I'm taking a class called Practicing Social Criticism, and in it we've been reading numerous politically charged pieces from various perspectives and viewpoints; journal articles, newspaper opinion pages, three different books on socioeconomic status and race, etc. This last week we were given Martin Luther King Jr's letter from a Birmingham jail to his fellow clergy, and were asked to write a short response to it. The professor asked that we direct our response to King himself. I was very challenged by this assignment. I mean, come on, the man is a martyred hero who will forever remain an icon of the civil rights movement, social justice, and American freedom. He has been sainted by the Episcopal Church, and even has a national holiday in his name, fer crissake! He means so much to so many, and his words have been read, reread and scrutinized for the last fifty years. What did I possibly have to offer that could add anything new to the dialogue about King or his work? It seemed daunting and almost sacrilege.
Well... I wrestled with it for a few days before I finally wrote it. I thought that some interesting stuff came up, so I figured I'd share it here as I haven't been so active online lately.
While I am certain that more judicious men than I have informed you of the importance and far-reaching impact of your recent activities, let me reiterate that your actions are undeniably wise and timely. Revolutions are never convenient, and, as has been observed by the great Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle, there can be no progress.” The power and beauty of the words in your letter to your fellow clergy are underscored by the resolute commitment of your carrying forward a gospel of social justice. Your words “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” are profound and stirring. As a preacher, I know that words come easily for you, but these are words that linger, and will resonate a message of truth for years to come.
I am writing to you from the future, and it is astonishing and shameful for me to think that only so recently was such marginalization and exclusion encouraged in this country. As I’m writing, I know that I am kidding myself – inequality is still the norm. You will, however, be happy to learn that the world has come a long way; integration is now standard, children of all shades and hues study and play together, just as their parents work together. Mixed-race marriages barely turn heads any longer, and denying someone employment or housing based on race is illegal (though of course, it is still routine). But, the planet, and this country, nevertheless, continue to suffer from regimentally imposed discrimination, and gross disparity between those who have and those who have not.
You will be pleased and surprised to learn that the President of the United States of America is a brown-skinned man. Yes, a man of color has attained the highest elected office in the land. Certainly this is reason to rejoice and measure the strides that have been made toward racial equality. The magnitude and impact of our President’s election marks an historic event and an unparalleled victory for civil rights. But, while our brown-skinned President rode to power on rhetoric that gave hope to both the disenfranchised and progressives alike, his policies have proven to be a continuance of the oligarchic plutocracy that came before him, and which continues to thrive. The disparity between the wealthy and the working poor of our country is greater than it has ever been, and continues to grow exponentially. The current gap between the income of CEOs and that of workers’ wages would make nineteenth century robber barons blush.
Everyday our President sits across from a bust of your likeness in our country’s oval office, and everyday your legacy is abused. The influence of your life and work continue to propel convincing testimony, but as long as we, as a nation, continue to value the rights and livelihood of the CEO over that of the worker, the true meaning of your message will not have been heard. As long as we continue to value the lives of Christians over Muslims your message will not have been heard. As long as we continue to value the lives and rights of heterosexuals over homosexuals your message will not have been heard. As long as we continue to value the lives of Israelis over Palestinians your message will not have been heard. As long as we continue to value the lives of civilians in Libya over those in Darfur, or Bahrain, or Afghanistan, or Iran, or The Republic of Côte d'Ivoire your message will not have been heard. The spiritual life is not a theory – it must be lived everyday. This is something that you know and something that you did.
Forty-three years ago this week you were gunned down and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Painfully and ironically you were in Memphis supporting worker’s collective bargaining rights, an issue very much currently at stake, as a new breed of far-right conservatives attempt to strip union workers of their collective bargaining rights in the name of corporate greed. While today the issues of race are not central to the fight, an oligarchic institutional structure continues to oppress and intimidate the working poor as they threaten to lock inequality into law.
How prophetic too that your letter was addressed to clergy – today the Western world suffers from a spiritual malnutrition. Prejudice and hate continue to be preached from pulpits across our nation. Certainly there are men and women of faith who are committed to interpreting the teachings of Jesus as a call to social justice, but many who call themselves “Christian,” and claim the gospel of Christ also demand their own privilege and superiority. These Christians-in-name-only pervert scripture to further their own twisted agendas. Recently, one of them has publicly burned the sacred scriptures of our Muslim brothers and sisters, and many others continue to regularly incite hatred towards our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters, as well as provoke sanctimonious anger at immigrants who have come to this country in pursuit of the promise of the principles that our great nation was founded on.
“‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ (Matthew 25: 40)"
Oh, how this most fundamental law of all sacred teachings has been squandered!
From as far back as Rabbi Hillel’s interpretation of the Torah: “"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.," up until today, the golden rule has always been the most vital and principal seed from which all religious teachings have blossomed.
Unfortunately today, many who claim him rarely follow the example of Jesus too closely. I would much prefer to see a sermon than to hear one, and your diligence and sacrifice have shown the world what it means to be Christian; not just on Sunday mornings, bowing one’s head to empty dogma and reeling in sentiment, but by living a life that was the manifestation of the living God of Love – a daily practice of advocacy, decency, courage, and compassion as basic values.
The fight to expose hypocrisy and injustice proceeds, and your actions continue to stand as the benchmark of personal accountability to virtue and benevolence. The unending resolve that you’ve demonstrated stands as a testimony to the fact that the life of one man is equal to that of any other. And your example of civil disobedience echoes the empowering message that a man’s back can only be ridden when it is bent – this message transcends time and resounds to the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, workers, or anyone else who suffers unnecessarily under a corrupt authority. Your work and your life are a living extension of the Blood that was shed on Calvary – Blood which was shed not solely for Christians, but for the extended family of man.