Reflection: MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail & the Creative Use of Tension
Tim Sams, Charlottesville Mennonite Church
Here in this church are 32 congregations, hundreds of people, all of whom are gathered around a central premise: we are committed to working together for justice.
However, I believe if I were to poll each of you individually, I bet I would find that almost every person has a different idea of what it looks like to work for justice.
I know this is true for our church, Charlottesville Mennonite—we too have many ideas about how justice “should” be worked for in order to be consistent with our faith tradition.
Mennonites have traditionally been known for their stance on peace and their resistance to go to war. As well as their good cooking. But it goes a lot deeper than that.
Because we believe God is loving and just, Mennonites feel called to live lives that reflect this reality. We believe that peace and wholeness is a real possibility in time and space. It’s how God intends us to live here and now and we have been given all of the necessary tools to achieve this through our faith. Empowered by the transforming work our Lord, we’re committed to developing systems and practical applications for making this peace a reality and spreading this transformation.
We have worked extensively as leaders in the art of conflict resolution even on an international scale. Mennonites have worked side by side with differing groups or factions helping them build peace in places like East Africa, Northern Ireland and Central America. Mennonites have worked tirelessly in the area of offender-victim reconciliation programs in the United States and Canada, promoting restorative justice as a way of responding to criminal and antisocial activity.
For us, we’re active in this because this is who our God is: A God of Justice. The prophet Isaiah (in chapter 58) spoke God’s words by saying:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
So like all of you, we bring something to the table in this conversation about justice. However, like you, we also have a lot of views about the way to work for justice. And when you have hundreds of people who all have differing views about how to achieve a common goal, inevitably you may have division.
Beyond all else, I’m convinced that we must learn to work together—because frankly our community needs what IMPACT has to offer.
Tonight I’d like to reflect on a piece of civil rights history that I think speaks to the issues we face as an organization working for justice. Specifically I’d like to look at a few excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and what it might have to say to us.
As you may recall, in that letter King addressed his fellow pastors—white pastors—who were concerned that King’s presence in Birmingham was ill-conceived and disruptive. They proclaimed that while his was a noble cause, it was “too soon,” and often led to violence and a disturbance of the peace. To me, as a white man from the South reading this today, I find the objections of these white clergy to be nothing short of obtuse and ridiculous.
However, King in his eloquence addressed their concerns forthright and with moving and powerful language that resonates for us today. It provides, I believe, some sobering commentary for where we’re sitting right now. And I want to focus on two aspects of King’s letter that apply to us:
The Creative Use of Tension and The Importance of Church Witness.
At the time, King’s critics urged him to slow down, to be patient, that the wounds of segregation would eventually go away and that in time, all people would be equals. Their worry was over the tension his movement created and the accompanying discord. King unapologetically rejected these calls as missing the point. Instead, he addressed this concern directly by identifying and naming the tension he was creating.
Tension is not something we naturally enjoy. We spend most of our lives working away from tension. But King’s believed that tension could be a tool for transformation. It can lead to change and in King’s case, it offered the opportunity to open up dialogue where there was none before. He says in the letter:
“…I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” …there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
For IMPACT, we too should not be afraid of tension but realize that the end goal is for transformation. Tension is not an end in itself, it always has a purpose. For King, tension was a given and he used it to highlight the injustice of segregation.
Now I’ve heard some say that invoking Martin Luther King Jr. as inspiration for social justice is a false comparison for us today. That segregation was a true evil—that today, we just don’t have these types of evils—not in our community, at least not to this degree.
But I believe these types of observations sorely miss the point.
It’s not that we need to compare who had the worst crisis of justice to tackle. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t go looking for segregation. Segregation found Martin Luther King Jr. He could have likely lived his life as a very popular preacher in a large church, a prominent man in his community, possibly even become a successful business man. Instead, King chose to stand in the gap for something that was put in his face. This is where we find commonality and inspiration, ladies and gentlemen. By coming here with eyes wide open, we are opening ourselves up to the opportunity to stand in the gap—and possibly for an issue that will not affect us personally one bit. But stand in the gap we must.
Comparing levels of injustice is a ridiculous game. What we are here to do is to be faithful to what has been put in front of us—the calls of justice that are before us. We don’t need to compare the severity of injustices of each age in order to be inspired to be awake and to stand in the gap for the things we see in our community that cry out for someone to “do something”. That is our role and we must fulfill it.
Getting back to his letter, King addresses the calls for “why now?” After a long passage where he names with brutal specificity the words used to describe men and women of color and outlines the institutional, systematic removal of dignity for a person of color, he says:
“…when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
Why must someone in Charlottesville wait for access to dental care? Why must someone wait for a bus line that will allow them to get to their job and support their family? Why on earth should our community have to wait for someone to come up with a program to address the issue of joblessness?
Why indeed. The issues are in front of us and we are beckoned to act. We have the resources and opportunity. IMPACT is involved in leveraging the creative tension necessary to bring about transformation which will lead to a solution. We must act now.
Finally, I’d like to talk about King’s hope for the church—and his disappointment.
As he approached Birmingham, his first thought was to go to the churches there because surely there he would find support for his fight for civil rights. He writes:
“…I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and with deep moral concern serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.”
He goes on to offer criticism, not as an outsider, but as a fellow member of the clergy, that,
“…the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor nor 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.”
Further, when looking for support for his cause, he found that
“The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
And then he made this dire prediction:
“If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, we need to hear these words from 1963 as prophetic for where we stand today. We are more than our creeds and our ideologies. More than our methods and ideas. We are more than our programs, our preaching, or our committees. The congregations we represent are more than just the “social clubs” that King found in Birmingham when he went there looking for partners for justice.
For our church, we’ve come to the conclusion that we’d rather be at the table where justice is talked about, than to stand apart, keeping our ideas to ourselves.
As Kristin Sancken from our church pointed out to me recently, this Micah 6:8 verse that IMPACT quotes all the time: “All that the Lord required of you is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God”: to some, the key word in that verse may be the word “justice.” But she said, “I don’t think it is. I think the most important word in that verse is ‘with’. We are doing this WITH God. Not “for” God or “on behalf of” God or “because of” God, but “WITH” God. God is doing these things already and he calls us to do them with him.”
My friends, we stand together today not because we all agree with the way things should be done, but because our conscience, our God or our faith compels us to move together with one voice, to not rubber stamp the status quo, but to stand firm and resolute that our work will bring justice to those who need it.
Together we form a powerful force—a work of God—who uses these collective actions as a means to bring justice to people who have no voice—and our community will not only be better for it, it will take notice.