Brothers and Sisters Who Do Nothing (Reflections on King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Part 2)

By Jordan Grooters on April 4, 2018

Editor’s Note: This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights activist, minister and spokesperson for nonviolent activism. He was killed on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., but his legacy lives on today. As we prepare for our series on Justice + Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church, two Cornerstone University staff members, Jordan Grooters, communications coordinator, and Kenneth Russell, director of diversity and multicultural affairs, reflect on Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King wrote this letter five years prior to his death after being arrested for peacefully protesting segregation and racial terror in Birmingham, Ala. He was writing to respond to eight white religious leaders who wrote a public statement expressing concern about the civil rights movement. The themes of this letter and his call for justice and unity among church leaders resonate with what many feel today. In part one, Jordan and Kenneth reflect on the theme of tension and waiting. You can read it here.

Two Disappointments: the White Moderate and the White Church

Here are two more excerpts from Dr. King’s letter:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that 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; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection... 

Let me rush on to mention my other disappointment. I have been disappointed with the white church and its leadership… 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...There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were 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 the thermostat that transformed the mores of society...Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter 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 often vocal sanction of things as they are.

KR: Dr. King’s “two confessions” in the Letter really stand out to me for three major reasons. The first is a call to a deeper look into Dr. King’s life, thought and legacy. In many real ways, the memory of Dr. King has been “Santa Clausified,” as Dr. Cornel West brilliantly penned. Quotes like this call for us to look beyond a superficial analysis and oversimplification of his “I Have a Dream” speech and the programmatic yearly celebrations of his legacy to a deeper engagement with who Dr. King was and what he actually thought. Dr. King was willing to share hard truths as he saw them. A shallow engagement with his life and thought not only fails to show that “side” of King, it is also a huge injustice to the legacy of a remarkable man who is so widely recognized and celebrated. For me, statements like this provide a clarion call to explore why the same man who said “I have a dream” also said “I have a nightmare,” and, even more, how he was able to “keep dreamin’.”

The second reason is a call to look deeper into ourselves. This quote is obviously Dr. King’s scathing critique of his white sisters and brothers, especially white Christians and Jews, as Dr. King articulated his deep disappointment and frustration with the “myth of time” and “shallow understanding” that he confronted. For me, these are piercing words: “[s]hallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Today, we can receive them as an invitation to look deeper within ourselves. Conscious, overt racism is one thing, and I am well aware that conscious, intentional racism is still alive in this country. But what about racism that is unconscious? How might our implicit bias perpetuate “shallow understanding” and “lukewarm acceptance” when interacting with others who are different? I think these words provide an opportunity for all of us to pause and explore our inner life. As a Black male, and as the new Director of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at Cornerstone University, I listen to such statements with open ears. How do I navigate the shallow understanding and lukewarm acceptance of my sisters and brothers? How will I respond when confronted with my own? In my new role, am I willing to share hard truths like Dr. King? Questions of these sorts come to mind as I read the Letter, and, though uncomfortable, they challenge me to consider how I might respond and how I can allow Dr. King’s words to push me to grow.

The third, and final reason, is a call to the church, and, by extension, the Christian academy, to critically reflect on its theology. Brother Martin’s words remind us how quickly the theological becomes the political (and vice versa). As believers, do we have the depth in our Christian imagination needed to critically and theologically engage with the social matters of our day, or do we, as Brother Martin said, commit ourselves to an “otherworldly religion” and thus “mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities?” Is our theology one of the Kingdom and thus for the whole world, or does our theology only benefit those who look, act, and think like us? Christian theology was never meant to be so insular or solipsistic. How “Christian” is our theology if it is? Far from being a thermometer of popular opinion and arch supporter of the status quo, our theology, informed by and impassioned for truth, love and justice, should be the thermostat that call us towards continual growth and change as we serve as conduits for the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father. Brother Martin’s words remind us of that beautiful call as Kingdom citizens, and as I begin my new role I am excited to continue the conversation that has been going on at CU.

JG: I admire Kenneth’s recognition of the “Santa Clausified” King. It’s true that we tend to pick and choose the parts of people that we want to remember, and over time the legacy is obscured. My hope is that Christians would more often engage with these hard truths and discover a deeper legacy.

For me, the call to look deeper within ourselves is convicting still today. As a white female, I have still today witnessed King’s description of “...white churches” that “stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” I hope and pray that in my position as a wife, a friend, a worship leader and an employee, I can play a part in gaining a deeper understanding of unconscious biases. I can honestly say that in my time here as a student I was challenged to think deeper about race, gender biases, justice and freedom. I’m grateful for the professors who entered into those conversations and examined those hard truths. I hope I will continue to challenge myself in this way.

I love the analogy of the church being a thermostat instead of a thermometer. This is God’s vision for the church. I’m thankful for Kenneth’s work here at Cornerstone, and I hope that through worshipful study, our campus can become more like Christ.

Be sure to join us on April 26th for the first Talking Points conference on Justice + Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church. Register here.

As Dr. Tim Gombis wrote last week, “God’s world-changing triumph in Christ has situated us perfectly to engage in this discussion without fear. The gospel calls us to this work, and God promises to overwhelm us all with his grace as we proceed, flooding our hearts with joy as we respond to his life-giving call.”

Further Reading

Categories: Culture, Discipleship, Ministry