Today marks twelve years since I started this blog. Twelve years. Let me say that one more time, since it sounds so strange: TWELVE YEARS! How grateful I am to have just a tiny corner of the blogosphere in which to engage you lovely co-sojourner pilgrims. You’ve faithfully followed and read, subscribed, liked, commented, and shared posts. It has meant the world to me. A little community, a global one, intent on learning more about the movements of the human soul under the watchful eye of a loving God (no, this is not Handmaid’s Tale “under his eye” material!).
To honour twelve years I am posting a hard-hitting piece by someone else I admire and follow, Dr. Kevin Young. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
First, as an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church serving as a global worker with our missions arm, Serve Globally, in Edinburgh, Scotland, this piece really stuck with me.
Second, since my job puts me in direct contact with people of all races and colours all wanting space at God’s banquet table, this piece really stuck with me.
Third, as one deeply entrenched in the world of scripture: lectio divina, exegesis, homiletics and more, this piece really stuck with me.
I hope you will log onto Dr. Kevin’s blog, support as you’re able, and interact with his excellent material. It is well worth your time. It certainly has been for me.
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The Uneasy Business of Being Viral
How one viral post changed the trajectory of my life
It was June 2020, and I was pastoring an overwhelmingly white, justice-minded congregation with a lot of money and snowbirds to match in South Florida.
I was comfortable, and so were they…. until George Floyd.
“Speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” — John Lewis
Watching the callous murder of George Floyd wrecked me.
I was angry—so very angry—but pastors have limited options for managing volatile emotions. People tend to want a pastor who will work through words at the pulpit rather than throw a punch.
But I wanted to punch something, hard. And transparently, I was most angry with myself. I had ignored decades of cries from people of color in my life. They were right, and I had been ignoring the deep racism around me.
My eyes were open, but filled with tears.
With blurred vision, I turned to social media and channeled my emotions into words and pictures, and one of those went viral.
I’ve made literally thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of social media posts over the years on Twitter, Instagram, websites, blogs, myspace, and many others… but none of them had ever gone viral… until this post on Facebook on a Monday evening.
I had run across a set of photographs from James C. Lewis, a photographer in Atlanta who had released a series of Bible character portraits a few years earlier. His goal was to depict the heroes and heroines of the Bible as people of African and Middle Eastern origins, and it featured models who identify as Asian, Native American, Hispanic, African, Middle Eastern, Black American. and West Indian.
At the time, he said: “I think it is very important to see one’s self in the scripture so that it may become real in our eyes. The whitewashing of the Bible has always bothered me.”
I stumbled across the photos quite by accident, but they moved me in ways I couldn’t fully form words around. So I selected several of my favorites from the series and posted them on my wall with this question: “Take a moment to picture the Bible characters you have heard and seen over the years. What race are they?”
Despite the fact that these characters are predominately of Semitic and African origin (i.e. people of color), since the Renaissance they have been mostly depicted as white. Just like the photographer, I grew up with a Bible that was “whitewashed.” All of the characters were white, all of the nativities were white, and all of the pictures of Jesus in our homes and surrounding churches were white.
So when I saw these images, something inside of me broke open. I couldn’t stop staring at them. They were somehow, real, in a way I couldn’t explain. They were beautiful, haunting, and somehow holy.
And, if I am honest, they were convicting.
When we become convicted by something, one of two things happens: Either we change as a result of the conviction, or we seek to mitigate the conviction by pushing hard against it and seeking instead to change the thing that is causing the discomfort.
So I assuaged my discomfort by pushing Post and going to bed.
It would be the last decent night of sleep I’d get for the rest of the week.
I woke up to almost 100 shares, and by dinner the next day it was up 300 shares… and climbing, quickly. I slept about two hours that night because the West Coast was liking, commenting, and sharing like crazy, trading off with the East Coast early to keep the snowball rolling. It’s popularity kept growing, and it was picking up speed.
