A fifth way to respond to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is to be ever vigilant. Yes, I must start by celebrating and then confessing, which leads to continuing the struggle and fighting the new fights. But these four responses lead me into an overall mode of operating, which I would call “being ever vigilant” as the fifth and final way to respond, among many others might suggest beyond mine.
One who is ever vigilant on the issue of race and injustice is a person who understands that prejudice is not a sin that can be extricated from the Church and society as we might put behind us some primitive squared-version of a wheel. Sin and righteousness do not build in ages like science and technology, but must be forged and purified anew in each age. Each generation, each human being, has it’s own propensity to prejudge people for the way they look—for the way they are different than themselves. And each government, each law, each politician—each person with each of the particular powers they might amass unto themselves—each of these as they rise and fall has a propensity to protect the powerful and oppress the weak. The prophets of the Bible recurrently spoke to injustice, even though they preached to scores of kings and courts, dozens of generations and peoples, in differing centuries of time and age. As new kingdoms and generations rise so are new prophets and prophecies required for one thing remains the same: the propensity of those in power to oppress.
So we must not assume that “all this is behind us” but instead can live in a healthy tension. The sins of racism and injustice are much like the sins of lust and adultery, in their practical challenge. Every new marriage is threatened by these sins, and we do not assume that we “got that sin licked” in the last generation. Instead, we must have a culture of awareness where we strategically aim at the sin, and systemically support new marriages in the struggle. A similar vigilant culture is needed to keep the creative tension alive is needed in terms of racism and injustice.
Martin Luther King in the Letter* explained his own view of this tension by speaking of a philosopher who informed his methods:[quote_box author=”” profession=””]“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, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism.” –Martin Luther King Jr. in the Letter from Birmingham Jail[/quote_box]
This creative analysis requires constant vigilance so that an honest tension can be cultivated. Of course the tension is not in truth “created” so much as “exposed.” MLK went on to say, “we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive… Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
So, we must continue on in constant vigilance in these matters. This is uncomfortable for us. We who have been a part of an oppressed people and likewise we who are guilty of complicit actions within a system of oppression would like to find a day where this can be “put behind us.” However, the ministry of reconciliation not one of forgetfulness, it is one of forgiveness. What is restored by Christ is not blindly recreated into it once was, like some kind of sci-fi memory wipe and time-travel. Instead, what is restored is even better than it once was because of the presence and transformative power of the Holy Spirit. As he has done with Christ himself, the Father somehow makes the one more beautiful and more holy that borne the scars. They are not erased, but instead the story of the scars receives part of the glory itself. This is why scarred hands and feet, pierced sides, crowns of thorns, and crosses themselves are our symbols. The scars somehow become sacred.
There is an enemy to this restoration-targeted reconciliation. The great foe that fights against allowing tension to be raised is the grand giant of respectability. I have seen this giant rule supreme even in our day. Our churches and denominations and communities don’t want a hint of tension to remain. It is bad public relations. It is, in an odd way: politically incorrect. While one might roll their eyes or even shout down someone using a racially-loaded word in a different kind of political correctness, but they also will also roll their eyes or edge out of leadership someone who brings up the issue of race in a way that threatens the status quo. Someone that points out the tension in our grand game of respectability and points out that the emperor has no clothes is relegated to peripheral status, or pushed out completely.
I have felt this pressure from the giant of respectability. Others have privately cautioned me from making a big deal about race and injustice. Some have advised of the threat it can have on career, of the limiting future in people becoming what King suggested are “tension gadflies.” These tension gadflies are not asked to take the microphone, tension gadflies are not appointed to high posts, and tension gadflies are definitely not elected to anything political (whether in government of the country or of the Church, which both have their political realities, no matter what anyone says).
The thinking here is to consider how our elders view us. Usually the emperor with no clothes is older than you, and often the generation before us feels more suppressed guilt over matters, and they read between the lines of the critique as being “about them” (it is not necessarily true, expect that they have lived longer so have had more time to amass a track record.) So we are advised that our elders would be “embarrassed” by amplifying these tensions, and to diminish them accordingly.
What’s more, our peers push us to “focus on more important things.” The subtle point here is that “racism and injustice is wrong but there are bigger, more missional issues at stake.” Elevating the tension on race now, they say, will only distract us from more mission critical matters.
I understand that we must respect our elders, and I hope my critique is never unduly focused on them. Each generation has sins to atone for, and I am not one to believe that any generation is more sinful than another (although certain sins ebb and flow in their cultural acceptance). I also feel that my peers are right that racism and injustice are not the only issues today (although I disagree that it is not mission-critical and will only say that it is merely among the mission-critical issue of our day.)
However, I would say that my hope is not to make primary how my elders or peers view my actions—but instead to wonder how will my children view my actions? How will my children consider my generation as a whole? What pervasive culturally accepted actions will they intuitively know we are guilty of, with the new perspective passing decades always seem to grant? My inaction, my silence, may be seen by my children as a different kind of extremism than one the “respectable middle” and the giant of respectability tries to silence—a kind that is all the more insidious for its acceptance in our society.
King spoke to this conception of extremism and respectability so excellently in his Letter. He says that he was “initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist” but over time the moniker grew on him as he considered that all those he admired most were considered extremists, starting with Christ: “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.’”
After this King marches through litany of extremists who shaped our doctrine, starting with Amos, “an extremist for justice,” reminding us of his refrain, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Then Paul: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Then Luther: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And even Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”
As I look to be ever vigilant in response to the Letter from Birmingham Jail, I wonder the following: What is the Christian faith if not a counter-cultural movement that calls us to question the overall beliefs and preconceived notions of the larger culture in the world, or our country? What is following Christ but not a humbling, unrespectable, stooping motion of taking up our own cross, potentially being persecuted by a world hell-bent on perpetuating the status quo over all else.
I am reminded, when reading the Letter, that for the world, change is always the greatest foe. But for us, a status quo of sin causes us to be ever vigilant, and to embrace change. Change is just another way to spell Christ, or the Church that embodies his mission. Where there is Christ, there is change of heart; where there is Church, there is change of culture. Where there is no change of heart, we search for Christ and cannot find him; where there is no change of culture, we seek the true Church and do not find her either.
So, the final way I must respond to the Letter is to be an extremist who is ever vigilant about my own prejudice, and the racism and injustice that power so blithely enables without conscience. I must be on constant vigilant watch in my choice between the two extremisms:[quote_box author=”” profession=””]“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?” – Martin Luther King, Jr. in Letter from Birmingham Jail[/quote_box] [divider type=”simple”]
Links to the “Five Ways to Respond to the Letter from Birmingham Jail” Series:
*All references to the Letter are to the Letter from Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.