Martin Luther King Jr., in September of 1963, gave the eulogy for the four girls who were killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. He used his platform that day to give voice to those girls, letting us know what they have to say to us – both in 1963 and 2015.
“…And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.”
Dr. King’s eulogy is a powerful call for all people of all races in all vocations to accept their responsibility for the murder of those four girls.
Dr. King refused to let us believe that it was an isolated event perpetrated by 3 deranged individuals. Seeing it as such would have let us all off the hook. He would not allow us to see this like some random tornado descending suddenly, inexplicably, and innocently upon our safe, serene landscape.
No. This was a tragedy brought upon us by us.
The words of these girls, mediated through Dr. King, about Christian ministers hiding silent and safe behind stained-glass grabs my heart like a dirty rag, twists and rings it out leaving exposed on the ground my racism, my guilt and my responsibility for their deaths.
I hurt and weep when I read about or see documentaries about slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, etc. I would like to say that my emotive responses are due to my own moral goodness, compassionate heart or sense of justice.
And, for a while, this is what I believed about myself.
I confess to you, though, that the sickness I feel is the sickness of guilt. I know that what I see and hear is the social and systemic embodiment of my spiritual state.
The church bombings, shootings, and burnings happen not in spite of what we have created but because of it.
We cannot rest thinking these acts are the work of isolated criminals. As Dr. King’s speech reveals, culpability for racially motivated killings is shared broadly. I, however, am particularly grieving about my people, the ordained ones behind the stained glass.
We have used the Bible as a convenient barrier blinding us from suffering in our cities. We have used our sanctuaries as a coward’s refuge from the cost of confronting injustice. We have used our worship bands to drown out the cries of the oppressed. We have used our robes as a cloak for our guilty hearts. We have used our stained glass to distort the image of the reality known by the poor and imprisoned.
It is time to admit that the windows of our churches are indeed stained.
They are stained with the innocent blood of unarmed black men, the smoke of burned up crosses and burned down churches, the propagandist ink of the truth-avoidant news, the terrified sweat of the undocumented and the grieving tears of mothers watching their sons imprisoned for profit.
If we call ourselves “ministers of the gospel” we need to remember that this gospel points to the One who said,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus said that this is why he came. If we are not going to be about this, we are not going to be about the gospel.
Until we get on with preaching this kind of gospel, our glass will remained stained.