and sing along to it regularly without really stopping to contemplate the lyrics? And even when we do realize what we’re singing, how often do we actually let those words transform our hearts or actions or perspectives?
All of these thoughts started stewing in my mind during my Thanksgiving vacation two weeks ago. Per usual, I started playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving (and by the day after I mean a few days before). As I was washing dishes, belting out my favorite version of “O! Holy Night,” I was suddenly struck with the thought What am I singing? Read the lyrics below to see if you get what I mean. (Hint: my moment happened somewhere around the second verse.)