It has become a new ritual of mine to read the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” every year around the holiday named in his honor. I was first introduced to the letter in book form when I was a student at Whitworth University (then Whitworth College). I don’t remember exactly how it affected me then, but it must have had some impact, because years later I have read it a dozen times or more. (You can read it for free using the link above, or even listen to a reading of it by Rev. King himself).
The impact this letter has on me now is much different than when I was younger. For one thing, I can now be categorized as a “white moderate pastor” – and this is exactly those to whom the letter is addressed. And 2021 brings even more urgency to the Rev. King’s words as we wrestle with the lack of progress towards racial equity and justice in our nation. As always, I am challenged, encouraged, and amazed the powerful words of the letter. But today, I wanted to simply reflect on two sections that grabbed me the most.
“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 of the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.”Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, p. 17
An “irrelevant social club!” I admit that I chuckled a bit when I read that. Not because I find the idea humorous, but because I have heard the church described this way in calls for reform by many leaders of the missional church movement. But I also now see, some 52 years later, that he was right. The American church has lost its “authentic ring” for much of the population. Church declines can be measured in the millions. The view of many young people toward the church can be described as “outright disgust.” And while there may be many reasons for this, I happen to think that the #1 reason is that the church has, in many cases, lost the sacrificial spirit of the early church – the sacrificial spirit of Jesus Christ.
Of course, it is easy to critique, much harder to take ownership. It is powerful to be reminded that as disappointed as Rev. King was with the state of the Church, he refused to give up hope. As a church leader, that is what I must do. I must take ownership and look for ways to guide myself and my congregation back to that sacrificial spirit. And that should at least look like the willingness to have difficult conversations about race, difficult conversations about inequity and injustice, and taking time to listen to the voices of our brothers and sisters of color. (If this is something that you or your church are interested in I highly recommend beginning with Jamar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise or the video of the same name on Amazon Prime Video).
Here is another section of the letter that really grabbed me today:
“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 structures of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, p. 16
I have to admit that I do not understand the reluctance of many of my white Christian brothers and sisters to enter into conversations about race and injustice. My spiritual journey has been one of constant rebuke, correction, repentance, and growth. I’m never surprised to discover hidden sin in my life. I was not pleased to see racism in myself, but as a sinner in need of grace, I was eager have the Holy Spirit shine light on the darkness of my soul and move me towards sanctification. It is a process, and I own that it may not be complete in this life. But I want to move closer to the heart of Christ, even if it is painful to do so at times.
But the pull of the status quo is powerful when you are the one that benefits from it. And just as it was in the day that Rev. King penned the letter in the cell in Birmingham, there are growing calls within the white church today to “focus on the things of the Spirit” and “keep politics out of the Church.” I hear them myself, and I know that other church leaders hear them as well. But the call to follow our Lord comes first, the call to sacrifice and service remains foremost.
I deeply admire Rev. King and love listening to or reading his sermons and other works. I read the sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct” today. It seemed so timely and appropriate and I highly recommend it. But more than that it reminded me of my call to follow Christ faithfully in this moment we call 2021. O Lord, hear my prayer, and give me wisdom and courage!