Five lessons White Christians have yet to learn from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
We need to run toward injustice not away from it.
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
In our triumphalistic-Christianity, we shun suffering. We tell each other the testimony is on the other side of the suffering rather than in the midst of it. We build up walls of comfort, and teach our children to pursue “the promise land” at the cost of understanding a theology that reminds us God suffers and he is often most visibly seen among the suffering.
We need to recognize there is negative peace and positive peace.
“The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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… .”
Do we not love order so much that we act as though our places of worship and our services themselves—at the beckoning call of the idol of excellency—look like opera houses? If someone ruins our plan, the schedule, the air of excellency whether by wailing too loudly, dancing too crazily, or speaking too long over their allotted time, we act as though they are a traitor in our midst apologizing profusely to the crowd we entertain. We plan our lives to look the same: our houses like magazines, our children’s resumes are built from infancy. We seek out order more than we seek out justice—because we know justice is messy and we aren’t willing to give up order for it. We invite messes in for a few days: family for the holidays, teenagers on a short-term mission, and then we label such charitable deeds as justice so that we uphold the pretense. Tension is our enemy, and fear of man our idol. Justice requires too much of us, so we maintain the status quo.
We need to embrace biblical compassion that requires empathy over sympathy and action over complacency.
“I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearning of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.”
Strong, persistent, and determined action requires sacrifice. Empathy requires us to build relationships with those who have been oppressed, and imagine walking in their shoes. Will this make us understand 100%? Absolutely not. But it will move us from sympathy—where we look down on another’s suffering and feel pity for them—to empathy—where we stand alongside another who is suffering, listen to his woes and concerns, and join the fight on his terms. I am amazed at how little people can imagine life in another’s shoes today.
We need to embrace a robust gospel theology that recognizes the whole of a human being.
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.”
The concept of salvation in White Christianity is steeped in this dichotomy of bodies and souls, sacred and secular. We worry about souls, not about bodies, which is itself an act of dehumanization. The Gospel teaches us that man is body, soul, mind, and spirit. Anytime we extract one of those and equate it to the whole of a human, we reduce the Imago Dei and treat salvation as a transaction. Salvation is not the end. It is the beginning. It is not transactional, it is transformational. It is not a past event but an ongoing work of becoming whole. Therefore, the social ills that prevail in one’s society affect the human being as a whole. If we do not have a gospel that speaks this truth and includes the social issues of the day, we do not have the Gospel.
We need to recognize that we don’t see everything.
“You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence’. I don’t believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I don’t believe you would so quickly commend the policemen if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you would watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you would see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys, if you would observe them, as they did on two occasions, refusing to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. …It is true that they have been rather disciplined in their public handling of the demonstrators. In this sense they have been publicly ‘nonviolent’. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the last few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
Simply put, the whole Truth is something no man sees alone. We need each other to see the truth of our society, the truth of our world, the truth of who God is and what He is currently speaking into this world. If our spiritual community is made up only of people who look like us body, soul, mind, and spirit, we only see a fraction of the truth. In order to be made whole (salvation) we must fully see what is broken. We need diversity in the church not for diversity sake, but for the sake of seeking the entire truth that will see us all free.