Message from Rev. Carmen
|Posted by St. Alban's Episcopal Church on January 19, 2022 at 4:50 PM|
How did you mark MLK Day on Monday?
One of my traditions is to read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in its entirety. If you have never read it, or if you have not read it recently, I encourage you to take the time to do so:
Many people default to quoting from King’s 1963 “I have a Dream” speech, or his final “Mountaintop” speech given in Memphis in 1968 just before he was killed. Both speeches are masterpieces well worth revisiting.
However, while there are many of King’s writings worthy of our time and study, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is the one to which I return most often, because it is a letter to me. I may not be from Alabama, and I am not a 1960s clergyman, but I am a white minister in America.
King wrote his letter in response to a letter titled “A Call for Unity” penned by eight white ministers (including two Episcopal bishops) criticizing the timing and tactics of the Civil Rights demonstrations. King’s rebuttal is unflinching in its rebuke of his fellow clergymen’s urging for more moderate methods in place of direct actions such as marches, sit-ins, and boycotts.
This letter is not just a civil rights manifesto. It is also a love letter to the Church. Even in his deep disappointment at the Church’s failings, the love King has for the church pours forth with every word. Despite having been gravely wounded by the Church’s silence, you do not take the time to write a letter like this to something or someone you don’t love deeply.
In the letter, we see glimpses of Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the Body of Christ. King writes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
King lays out his frustrations with his white clergy brethren quite plainly: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” He never expected the ardent segregationists to listen and comprehend, but he expected more from his fellow ministers of the Gospel.
He then goes on to call each of us off the sidelines of safety whenever oppression and injustice are present. He responds to being labeled an extremist by claiming that title proudly: “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."[…] So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
This week, as we remember Dr. King’s legacy, I pray that each of us in the Episcopal Church will note the ongoing relevance of his words, especially the ones that may be most challenging for us to hear. I pray that we might be known as extremists for love, just like the one we worship and follow, Jesus of Nazareth.
Yours in Christ,