I’d never had a post grow after 24 hours. I had no idea what to do or what I was in for.
My Facebook notifications were literally scrolling on my phone day and night. Every second, dozens more would show up. Great Britain, Ireland, Egypt, and Ethiopia. Turkey, Jordan, South Africa, Russia, India, and Japan.
The diversity of comments felt a bit like the Revelation image of the Throne Room of God where John saw “a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb.” [REV. 7:9]
It was beautiful. And I had never experienced anything like it.
94,000 people shared it. 38,000 like it. Millions of people saw it.
It was incredible. People from around the world were conversing in real-time, on my wall, about the Bible, culture, and race.
They were talking… Together!!
People were laughing about some of the outfits that had creases, “Weren’t there irons back then?” Others pointed out that there wasn’t an ugly person among the bunch (these were some of the most beautiful people I had ever seen). Many said they had never considered “color” beautiful, but these photos had changed their minds… and more importantly, their hearts.
Many were talking about the issue of race and how they had grown up never realizing the biblical characters were people of color. They couldn’t believe that they had never thought about it. Some expressed gratitude that they, for the first time, realized that they had been a bit of a racist.
For a moment people came together to share love and deep regrets.
But then, things began to take a dire turn, and they turned quickly!
What had once been hopeful and uniting quickly devolved into an online version of the Lord of the Flies. I half expected to see a pig’s head scroll up in the comments.
“This biblical character’s skin tone is too light,” one said. For another, “Far too dark.” This one’s hair was too short, another’s too long. Too young; too old. Too pretty; too ugly. Too tall; too short.
Gripe, gripe, gripe.
But the complaints I could have handled. I’m a Pastor, you know.
It was what came next that blew my mind.
People began to inject hate into the comments. It caught me off guard. I thought it was a joke at first. But then I started looking at the walls of those who were posting the hate, and, “Nope… This is who they are IRL.” Unhinged, hateful people who were saying horrific things. I simply couldn’t believe it.
I wanted to grab them by the shoulders, shake them, and shout:
“Your Momma didn’t raise you to be like this! Your dad didn’t teach you to act this way!
“Knock it off, already! Your family would be embarrassed (your family IS embarrassed) by this.”
“Grow up. LOL. Wow!”
A post that was designed to help us understand the beautiful rainbow of colors in the Bible was being hijacked by hate… by people filled with hate.
So I said something to myself that I’ve said many times over the years…
Not. On. My. Watch.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” — Ephesians 4:29
WORDS CREATE WORLDS.
So many of our families, our homes, our workplaces have been decimated by our mouths. Our words have created war zones in our worlds.
As I scrolled through this terrible content and hate that was multiplying across my page, I knew that there was no way that I could be a part of creating the situation where a person of color had to see those kinds of words written about them, ever.
I could pull the post, or I could scrub the comments.
I feverishly started deleting comments, hiding posts, and blocking individuals who crossed the line. I stayed up late into the night and was back up early in the morning managing the hate. I don’t think my phone left my hand for days. I spent about 20 hours each day actively managing the comments.
But I just couldn’t keep up with the hate.
The post log shows 9,700 comments, but the reality is a total number about 2 to 3 times that.
I was amazed at the things that people were willing to say and post.
And many of these individuals self-identified as Christians!
I mean, come on. Really?!
I learned a long time ago as a Pastor: HURTING PEOPLE HURT PEOPLE.
How many times had I seen this play out in relationships, in workplaces, in congregations, but especially in families!? Fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters who were struggling with one thing or another would use words to harm those they love. Instead of dealing with the root of their problem, they chose instead to project their pain on others. It’s a recipe for disaster.
It is easy for all of us, I suppose, to take the pain and evil that we have experienced, internalize it, and then return that pain to someone else. That was certainly happening in my comment section.
The Bible flat-out calls that evil.
“Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do.” — 1 Peter 3:9
For what it’s worth, that’s pretty good advice.
