An excerpt from “A Letter from the Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King Jr.

 

“I have traveled 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 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? 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 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–in the time 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 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.

 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.”

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Have you ever wondered what you might have thought, said and done if you had found yourself living in those turbulent, hate-filled days? When I read Dr. Kings statements about the church back then, I wonder what the church would do now if she had to re-live such dark days in our history. I fear his words would still ring true:

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?”

Our God may still be far too white.

As someone who has ministered in many churches of varied ethnicities, I have discovered that prejudice, though couched and minimally applied, is alive and well. It is as if Jesus would say, “The prejudiced and small minded you will always have with you.” Prejudice, “being down on what you are not up on”, is a stubborn beast in the hearts of insecure mankind.

We must wonder how those of us who profess to know a Christ who refused prejudice, who infuriated his pride-filled contemporaries and religious leaders of his day, can still look down on another man or woman for any reason. (See the Samaritan Woman at the Well and “Good Samaritan”, etc.) Brethren, these things ought not to be.

Blacks, Whites and Hispanics and Asians worship differently, I get that.

When worshippers prefer to group together as an ethnicity, I get that too. But let it never be said of Christs’ body that someone was purposely rejected or prevented from joining with other people of mixed ethnicities. Else, Christ once again brings his fury to overturn the “irrelevant social club” tables of churches gone astray.

No matter what you or I may think of Martin Luther King Jr., anyone who can write a letter of this content deserves our ears and hearts attention. May the church (church=people) professing to know Jesus Christ have a perpetual reckoning, a purging and transformation of hate-filled hearts who bring shame upon the body of Christ. Otherwise our hypocrisy is showing. The rest of the world seems to get this, sometimes even before the church.

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Glenn W. Harrell        www.openhandspublications.com   1-18

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