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Not a Letter You Want Addressed to You

Last week my students read “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  Written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, 1963, the letter was addressed to eight Alabama clergymen who had written King earlier that year, urging him to call off the direct action campaign in Birmingham.  The letter is an eloquent summary of King’s philosophy of non-violent action and a devastating critique of the call for patience, moderation, and caution that characterized the clergymen’s statement.

I’ve read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” many times, but while preparing for class it occurred to me that I’d never actually read the statement that King’s famous letter addressed.  Thanks to Google, I found it.  There are few surprises; King’s letter quotes it on numerous occasions and his arguments reveal the main themes of the statement.  Still, in its entirety it reads as a depressing justification for the status quo in the face of injustice and oppression.  “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized.  But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”

These church leaders – five bishops, a Presbyterian synod moderator, a prominent rabbi and a prominent Baptist pastor – were hardly supporters of George Wallace or of Bull Connor and his thugs with their fire hoses and dogs.  One of the eight, Earl Stallings, is commended in King’s letter for opening his church the Sunday before on a “non-segregated” basis, and the Catholic bishop is commended for integrating the local Catholic college some years before.  They considered themselves liberals in their context and were hardly the favorites of the local segregationists or Klan members.

But, like many who seek to be the friends of the oppressed, the impoverished, or the suffering while remaining firmly entrenched in a comfortable place among the powerful, these eight clergymen ultimately opted for reasonableness over risk, for patience over prophetic passion, for caution over courage.  While attempting with one eye to focus on the desperate plight of their African American neighbors, they kept the other eye firmly fixed on their parishioners for whom any real change threatened life as they had known it and as they no doubt wanted it to remain.  They either couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize that the burden of waiting is always borne by the powerless, not the privileged.  They weren’t ready to see that sometimes small, carefully calibrated risks for the sake of justice are worse than no risks at all.  And they had no sense of their own complicity in the injustices they themselves decried.

I’m sure these eight clergymen were wounded by “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  “We’re not the enemy, the racists, or the segregationists.  We accept the fact that change needs to happen, that injustice is real.  Don’t attack us!”  Yet, beneath their words lies the condescending notion that to them belong the power and the responsibility for determining the timing, the method, and the strategy for the liberation of the dispossessed.  No doubt someone has studied their response and surveyed how their minds may have changed over the course of the rest of their ministries.  I suspect it would be revealing.

We shouldn’t be too harsh.  After all, most of us resemble the eight far more than we resemble the one who wrote his response in the margins of scrap paper in a Birmingham jail.  The liberals of our day, we still respond to the oppressions or the idolatries of our time with reasonably calculated risk, with respectable cautions over risky strategies, and with the assumption that our place of power is always to be protected for some unnamed moment in the future when we will cash it in for the great cause rather than squandering it in some foolish gamble today.  The lesson for me and for my students is not to look down with superior distain at the eight clergymen; the lesson is that King’s letter is, more often than not, written to us.

Twenty years before King wrote his letter, another martyr who would become famous for writing letters from prison wrote that

We have lived too much in our thoughts; we believed that by considering all the options of an action in advance we could ensure it, so that it would proceed of its own accord.  We learned too late that it is not the thought but readiness to take responsibility that is the mainspring of action, (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison).

Or, as King put it, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”  There is much lament in Bonhoeffer’s reflection, and regret for actions deferred in the face of the impending catastrophe.  I’ve often thought that the wise pastor should keep a copy of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in the drawer of his or her desk to be pulled out and read at least once a year.  It might just help us be remembered one day as the pastor who was ready to take responsibility at a critical moment, rather than as one, like those eight, on whom the prophet had to pour his disappointment.

John H. Thomas

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