51 YEARS LATER...
As our country observes Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I spent part of this day re-reading his 'Letter from Birmingham Jail,' and have come away with a renewed deep respect for the message contained therein.
Many, if you ask them to talk about the Rev. Dr. King's words, will, I suspect, quote his "I Have a Dream" speech from that same year. His vision of the day where children will be judged according to the content of their character is a vision we'd better all share, and something that I will use for another column later on, for that vision demands re-visiting, but not from the perspective many look at it through.
I would put forth, however, that just as, if not more, timeless and truthful words are found in this reply to a letter eight Birmingham clergy put in the local paper. I say this because in these words the reader is confronted with a very interesting, and powerfully transformative, view of the resurrection, one which ties directly into next Sunday's installment of our 'Surprised by Hope' series - 'The Hope of Jesus' Second Coming.' Dr. King writes:
So, the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime - the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from Birmingham Jail)
Therein, I think, lies a glimpse of what it takes for us to fulfill the calling to be Christ's light in the world. If we are not extremists for love, truth, and goodness, we have, in the words of the prayer of confession from our Service of Word and Table, "...[F]ailed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken [God's] law, we have rebelled against [God's] love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy." Yes, dear friends, we are called to be extremists of love, truth, and goodness. We see in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ that love, truth, and goodness are not about 'doing whatever we want,' for Christ did not simply say to everyone, 'Because I love you, you have carte blanche to do whatever...' No, Christ's example of love, truth, and goodness involved far more than simply telling people that it's ok to follow your instincts, for Christ knows that, to paraphrase the words of a great hymn, our bent is to sinning. Dr. King addresses this as well in this letter. The most unfortunate thing, I believe, is that this secular holiday has been hijacked by many sides of the theological and political spectrums to drive agendas, which is why I try to take this day to go read at least one of his letters or writings so that I can look for myself at his words. People of good will, from many different theological and political perspectives, can and will find issue with some of Dr. King's words and actions. Like anyone else, there are definitely things that should not be ignored when considering his legacy. But if we start throwing people under the bus simply because they failed to faithfully execute all their beliefs 100% of the time, would any of us who profess Christ as Lord survive that kind of scrutiny? Regardless of your opinion of Dr. King, I would hope that you could agree with me that his words about Christ's model of love, truth, and goodness are timeless truths to be heard and acted upon now and always.
Grace and Peace,
P.S. I strongly encourage you to take a look at Dr. King's words found in Letter from Birmingham Jail yourself, for you just don't know what's in there that might surprise, inspire, or cause you to take pause from some of your deeply-held assumptions about Dr. King and/or the gospel of Christ.