Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An Anchor of Time: The Letter from Birmingham Jail, 50 Years Later

Everybody wants to be on Martin Luther King's side, but no one wants to cross the street.
Back in college one of my professors suggested that, while it was appropriate to date time from the birth of Christ, given the historical and cultural significance of that moment, the time had come to mark time differently. He proposed August 6, 1945, the day on which the U.S. government dropped a bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and ushered in the nuclear age. That day changed history, he argued, and he was right.

But the interesting thing to me about how we mark time now--according to the birth of Christ--is how unremarkable that day was to the people who were living it. It's only through the lens of history that we came to recognize its significance, only in retrospect that we know how profoundly that day changed history.

So, if my professor is right and the time has come to re-mark time, I think we ought to look for something more subtle than a nuclear explosion. I might propose April 16, 1963.

April 16, 1963, is the day Martin Luther King Jr. began writing his letter to white clergy, on the occasion of his arrest and imprisonment in Birmingham, Alabama, for "parading without a permit" in an effort to end legal segregation in that city. He wrote in response to an editorial, written by various white clergy, offering general support for the cause of the black person in the American South but urging patience and meekness. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the writing of that letter, and it is as current today as it was then.

Oh, the details of the story may be slightly different, but both in the specifics (the systemic injustices that keep people of different ethnicities separate and unequal) and in the generalities (the long arc of history that still leads to but has yet to arrive at justice), King's letter is profound and prophetic.

You don't know in a moment how significant a piece of writing will be. Even a bestseller can't be judged at the point of sale. Only time tells the real value of a good word. And time has been very good to King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is eminently quotable but merits thorough reading and reflection. It has been the impetus for any number of short-term and lifelong works of reconciliation and justice. It has shored up the courage of people fighting good fights; it has comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.

To those who seethe under a general situation of injustice or who crave revenge over specific acts of hate and violence--as I suspect many are feeling today--King's letter points to "the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest." For those who think the law is the law is the law, King points out that "everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal' and . . . it was 'illegal' to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany." To those who think that the best life is the avoidance of extremism and the preservation of peace at all costs, King replies that "on Calvary's hill three men 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."

"So the question," King asks for all time, "is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be." This question, grounded in history as it is, will haunt us far into the future. It is transcendent, the way all good anchors of time should be. As we return to it, we make inevitable progress on the long arc of history toward justice. As King declares in his letter:

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.
For the full text of the letter (which I read once a year, every year--a practice I recommend wholeheartedly), click here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Jesus with Skinny Jeans On

I found this recent episode of The Mindy Project (embedded below) wildly entertaining. Mindy meets a guy on the train and they go out on a date. She finds out that he's a Lutheran minister (he prays for dinner). She goes to his church and he dumps her because she's not selfless enough for him. She goes to prison to prove she's a good person. Hilarity ensues.

The thing that strikes me as most interesting about this episode is how fascinatingly odd Mindy finds it that someone would (a) pray before eating and (b) go to church. Churchgoing is that quickly becoming exotic and unexpected.

The concept of religious faith isn't pilloried by the episode, even though the show makes a mockery of contemporary worship services (Moby as liturgist?!?). Fair game, I say. But the church and the vocation of Mindy's would-be boyfriend (he's a Lutheran, probably mainly for the vestments, but he could have been a pastor in pretty much any church without a celibate clergy) are really just foils for more interesting questions:

[] Why do some people believe some things, and others don't?

[] What motivates our altruism, and are our motivations legitimate?

Anyway, I liked it, and I thought you might like it too. A little harsh on people in prison, and a little blue here and there. But comedy genius. Enjoy it while it's streaming.

Monday, April 08, 2013

The Cloud We Find Ourselves In

Before there was a cloud, there was a great cloud.

We read about it in the letter to the Hebrews. It’s mentioned explicitly in chapter 12, but the heart of it is actually in chapter 11, as a kind of litany declaring what faith looks like. Guess what: It looks like a cloud.

A cloud jam-packed with people, it turns out. “By faith we understand,” the writer tells us, “that the universe was formed at God’s hand.” Faith characterizes the stories we tell each other about Abel, whose sacrifice was better than Cain’s, and who paid the ultimate price for his great faith. Faith describes the experience of Enoch, who was taken from this earth. It describes the experience of Noah, of Abram, of Isaac and Jacob, of Joseph and his sons, of Moses and the people of God in their exodus from Egypt, of Rahab and Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah and David and Samuel and the prophets. Faith is the great motif of the story of God; it floats through two testaments like a cloud; it lights up the sacred text like a pillar of fire.

And yet the faith of Hebrews 11 was an unfinished story: “none of them received what had been promised”—and this is important—“since God had planned something better for us.” The writer of the letter to the Hebrews goes so far as to make us—you and me—the final object of all that faith: “only together with us would they be made perfect.”

The paean to faith in chapter 11 is the antecedent for the “great cloud” introduced to us at the beginning of chapter 12. Our connection to this historic faith is the rationale for our faith-rooted efforts in the present and the future: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Just as our antecedents await our witness to perfect their faith, we come to understand, we depend on their experience for the perfection of our own. And all of us, taken together, depend on Jesus for perfect and perfecting faith. We are incomplete without each other, and all together we are incomplete without Jesus.

Right. Jesus is important. But I’m mainly interested for the moment in the fact that we’re incomplete without each other. Communality is so hot right now—we crowdsource and kickstart and otherwise participate in a broader communal life in virtual and occasionally real physical space. Some code writer somewhere probably thinks she invented the cloud, where all our best selves commingle and cultivate something greater than the sum of our particular parts. But then we flip to Hebrews 12 and we see it’s always been there, supporting us and making demands on us.

What does it mean to participate in the great cloud? It means, among other things, that we owe it not only to our ancestors but to ourselves to get to know them. We search the Scriptures not just for fortune-cookie axioms to organize our days around but to know who we are, as parts of a whole but also as a whole with so many constituent parts.

It means, among other things, that we read beyond the Scriptures, to familiarize ourselves with those who came after Hebrews 11 but before Century 21. They too occupy the cloud with us, with them; they too help perfect us, and they too are perfected in us.

It means, among other things, that we engage one another fully, encouraging one another where encouragement is needed and challenging one another where challenge is needed. It means we play fair and fight nice, since we’re all in this cloud together, and we’re all interdependent for our mutual and collective perfection.

Someone will complain that I’m writing so much about perfection. (Not my uncle; he'll complain about the whole post. He hates when I write stuff like this.) Nobody’s perfect, someone will remind me, and the pursuit of perfection in the aftermath of humanity’s fall from grace is an idolatrous waste of time. To them I say, chillax. I don’t expect to become perfect; I don’t think I or anyone else is perfect. I do believe in a great mystery, however—that he who has begun a great work in us will see it to completion. Not in my lifetime, surely, any more than he completed it in the lifetime of Abraham or Isaac or Jacob, or Peter or Paul or Mary. In the meantime, we owe it to ourselves and to one another to make the most of this cloud we find ourselves in.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

What Kind of Extremists Will We Be? Haunted by MLK

On this forty-fifth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. . . .

Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and . . . when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously constructed dams that block the flow of social progress. . . .

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God. . . .

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? . . .

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? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as being the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists. . . . So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender 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. . . . Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned to outright disgust. . . .

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. . . . Let us all hope that . . . in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

A Prayer About Time, 3.0

Every few years I repost the following prayer written by Robert Banks, a missiologist from Australia, and published in his book The Tyranny of Time. Today seems like as good a day as any to repost it yet again. A blessing on your head.


God our Father,
you are the Maker of everything that exists,
the Author of the world of nature
and of all living things,
the Creator of both space and time.

Without you there would be no past,
present or future;
no summer or winter,
spring or autumn,
seedtime or harvest;
no morning or evening,
months or years.

Because you give us the gift of time
we have the opportunity
to think and to act,
to plan and to pray,
to give and to receive,
to create and to relate,
to work and to rest,
to strive and to play,
to love and to worship.

Too often we forget . . .
and fail to appreciate your generosity:
we take time for granted
and fail to thank you for it,
we view it as a commodity
and ruthlessly exploit it,
we cram it too full or waste it,
learn too little from the past
or mortgage it off in advance,
we refuse to give priority
to those people and things
which should have chief claim upon our time.

Help us to view time more as you view it,
and to use it more as you intend:
to distinguish between what is central
and what is peripheral,
between what is merely pressing
and what is really important,
between what is our responsibility
and what can be left to others,
between what is appropriate now
and what will be more relevant later.

Guard us against attempting too much
because of a false sense of our indispensability,
a false sense of ambition,
a false sense of rivalry,
a false sense of guilt,
or a false sense of inferiority:
yet do not let us mistake our responsibilities,
underestimate ourselves,
fail to be stimulated by others,
overlook our weaknesses, or know our proper limits.

Enable us also to realise that
important though this life is, it is not all,
that we should view what we do
in the light of eternity,
not just our limited horizons,
that we ourselves have eternal life now.

God our Father, you are
not so much timeless as timeful,
you do not live above time
so much as hold "all times . . . in your hand",
you have prepared for us a time
when we will have leisure
to enjoy each other and you to the full,
and we thank you, appreciate you
and applaud you for it.