“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension’.”–Martin Luther King, Jr.
Forty nine years ago, in the wake of Easter Sunday, Martin Luther King, Jr. was composing a pastoral letter from the bowels of the Birmingham City Jail. It was in the midst of Project “C”, a nonviolent direct action campaign confronting racial segregation in Alabama’s largest city. King and Ralph Abernathy had been arrested on Good Friday by Bull Connor’s police for marching in violation of a court order. Using newspaper margins, toilet tissue, and borrowed note paper, he crafted what is perhaps his most famous epistle, smuggling it out of jail piece by piece with people who had come to visit.
“Letter From Birmingham Jail” remains important reading today, with many relevant applications (www.mlkonline.net/jail.html). In the ongoing tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death and its aftermath, Dr. King’s message compels us not only to consider the depth and nature of God’s justice in such circumstances, but also to deal honestly and constructively with the tensions brought to the surface in our larger community and nation. As I read Martin’s missive again, I imagined whole portions of the New Testament having been composed amidst similar conditions. Of specific focus in this post is how Dr. King discusses tension and its importance in peacemaking, justice-seeking, and reconciliation. He strongly challenges the notion that peace is merely the absence of conflict, or that, in a crisis, the immediate goal must be to reduce tension. Rather, tension can lead to revelation and opportunity:
—“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a kind of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. “
—The purpose of nonviolent direct action is “to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
–Distinguishing between the “obnoxious negative peace” experienced by the victims of an unjust order, and the “constructive tension” of the nonviolent movement for justice, King further reflects: “Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”
In Birmingham, the movement took shape as an expression of love. Earlier, while still in Montgomery, King had preached a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies, in which he vividly described the hope of such an embodied love: “To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
This is powerful gospel language, invoking the transforming love manifested in Jesus. The textual “translation” that King and the movement became in Birmingham showed this love to be an unsentimental one: reflective; bold; strategic; compassionate; self-giving; increasingly freed from coercion. The images of countless people facing the fire hoses, dogs, and nightsticks is imprinted in our national memory. King’s response to no longer being able to get people released from jail was to join them in jail, to move even further toward, and into, the realm of powers and principalities. It was during King’s imprisonment that his associate James Bevel was inspired with the vision for the children’s marches, which changed the dynamic irrevocably (“And a little child shall lead them”).
But the scope of constructive tension necessarily reached further. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people . . . Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” So the epistle King composed in jail was not addressed to Bull Connor, new mayor Albert Boutwell, segregationist Governor George Wallace, or even President Kennedy. Rather, King was writing to eight local clergy, all “liberals” by the prevailing standards. With painstaking care he thoroughly responded to the contents of a public letter they had released in a local newspaper at the same time as his arrest. Under the headline, “White Clergymen Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw From Demonstrations,” the four bishops, rabbi,and three pastors criticized demonstrations in Birmingham as “unwise and untimely,” suggesting that the efforts were being led, to a significant degree, by “outsiders.” They urged peaceful compliance with all court decisions, referring to civil disobedience as an “extreme measure.” And they wrote: “Just as we formerly pointed out that hatred and violence have no place or sanction in our religious and political traditions, we also point out that such actions as incite hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems.”
In the words of Muslim reformer Irshad Manji: “In times of moral crisis, moderation is a cop-out.” King’s letter makes this plain in the context of Birmingham. He is willing to speak honestly in the midst of tense circumstances, even to heighten the sense of tension by calling everyone involved to a mutual accountability. In doing so, he establishes dialogue where there has only been monologue. He uses common language rich with meaning, hearkening to eighth century prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Apostle Paul. Having been sorely criticized for acting assertively to interrupt injustice -as-usual, the manner of this communication becomes an interruption in the established cycle of diminishment.
(a) Dr. King addresses the clergy members directly, rather than in third-person.
(b) He speaks dialogically in a way that responds specifically to their stated concerns and also invites their further participation.
(c) He immediately reframes the context for consideration: “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.” Articulating eloquently the intimate relationship of anthropology to theology, and of all members of the human family to one another, he opens the potential dialogue to a much deeper historical examination and a more broadly shared responsibility. These are not just “local,” temporary problems to be managed.
(d) King takes specific responsibility for his, and the movements, assertive and constructive behavior, outlining dimensions for their own accountability: “In any nonviolent campaign there are there are four basic steps: (1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; (2) negotiation; (3) self-purification; and (4) direct action.” He indicates a conscious willingness to accept the cost of challenging the unjust order. “We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: Are you able to accept blows without retaliating? Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”
(e) Martin challenges the amnesia inherent in the clergy statement: “We have gone through all these (the four steps) in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs the community. Birmingham is probably the most segregated city in the United States. It’s ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.”
(f) Dr. King insists on giving voice to those who have been granted no voice in the realm of privilege. Having laid bare the hypocrisy of “just trust the system” arguments, he speaks eloquently the truth of people’s suffering that has been hidden or diminished: “When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will . . . when you have seen the hate filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 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 can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television. . .then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” He prefaces this with the observation: “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say; “Wait.”
(f) The SCLC leader then shocks the religious folk when he identifies them as a key part of the problem, rather than the solution. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor, or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who constantly says, “I agree with the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically believes that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’.” It is in them that the capacity to partner in writing a new history lies. It is not enough to give voice to a wish that inequality will end, while remaining compliant with the system that institutionalizes injustice and dehumanizes large numbers of God’s people. They may not agree intellectually with segregation, but they have nevertheless been beneficiaries of an unjust system, and are unwilling to risk their privilege too strongly. Martin is telling them that Bull Connor and the forces of segregation have already been fully engaged, but that the faith communities and clergy have not been, up until now. If they themselves are transformed, the situation will not be able to stay the same.
(g) Through everything, Dr. King offers possibility in hopeful terms that call the very best from all involved:
–“We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
–“law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and . . . when they fail to do this they become dangerous structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” “
— “Human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of (those) willing to be co-workers with God.”
–“In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t that like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?”
–“Was not Jesus an extremist for love? ‘Love your enemies, bless those who 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.’
–“If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me. I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.” The man from Atlanta is already casting vision of a future where the growing relationship and unity he has with these eight men will be a sign of God’s new order made real.
The American Civil Rights Movement was one of forgiveness. The people who joined together in that movement committed their lives to removing barriers, lifting burdens, loosening bonds, interrupting cycles of violence, opening closed futures, affirming the image of God in everyone, being a force for healing, setting all people (including enemies) free. Their example continues to bless us, giving witness, offering guidance and hope to us as we face the painful but necessary challenges of 2012. In Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. reveals that tension, rather than being an impediment, is a key element when engaging in a process of forgiveness. On the Way, the lived language of constructive engagement opens to the creative possibilities of new life. Read the letter fully when you have the chance. How does its content speak to you personally, and to the people of our community together? In what ways do we need God’s love to earnestly challenge us? In the wake of this Easter, I pray that Dr. King’s voice will reach across the decades to engage us lovingly while unsettling us with the forgiving dream of God’s new creation, moving us from blinded compliance to creative risk and deepening faith, in every aspect of our lives.