We continue here with Martin Luther King's letter written to those pastors who questioned his presence in Birmingham.
He writes, "I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham since you have been influenced by the view which argues against 'outsiders coming in.'"
I am struck first by the notion that this is a similar complaint made against prophets and Jesus. Why are you here? What business is it of yours? We were fine until you agitated? There is a bit of incarnation theology here. What does it mean for the church to enter a situation in need of attention? Is it not the church's business to enter the public sphere and to participate in the work of holding powers of this world accountable to higher visions of community life? I believe so. The idea that there is a private sphere and that the church and Gospel is spiritual and belongs captivated within the buffered individual's life is part of secularity.
The powers have always said, "Leave us alone." But Jesus confronts the powers directly, peaceably, and with a vision of freedom, food, and healing.
King continues that it is sometimes necessary for friends to join in local causes. This is what he says, that he is there because of the network of affiliates and friends who have come together to work for the movement of human rights. Moreover, he and others were invited to be present.
This is important too. It makes me think of the Christian vision that we are all apart of God's creation. We are all members of God's world. That we are intimately connected. Our lives impact the lives of others. Our choices impact the lives of others. Our presence means something. Jesus himself points out those who are being mistreated or left in the shadows in the wake of the Pax Romana - which brought no peace. He said I see the poor and their lives matter. I see the hungry and their lives matter. I see the cast out and their lives matter. I see the ill and their lives matter. From Moses and the prophets people have gathered and pointed out to the powers that be: the Israelites matter, this widow and orphan matter, these bound and carried away to Babylon matter. There are times when we do not say and the Romans matter, and the Egyptians matter, and the Babylonians matter. There are times when we gather together with the oppressed and say - these people matter. These black lives matter. This is what King does. He and his staff go to Birmingham with others to point out that these black lives matter.
God has a vision for how people are treated. God has a vision for how these people are to be freed from oppression. God has a vision for how these people may gather, pray, and sing. But also, God has a vision for how they may work, and ride a bus, and go to school, and sit at a counter.
Jesus, the prophets, the church has gone to Birmingham because "injustice is here."
King writes, "Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid."
What King has done is locate the church's work outside the confines of a building and invited with curiosity the notion that the work of the Gospel has an impact on the life of the world around us. King tells us, just as the first apostles worked for the widows and orphans because the government was ignoring them in the distribution, so we need to be aware. We as a church must have our eyes open.
Is vigilante justice on the streets of our neighborhood part of God's vision? No. what happens when the police become judge, jury, and executioner? This is not a role the police want, and I don't believe that we want our streets patrolled by vigilantes with their own ideas of justice. The problem is deepened when we see that this is happening to one group within our community over and over again - black people. The Church is invited to point out and to call out a higher vision of society. We are invited, as was King, to join people in our wider society and make the changes needed.
As society wakes to say "no more" and "things must change" we cannot let those be words alone. King was invited to go to Birmingham. He said yes, I support your cause for justice there in Birmingham. But his were not words alone. He went, and he joined the people there in seeking justice. The church at this time cannot let its words be words alone, it must lean in and engage the wider society in the work of justice-making for the sake of the black lives that matter to God.
- "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
- "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
- "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
- "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
- "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
- "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
- "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
- "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball