calendar April 16, 2013 in Bishop, Bishop messages

From Birmingham, 50 Years Later

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 16, 1963 — fifty years ago today — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to eight white Alabama clergymen who had sent him an open letter imploring him to stop the civil rights demonstrations and civil disobedience in Birmingham, Alabama, where Dr. King was in jail for breaking the racist laws in that state.  They urged Dr. King to his abandon his activism, the sit-ins, the marches, the fiery speeches, the non-violent protests that motivated participation, and instead to follow the slow, patient path of negotiation and legal action to address any perceived denial of the rights of Black citizens.

Dr. King could have simply dismissed this letter, or used it to stoke further racial hatred.  But instead, he responded with his Letter From Birmingham Jail, written around the margins of a newspaper — the only thing he could find to write on in that cell.

Dr. King addressed the writers who criticized him as “Fellow Clergymen” and  “brothers,” and painstakingly answered each of their statements, inferences and assumptions. He also laid out his own disappointments with his fellow clergy as well as his vision for the church as an agent of God’s justice and peace. If you have not ever read the letter, or it has been more than a year since you have reviewed it, I urge you read it this week.  It is one of the finest pieces of writing on social justice in the 20th century. Of course at the time there was no response from those who write the letter, even after it had been published.

I wonder how Dr. King might have reacted if someone had told him that 50 years after he penned this letter — and 45 years after he was shot to death — a group of clergy people (not just men this time) would write the first official response to his letter.

I was honored and privileged to be a part of a gathering in Birmingham Alabama April 15 to publically release this “Response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail” by the organization Christian Churches Together, where I serve on the Board. Our Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson signed the letter on behalf of the ELCA.

Five years ago Bishop Hanson appointed me to represent the ELCA on this brand new ecumenical organization. Unlike any Christian organization formed in the 20th century, Christian Churches Together (CCT) strives to embody the unity our Lord prayed for. It is different in the sense that CCT is comprised of the five Christian families in the US: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Historic Black Churches, Evangelical/Pentecostal Churches, and Historic Protestant Churches.

What would Dr. King think if he knew that five decades after he penned his now-famous letter, representatives from 26 major Christian denominations would commit to meet for mutual support, to foster Christian unity, to encourage cooperative not competitive evangelism, and to speak to society with a common voice?  How would it feel for him to know that his life’s work — all his marching and writing and preaching and yes, dying — would not be in vain?  That 50 years later, clergy leaders would attempt to respond to his letter the way those eight original clergy should have — with a response that calls our society to address the causes of injustice, not just the symptoms; to seek a higher standard for economic, political and public policy; and to continue engaging in non-violent direct action to effect a social transformation.

I truly believe that we are now entering the open space where, beyond this formal letter, a new narrative is being written in this nation, a living letter that will change our society for generations to come.

I invite you to read both the letter from Dr. King and the response to that letter from the Christian leaders of CCT in your devotions this week.

The Gospel for this past Sunday, Easter 3, was John 21:1-19. This section of the text lends itself to observations and illustrations of the courage it takes to be a follower of Jesus, and the sacrifice Dr. King made to bring peace, justice and mercy to our hurting and sinful world.

“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”  John 21:18-19

May our Crucified and Risen Lord bless you with depth in believing, inspiration in preaching, compassion in healing, passion in witnessing, and courage in serving.

With and in Christ,

+ Claire Burkat