Faith Reflection: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Written and shared in worship by Corinne Baker, chair of Good Shepherd’s anti-racism team

Faith Reflection: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Corinne Baker, 15 January 2017

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

This is one of my favorite quotes by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., though there are many. What I love about it is it acknowledges the reality of the struggle while affirming the hope and faith in the resolution.

As we reflect on the progress down the path of justice and rededicate ourselves to the work still to do, Martin Luther King inspires me because he used and developed every gift he was given, in particular:

  • Faith, hope, calling and prayer
  • Commitment to non-violence that did not mean inaction
  • Use of words and actions toward justice and equality
  • Strategy, marketing and oratory skills
  • Patience coupled with a continuous and urgent focus on the now

King also suited up, despite what he or history may have credited to foolishness or flaws. And aren’t these things we can see in ourselves, things that impede our determination to suit up today? King didn’t let age—in his case, youth—or experience deter him. He made his massive impact as a very young man, beginning with leading the Montgomery bus boycott when he was 25. Thirteen short years later, his personal efforts were ended by an assassin’s bullet when he was 39. And King wasn’t a perfect man, but he acted and persisted anyway.

As we consider these things—using and developing our gifts and getting past our perceived or otherwise limitations and flaws/inadequacies—Martin Luther King Jr’s words and actions still inspire. There’s such a wealth to choose from but I think it’s particularly fitting today, in this worship setting, to point to his letter from the Birmingham Jail (1), written to faith leaders in 1963. I’d like to read portions that exemplify, for me, these gifts, and instruct us still in this moment, at this time.

Faith, hope, calling and prayer

Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly…

You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.


 

Strategy, marketing and oratory skills

IN ANY nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action…

So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.

We were not unmindful of the difficulties involved. So we decided to go through a process of self-purification. We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” and “Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?”

We decided to set our direct-action program around the Easter season, realizing that, with exception of Christmas, this was the largest shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this was the best time to bring pressure on the merchants for the needed changes.

… Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth…

Patience coupled with a continuous and urgent focus on the now

I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until 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.

Use of words and actions toward justice and equality

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

King’s words still have bearing. Many things have changed for the better. We no longer see ‘white’ and ‘colored’ signs, outside of museums. Segregation in communities and businesses is not enforced in clearly worded policies. African Americans are a larger part of the professional, home-owning, middle and upper classes, and hold more political offices, including the highest in our land.

But some things have not changed enough and some changes are not only counter-productive, but regressive. In some cases, our outward actions have changed but our hearts have not. In many ways, we continue to self-segregate, whether knowingly or not. As our technology, work and activity-driven lives have become busier, we have new reasons and ways to not see or act on the challenges outside our own in our communities. Racism still exists on a systemic level in education, housing, the availability of equal credit, and access to economic and political power. White people still really don’t (have to) think about the color of their skin where people of color are confronted with it daily.

We still have work to do. So let these words influence our hearts, minds, words and actions today (and particulalry to this end, note my slight deletions and additions, between slashes):

Commitment to non-violence that did not mean inaction

I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the /Negro/ community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodyness” that they have adjusted to segregation, and, on the other hand, of /a few Negroes some/ in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because at points they profit by segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses.

The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various /black/ nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, … This movement is nourished by the contemporary frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination. It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the /white man elite/ is an incurable devil.

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need not follow the do-nothingism of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the /black/ nationalist. There is a more excellent way, of love and nonviolent protest…

So I have not said to /my/ people, “Get rid of your discontent.” But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.

Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist. I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized. But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.

Was not Jesus an extremist in love? “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist? “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.” …

So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will 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?

…I am thankful, however, that some of our /white sisters and/ brothers have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too small in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some … have written about our struggle in eloquent, prophetic, and understanding terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They sat in with us at lunch counters and rode in with us on the freedom rides. They have languished in filthy roach-infested jails…” They, unlike many of their moderate brothers/and sisters/, have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of /segregation ongoing inequality/.

King’s words and actions influence and inform us still today. So let us consider:

What is the urgency of the moment today? Where do we sense the need for powerful action as antidotes to combat the disease of ongoing inequality? What will we say? What will we do?

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