Don’t argue with people on social media (unless they are dreadfully wrong about something really important), and for the love of God: Don’t attack people.
Give people blessings instead of insults.
That’s not easy to do.
I began to wonder how I might live this out online in the midst of so much drama and trauma. I decided I couldn’t help everyone, but maybe I could do something for a few.
Maybe I could bless some of those who had been cursed by far too many white people.
For instance, one of the bigots had been particularly brutal to a black lady who had lamented the whitewashing of the Bible. She expressed that she’d like to have a color-correct Bible for her son. So I bought her one.
I worked to help others find local congregations that were more diverse than the ones they currently attended.
I listened and apologized A LOT.
I did what I could, but eventually the fatigue caught up with me. Sometime on Friday, five days later, I threw my hands up in the air and said:
“I give up!”
I was done. I was physically exhausted, emotionally spent, and couldn’t deal with the stress of other people’s opinions anymore.
I prayed a short prayer thanking God for allowing my words and James’ pictures to travel the world, creating a dialogue about faith and race.
I closed the prayer by telling God that I hoped it never happened again.
I wasn’t cut out for this.
I don’t have the time for this.
I don’t have the mental health for this.
I knew I needed to BE FULLY PRESENT in the place where I could effect the most change: my family.
“Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it.” —Proverbs 22:6
At that moment, it dawned on me that a large number of those comments likely came from adults whose parents had failed them.
As people commented—some with beautiful and healing words, others with hateful and abusive words—I wondered how much of that was planted in them in their early years.
I know that I said that “their momma didn’t raise them to be that way” and “their father didn’t teach them to act like that”… but now I wasn’t quite so certain. I’ve known many people who weaponized their kids, passing along their partisanship, anger, racism, and hostility. You know, that whole Hebrew Scripture idea that “The sins of the fathers and mothers shall be passed down through the generations.”
Not everyone repeats the sins of their parents’ prejudices, but many do.
I needed to ensure that my four children didn’t grow up to be the type of people who needed to have their comments deleted or hidden by a pastor to protect others.
That simple Facebook post that crisscrossed the globe made me a better dad in the end, but it also was the beginning of the end of my role as pastor in that congregation.
My newfound passion for the oppressed, for justice, and for Micah 6:8 mercy for the marginalized was too difficult for them to stomach.
It would be years before I would have another viral post or platform with any influence beyond a local congregation, but the commitment to be a prophetic voice of uncomfortable honesty was born during that warm week in June 2020.
I had spent too many years being silent and enabling an Evangelicalism that sought to silence dissenting voices.
On things that mattered to God—and now to me—I would speak up.
Even should I lose my pulpit, I had found my voice.
For such a time as this.
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Don’t forget to head over to Dr. Young’s page. Join the conversations. Support his ministry. Invite others.
What follows is long to modern, twenty-first century soundbyte attention spans. However, in it, one gets a keen sense of what prophetic Christian faith at its best can look like. Dr. King remains a paragon of courage, conviction, and unwavering commitment to peace in the face of odds that make me wilt at the thought. He’s one of my faith heroes. I pray, if he isn’t already, that he may become one of yours too.
Treat yourself to the following as, together, we commemorate his life, death, ministry career, and legacy.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
April 16, 1963
MY DEAR FELLOW CLERGYMEN:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
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 have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. 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. I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.
Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.
As in so many past experiences, our hopes bad been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.
Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoralty election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run-off we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run-off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct-action program could be delayed no longer.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which 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 for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain for civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” 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 the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
I hope you can see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly (not hatefully as the white mothers did in New Orleans when they were seen on television screaming “nigger, nigger, nigger”), and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for 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.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, 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. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. 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.
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.
If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies, a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides–and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence. This is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist. I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.
But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. 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.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” 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 extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some–such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.
Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a non-segregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.
But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, 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, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.
