One of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most well-known works is his penned Letter from A Birmingham Jail. His mastery of classical thought and application to the world is remarkable, but what makes his work so powerful is how much of it remains pertinent for us today.
Of interest is his critique of white moderate clergy — those who preached comity in heart, but exhibited dissonance in their action, offering commitment without sacrifice and allegiance without cost. Rev. Dr. King’s legacy is too vast and important to whittle down any aspect of it, but religious leaders in the U.S. can honor his work by taking these words seriously.
Recent years have strained the public conscience in new ways. From the events at Charlottesville and the continuum of persons gunned down, to the hatred or cold silence of friends, the need for clear and robust voices grows louder — especially those who would seize our hearts and enrapture our imaginations with the ideal of a better tomorrow.
While our assembled leaders reflect a diverse populace, the value of local religious and civil leaders cannot be undervalued. The pastors, priests, and permanent fixtures of our community carry immense sway among their congregants and can do just that, offering a divergent picture of how the world can be and what it takes to get there.
In the days leading up to MLK Day, people wear Rev. Dr. King’s words like a mantle, honoring him in sincere, but occasionally hollow manners. In lieu of this, it serves us well to recall the context which birthed them.
In April 1963, Dr. King was thrown in jail, following a local injunction banning demonstrations in the city of Birmingham, where his nonviolent campaign operated and subsequently faced backlash when state clergy wrote to counter the protesters’ movement. From inside a cell he composed his famous letter, scribbling on what surfaces he could find, a piecemeal beauty compiled on scraps.
While his words are illustrative of the need for broad engagement across all society, his most pointed rejoinder was aimed at other clergy. His criticism of the white moderates of his day should not be overlooked due to anachronistic impositions on the term moderate. It would be easy for people — whether conservative or liberal, whether theologically or politically — to use this term as a method of dismissing the substance of what he said.
As we reflect on how to honor these words of Dr. King and bear witness to his legacy, several things stand out, all of which are worthy of more consideration than can be extolled here. First, his faith and social work were inextricably linked. These were not two independent spheres, but they intersected with each other.
Integrating faith and social action is a dynamic part of biblical history, whether found in the boldness of Esther or how the disciples were compelled to the work of charity for widows in the book of Acts. We recall our faith is not simply an esoteric or gnostic belief system, but is embodied. We have a God who offered himself to us, incarnate in the flesh as the person of Jesus, in the sacraments of Baptism and Communion.
What does it say about our faith if we cannot or will not bring it to life in pursuit of the common good, such as the restoration of human dignity, justice, and the protection of the poor? Our religious leaders cannot be content to claim faith is practiced solely in private, because the very claim “Jesus is Lord” is inherently a political statement, a confession that the supremacy of governmental authority is penultimate at best.
Even when aware of the interplay of faith and social justice, humility is a necessary quality, especially for those who agree with the goals of social movements while expressing frustration at their methods. It will require humility to listen with assiduous intent, not to critique or retort, but to hear and take heart. It will require humility to accept knowledge from experience, alongside didactic syllogisms and exegetical nuances. It will require humility to know what we do not know and partner with organizations not by taking over, but by taking directions. And it will require humility to act with haste, even when we have not been directly impacted by injustice.
The epistle of James teaches us “faith without works is dead.” If it is important to understand that faith is essential to social renewal and a posture of humility is necessary in taking Dr. King’s words seriously, we are left with the question of what it means and how it looks to act. In his letter, Rev. Dr. King noted that tension is an integral part of his work. It may be in the small act of stopping a bigoted joke by a friend; it may be the loss of relationships; or it may be in sacrificing for a goal not yet realized — but we are compelled to act.
As Dr. King continued in his letter, he addressed the “strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.” That is, things do not change by the passing of time, but because change is sought and fought for. However, the pressing need for change does not mean people in the majority culture need to start new groups or seize control of established organizations, but instead should consider how to join in humble partnership with those already invested in communities, whether through volunteering their time, offering financial support, or standing up when called upon.
Justice does not cascade on its own. Progress will come, but only if we are willing to do the hard work required of us. If we offer our support, we must back it up.
Since the critical inaction of white moderates was problematic during Dr. King’s era, hopefully we can learn from our past mistakes.
Today our clergy can lead us into action by teaching, leading from example, and developing us into the type of people who care about our brothers and sisters. We can seek policies which lift people up, and support leaders of character. We can ask and learn and discover what we can do. There are books which can help and organizations pointing the way.
The opportunities for getting involved in grand matters of importance like mass incarceration are boundless. But so are the opportunities for making a difference in the souls of our fellow congregants and in our own backyards. And we can remember that we are all in this together, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”