We observed MLK Day this past Monday. What is my response now? What’s his message to white church leaders today?
Jesus remarked how the religious leaders in his day loved to honor their deceased prophets and righteous ones. Jesus' challenge, at least in Matthew places the burden of proof on leaders by asking them, in essence, "Prove to me that you are not descendants of those who martyred prophets?" (1)
Like any MLK Day where his quotes are extracted to make us feel a little better about my whiteness, social justice prophets are often honored for their words after, not during their lives. Jesus' disciples are called to be descendant of the prophets in their willingness to bear the harsher consequences for speaking and acting faithfully, witnessing to a self-giving love leading to justice and peace. We are blessed when we are threatened and harassed for being faithful, for it shows we are like the prophets who were before us. (2)
Matthew, along with the other Gospels, contain an assumption of anti-Judaism, a reflection of its historical context. That is something I need to reckon with as I claim it as my tradition. Christian missionaries and teachers were presenting their case for why the Jesus way is the true way that leads to a life of faithfulness among leaders (and not one of hypocrisy).
You might say that the church of Matthew's day is not the church of MLK's day, or even ours, and you would be right in many ways. However, unless I completely disown Jesus' words against the hypocrisy of all religious big wigs, it's a problem to miss the implication of Jesus' words now- religious institutions and churches and those who run them.
To explore the relationship of Jesus' words then and now, there are two quotes. One is a snippet of the Letter from the leaders of the White churches in Birmingham, addressed to those who were protesting for the desegregation of Birmingham's downtown stores, fair hiring practices, the reopening of public parks, and the creation of a bi-racial committee to oversee the desegregation of Birmingham's public schools.
We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence. We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense. (3)
The next quote is from King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. As a result of a city ordinance forbidding his protests, King was taken into police custody and jailed overnight. Importantly, his letter is addressed to white churchman (I assume also, the leaders who signed the above letter).
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. (4)
I am a descendent of those white church leaders, preaching caution and the insulting suggestion that socio-economic and racial equity can be accomplished in the same white system (at the time of King, with all white judges and juries) the same system that created and maintained segregation and poverty. I want to ask, whose "sense" is "common" here?
As a white clergyperson serving in a mainline Protestant denomination, my cultural heritage would place me on the side of those white churchman who tried to construct a carefully worded and dignified note that would not offend whites. I can see it now: my Bishop sends me the official response of the church to the "Negro citizenry." (Oh, and what about the white citizenry?) I read their Letter (to the protestors). Do I call the Bishop's office expressing my critique of the Letter? I don't think so- not then, not now.
And Jesus' words of lament against his religious leaders? They are words directed at those, who from their safe place (and protected by their status given to them by their faith if not birth), cast judgment and blame on others who don't happen to have the same privlidge.
As King's Letter mentions, not all white clergy asked for the protests to end, and some joined with him on the front lines: "But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom." So hope persists, even if flooded by other voices.
One thing that hasn't changed: I have a choice to act, to do what is my power to do. What are some faith actions and words that white people and their churches can choose to take?(1) Matthew 23:29-31
(2) Matthew 5:11-12
(3) Birmingham Campaign | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute.
(4) This letter was signed by religious leaders across many faiths: Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Episcopalian.