I have travelled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when tired, bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an 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 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 ecclesia 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.
I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation–and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.
I must close now. But before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if .you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I’m sorry that I can’t join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering, and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’s sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and thusly carrying our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Never before have I written so long a letter (or should I say a book?). I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think strange thoughts and pray long prayers?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Alas, our journey to the headwaters of Advent and Fragmentia – Adventia – has reached its glorious end. The beginning of new hope, a new road; the way of peace, grace, love, forgiveness. All of it hidden consequentially, but stealthily, in a shivering child born in the trailer park of ancient Israel. To such an inauspicious entrance for grandiose purpose, I think this piece by Cecil Day-Lewis a fitting conclusion to our spiritual and literary sojourn.
Merry Christmas, dear friends…
The Christmas Rose
What is the flower that blooms each year In flowerless days, Making a little blaze On the bleak earth, giving my heart some cheer?
Harsh the sky and hard the ground When the Christmas rose is found. Look! its white star, low on earth, Rays a vision of rebirth.
Who is the child that’s born each year — His bedding, straw: His grace, enough to thaw My wintering life, and melt a world’s despair?
Harsh the sky and hard the earth When the Christmas child comes forth. Look! around a stable throne Beasts and wise men are at one.
What men are we that, year on year, We Herod-wise In our cold wits devise A death of innocents, a rule of fear?
Hushed your earth, full-starred your sky For a new nativity: Be born in us, relieve our plight, Christmas child, you rose of light!
Cecil Day-Lewis was once the Poet Laureate England. He was only child of Rev. F. C. Day-Lewis and father of Daniel Day-Lewis. He was born in 1904 in Ballintubbert House, County Queen’s in Ireland (now Co. Laois). When Cecil was four, his mother died and the family moved to England. This poem is from “C. Day-Lewis, The Complete Poems,” Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA (1992).
Advent reaches its apex on Christmas Eve. The waiting world, pregnant with longing, grudgingly welcomes a pregnant teenager who will surrender to that world a Saviour, and light is restored to all that is dark. For this, I offer you:
“Christmas” by Sir John Betjeman.
Thanks for sharing this journey with me, and…Merry Christmas!
We have just now passed the Winter Solstice, when light compresses, forced to kneel inside a box less than seven hours long (at least in Edinburgh!), I welcome you to lighten your day and warm yourself with this lovely wee poem by R. S. Thomas, “Song.”
Currently, I am reading through a favourite book of prayers, poetry, and contemplative practice entitled “Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits” (Loyola Press, Chicago / ed. by Michael Harter, SJ 1993/2004). It is a useful and rich resource as an accompaniment and guide to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. It is also a perfect place to start for anyone interested in exploring the highly imaginative, participatory manner Ignatian spirituality teaches meditation by drawing one to inhabit biblical narratives.
For Adventia, day 23, I am sharing this gorgeous and inventive retelling of the Luke 2 story by Michael Moynahan, SJ simply titled, “In the Out House.”
The following prophetic poetry has always been such a seismic piece that it deserves a couple days. For Adventia, days 19 and 20, I am posting one of the most remarkable, strangely comforting, but deeply subversive prophetic passages in the entire Scripture.
These words, from the mouth of a young, pregnant Mary are as powerful now as they ever were. For those who think the Gospel nothing more than one’s personal ticket to heaven with little social impact, the poem that would become known as “The Magnificat” easily challenges such quaintly dismissive, erroneous assumptions.
In two translations, the New Revised Standard Version and The Message, I give you –
Luke 1:46-55 – “The Magnificat”
And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
46-55 And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God. God took one good look at me, and look what happened— I’m the most fortunate woman on earth! What God has done for me will never be forgotten, the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts. He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold. He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. It’s exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
George Herbert (1593 – 1633) was a Welsh-born poet, orator, and priest of the Church of England. He hailed from a wealthy family and his poetry is recognised as some of the greatest in the Christian devotional canon.