A Letter to Us from Birmingham Jail

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A Sermon by Joe Agne

Looking at John 1:43-51 and Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

First United Methodist Church of Boulder, Colorado

January 15, 2012

During my first year in college I went to a fall retreat for about 100 college and high school students in Bloomington, Illinois. On the last night of the retreat one of the leaders, Rev. Clark Taylor, told us of an event he had attended that was sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. Martin Luther King’s organization. We learned the purpose of the SCLC, “the healing of the nation.” We each got buttons with this saying. We learned of Dr. King’s triplets, his opposition to racism, militarism and materialism. Then, Clark taught us a new song he had learned at his SCLC event called, “We shall overcome.” I had never heard of this song. We were meeting at an old campground and we were in the outdoors “chapel” area. The evening concluded with a commitment to keep silence until breakfast. They gave all of us candles and we walked across a bridge back to our cabins, carrying our lighted candles and singing, “We shall overcome…,” “We are not afraid.”  “We’ll walk hand-in-hand.” “Black and White together….”

That evening, on that bridge, carrying that candle, singing that song, I had a sense of God within me and among all of us there. I made a decision that night that I would live my life trying to work against racism, militarism and materialism. I had no idea what that meant but that was who and what I was going to be. “I had decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back”

Nathaniel asked before he decided to follow Jesus, “Can any thing good could come out of Nazareth. Nazareth had 200-300 people living in it and is never mentioned in Hebrew Scriptures. Nathaniel is wondering and questioning whether anything significant can come from such an insignificant place.

My question was similar to Nathaniel’s, yet different. My question wasn’t about geography. Rather my question was personal, “Can anything good come out of me?” It wasn’t that I thought I was not a good person. How would I live my life so that it was congruent with my values and, really now, can any thing that really matters come from me.

From that day until April 4, 1968 I searched for ways do my part with Dr. King. I marched, I organized, I agonized, I rejoiced. I struggled. I challenged. I spent time in jail. I wept. I laughed. I was part of successes and part of failures. Among the learnings was that the Black Community didn’t need me to work in the Black community. My part was to work in the White community, to help my community do its part to end racism, militarism and materialism.

The niche I found for myself was to try to be honest and help others be honest about being a liberal or progressive white person. I had watched persons in the north focus on racism in the south and pay no attention to our own racism. I learned that many in the Black community were just as wary, or even more wary of progressive persons as conservative persons. I noticed that conservative white persons like to control white institutions and progressive white people like to control colorful institutions. I learned how much energy I was willing to expend to pretend that it was other people who were acting in a racist way.

I became very interested in the letter Dr. King wrote from Birmingham jail. It has so much meaning to me that if the canon of the Bible is ever re-opened I think this letter should be included. It was written to the moderate church leaders of Birmingham. They had published in the newspaper an open letter to Dr. King. They were shocked that a clergy person would be in jail and considered his work in Birmingham to be “unwise and untimely.” Here are some of the things Dr. King said to them:

1. “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.”

2. “I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…. We know, through painful experience, that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

3. “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 our 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 believe he can set the timetable for another’s freedom….”

4. “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continue to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love?”

5. “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 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…”

Many movements since the 60’s have modeled themselves on the civil rights movement: the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the anti-war movement, the gay rights movement. It is interesting to me the Martin Luther King III, Dr. King’s son, in his speech marking the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington stated that his father, if he were still alive, would support work for the full inclusion of LGBT persons.

We are part of an inclusive, welcoming and inviting church. What does Dr. King’s letter say to us about justice for persons who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender; about justice for undocumented persons; about justice for indigenous persons and about justice for African Americans? How does it help us take our responsibilities in Boulder County, Colorado and our country? Does Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham jail helps us deal with our own denomination regarding the hateful and sinful language that is still in our Discipline and may well remain there after our Quadrennial meetings in May?

Nathaniel discovered that good could come out of seemingly insignificant Nazareth. The heart of the success of the Birmingham campaign was the extraordinary risks taken by ordinary children and youth. We can agree that uncommon good can come out of common folks like ourselves. Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham jail can help us.