Don’t We Have Something Better To Give?
By: Deb Thompson
December 1, 1955, Montgomery, Alabama.
Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a segregated bus.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is called in to lead a bus boycott.
See that word, “reverend” before his name? That means he was an ordained minister. And he worked alongside other ordained pastors as well, such as Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. These pastors founded a well-known organization entitled, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (emphasis is mine).
Why do I point this out?
Because when we think of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, we think of politics. We think of people changing laws and going to jail. We think of former President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, both politicians being involved. We think of community leaders using fire hoses and guard dogs. We think of “I Have A Dream” speech being held at Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. We think of Thomas Jefferson’s quote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
We rarely stop to realize that first and foremost, the Modern Civil Rights Movement started in The Church, with a group of pastors of different denominations with different views on things such as salvation and resurrection, coming together to free people of injustice.
The Modern Civil Rights Movement was The Church changing American History.
Recently, I read, “Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church” by Edward Gilbreath, and it has brought me to a place of deep challenge. This book was excellent because Gilbreath interviewed people who knew the leaders personally and were involved in marches. He gives this sense of experiencing the feelings that is more realistic to the movement than the glorified and worshipped scenes we see on television today, during February, Black History Month. People despised the Civil Rights leaders, they were not popular among conservatives or liberals, nor were they popular among the black churches or white churches. Nor were they perfect leaders.
In August of 1963, MLK Jr. was arrested on his way to the Birmingham March and spent time in solitary confinement. There, in a jail cell, void of human contact, he spent time thinking and praying. Then someone snuck in a newspaper for him. In that particular paper, 8 white religious leaders criticized MLK Jr’s strategies, timing and activity in the movement. MLK Jr. writes a lengthy letter in the margins of the newspaper, on scraps of paper and on toilet paper. His letter wasn’t full of politics, his letter was chocked full of theology and Scripture that challenged The Church.
When the article asked why he was intruding on Birmingham instead of focusing on Atlanta, his response was, 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.
When they criticized MLK Jr. for disrupting the peace by doing the march, his response is, You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.
When these religious leaders ask why the Negroes can’t just wait for justice to come in its own time through the political system, King points out a hard truth, I guess 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 brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of 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 cannot go to a public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country 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” and your middle name becomes “boy”(however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when 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 knowing what to expect next and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting and degenerating sense of “nobodyness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
When these men in the article ask how MLK Jr. could have the audacity to break the law of Birmingham, stating that it was unlawful to march, he responds, …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 of a higher moral law was involved.
When called an extremist, MLK Jr. replied, …I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love?—“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice?—“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?—“I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist?—“Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist?—“I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist?—“This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist?—“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 will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of injustice?
As you can see, MLK Jr. had a lot of great things to say in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” but nothing is as strong as this quote, But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.
The Church of King’s time isn’t too far of a distant cry from the struggles of our Church today. In fact King struggled with the Church with its emotionalism used in sermons and a lack of education on the preacher’s part. King was hungry for social change and for bettering humanity and he felt the church was the most logical place for him to do so, which was what made him feel called to be a minister. He had a deep sense of need to work for social change which led him to move back to the South after falling in love with the views of the North.
We can almost hear the voice of those in The Church today wanting and seeing the same things as King did back in the 1950s. They are tired of filling out stat reports and finding a new program, but rather they are hungry for social change. They want more theology and less emotionalism and sensationalism. As followers of Jesus, who was radical in his social justice, they long to make a difference in society, but are left to go to retreats and kiss pigs when the attendance is/isn’t where the projected goal was made.
We often ask, “What makes The Church relevant to today’s generation?” and we try to answer this question by pretending to be people we’re not, by gimmicks or by media. Yet, as I finished this book, I realized something: in order to be relevant, we have got to get our hands dirty in the social injustices of our time. By demanding oppressed people a sense of what King called, “somebodyness” by the oppressor, we aren’t talking about being set apart, it is what makes us set apart. When sitting by the outcasts, who smell of sin, and raise them up to a place where they can say, “I matter because someone has fought for me to matter” then we become relevant. By loving our neighbor and being humble people, we can do the unthinkable, which makes us relevant.
After reading and contemplating on this book (as well as another one) I decided it was time for me to be active in something, so I joined our area organization that helps to educate and stop human trafficking in our community. Christianity in pews isn’t enough. Christianity in our social clubs that meet on week nights isn’t enough. Feeding the hungry once a quarter isn’t enough. We are called to see people as Jesus sees them and then do something about it because we have something far greater to give than what the world is capable of giving.
So here’s a challenge for you, what change do you want to be in the world? What social justice needs your time? Your energy? Your resources? Your Spiritual gifts? It could be something as simple as researching Fair Trade products and making sure to purchase only those items, and then help others to value its importance. It could be something as great as leading a nation to a better understanding that all men are created equal with nonviolent protests. How will you be relevant in ministry?
The Modern Civil Rights Movement was The Church changing American History.
“A Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Source:
Wonderful, powerful, challenging words!